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Director John R Wilkinson: ‘The disability debate has moved on from using sledgehammers’

John R Wilkinson. Photo: Leon Puplett

Quiet and considered, John R Wilkinson is the antithesis of the domineering director stereotype. He tells Tim Bano how his next project, Winter, at the Young Vic, aims to increase disabled representation in theatre

The myth that theatre directors have to be loud, dominant rehearsal-room wrecking balls is neatly skewered by a quiet rising star who won the Genesis Futures Directors Award just three months ago.

“I didn’t think I was the type of person that could run a room, be very front-footed and somersaulty,” John R Wilkinson says ahead of his production of Jon Fosse’s Winter, which opens at the Young Vic next week. “I was very shy – and am still quite shy.”

John R Wilkinson wins 2018 Genesis Futures Directors Award

“You get this misconception that directors are these mythical figures and think that’s how you have to be,” he says. But he is adamant that quietness is as powerful a tool in rehearsals as confidence. “As long as you are aware of yourself, and you own it, then it works.”

After studying dramaturgy at Bretton Hall, where he had “genuinely no inclination” to be a director, Wilkinson worked front of house and box office at York Theatre Royal. After a while, he explains: “I had a word with artistic director Damian Cruden and said, ‘I’ve got a background in dramaturgy, is there anything I can do?’ ” Wilkinson started reading scripts and became the theatre’s one-man literary team.

He began to assist on in-house productions until, in 2013, the theatre “very kindly – or stupidly” suggested that Wilkinson direct a production himself. For the theatre’s Yorkshire-themed season, he helmed the studio show Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, which was well received by critics. A nomination for the Royal Theatrical Support Trust award followed in 2016, as well as a research and development project at the National Theatre assisting Rufus Norris.

Last year, Wilkinson applied for the Young Vic’s Genesis Futures award, whose previous winners have included Matthew Xia and Tinuke Craig, and on his application he suggested a production of Winter by Norwegian dramatist Fosse.

Wilkinson hasn’t made life easy for himself in choosing an abstract, open-ended, poetic two-hander about… well, it’s difficult to know what it is about. That’s part of the problem.

While Fosse is one of the most widely performed playwrights in Europe, with his name on the bookies’ lists for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he has not been popular in the UK.

You can count on the fingers of one hand the major London productions of Fosse’s work in the past 20 years, eliciting reviews that range from equivocal to damning – “His forename [is] pronounced ‘Yawn’ for good reason,” quipped Paul Taylor in the Independent – even with the involvement of people such as Katie Mitchell and Simon Stephens.

But, Wilkinson insists: “What’s special about Jon’s work is its energy. There’s potential in there which is very hard to articulate. Somebody described him as a universe unto himself, and that is really apt. He strips theatre back to its intangibility possibly more so than any other Western playwright I can think of.” For him, it’s about the “innate poetry and rhythms of language”, which Fosse’s writing has in spades.

With the Young Vic actively encouraging D/deaf and disabled directors to apply for the Genesis Futures award this year – as well as directors who wanted to work with D/deaf and disabled actors – Wilkinson, a wheelchair user, was struck by the way that Winter could speak about disability.

“There are two ways of progressing the disability conversation in terms of the artistic side of it,” Wilkinson says. “You can either pick a play that has a group of actors – some of whom are disabled, some who are not – and go, ‘We’re just going to do it.’ Or you can pick a play and use disability to heighten the strength of that play or that writer’s vision.

“With Winter, that second idea was what I was interested in. There are no overt mentions of disability in it, but I think there’s something that can be done quite interestingly, conceptually, around disability.”

I ask whether the Young Vic’s focus on D/deaf and disabled creatives was important for him. “It’s a very delicate area,” he says. “In my head, I’m a theatre director from Yorkshire with a terrible sense of humour who just happens to be in a wheelchair. So I don’t connect it to my identity. Now, I know it’s different from case to case. People have their own associations with their disabilities.

“It was an open call with a focus on that and I would like to think that I have got this on the merit of me as a director and my vision for the play. But if my winning this award helps move that conversation along, that is fantastic, and that’s what it’s meant to do.”

In 2016, Wilkinson was on a panel of disabled artists at the Unlimited Festival in London. What he noted from listening to the other panel members and the audience is that there are two generations of disabled artists, divided by age and attitude, and the older generation had to struggle to make their  voices heard.

“Aged 35, I don’t know where I fit, although I’d like to think I’m still at the younger end,” he laughs. “But it seems to me that we’ve moved on from having to go in there with sledgehammers, and I think now it’s about picking up the little rock hammer in Shawshank Redemption and chipping away gently. Realising you’re now in a room with people who want to have that conversation, and that’s brilliant. So it’s about how we move that conversation to the next thing.”

He admits he doesn’t know yet what the next stage is. “What I would say is that it’s about refining it further. Essentially it’s moving from those very loud conversations – which were absolutely necessary – to something more embedded and subtle.”

One thing Wilkinson is sure of when it comes to conversations about diversity is that progression, whether in small steps or great leaps, will only continue, and Wilkinson will be at the heart of those continuing conversations. He has just joined the committee for Act for Change, an organisation that advocates for better representation in terms of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, nationality, age and disability across the industry.

“The reason I’m really excited is it encompasses the breadth of those groups, because you can’t advocate for one area without caring about all the others,” Wilkinson says. “And what is great about the diversity conversation now is that it is here to stay.”

CV: John R Wilkinson

Born: Wetherby, Yorkshire, date undisclosed
Training: MA in dramaturgy, Bretton Hall
Landmark productions: Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, York Theatre Royal (2013)
Awards: 2018 Genesis Futures Directors Award
Agent: none

Winter runs at London’s Young Vic from February 14 to 24 

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