Changing of the Guard: Dromgoole at the Globe
We resume our occasional series interviewing the country’s top artistic directors by catching up with Dominic Dromgoole, as he launches his third summer season in charge of the Globe with his own production of King Lear starting performances on Shakespeare’s birthday this week.
Dominic Dromgoole took over from Shakespeare’s Globe’s founding artistic director Mark Rylance at the end of 2005, coming direct from his post as artistic director of leading touring troupe Oxford Stage Company (since relaunched as Headlong)
The son of director Patrick Dromgoole, prior to Oxford Stage Company, which he joined in 1999 and, Dominic Dromgoole had positions as director of new plays for the Peter Hall Company and artistic director of London’s new writing powerhouse, the Bush Theatre. At the latter, he premiered 65 new plays including early works by Philip Ridley, Catherine Johnson, Sebastian Barry, Jonathan Harvey and Conor McPherson amongst others. His West End credits include the 2005 revival of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me.
Dromgoole is also an outspoken arts commentator, who writes regularly for several national newspapers including the Sunday Times. His 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 contemporary dramatists. Following his Globe appointment, his memoir on Shakespeare, Will and Me, was published by Penguin in hardcover in April 2006.
The 2008 season at the open-air Globe runs under the title “Totus Mondus”, from the motto of the original Globe, “Totus mundus agit histrionem” (the whole world is a playhouse). Of the unprecedented nine productions in the season, there are four Shakespeares at Bankside (Dromgoole’s own production of King Lear, followed by A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens); two new plays, commissioned by the Globe (Che Walker’s The Frontline, set in modern London outside Camden Tube station, and Glyn Maxwell’s Liberty); one visiting production (Footsbarn’s A Shakespeare Party, conceived for the Globe); and two tours (Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale).
What’s the “Totus Mondus” season all about?
What are the highlights?
It’s a very broad umbrella - it’s about as broad an umbrella as you can possibly have. Really it’s just a celebration of the ambition of the Globe, remembering the original Globe 400 years ago when they knew no boundaries and celebrating that in terms of putting on four enormous Shakespeare plays and four enormous new plays. It’s also celebrating the fact that we’re expanding as an organisation, we’re doing more than we’ve ever done before. We’ve got five companies doing eight plays, two of those companies are going on tour, one internationally. We are reaching out to the world as well as welcoming all the world that comes to us with our great global audience. In terms of Shakespeare, it’s a way of trying to show what a category smasher he was and how he’d never repeat himself which is such a challenge for any artist. There’s so much pressure on an artist - from himself and his fellow artists, from the audience, from critics - to have a success and then to do it again and again and again. One of the greatest things about Shakespeare was that, every time he sat down to write, he tested himself and, even late in life, he pushed himself out into new areas. So in this season, we’ve got The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is essentially Terry and June set back 400 years; we’ve got King Lear, the most wild and strange sort of tragedy; we’ve got something as fanciful and imaginative as A Midsummer Night's Dream; and we’ve got something as vicious as Timon of Athens. It’s almost impossible to imagine they all came from the same pen. So the season is also a way of celebrating his freshness and his ambitions as an artist and the fact he always tried to cover every corner of the world.
Do you think it’s necessary to encapsulate each season into a single theme?
It’s something Mark did. There’s a degree of resistance against it by some people, but I think it rather charming and, not only that, it helps our audience understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. One of the things I love most about this place is that everyone knows why they’re here: they’re here to do Shakespeare, to celebrate this incredible theatre and the incredible relationship between the audience and the theatre. Creating these season umbrellas - we did “Renaissance and Revolution” last year, which looked at Shakespeare’s writing about his own time, and before that “Edges of Rome”, which was a collection of the Roman plays - does give a certain sense of coherence. It’s just offering a thread through things and inviting the audience and artists to pick up on it - but they don’t have to.
This is your third season at the Globe. How have you changed the theatre
since taking over from Mark Rylance?
It’s a very different sensibility. Mark is extraordinary, he’s a genius and his achievement in creating this place is greater than anything I’ll ever be able to do. Of course, the job of taking over from someone is easier than getting something going so I have the most amazing respect for Mark. But he’s a creature of incredible imagination and insight, incredible spirituality. I’m more a creature of my belly, more risky and messy and less refined. So there’s been a change in tone. In terms of how we use the theatre, I’m more inclined to break out into the yard and encourage directors and designers to use all aspects of the space, whereas Mark was more focused on the stage itself. In terms of choice of plays, I’m very keen to remind people that this was a writer’s theatre - I think Mark, being an actor, was keen to remind people it was an actor’s theatre – and I come from a new play background so we’re doing more new plays. And inevitably, a lot of the people we work with are different though there’s a degree of continuity as well as quite a marked degree of difference.
