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Changing of the Guard: Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse

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Josie Rourke presents her first production as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, a revival of Farquhar’s classic comedy The Recruiting Officer, tonight (14 February 2012, previews from 9 February).

Rourke, who has just taken over from Michael Grandage at the Covent Garden venue, was previously artistic director of the Bush Theatre, overseeing its recent move to a new home on Uxbridge road.

She trained at the Donmar on the company’s Resident Assistant Director Scheme in 2000 – working alongside Michael Grandage, Nicholas Hytner, Phyllida Lloyd and Sam Mendes. As a director, her work for the venue includes Frame 312, World Music and The Cryptogram.

Her other directing credits include Men Should Weep (NT) and, for the Bush, How to Curse by Ian McHugh, Tinderbox by Lucy Kirkwood and 2,000 Feet Away and Like a Fishbone by Anthony Weigh, Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet by Nick Payne.

At the Donmar, she is joined by Kate Pakenham as executive producer, Anthony Weigh as associate artist and Michael Bruce as composer in residence - the first time the venue has had such a role.

What was the first production you saw at the Donmar?
What impact did it have on you?

I think it was Three Days of Rain when I was in my early 20s. It was completely revelatory - three famously fantastic performances (Colin Firth, David Morrissey and Elizabeth McGovern). That space was just extraordinary, almost surreal, and completely electrifying. I had not been in London long; when I finished university I went back to Manchester to work off a few debts and then, about nine months later, moved to London. Both coming to the Donmar and then doing the year-long traineeship with the company - which I was lucky enough to get after living in the city for just a year - that was really my introduction to the city. I think if you’re not a native Londoner, the places where you first work become a real touchstone to your understanding of how the city is.

How did you find the assistant directorship?

Unbelievable. Over the space of 12 months I assisted Sam Mendes, Michael Grandage, Phyllida Lloyd and Nick Hytner on an incredible range of shows. It was completely thrilling and totally eye-opening to assist that group of directors who were all at the top of their game – it was such an exciting time, particularly for Michael. Two weeks after I took the job Sam won the Oscar for American Beauty, and over the course of that year it became very apparent that Michael would be a great successor to Sam. So it was a time of change for Donmar but also a time of celebration given that it was near the end of Sam’s time there.

When did you decide you wanted the job of artistic director at the Donmar?

The time of the job being advertised was really interesting because it coincided with us working on the Bush building move. I don’t think I would have been able to apply for the Donmar job had we not known that we’d got the Bush's new home and future secured and the doors opened and the first season programmed. So I'd decided that I was going to leave the Bush once I’d opened the new building. And that was a separate decision, really, as I had been there about five years at that point. It felt that either I had to open the building and see it into a new phase or take it to that point and ask someone else to take it forward. So that was the first part of the decision. The second part was the fact that going to the Donmar felt for me like a homecoming. Not only did I train there with Sam and Michael, who so influenced me as a director, but also, for me, it’s the most beautiful theatre space in London. It’s a dream job in lots of respects.

When you trained at the Donmar, did you ever imagine you would run it someday?

No. When I was training, Sam and Michael felt like such grown-ups. Twelve years ago I had an enormous amount to learn, to develop and center my own craft as a director. When you assist people of that calibre, what becomes totally clear is the enjoyment they have and the enjoyment they generate in the room is to do with the confidence in their craft - one of the greatest things about the Donmar is the emphasis on crafting all aspects of a production so highly.

There's a real sense of family at the Donmar - the smallness of the outfit, this tiny, compact, brilliant team that runs the space. There's huge fun you can have outside the rehearsal room with the people around the building. I certainly began to understand what artistic direction was during my training, but I never thought at the time that I would go back and run the place.

How do you rate Michael Grandage’s ten years in charge?

It’s just been extraordinary. I’ve seen so much of the work over the past ten years and the range has been completely thrilling. His engagement with the European canon has been wonderful. He’s also done something truly incredible in the way that he’s extended the Donmar's beyond its own stage. He brought some really great productions to the West End and broadened the access. And he's left me a very secure inheritance by buying the lease on the theatre building and the Dryden Street space.

And how do you feel following in Michael's footsteps?

Really excited. In a way, it’s the opposite challenge to the one I faced when I came into the Bush, where the security of tenure was so uncertain. The journey that myself and the team at the Bush went through to get it where it is now was amazing. You look at that building (at the old Shepherd's Bush Library) now and it feels so tangible. But I remember so clearly those points at which we thought, "this is not going to happen - we can’t save this company, we can’t make this work". So to inherit from Michael a company that not only has security in tenure but also this fantastic new building which can become an extension of our education work is very exciting. I really appreciate the value of that security.

What do you consider the most immediate challenge that you’re facing?

