Vault Festival’s head of theatre Gillian Greer: ‘It’s intimidating, there are a lot of artists to support’
One job is not enough for Gillian Greer, who runs between her roles as senior script reader at the National Theatre and head of theatre and performance programming at Vault Festival – where she is currently taking care of 200 shows. Natasha Sutton Williams meets the playwright and up-and-coming tastemaker
Playwright Gillian Greer may not be well known yet, but she is fast becoming one of London theatre’s tastemakers. Not only is she a senior script reader at the National Theatre, she is the first head of theatre and performance programming at Vault Festival, which opens this week.
It all started in Dublin, when she was employed as a script reader for the Abbey Theatre. At the same time, she started writing, and her inaugural play Petals – a coming-of-age tale about a young Dubliner experiencing her sexual awakening in a repressed Catholic society – was nominated for best new play at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. Doors opened and Greer moved to London.
She read for theatres including Theatre503 in south London, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Mercury Theatre in Colchester – while still reading for the Abbey – and wrote reviews. When the National Theatre advertised for a senior script reader, she applied. “They took a massive risk on me,” Greer says. “But it worked out.”
Work at the National started in July 2017. Greer says the same talent-spotting rules apply to the scripts she receives regardless of the size or prestige of the theatre. “Depending on the organisation, the reading requirements will be different,” Greer says. “But ultimately the reader’s job is to spot and identify potential talent, to lift it up so it goes up the chain and is seen.”
Five shows at the Vault Festival not to miss
Queens of Sheba, January 30-February 3
Winner of one of The Stage’s Edinburgh Awards, a fast-paced and funny examination of the misogyny faced by black women.
Nikolaos the Wonderworker, February 1-2
Directed by David Aula and starring Juliet Stevenson, a rehearsed reading laced with little touches of magic that’s on for two nights only.
April, February 20-24
The show from Hermetic Arts, whose podcast-turned-play Unburied was deliciously intelligent and seriously scary.
The Myth of the Singular Moment, March 6-10
Winner of the Summerhall Award, an elusive but exquisite folk storytelling show created by writer and musician Jim Harbourne.
Anna X, March 13-17
The new play from journalist-turned-playwright Joseph Charlton, whose play Brilliant Jerks, about Uber, was one of the hits of last year’s festival.
Selected by Fergus Morgan
The plays never arrive fully formed, so the trick is about seeing the potential. “Every script has problems. If you encounter the first draft of an Annie Baker play I’m sure it has problems. It’s not about that, it’s about being able to see what a piece could be and being excited about supporting that vision.”
In recent years, Greer has met fellow script readers who believe their sole job is to identify the problems with submissions and why they don’t work. “While that is part of it, it is far less important than being able to see the good in a play and making sure it gets recognised and appreciated.”
She continues: “At the NT, there are really interesting questions that we continually ask ourselves as a team such as: ‘What is scale?’ ‘What is an epic play?’ ‘What is a play for the Olivier stage?’ These are the questions that go specifically with working at the National, but that doesn’t change the DNA of the job, which is to find talent and incredible voices that should be able to fill the space.”
Last year, Vault Festival appointed four new heads of programming, with Greer as head of theatre and performance. They wanted to expand their creative team and take on more women. NT colleague Stewart Pringle recommended her for the role. “That led to a couple of conversations with Vault on how I envisaged the job, which ultimately ended up in me getting hired.”
The benefit of Greer working at the National and Vault simultaneously is that she has been able to programme plays she originally read as a script reader. Inside Voices, 17, Pufferfish, Bottled, and Tryst are all plays that will be making an appearance at Vault, which Greer discovered as a script reader and has been able to support to production.
Her work at the festival is also beneficial for the NT. “The fact I’m working at Vault as head of theatre, and I am aware of all these astonishing up-and-coming new artists and their work, can only mean the NT is more conscious of the work as it is happening,” she says.