How has it worked out so far with the new writing?
It’s just glorious. We’ve had a great time with the four new plays we’ve done so far. To see a thousand people standing and sitting in the Globe taking on a new play from Simon Bent, Jack Shepherd or Howard Brenton, it’s just very exciting. It’s more of a thrill than almost anything I’ve ever known. This year, it’s four Shakespeares and two new plays. In an ideal world, we’ll do three Shakespeares and three new plays every year. We had three last year, although In Extremis was a new production of a play seen the year before. Next year I think we will have three new plays primed and ready. We’re talking to Trevor Griffiths and Philip Ridley, and we’re hoping some of the writers that have already written here might come back.
Last year, the Globe achieved its best box office ever.
Did that commercial success surprise you?
It did a little bit because we had terrible weather, sheets of rain all through the summer, a big shift in programming with three new plays, and an incredibly weak dollar which we thought would stop the Americans coming. But people poured in. And, touch wood, in terms of advance, we’re doing even better this year than last year. The advance is about £1.9 million as opposed to last year’s £1.5 million and £1.2 million the year before. The reason for our success isn’t rocket science. The theatre itself, the architecture of it, is our greatest asset. To put it bluntly, people come here and enjoy themselves, and you can’t say that of all theatres. The excitement they get here is so different from other places that they just want more and more. A big part of the audience – about 42 percent show on show - is returners, people who fall in love with the place and want to come back. Twenty percent of our audience is from overseas, but 20 percent are Londoners and another 50 percent are from other parts of England. A lot of those people will book for the whole season. It’s not that they’re coming for the historical oddity of the Globe, they’re coming because it’s just a very exciting place to be. It’s telling that people are now replicating the Globe all over the world – in Italy, Germany, Australia, America. We’ve given an idea of what the theatre might be and more people are trying to copy that. The less we’re in isolation, the better. The RSC are taking a lot of lessons from us too with what they’re building. That’s nothing to do with me, it’s to do with the genius of the architecture.
What is the genius of the Globe’s architecture exactly?
Any great theatre is about the relationship the audience has with the audience. A lot of people say it’s about the relationship between the audience and the stage, which yes, is true up to a point, but the biggest thing is the audience’s relationship with the audience. If a group of individuals come into a theatre, spend time there and leave as a tribe, a collective group, then the theatre is a winner and the Globe does that more than any other. People come in, they see each other – because they face each other and they’re lit throughout the performance, by the sun in the daytime and the light in the evening - and they relish each other. They pick up on each other’s laughter, they share grief, pain, happiness, whatever. It’s a communal thing, the place brings them together and the play is a part of that rather than being the dominant factor. The audience and the play join together to create an event.
Your season runs from late April to early October.
What do you do for the rest of the year?
Planning for the new season starts in October as soon as the current season ends. It’s a lot of work. You have to think about what the plays are, how you’ll cast them, how you’ll sell them, you have to find new directors, designers and musicians ... The scale of this place is immense. Over the course of the summer, we’ll have about 120 actors and musicians with us. The only other places that work on a similar scale are the National and the RSC, but they’ve got £20 million subsidies - which we don’t have a penny of - and huge organisations to move that whole machine forward. We have eight or nine people here in the theatre department, four or five people in the communications department and that’s it. Those few people that are here have to work incredibly hard throughout the year to make it happen. It’s extraordinary what we achieve.
Do you ever plan to produce performances year-round?
Yes, ideally we would never go to sleep. We’re launching campaigns to raise money for a few things: a new education centre, a wing for a new library and retail department and, thirdly, the completion of our indoor theatre, the Inigo Jones – which, in fact, can’t be called the Inigo Jones anymore because it turns out the designs we thought were by Jones weren’t. We’re trying to raise £20 million and we’ve got about £6 million so far. If everything went wonderfully, we’d be able to get the Inigo Jones opened by about 2012, but with the contracting economy, fundraising is more difficult than it has been in the past.
What are your other big ambitions?