To continue the work of the whole team and to make the Donmar more accessible to all. It's wonderful that the productions are so popular, that people want to see them. And amongst the great things that Michael introduced are day seats, which are terrific, and the pricing is really competitive. But the question Kate Pakenham and I are asking ourselves is: what can we do to build on that? How can we allow people to see the work? How can we allow people to feel like they can get in? I think that’s really important.

The other big challenge is to keep the quality of work as high as it’s been. That’s not something that’s different to Michael, that’s not something that’s different to Sam. There’s 20 years of excellence there. That’s a really exciting thing to pick up, and I feel like we’re going to maintain it.

In terms of accessibility, you mentioned the West End season.
Is that something you’d like to do again?

It’s certainly something Kate and I are looking at, though I think we might need a few months to get our feet under the table – I only started on the first of January! I also think it's time for the Donmar to look at access digitally to its work. For  The Recruiting Officer, we did this short film with a real recruiting officer in rehearsal which was great. It’s something the Donmar has never really ventured into before and it’s been a really successful experiment for us. So I'm looking into different ways to innovate with what the Donmar does.

Will you do more NT Live performances?

Yes, that’s a terrific way to let people see the work, which has already been hugely successful.

Are you going to keep up the same amount of touring?

Yes. Possibly not this year, but it’s something I feel passionately about for two reasons. One because I didn’t see a play in London until I was 19. The other reason is that it’s very important to get as much work outside London as possible as almost all regional theatres are suffering from the recession, especially with local authorities pulling back on their funding.

How long are you contracted in the role?

Well Michael and Sam did ten years, but I need to get the first few years right and see what happens from there.

You've appointed the Donmar's first composer in residence.
Are you planning to stage original musicals at the Donmar?

Yes, Michael Bruce is going to work on some original music projects for us as part of his residency. He’s also put enormous amounts of music into The Recruiting Officer - we’ve got a band of five acting musicians and Michael has composed a bunch of music for both pre-show and the interval. It’s so wonderful to work with a composer and Michael's brilliance shines out. I’ve never met a composer who can write at such speed. When we were doing Much Ado together in the West End, we'd make a request at ten in the morning and he would have it done by three o’clock the same day. Unbelievable. Everything he does is fantastic. And he’s a great collaborator - and I think something really brilliant happens when you bring artists more closely into both your theatre and the offices of your theatre.

What was it that made you want to be a director in the first place?

Trying acting for the first time, when I was about 18. I was so terrible and I knew how bad I was. I knew what I ought to be doing, but I had no power whatsoever to make myself do it.

Where does your love for theatre come from?

My parents took me to the Royal Exchange in Manchester a lot growing up and I always adored it. For me, of all the arts, theatre is the most thrilling, most dangerous, most engaging, the one that feels like it connects me most directly to the world. I think one of the reasons I love the Bush so much and I love the Donmar is it goes right back to my childhood seeing performances at the Royal Exchange, sitting on those seats right by the stage, so close to the action. I remember very clearly as a child being hit on the head by a bread roll during one performance - it was sort of a cartoon moment. I didn’t think about working theatre until I went to university and began to direct. But I knew it was going to be a lifelong passion. I found something that I could do within it in a space I found very comfortable.

What is your greatest professional achievement up to this point?

As an artistic director, opening the new Bush Theatre. As a director, I was enormously proud of my production of Ena Lamont's Men Should Weep because it was a very hard play to do on that stage. It was a big moment, too, to make my National Theatre debut.

Would you like to programme more female playwrights at the Donmar?

I would like to programme more female playwrights everywhere! We’re in a really wonderful moment, and I think that sometimes we don’t acknowledge that the success of our women playwrights transfers elsewhere. Look at what’s happening to Abi Morgan, she's had an incredible career trajectory, and there are so many others breaking through more and more now.

How do you view the current state of theatre overall?

It’s in fantastic shape thanks largely thanks to the National Theatre. That’s not just about the strength of the programme there, it’s also that cultural shift that has been created by the National looking towards other theatres and companies, including the Bush and the Donmar.

What would you say to people who've never visited the Donmar?

It’s the best. Kate Pakenham always says if you’re going to take someone to the theatre for the first time, the Donmar is where you take them. I think it represents the most perfect relationship between the actor and the audience; proportionally, it’s completely beautiful. It’s got gorgeous verticality to it and you’re never any more than four rows back. As a way of distributing 250 people across the playing space, it’s about as good as it gets.

How will you measure your success as Donmar artistic director?

I think there are a number different ways in which to measure: that the audiences are enjoying and celebrating the work; that the teams are happy; that everyone at the Donmar feels they can take a stake in what I'm doing; that actors want to work here and playwrights want to write plays for us. We can all improve access and we’ve already thought hard about innovation.

- Josie Rourke was speaking to Terri Paddock


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