Greer started her role at Vault in August 2018, and regularly runs for 10 minutes between the National and the Vault underground offices. “Both roles are part-time and ongoing. When you have multiple jobs you have to make sure they are very close to one another. Both teams are incredibly supportive. They know that me doing one job only helps the other. It enables me to do a variety of interesting work across different areas of the industry.”
In among all this juggling, Greer has to carve out time in order to write her own work. During festival or programming season, playwriting takes a backseat. Similarly, when she has a big draft to work on, she won’t take on as much freelance work. “The idea that you have to write a certain amount every day is ultimately a myth. It’s about structuring your time in whatever way works for you.”
Q&A: Gillian Greer
What was your first non-theatre job?
Hospitality manager at McDonald’s, where I learned to make balloon animals. I am very proud of that.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Reader at the Abbey Theatre.
What’s your next job?
After Vault Festival finishes I will be starting at Clean Break as their creative associate.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Talent will out in the end.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The work of Irish playwrights, particularly Marina Carr and Mark O’Rowe.
If you hadn’t been in theatre, what would you have been?
Children’s television presenter.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I wasn’t comfortable saying ‘Macbeth’ when it was on at the NT.
There are eight packed weeks of theatre, comedy, immersive experiences, cabaret, live performance and late-night parties at Vault. Of the work in the programme Greer has put together, 53% is female-led, 25% LGBTQ-led and 11% disability-led.
Greer’s past experiences as a playwright have shaped her role at Vault. “It’s important that pastoral care is at the forefront of what I do. I can’t make sure every play is the most amazing piece of work that has ever been created and prompts a whole career for that artist, but I can put things in place to make sure it is a safe, supportive and happy learning environment for artists.”
The most challenging thing, she says, is taking care of 200 shows, “and showing them all the same amount of care, attention and love that I would like to give them. It’s intimidating because that’s an awful lot of artists to support. It’s important to me that they all truly feel supported and to give each artist the individual focus they need. We have managed to do that through strong communication but it’s a daunting task when you have that many shows to care for”.
She continues: “When I’m supporting Vault artists on a draft or helping them develop their show, I’m doing that with all the heft, knowledge and experience that comes from working at the National.”
Despite being a playwright, her day job is about making decisions that affect her peers, choosing who and what gets programmed. “Taste is an interesting question and it’s one that comes up a lot. Ultimately I’m not programming to my own personal taste – that applies when I’m a script reader at the NT or anywhere else. I am not working as a director to find a play I am really passionate about and want to put on. What I’m looking for is quality, and the belief that this story will find and indeed deserves an audience.
“If it is a story I would be keen to tell myself, or a story that I will read or watch voraciously, I will have extremely high standards for that work, but I will also champion it when I find it and love it.” She adds: ‘It’s also possible for me to champion something that isn’t necessarily my cup of tea but I know is incredibly good and speaks to an enormous amount of people.”
In her work she writes about sexuality in society. The theme weaves itself throughout her plays. Her latest play ‘Meat’ was shortlisted for the Theatre503 Playwriting Award 2018. The story navigates sexual assault allegations in the current climate and focuses on how one couple deals with an unforgivable act in their relationship, and if, and how, they can rectify this trauma together.
“I have wanted to be a writer since I was seven,” Greer says. “The idea to imagine and create worlds with words has always been the thing that got me up in the morning. The magical thing about theatre is that your story can live forever. If you are Shakespeare, your story can be revived tomorrow and it can still be as interesting and relevant as it was 300 years ago. The absolute best of new writing should follow the same rule. We should be able to discover stories and voices that will live on long beyond our own memory.”
Playwrights are contributing to one of art’s oldest forms, she says. “As much as theatre is ephemeral and only lasts as long as the run lasts, new writing can stand the test of time in a very meaningful way, and in a way that I don’t think any other art form can.”
CV: Gillian Greer
Born: Dublin, 1991
Training: University College Dublin; Master’s in playwriting and screenwriting at the Lir Academy
• Petals Theatre Upstairs, Dublin (2014)
Vault Festival runs until March 17 in venues across Waterloo, London