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Changing of the Guard: Madani Younis at the Bush Theatre

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Madani Younis took over from Josie Rourke as artistic director of the Bush Theatre in January 2012, with his first season, ‘New Writing, New Artists’, launching this Thursday with the opening of his inaugural production of Chalet Lines, which he's also helming. Younis' arrival follows the Bush’s recent relocation from its 80-seat room above a pub to the renovated and purpose-fit old Shepherd’s Bush Library building around the corner.

Prior to joining the Bush Theatre, Younis was artistic director at Freedom Studios in Bradford, with his most recent work being The Mill – City of Dreams. He collaborated with the Bush for the last two years of his tenure, through workshops, the Bush’s online facility for writers Bush Green, and a two-week London residency.

Younis’ career began in film, before he was made director of Red Ladder theatre company’s Asian Theatre School in 2002. His directing credits include: Streets of Rage, Silent Cry, Freeworld, Caravan, Freefalling, A Waiting Room for Journeying Souls and Doors.

What’s the first production you ever saw at the Bush Theatre? What impact did it have on you?
The one that has stayed with me is the most recent one. When I joined the Bush, I was met by Tom WellsKitchen Sink (programmed by predecessor Josie Rourke), and having just arrived from Yorkshire it felt like a home from home. Wells epitomises what the last 40 years has been for the Bush – the idea that we support and advocate for young playwrights. The likes of Wells and writers we currently work with – people like Sabrina Mahfouz and Caroline Horton – exist in this amazing trajectory. So Wells’ play is the one that had the most impact, because it was warm, intimate, honest, and reflected the world that I have lived in for the past ten years; a world that is very dear to my heart.

Before you were appointed, had it ever occurred to you that this was a job you might want someday?
Not really, because I’d spent ten years working in Yorkshire, where I gave birth to my own company Freedom Studios. We went on this amazing journey: a company that started as a small collection of artists became a sustainable organisation producing work in the UK and internationally. Of course, I hoped a moment like this would come and that I’d embrace it, but I didn’t single the Bush out as a venue unto itself. But it’s a great honour to be here.

Was it difficult to leave Freedom Studios?
Yes, it was difficult because for ten years I made work with a group of artists and I didn’t appreciate how much that experience meant to me until I got here. Luckily, Freedom Studios is now in a position where, both in terms of resource and opportunity, it has things that I never had and I’m really proud that it can continue to grow without me.

Why did you want the job of artistic director at the Bush?
It was the idea of moving into this new building. After 40 years of the Bush being above a pub, this is a great opportunity for me to make my mark in a new place. Having a building that faces out onto the community for the first time in 40 years affords me with the opportunity to begin another kind of conversation, about how this theatre can become part of the fabric of the community. That was the real draw for me.

The Bush’s history is also something I’m really proud of; that sensibility of how important new writing is in the world we live in. Artistically, I’ve always shared that sensibility, but it was the move into this building that pushed it over the top for me. It’s a space that presents opportunity and is without precedent.

How do you rate Josie Rourke's tenure?
I’m hugely inspired by Josie as an artist and a leader. She believes in and supports artists; she’s a real artist’s artist who has a vision and leads with that vision. She’s so necessary to the cultural ecology of this country; without Josie, it would be a poorer ecology. On one level she’s my contemporary, but on another she’s a heroine. I look up to Josie and am personally inspired by her. We’re friends but I’m very open about letting her know that as well!

What legacy does Josie leave here at the Bush?
She's left me with the idea of being brave, with a team that has a real focus, and an infrastructure that can deliver new writing. And, unquestionably, the physical space. I left Freedom Studios on the cusp of significant change and I think this is a similar moment: to leave when you have achieved almost the pinnacle of your tenure and can hand it over to someone else... How brave and confident is that? That’s what I feel about Josie – she’s shared this moment with me and it’s a moment that I, in turn, will share with someone else.

What do you consider the most immediate challenges/rewards facing you in your new job?
My first season is entitled ‘New Writing, New Artists’ and is born out of the simple idea that I am new, and all the artists and directors in my first season haven’t previously had a relationship with the Bush. I have an opportunity to use this platform to open the discourse and introduce names that will become familiar to the idea of new writing. The physical needs of the building are also immediate: how do I begin to explore a second space and use our third attic space in a more contemporary, reactive way? How do I develop a language and rhythm that is sustainable but continues to support the idea of playwrights presenting new work on our stages?

Does that mean you won’t work with previous Bush artists?
In my first season it was important for me to make a clean break. Don’t get me wrong; we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary this year, and the artists we’ve worked with in the past are as much a part of the theatre’s future as they are of its history. But for the first season I had a very clear intent to present artists for whom the Bush is a completely new proposition.

How will you measure success?
I want the Bush to be open, I want it to be porous, I want it to be plural, and ultimately, I want to lose control. I want to produce sustainable partnerships both within our city, nationally, and - in time - internationally. I want us to programme work that asks questions about contemporary experience.

When I say open, I mean I want us to be open to the idea of having conversations, not just with artists but also with communities. When I talk of being porous, I want the outside of the building to look like the inside. When I talk about being plural, it’s the idea that we are an organisation with 40 years of history and have the authority to voice that position and talk to a much broader audience base.

Success would be the Bush touring nationally, working internationally, and profiling the work of playwrights that have not been produced in London before. You don’t come to the Bush because you want a hug – you come to the Bush because you want to be provoked.

Does that mean more collaborations with other organisations?
Absolutely. Something that is important to me, and that you will see under my tenure, is the Bush producing and creating site-specific work.

Are there any sites in particular that you have your eye on?
The idea we’re working on at the moment is called Rooftops, which responds to the architecture that created the social housing we know as tower blocks. The show will take place on the rooftops of two high-rise blocks of flats, with the audience and actors split across both rooftops sharing the experience of one show. I believe site-specific work, by its nature, means that it’s specific to the location. I want to test that model by questioning whether it’s feasible to take a piece of site-specific work about architecture and move it between cities. I hope that next year we can achieve that idea somewhere within the locality of Shepherd Bush before we take it out onto the road. That’s the breadth of the vision; let’s see how deliverable it is.

What are some of the highlights of your first season?
Each show reflects a different intent and signals the breadth of our intent for the next five years. Chalet Lines is in association with Live Theatre in Newcastle, and in the autumn of this year that show will play at Live Theatre for three weeks. That signals that we want to take our new writing outside the walls of this building and work with other partners. With The Beloved, it’s the first time we’re engaging internationally with a Palestinian theatre company. Again the intent is really simple: it’s not just about us taking our writing to the world, but how new writing is met in our building.

What’s great about Mad About the Boy, Dry Ice and You're Not Like Other Girls Chrissy is that these are shows being presented by associate artists here at the Bush, so although these works already exist you will see us commissioning new works in the next 18 months – it’s a way of us becoming familiar with the kind of work these artists are going to produce.

With Dominic Savage’s Fear, we have this BAFTA award-winning film director writing his first piece of theatre. I believe that theatre honours the storyteller, and what Dominic is, above anything else, is a magnificent storyteller. There’s that bullshit trajectory, that has become an accepted norm, that says you start in theatre as a playwright and then you then go to write for a continuing drama on one of the terrestrial channels. But having the likes of Dominic working for us shows that artists can move more fluidly between mediums.

We’re also working with the television and film company Kudos, who did Spooks and The Hour. When you look at Spooks, for example, playwright and screenwriter Howard Brenton wrote for its first season, so they are a company that share a similar sensibility of artists moving between mediums. This summer we’re hosting a week of workshops and inviting a group of writers to join us who will be commissioned both by us and by Kudos. It’s really important that we don’t become an enclave but become more porous and open to having conversations.

What made you want to be a theatre director in the first place?
The playwright Seamus Finnegan, who wrote extensively during the 1980s about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is an absolutely central figure in my career. I remember watching him produce a collection of plays called North. I knew fuck-all about what was happening in Ireland, but in the audience there were people that looked like me, people that were Irish in heritage, people that were white British – it was a really democratic mixture and the story resonated with us all. I was watching his play with my mum actually, and I suddenly felt this voice, his voice, was an honest one.

As a kid, you grow up thinking theatre is all about elevated speech, but Seamus’ work absolutely roots you in the earth, in a place that you know what it’s like to walk across. I first saw his work when I was about 16 at the Old Red Lion. To put it in context, my father is Pakistani and my mother was an English teacher in Trinidad before she came to England, so this love of words was compulsory in our household. Culturally, Trinidad is a storyteller culture, so the idea of storytelling was something that was always present.

Prior to this appointment, what do you view as your greatest professional achievements to date?
The most defining part of my career was moving to Bradford, where a young generation of artists from immigrant parents were able to come together and find a sense of unity in working together. I don’t think I’d be here now without them and without the idea that you have a voice and that voice is your own. We lived those words and learnt our craft by presenting our work to audiences – it wasn’t endless R&Ds or scratch performances. There’s a history of theatrical moments in Bradford, but there isn’t a theatrical ecology to speak of, so to be part of a company that was pioneering that idea was just … well, I don’t think I’ll ever live that moment again, where you felt you started from nothing.

We always believed that if we didn’t have anything – if we didn’t have the resources or the press from London giving a shit about art – what we had above everything else was heart. Our work was about people in our community and the difficult questions we were prepared to ask them. That’s still what defines us now: it doesn’t matter if I don’t look like artistic directors in this building have historically looked like. What defines our work is heart, because that’s what you should see when you come to the Bush.

Why is theatre important in modern Britain?
Theatre is only important because people make it important. A stage isn’t important unless it’s being confronted by an audience. People make theatre important, and I think theatre is important to people because it’s asking questions that provoke and inspire them to re-imagine their world.

How do you view the current state of theatre?
It’s an exciting moment. We’re going through austere times, but it is in moments of political and economic change that new possibilities come about. That’s what this moment’s about: it demands that we re-imagine the theatrical ecology of this country. I embrace the idea that artists should be allowed to fail and take risks, and that theatre should be more reflective of the country we live in rather than existing on the periphery to society. Our premise at the Bush is that we do not exist on the edge of society commenting on it, but are at the heart of society.

The Bush theatre is in west London, on the most diverse road in the whole of Europe, with poverty and wealth in equal measure. What we see here is the very best of what our country is. One of my ambitions is that our audiences become more diverse and reflective of our community here. Theatre shouldn’t just be an enjoyable pastime, but necessary in order for us to understand where we are.

In a nutshell, what would you say to entice first-time visitors to the Bush?
This is a really exciting moment in our history, when we engage with a much larger constituency of audiences and playwrights to present the very best of new writing. It is undeniable that this is a significant moment in our history, and we want to share it with as many people as possible. If you’ve never been to the theatre before and you want to see the next exciting thing, you must come to the Bush.

Chalet Lines premieres at the Bush on 12 April 2012 (previews fro 6 April) and continues until 5 May.


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