There’s a collection of Shakespeare plays – the two Henry VI’s, three Henry VI plays, All’s Well That Ends Well - that Mark didn’t do and I haven’t done and they’re just waiting there as treats. So they’ll be popping up as my job in part is to complete the canon by the time I leave - which is great for me but will make things slightly more difficult for the person that comes after me. Putting on plays for the first time here is a reward in itself, after that you always have to think about how you’ll make it different. We’re also hoping to put on a sort of Olympics jamboree – something hugely ambitious and international for 2012. I can’t announce exactly what it is yet but maybe by the end of the year. Also, I want do more new plays and more international touring.
When are thinking about leaving?
I’m currently on my first three-year contract and I’ve been offered another three-year contract which I have accepted with joy. I don’t tend to stay too long at a place, though. I stayed at the Bush for six years and at Oxford Stage Company for seven years. If they don’t sack me, I’d like to stay at the Globe a little longer than that. I’d like to be here for the Olympics.
Why did you want this job in the first place?
I fell in love with the place. I came to see Measure for Measure one summer night in 2004. The audience were very high and lively and the play completely flourished and flowered within the beam of the audience’s joy. I just got the play and I got Shakespeare more clearly than I ever had before, it suddenly was all available to me. Even though I know my Shakespeare and love my Shakespeare, I find it very hard to understand a lot of the time. I find myself getting very dulled and tired by it. That night I got 85 percent of it crystal clear. It was like the company had been given the script for this new play called Measure for Measure yesterday and were putting it on for the first time. I love that type of brio and cheek and freshness and honesty. That’s what I’ve always aspired to do with the classics: do them as if they’re brand new.
In interviews, you’re often referred to as a “maverick”. Do you buy into that label?
I don’t know. It’s kind of meaningless. I guess they mean I’m badly behaved or erratic probably. I do get myself into trouble occasionally. I shout my head off and don’t self-censor like most people, I have my rants and that’s a fault. I wish I was a bit more sensible with what I said about other theatres or critics or anything. I won’t get myself into any more trouble now – if you want to tempt me, give me a bottle of wine!
Why is Shakespeare important in your life?
He’s like an alternative to the church or politics. You need a big canonical heavyweight thing to hurl yourself against and start to make a shape out of yourself. Shakespeare was that with me. So the way in which I understand myself and the way I’ve become who I am has been through Shakespeare more than any other agent. So that’s weird.
Do you think other playwrights will always be in Shakespeare’s shadow?
In a sense yes, and in a sense not at all. Of course, Shakespeare was a genius. But every playwright has his or her magical moment. We don’t put on Howard Brenton or Eric Schlosser or Jack Shepherd with any sense of apology that they aren’t as good as Shakespeare. If anybody writes something that’s imaginative and rich, it can have its own life on that or any other stage - the more playwrights, the better. Shakespeare isn’t there to inhibit other writers. Really, he’s there to free them up. One of the great things about him is that his plays aren’t perfect. Rather than being pure or perfect or forbidding, they’re broad and pensive, free form and messy. And that invites everybody else to have a go at the same thing.
How would you rate the Globe’s relationship with the rest of the theatre industry?
A lot of critics don’t get the Globe at all, some of them hate it and have actively tried over the past ten years to damage it - every time they mention it, they do it negatively. But this theatre isn’t about critics. Shakespeare here is not a dialogue between a director and a critic where a director is saying look what I’ve done to this play, how do you react to that? We present the whole thing as a living event and are as un-interpretative as we can be. Actors are often scared of the Globe because there’s nothing here they’re used to – there is no lighting, no sets, no sound effects, no drinks cabinet prop to go to and feel solid while you stand beside it. It’s just the audience and you. Of course, that’s fantastically liberating and actors that have worked here by and large love it and want to come back. But for actors who’ve spent all their lives under proscenium arches or in black boxes, it’s terribly exposing. They say, I’ll come and work there when you put a roof on. Actually, lots of people in the theatre industry have never even been to a show here! Given that we’re so successful at the box office, you would have thought the profession would be interested in what’s going on here. The fact that they’re not is more an indictment of their attitude than it is of the Globe. We do what we can to lure the right actors, directors, designers and others and you hope the news will filter through.
Dromgoole’s new production of King Lear, starring David Calder, starts previews on Wednesday 23 April 2008, Shakespeare’s birthday, ahead of a press performance on 2 May. It runs in rep until 17 August. The “Totus Mondus” season continues until 4 October, with its three more in-house Shakespeares at the Bankside venue, two new plays, the Footsbarn visiting production and two outdoor tours.
For more information on Dromgoole & his programming at the Globe, see the following: