20 Questions With...Dominic Dromgoole
Date: 6 October 2003
Oxford Stage director Dominic Dromgoole - whose revival of John Bull's Other Island precedes his premiere of Eric Schlosser's Americans - speaks frankly about unlearning favouritism, vision mercantilism & other received ideas.
As the son of renowned director Patrick Dromgoole, theatre was always something of a family business for Dominic Dromgoole, who, after graduating from Cambridge, quickly got his own career underway by joining London's new writing powerhouse, the Bush Theatre, as an assistant director.
He later became artistic director of the Bush, a position he held from 1991 to 1996. During that time, the theatre premiered 65 new plays - including early works by Billy Roche, Philip Ridley, Catherine Johnson, Sebastian Barry, Jonathan Harvey, Helen Edmundson, Simon Bent, Naomi Wallace, Irvine Welsh, David Harrower, Samuel Adamson and Conor McPherson amongst others - transferred three productions to the West End and two to Dublin's Abbey Theatre, toured the country and won 27 major awards.
After the Bush, Dromgoole became Director of New Plays for the Peter Hall Company during its 1996/97 residency at the West End's Old Vic. In 1999, he was appointed artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company, one of the country's foremost touring outfits. For Oxford Stage Company, Dromgoole has himself directed touring productions of Three Sisters, 50 Revolutions, Troilus and Cressida (all of which also transferred to the West End), The Inland Sea and After the Dance.
Dromgoole's recent freelance directing credits include revivals of Noel Coward's Present Laughter, with Rik Mayall, and George Bernard Shaw's John Bull's Other Island, which is currently running at London's Tricycle Theatre. Later this month across town at the Arcola Theatre, he'll stage the world premiere of Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser's first play, Americans (See News, 4 Aug 2003).
An accomplished author himself, Dromgoole's first book, 2000's The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting, created shockwaves within the theatre industry for its frank critical assessments of many of the country's leading dramatists. Dromgoole also regularly contributes to The New Statesman, The Sunday Times and other publications.
Date & place of birth
Born 25 October 1963 in Bristol.
Lives now in...
Shepherds Bush, west London.
There isn't any real training for directors, but I was always going to be a director, my father was a director. I did a couple of classic things. When I was 16, I formed my own theatre company - we took shows to the Edinburgh festival and toured them round the southwest and on other sort of peculiar quixotic missions. And then I went to Cambridge and directed a lot there. If there is a formal English training, then going to University and doing a lot of shows is it. And so I followed that path. My degree was classics and English.
First big break
Probably getting into the Bush Theatre as an assistant. It was a complete corrective to everything I'd learnt before, which had been sending me off in a rather self-important, 'art' theatre direction. Six months after I left University, I went to the Bush and immediately found out about new plays and about the craft of theatre and about a very different approach and a very different understanding of theatre. I was lucky to go there and unlearn a lot of bad received ideas. All those mountains of cock about Grotowski and Stanislavski and Peter Brook and free Shakespeare and Brecht. It was clearing all of that out of your head and realising that working out how to make a cup of tea on stage is infinitely more important than tracing the theatre of cruelty from Artaud through to the present day. I can't be disrespectful, of course, but there was a tremendous amount to unlearn.
Career highlights to date
Every single bit of it has been a highlight. I'm afraid I've got a very rigid 'no favouritism' policy in every aspect of my life. Sorry, it's dreadful, but everything from children to friends to everything, it's a terrible waste of your life to pick out favourites and relegate other people to not favourites. Much better to enjoy them all. So I've enjoyed every show, even the disasters, and I have enjoyed everyone I've worked with in a different way.
What other directors do you admire?
Lots. More and more as I get older and less envious and nasty and mean and suspicious. I massively admire Ian Rickson at the Court. I think he's very fine and does very good work. I've always liked colleagues of mine, people I've worked with like Robin Lefevre and John Dove and Simon Usher and Wilson Milam and Sean Holmes my associate, Mark Rosenblatt whose worked with us a lot, Thea Sharrock, Peter Gill ... I mean lots. It's nice. When you're young, you just hate them all and want them all to die. As you get older, you get to enjoy others' work more and more.
What would you advise to secure the future of British theatre?
I think, to the theatre industry, I'd say, stop whinging. Complaining about things never made them any better, crying never made anything any better and bemoaning your own ills or bemoaning your lot never made anything any better, so just dry your eyes, get on with it, enjoy it and, if you don't enjoy it, then don't do it and fuck off. Even if you're only playing to 20 people a night, enjoy it or don't do it. That's the point. As for the government, they should just back off and leave theatre alone. Don't meddle. Leave theatre to the people who are in it to run it themselves and work out how to do it best.
