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Lynette Linton: ‘This is what I always wanted, it’s all I have ever wanted’

Lynette Linton. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

Director and playwright Lynette Linton stepped into Madani Younis shoes as artistic director of the Bush last year. She tells Sam Marlowe about her ambitions for the theatre – including a focus on collaboration, risk and provocation, as well as bringing in young people – making history directing Shakespeare and mixing things up in the rehearsal room

It’s an overcast, sultry day when I meet Lynette Linton, one of theatre’s brightest, fastest-rising young talents. While Britain is bracing itself as president Donald Trump touches down on his state visit, the director is rehearsing Sweat. Written a year before the 2016 US election, Lynn Nottage’s devastating portrait of blue-collar lives in the American rust belt anticipated Trump’s rise to power.

We meet in a suitably sweaty south London rehearsal room, pedestal fans whirring in an ineffectual effort to shift the syrupy air. It’s lunchtime, and a clutch of exhausted actors are napping on sofas. But Linton positively vibrates with energy. A few hours earlier, it was announced that her production, which opened to rave reviews at London’s Donmar Warehouse just before Christmas, has been nominated for a Sky Arts Award.

Sweat is transferring to the West End and Linton is about to present her new season at London’s Bush Theatre, the cutting-edge west London new-writing venue, where she was appointed artistic director in 2018. She is one of a small but growing number of women of colour to lead a UK theatre building. She’s clearly stoked – and seems to be taking it all in her stride.

“It feels right, and I feel on top of it,” she grins. Friends and colleagues often ask after her stress levels. “Everyone kind of goes: ‘Are you okay?’ And I’m like: ‘Yeah.’” She shrugs and laughs. “It’s like waking up every day in a little bit of a dream world. This is what I always wanted, it’s all I ever wanted, and it’s happening. So it’s really cool.”

If there’s a secret to Linton’s success, she says, it’s collaboration. She speaks frequently and warmly about her team at the Bush and on Sweat. As a director and theatre leader, who is also an established playwright, she has a flexible, multifaceted approach to her work – albeit one that is stringently respectful of text. “Writing and directing go hand in hand, especially with new writing,” she says.

Martha Plimpton and Adjoa Andoh to become Bush Theatre artistic associates

“And yes, the way I work is incredibly collaborative. That’s how you make the best work. I have people shadowing in the rehearsal room all the time, and even with running the building. We are running the building, the company is running the building. We make decisions together – including programming, there’s a team of us making these decisions. I value everyone’s opinion on that team, because that’s how you make art. When people disagree with you, that’s even more exciting, because then you have to really interrogate yourself. I’m learning so much from everyone, and the Bush – it sounds so cheesy, but it really is family. I went in on Saturday just because I hadn’t been there all week, and I felt I needed to make sure everything was okay, and I missed everyone.”

Linton has had a long-standing relationship with the Bush. She’s always felt at home there and has a huge admiration for the work of her predecessor, Madani Younis – now creative director of the Southbank Centre – who she says “carved a beautiful home for artists. I thank him so much for that”. Younis also oversaw the theatre’s £4.3m refurbishment, creating a sustainable, accessible, buzzing environment in its converted library.

Linton cherishes Younis’ legacy and is determined to add to it. “We represent London, we represent west London, I think we represent community in a way other buildings also do, but ours is very specific. And I’m trying to reinforce and push the message that we are for writers. We are a home for writers, we are there to support you at different stages of your career, not just at the beginning. We are your refuge.”

Lyn Gardner: At the Bush, Madani Younis transformed what a new-writing theatre could be

With all of that in mind, Linton and her team have programmed an all-British season, much of it made by artists of colour, and dominated by debut plays. It’s an uncompromising statement of intent. “It’s all homegrown talent,” says Linton proudly. “I love US work, I love international work, but here are people in our community, in our backyard, whose work should be on our stage. And all the plays, bar one, are first plays. That was really important – because it’s not scary and other theatres should be doing it.”

It’s a far cry from the frustrating experience that is all too familiar for emerging writers, she says. “You write a play, and theatres go: ‘Oh you know, with a bit of development work we can maybe put this on in three years. In the studio.’” There will be no such prevaricating at the Bush. “Instead, we’re going: ‘This is good. And with the support, of a wonderful team – our associate dramaturg, our literary assistant, our associate director – this could be, is going to be, phenomenal. So, we’ll hook you up, and this play is going to be on in our first season. We believe in you, we believe in your voice and we’re not going to put you in development for three years.’ Because you learn so much from putting a play on. And because these writers deserve that.”

Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse

Other artistic directors might flinch from such risk taking. Linton is having none of that. “I’ve sort of banned the word risk. Because all art is risky, and if an artist is inexperienced, that’s even more exciting.” She quotes James Baldwin, the African-American writer and activist who has been a guiding force in her life and work: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”

Risk and provocation, she argues, are the whole point. “So when people say: ‘It might be a bit risky, it’s their first show’ – I don’t even know what that means.” She laughs, all passion, joy and defiance, then continues: “Of course, the other side of this conversation is that it is a business, we have to sell tickets, all of that. We want to sell out. But I also think it’s really important to ask yourself: ‘Wait, why are we doing this? Why do we go to the theatre? We go to hear stories, because storytelling is the oldest art form.’”

The plays arrived by a variety of routes. Some were cold submissions. The Arrival, a two-hander about a pair of brothers, is by Bijan Sheibani, whom Linton dubs “one of the most exciting directors in the country”. And the Bush has helped develop youth drama Level Up, by the actor Malachi Kirby, “and it’s really cool. Because young people should be feeling the work. So, make something for them. I go on and on about community and braiding the work that’s on stage with the lives of the people outside our doors. And I’m hoping that is what Level Up will do. We’re giving 20% of the tickets away to young people for free, because it’s for them. The show’s still changing – we’re going to get young people to be in rehearsals and see it, and help build it. That really is what I stand for”.

The season’s opener, Chiaroscuro, is the only revival. It was the 1986 debut drama by Jackie Kay, the mixed-race Scottish poet whose later work, Twice Over, was the first by a black writer to be produced by Gay Sweatshop. Linton will direct it herself, “and it’s gonna be part gig, part poetry, part play”. It will be followed later in the season by High Table, a new work by Temi Wilkey, with which Linton says it has thematic links. “They’re about black, queer women. The choice to put them together in the first season shows that black women, women of colour, have always been here. This isn’t just a diversity thing that’s happened in the last five years. And to acknowledge that is very important for me, and for us as a building. A lot of people don’t know who Jackie Kay is, which I find mind-blowing, because she’s such a legend. Everybody should know her.”

Ayesha Dharker, Adjoa Andoh and Leila Farzad. Photo: Ingrid Pollard

The fight for diversity – in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability – is, of course, ongoing, and while she’s optimistic, Linton stresses there’s no cause for complacency. “We have to make sure that if we sat down together again in five years time, this wouldn’t even be a conversation. We have to keep striving and maintain this train. As long as I’m running a building, as long as I’m making work, I’m gonna keep pushing for that. We’re in a really great place. But we need to sustain it.”

A few months ago Linton made history when she directed the first ever Shakespearean company of women of colour in a glittering, absorbing Richard II at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with co-director Adjoa Andoh in the lead role. “I was terrified,” she says. “I still find Shakespeare scary. But Adjoa is an incredible woman.” Andoh is to become an associate artist at the Bush – an example, says Linton, of how she hopes to “honour the people who have come before, and how much work they’ve done”. She adds: “Particularly when we’re talking about black women – acknowledging and celebrating them, I don’t think the industry does that enough. Adjoa Andoh is one of those people, to me. But also, part of doing Richard II was to prove to myself that those classic texts can be as accessible and exciting as new work”.

It was, she says, an amazing experience – not least because, as a lover of technology, she had to find new ways to work in candlelight: “The challenge was incredible – I remember going: ‘Argh, I miss electric lighting.’” Still, she’s not sure if she’d do Shakespeare again. New writing is where her heart is, and Sweat has been a watershed career moment. “I love it so much, I really do,” she says, her voice dropping almost to a whisper and her eyes filling with tears.“I am utterly in love with my company. It’s an absolute privilege and honour to be able to hang out with these guys again, and finesse it. This play, this team of people, have changed my life.”

Sweat came about after Josie Rourke saw some of Linton’s theatre work with young people, and invited her to be a part of Rourke’s final season as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. Out of a stack of potential plays, it was Nottage’s work that spoke to Linton. “I read it on the way home from meeting Josie and cried. It’s such a beautiful play. It’s a human story, a universal story.” Even though it was set in America’s rust belt she connected with it immediately. “I saw myself and family members in it.” It stars US actor Martha Plimpton, who has also become a senior artistic associate at the Bush, feeding into programming and acting as an ambassador in the US. “I love her,” Linton says. “I’ve learned so much.”

