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Changing of the Guard: Christopher Haydon at the Gate

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Tenet, subtitled A True Story About the Revolutionary Politics of Telling the Truth About the Truth as Edited by Someone Who is Not Julian Assange in Any Literal Sense, last week launched Christopher Haydon’s inaugural season as the new artistic director of Notting Hill's above-a-pub Gate Theatre.

The Gate and Greyscale co-production is one of three offerings in the themed season that runs until 20 September 2012 under the title Resist: Three Stories of Rebels and Revolutionaries. Tenet is followed by the premiere of Hassan Abdulrazzak’s The Prophet, directed by Haydon himself in June, and American Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby in September.

Haydon took over as artistic director of the Gate in January 2012, succeeding joint chiefs Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell, who stepped down after nearly five years in charge. During Abrahami and Cracknell’s tenure, Haydon directed Wittenberg, his first production at the Gate, last year.

Haydon studied at Cambridge, trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, the National Theatre Studio, New York's Lincoln Centre and with Cicely Berry at the Royal Shakespeare Company. His directing credits elsewhere include In the Beginning for the Bush Theatre at Westminster Abbey and Pressure Drop with Billy Bragg (On Theatre and Wellcome Collection). Formerly an associate director of the Bush, he curated the ambitious 66 Books project to inaugurate that theatre’s new home at the old Shepherd’s Bush Library last autumn.

As a journalist, Haydon has been a regular contributor to the Guardian's online theatre blogs and has also written for the Financial Times, the Scotsman and Prospect Magazine

As part of our occasional “Changing of the Guard” series with new artistic directors, Whatsonstage.com talked to Haydon about his ambitions for the Gate.

What was the first production you ever saw at the Gate? What impact did it have on you?
Chris Goode’s extraordinary production of …Sisters in 2008. It was a co-production between the Gate and Headlong and the first of the New Directions awards (a project to find “a new approach to classic international plays by encouraging Britain’s brightest emerging and existing directing talent to re-interpret international plays with verve and vision”)

Parts of the show were different every night and there were two rabbits on stage at the end. It was amazing - the kind of show that really divides opinion. But I thought the boldness and the theatricality were incredibly engaging.

They also did an amazing design job in that tiny space. What’s amazing about the space is how long and narrow it is. You can really mess with people’s perception of scale as we did when I directed Wittenberg last year: we had a magic-box set that kept opening and re-shaping itself and getting deeper and deeper and deeper. You could hear people audibly gasp.

Why did you want the job of artistic director?
I’ve always wanted to run a building because the role of artistic director is a really exciting one. You have to change the way you think: you’re not just doing your own work and you’re not just creating work for your own sake. You're having to think much more broadly about the kind of work that an audience in general should be seeing. You’re also suddenly in a position to give other directors opportunities to create their own work and that’s really exciting

Jon Foster in Tenet at the Gate
There are things I enjoy watching as an audience member but that I’m not very good at making myself. As artistic director, you can actually have your cake and eat it. For example, Tenet is a fantastically inventive piece about this crazy French mathematician and revolutionary. It’s quite self-referential, there is lots of audience interaction and it’s formally quite experimental, which is not where my strengths lie. Being an artistic director means you can give backing and space and opportunities for that kind of work while still making your own.

Also, when I was applying for this job I realised that a lot of the work I’d done in the past had been quite international in focus and the Gate felt like a good match for that. And I’m quite interested in experimenting with and exploring the director’s role so that directors can play a more fundamental role in the wider creative process. The Gate has a fantastic reputation for encouraging directors to do that.

The history of the Gate also makes it incredibly exciting: Stephen Daldry, Katie Mitchell, Dominic Cooke and Rupert Goold have all directed here.

How would you rate the tenure of Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell?
They did an amazing job. Their interest in combining dance and theatre and their consistency in reinventing classic texts made the Gate stand out and gave it a strong sense of identity. What I’m doing is going to be very different from what Natalie and Carrie did - and I have no doubt that whoever comes after me will take the theatre in a very different direction again That’s what keeps it fresh and exciting.

What are the immediate challenges and rewards of the job?
The immediate rewards are the extraordinary privilege of reading a play and going, “I like that, we’ll do it”. As a freelancer you always have to pitch and convince somebody else that something is a good idea. It’s amazing not to have to do that .

It’s also a real privilege meeting all the emerging and established artists and the amazing conversations you can have with people about theatre and art and the world.

The challenge that every theatre in the country is facing at the moment is money. We have a fantastic relationship with the Arts Council and they are incredibly supportive of what we do, but we have to now focus on raising even more money to match our ambitions and enable the Gate to be able to punch above its weight.

The other main challenge is just constantly interrogating what that space above that pub can be and finding the most exciting work to stage there.

Then there's the exciting challenge of finding a balance between box office success and taking the risk on things that might not be so obviously appealing even though people will love it if they see it.

How will you measure success?
There are both personal ways and more objective ways. Objectively: have we filled the auditorium, have we had the critical success that the work deserves, has the work made an impact on the wider public debate? My ambition for all the work that I create is that it also gets talked about in places other than the arts pages. We do that by tackling issues and events that journalists and any thinking person should be interested in, such as what’s happening in the Middle East. If our work can do anything to contribute in terms of people’s understanding and engagement, then that’s where it becomes successful.

What does the next season hold?
We haven’t locked everything down yet but there are all sorts of ideas. I’m very interested in work from America and in finding work from Africa and the Middle East so we’ll be exploring those areas.

Why did you want to be a theatre director?
I acted at school and all the way through university and then trained for three years at Central. However, I was very aware that there were people in my year who were better actors than I was – I just couldn’t see why someone would cast me in a role over another actor. But I really enjoyed getting good performances out of other people and realised that I was probably better at that than at performing. Theatre provides me with the best language I can think of to engage with what excites me about the world.

What would you say was your greatest achievement professionally prior to joining the Gate?
Spending three years with Josie Rourke and the team at the Bush making 66 Books. We commissioned 66 writers and the final event was 24 hours long and had 130 actors in it. It was massive and joyful and it was such an extraordinary group of people to be with. Alongside that, making Pressure Drop (an OnTheatre drama written by another former Gate artistic director, Mick Gordon, featuring Billy Bragg and his band) and watching 200 people cheer each night for Billy. I think that’s the importance of an event - creating a sense of joy and excitement.

What would you say to entice a first time visitor to the Gate?
The Gate is a tiny space above a pub in which magic happens, you’re so close to what’s happening on stage that you can’t help be gripped by it, that’s why it’s exciting and that’s why I think the Gate is important.

- Christopher Haydon was talking to Terri Paddock


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