How would you rate the current state of theatre?
Theatre is amazingly healthy in this country. It always has been and, touch wood, it always will be. It's central and integral to our street life and our culture and to everything about us. We are very very lucky in that, and it's going to take an awful lot of government coercion or natural disasters to make that change. So that sort of health is a given. I think that theatre's not as exciting at the moment as it was for a brief and pleasant period in the early nineties. It's not quite as punkish in the sense that there was a garage band ethos where small, unknown theatres were throwing up amazing noises and vision and excitement. At the moment, it's all a bit more centralised. You've got a tremendously healthy National and a tremendously healthy Royal Court, and that's great, but they tend to draw lots of energy into themselves. That's not quite as exciting as when you've got the Finborough or the Man in the Moon (sadly no longer) or god knows where throwing up something new. Some of that vibrancy seems to have diminished.
If you hadn't become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I would have like to have written, but I think I'm more jealous that I can't write. When I was younger, I would have loved to have been a poet. That would have been my ambition first and foremost. And I'd love to have been a playwright, but I wasn't very good at it.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
That Roy Williams play at the Court, Fallout. I had a grand evening, and I thought it was very fearless because it blew in the face of every inch of liberal humanism in its audience, where you constantly wanted a feelgood result from it - the murderers to get banged up or the people who had been violent to meet some dreadful end or be very unhappy. It constantly went against that. Although I found that unspeakably depressing, because I am a liberal humanist, I also admired the courage of trying to introduce a different ethos to the stage. It was great, in a rather dreary way, and very bold of Ian (Rickson) to put four or five black kids on the main stage at the Royal Court and for them to take control as they did.
What are you currently reading?
I'm reading a fantastic book called The Middle Mind by an American critic called Curtis White. It's going to be published here by Penguin next year and it is fantastic, savage and funny and cruel. It's about the death of imagination in the American culture and in the American entertainment industry. You'd love it, you must get it, it's wonderful.
Do you think anti-Americanism is prevalent in British theatre?
Not really, because anti-Americanism doesn't really survive a trip to America. Anti-Americanism is largely the reaction of people who haven't been there or who have just met Americans abroad and felt suspicious about their spending power. If you go to America and you meet Americans - whose manners and courtesy and generosity and standards of being host are infinitely superior to any European country - it's hard then to carry on any infantile anti-Americanism. I mean, Americans have the good manners of empire, like the British when they had good manners. The British are now thoroughly ill-mannered by and large, from giving money to the man behind the bar to opening the door for someone to paying for dinner to being charming to your mother, whatever.
Where did you spend your last holiday?
Normandy. I've a got a farm there and that's where I live when I'm not in London. I spend about two or three months of the year there.
What websites do you use?
Well, there's only one theatre website, isn't there? I do use Whatsonstage.com. I like the gossip, and the interviews are very good, too! I liked the one with my friend Hugh Bonneville.
Why did you want to direct John Bull's Other Island at the Tricycle?
They offered it to me! I've always worked for my own company, but increasingly, I've been offered work outside it, which I find very flattering. For Theatre Royal Bath earlier this year, I did the tour of Present Laughter, which was massive fun, and then Nicolas Kent (Tricycle artistic director), who I've got great respect for, sent me this play. I've never liked George Bernard Shaw, but I read this and was astonished by it. It gave me a real kick in the teeth and overturned all my expectations of what a Shaw play would be - you know, whingey, argument-filled, lengthy, dreary plays about twisted romances set in and around the Home Counties. John Bull's Other Island is very different. It's an Irish play, and Shaw didn't write much about Ireland even though that's where he came from and all of his identity was wrapped up in being Irish. Taking on the subject was unsettling for him, so the play is a sort of a mess. It's very wild and very anarchic and very structureless and very fresh, and I like all those qualities. It's not a smooth Rolls Royce of a commercial play, but instead a very personal exorcism of many of Shaw's own demons. And it's rather liberating when you see a mind that extraordinary letting it all hang out.
Why do you think John Bull's Other Island is so rarely performed?
I've no idea. It's by far the best play that Shaw ever wrote and far more interesting than almost all the others, which I find rather lumpy. It does have an appalling title - that might contribute to the fact it's not done very often. It was a huge hit when it was first put on, the biggest hit Shaw ever had. Maybe it's about the way it deals with Ireland. For 80 years of the last century, there was this extraordinary myopia about Ireland from English culture. Anything to do with Ireland had to be about the 'Irish question' or it didn't qualify, and while this play gives a certain amount of time to home rule, that's not what it's essentially about. Mostly, it's about the effect of capitalism on the Irish identity. English people have always wanted Irish plays to be about tearful women and angry men wandering around with bombs. They weren't prepared to understand that Irish drama was much more subtle and delicate and far-ranging than that.
What informed your choices for Oxford Stage Company's autumn schedule?
We are very lucky at Oxford Stage Company because we get to do great plays. John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is fantastic, a sort of big, epic, biblical, muscly play. I have always wanted to do because I think it was a landmark in British theatre. It gives an enormous insight into the British character, and you think, "well, why on earth has no one done it since 1984"? It's ludicrous that some plays get so much light around them and get so frequently revived when they have incredibly little internal merit. It was about a year and a half ago that we picked Musgrave's to do, and then suddenly, you find yourself reading it again in preparation and .... Look, it's a play about soldiers returning from a pointless and unnecessary colonial war - which is nothing but a display of power in some distant land - and having seen the horrors of war and the horrors of having to deal with a populace that's in a permanent state of insurrection. When we had a read-through, it was chilling how much the words stilled the room, quietened us all down, because we felt it was very much about now.
And what about Americans? Eric Schlosser is, of course, best known for investigative non-fiction like Fast Food Nation. What can we expect with his first stage play?
Oh, it's fantastic. Eric sent me the play after I had written a nice thing about Fast Food Nation in The New Statesman. I read it and it was back-breakingly hot and spiky and dangerous. He had actually written it 17 years before, in 1986, and had kept it in his bottom drawer and been sort of shy about it. But the matter of it was brought to him again after September 11th. Americans is entirely historical. It's about President McKinley's assassination in 1901. That was on September 6th, and the whole thing was almost parallel to the events of a couple of years ago, in that it was an act of violence and, immediately after, with Teddy Roosevelt who was McKinley's vice president, there was, simultaneously, a large-scale clampdown on internal security in America and an enormous broadening in the country's aims in an imperial sense. Under McKinley, they'd already started to jettison their policy of being friend of everyone and enemy of no one, and that accelerated under Roosevelt. The play is full of speeches about the consequences of an imperial policy, which are weird in their chilling relevance to what has been happening recently. I think Eric's first ambition was to be a playwright. He wrote this play and probably showed it to a couple of people who went 'er no', because it's quite big and public and political, which is not to everyone's taste, and I think he got discouraged. Although it's a great big subject, we didn't want to go flashy on it. It's nice to start small. So we'll have the four weeks at the Arcola, try it out and see whether it takes or not.
What's your vision for Oxford Stage Company?
I've never been a great vision merchant, I've got a great distrust of them. The essence of the companies I've worked with - the Bush and then the Peter Hall company and now Oxford Stage company - is that you aim to do good plays very well. Beyond that, there's not much to say about theatre. All else is sort of decoration. So, if we can continue to find good plays and continue to do them well, then it will be immensely rewarding and delightful.
In 1999, shortly after I started as artistic director, we had a limited West End residency. The Whitehall was available, there was an impetus to reinvigorate the West End in that way at that time and we were willing to do so. It was a very enjoyable one-off, but I think a mixture of lack of enthusiasm and brutal economics slowed it down. In part, the season was a product of my nervousness about, "Oh you have to do everything in London if it's valid". Because everything I'd ever done before that had been in London and I thought, "If it's not in front of Nicholas De Jongh (Evening Standard critic), then it doesn't exist". After that, I came to realise there is a world elsewhere, and it's a tremendously rewarding and enjoyable world. So I stopped being so worried about bringing things into town. Touring is the best fun, and we still do come in for shorter periods as part of that. We brought The Cherry Orchard to Riverside Studios and did The Inland Sea at Wilton's Music Hall, and we've been into the Old Vic and various other places. But principally we are happy to tour.
What are your other plans for the future?
The freelance assignments might dry up so that might be that, I don't know. It's a nice balance because I'm writing a fair amount as well. I write pieces for The New Statesman and occasionally for the newspapers, and I'd like to write another book at some point, though I'm not telling about what. It'd be nice to ease up, too, do more time in Normandy. The main thing at the moment is that these plays - John Bull, Musgrave's and Americans - really feel that they're part of the world in a way that I've always wanted to do with everything that I do. That's great. I don't know if other plays are going to drop on the doorstep like that. We shall see.
John Bull's Other Island continues at London's Tricycle Theatre until 25 October 2003. For Oxford Stage, Sean Holmes' revival of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance is now touring until while Dromgoole's premiere production of Americans runs at London's Arcola Theatre from 28 October to 22 November 2003.