Sweat review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘nuanced and moving’

It’s not, by any means, the life that she always imagined herself living. Linton was born in Leytonstone, east London, in 1990, one of four children. Her mother was a carer and teaching assistant, her father, who is from Guyana, a mechanic. She laughs away any suggestion that they were an arty family, and neither they nor any of her friends were theatregoers.

But, watching EastEnders as a teenager, she began to wonder if she might be an actor. She also devoured the Harry Potter books and the novels of Malorie Blackman, so a career as a novelist appealed too. In the event, she read English at the University of Sussex, because it “was a way to do something I loved while I was figuring stuff out”. Afterwards, she joined the National Youth Theatre – where she discovered that she was “a baaaaad actor”, but a gifted writer and director. She credits the theatremaker Rikki Beadle-Blair with helping her to find her path. He programmed her first play, Step, in a season of new work he was curating at Theatre Royal Stratford East, and encouraged her to investigate directing. In 2017 at the Arcola Theatre, he directed #Hashtag Lightie, her exploration of mixed-race identity and social media.


Q&A Lynette Linton

What was your first non-theatre job?
John Lewis food hall.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Step at Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

What is your next job?
Transfer of Sweat and the Bush’s new season.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t doubt that you belong in the building – take up space.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
James Baldwin. And my mentors and directors.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself. Ask the scary questions. Don’t wing it. We want you to do well.

If you hadn’t been a writer and director what would you have been?
Worked in publishing or tried to write a novel and failed.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Yes and no. Lynn Nottage has influenced me to think about ancestry and how we say thank you to our theatre ancestors for paving the way for us.

As an emerging artist, Linton assisted some of the best in the business, among them Kwame Kwei-Armah, Michael Longhurst, Yaël Farber, Michael Grandage – “all totally different, all at the top of their game”. She also set up the production company Black Apron Entertainment – so-called after the staff uniform she and co-founders Daniel Bailey, now the Bush’s associate director, and Gino Ricardo Green wore for their day jobs at John Lewis food hall.

Her rehearsal room, she says, “is based on trust, and it’s about being able to acknowledge that you might not have all the answers. There’s a traditional way of being a director, where you know everything and you come into the space and say, this is what we’re gonna do. And I don’t understand that – because how do you know what you’re gonna make until you meet the people and you start working?” She’s adapted a technique she learned from Kwei-Armah, in which the entire company starts every morning with dancing. “People can be quite embarrassed, but then it becomes second nature. Everybody brings in three songs, and I pick on someone, and we dance to their songs.” It’s freeing, she says: “It’s about acknowledging: ‘Today we’re gonna try this, it might change tomorrow.’ And if you let people in on that, they’re not scared.”

Above all, it’s vital to Linton that she’s passing the baton. Alongside the work on the Bush stage is a whole raft of initiatives for new theatre artists, among them a project to support designers, sound designers and lighting designers from black, Asian and minority ethnicity backgrounds, an entry-level local writers group, and a writer-in-residence scheme offering an 18-month residency and a commitment to stagings of the recipient’s work.

“I had incredible mentors who guided me through the industry. And I hope to do the same for others,” says Linton. “Because you need that – that’s why this room is always open, and people can always come and hang out and learn, and ask questions. It’s something I think directors should do more of. If the doors are kept closed, then how can people get them open? Just let them in. Because their energy is also going to feed the work. And that’s great.”

CV Lynette Linton

Born: Leytonstone, east London, 1990
Training: University of Sussex; National Youth Theatre; StoneCrabs Directors’ Course; Young Vic Directors’ Scheme
Landmark productions:
As writer:
• Step, Theatre Royal Stratford East/schools (2013)

• Chicken Palace, Theatre Royal Stratford East (2015)
• #Hashtag Lightie, Arcola Theatre, London (2017)
As director:
• This Wide Night, Albany Theatre/StoneCrabs, London (2014)

• Chicken Palace, Theatre Royal Stratford East (2015)
• Assata Taught Me, The Gate, London (2017)
• Sweat, Donmar Warehouse, London (2018)
• Richard II, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2019)
Agent: Emily Hickman at The Agency

Sweat is at London’s Gielgud Theatre until July 20; See bushtheatre.co.uk for more information

Lynette Linton’s inaugural Bush season to feature plays from Bijan Sheibani and Richard Gadd

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