As the company celebrates its 25th anniversary, the award-winning director tells Tim Bano the occasion is giving him a chance to take stock and strike a balance between looking forward and looking back, and that his vision is about celebrating diversity, connecting audiences and putting English identity at the heart of everything ETT does
On the face of it, moving from a job as associate director of international work at the Royal Court Theatre in London to artistic director of English Touring Theatre may seem a bit odd. With the Royal Court, Richard Twyman travelled the world: Chile, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, India, China. At ETT, he’s barely allowed out of England into Scotland and Wales because of the terms of the Arts Council’s funding.
But Twyman took the role in 2016 precisely because of that remit: one country, many people, and getting to grips with a national landscape. In his first year, the company visited 39 different cities, each with its own theatre and audience – a far cry from the Jerwood Upstairs space at the Royal Court.
After training at Birmingham University, followed by a few assisting jobs, Twyman found himself working at Hamleys over the Christmas period demonstrating toys. He got talking to a woman who wanted to buy a cyber dog, and mentioned that he was about to leave to try to become a director. “That’s funny,” she said, “because I’m a theatre agent.”
It turned out to be Julia Lintott, an agent with Stella Richards Management and former wife of director Terry Hands, who became “something of an angel” to Twyman. She got him a meeting with Gregory Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he eventually became an associate there. He left in 2008, freelanced for a bit, then joined the Royal Court in 2013 as associate director of international work.
Then in 2016, the week of the Brexit vote, he was offered the job at ETT. “Like a lot of people, I woke up that morning and had a real shift of perspective, like the ground had changed. And actually, I’d been playing to an audience who probably already believed the perspective of what was being spoken about on stage before they even came to the theatre,” he says. “But with this job I feel, as an artist, it’s about the most useful thing I could be doing.”
So Twyman’s focus, as the company moves into its 25th anniversary year, is on the word ‘English’. He wants national conversations on a national scale; he wants to find out what’s going on in the country in terms of identity, “because I have no idea”.
What has he found out so far? “When I joined I was bumping into a lot of received ideas about what theatre outside of London is or isn’t, what audiences outside of London are or aren’t. But audiences will really go with you. I think that’s been the big lesson.”
On top of that, despite funding challenges that Twyman calls “severe and real”, he argues that the creative environment is much more diverse than in London. That’s partly due to the fact that all of ETT’s shows are co-productions, a decision made by his predecessor Rachel Tackley, with different artistic visions feeding into the programme.
But Twyman’s own vision for ETT productions is about three things: celebrating the diversity of the country, connecting audiences nationwide – “there’s something extraordinary about that culture pollination effect, with us as with bees” – and placing an examination of English identity at the heart of everything the company does.
Looking at the 25th anniversary programme, that examination of Englishness is clear in Twyman’s production of Othello, which has the title character as a Muslim in a deeply racist country, and is conceivable in the upcoming revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, although details of director Ned Bennett’s take on it aren’t available yet. But how does it feed into Chelsea Walker’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire – one of the all-time American classics?
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant director, Dead Funny, York Theatre Royal.
What is your next job?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
The most exciting projects are the ones you don’t know how to do yet. So just be sure that if you turn down a job it’s not out of fear.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I’ve been fortunate to work with many wonderful artists, so there are too many to name. But two particular groups stand out. Firstly, all the incredible design and creative teams I’ve been fortunate to work with. Secondly, the many international artists who’ve challenged me to revisit ideas of what theatre can be and what its purpose is.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Try to see them as an opportunity to work on the material, a mini-rehearsal rather than a space to sell yourself or be judged.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I love the sea, so a marine biologist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I have a ritual with various director friends the day before rehearsals for a new show start. We text each other and say: “How do you direct again?”
“Streetcar, Equus and Othello are all on the syllabus,” Twyman says. “Predominantly we have a much older audience, and there was this essential need to diversify the audience. One way is getting more young people in.” So in that sense it’s about examining what audiences in England are.
“If we had done that production with just our core audience, it might have been too much. But we also had auditoriums full of incredible school kids responding to it on a really immediate, visceral level, which meant the rest of the audience totally were allowed to go with them. If we want to move forward and we want our work to genuinely be contemporary and genuinely about the world we’re living in today, we have to get different audiences to see it.”
But there’s a bigger question, too, about why ETT might programme a revival of an all-time classic play. Which is that, without a building, it has to call up hundreds of theatres across the country and ask whether they’d like a week’s run of a particular play. A recognisable title might sell it where a new play wouldn’t.
“There has to be a really good reason for them to programme it because they’ll also have got a phone call that day from someone else offering something that has a star off the telly.”
Twyman is adamant that a well-known play should still speak to today. “It has to be about who’s been telling these stories historically and opening that up in terms of who’s telling them now,” he says. So for Streetcar, he wanted it from the view of a young feminist female director post #MeToo, and he promises similar things for Bennett’s production of Equus.
Number of performances per year: 351
Audience figures: More than 90,000
Number of employees: 10
Turnover: £1.6 million
Funding levels: £680,000
Where does that leave new work? After all, it’s always been a part of the company’s stated aim. Twyman has no definite answers. “I am determined to find out how we do it. It’s about how we’re commissioning and working with writers to find stories that we can tell on the mid-scale canvas, and then it’s also being more playful and flexible on scale so that we can do new writing in small spaces.” But, he admits: “It’s taking time. I wish it could go quicker, but we’ve done a fair amount of commissioning and I hope by next year we’ll have our first mid-scale new work.”
As for the 25th-anniversary season, there’s only one piece of new writing, Rose Lewenstein’s Cougar, which is also the only play by a woman across 2018 and 2019. Compare that to 2017, which had four plays by women under ETT’s aegis. Two were new plays – Silver Lining by Sandi Toksvig and Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale – one nearly new in Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living and one an adaptation: Purva Naresh’s Pink Sari Revolution. “There has been a bit of a dip,” Twyman says, “and that’s a real problem. We’re really working to address it in terms of our commissioning. And it’s also where we need to get new writing in, because of course the canon is skewed.”
The anniversary is giving Twyman the chance to take stock, striking what he calls “a careful balance” between looking forward and looking back. “At first it felt limiting not having a building, but it was a big mental shift to think, actually, the opposite is also true: that you have total freedom. We can work with anyone in whatever way.”
Almost two years into the post, he is clear that he does not want to lose sight of what ETT is, its core belief in the powers of collaboration and partnership, and its advocacy for touring. As for the rest, “I’m someone who just likes to question everything,” Twyman says. “I am really determined to go on a journey and, you know, ETT might end up being unrecognisable from where it is now.”
Born: Peterborough (age undisclosed)
Training: Birmingham University, BA in drama and theatre arts
• Harrogate by Al Smith, Hightide/Royal Court, London (2016)
• You for Me for You by Mia Chung, Royal Court, London (2015)
• The Djinns of Eidgah by Abhishek Majumdar, Royal Court, London (2013)
• Henry IV Part II, Royal Shakespeare Company (2007/8)
• The RSC’s Histories cycle 2006-08 (in which he directed Henry IV Part II) won Oliviers for best ensemble and best revival (2009) and the Evening Standard Editor’s Award (2008)
Agent: Curtis Brown
Further details are available at ett.org.uk