Who is Rufus Norris, the National Theatre's new Artistic Director?

Nicholas Hytner's replacement has only been directing a short time - he is an unorthodox choice, whose signature is inclusiveness.

This piece was originally published on theartsdesk.com

The sixth artistic director of the National Theatre of Great Britain will be Rufus Norris, it was announced this morning. The bookies’ favourites such as Marianne Elliot, Michael Grandage and Dominic Cooke having long since ruled themselves out, Norris can be welcomed as a daring choice. For a start, unlike most of his predecessors, he has never run a large theatre company – although he has been an associate down the road at the Young Vic and at the National itself. Nor, as in the case of Trevor Nunn’s many musicals and Nicholas Hytner with Miss Saigon, has he a huge commercial hit to his name. Indeed at the age of 48 he has been directing at the highest level for only a relatively short period.

Having trained as an actor at RADA, Norris the director did not come to the attention of wider audiences until 2001 with a revival of Afore Night Came, David Rudkin’s 1962 play for a sizeable cast about Black Country fruit-pickers at the Young Vic. That won him the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Newcomer. The show that had even greater impact, and showcased an intense and subtle theatrical sensibility, was his staging of the Danish film from the Dogme school, Festen, which travelled from the Almeida in 2004 to Broadway via the West End.

Norris’s sheer energy and restless urge to explore make him hard to pin down. He has directed Cabaret (twice) for Bill Kenwright, Don Giovanni for English National Opera and, with Damon Albarn, Dr Dee for Manchester International Festival. For children he's staged a faithful version of Tintin in Tibet. His epic account of DBC Pierre's Booker winner Vernon God Little for the Young Vic, from an adaptation by his wife  and frequent collaborator Tanya Ronder, used nimble stage trickery to conjure up the world of working-class Texas. In 2008 he returned to Broadway to direct a first revival of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaison Dangereuses starring Laura Linney and Ben Daniels.

If Norris has a signature it is inclusiveness. Only this year at the Young Vic he and no fewer than five playwrights staged the hugely ambitious Feast, which told the 350-year story of Yoruba culture with the help of every theatrical trick in the book. Then at the National he directed an all-black cast in a revival of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, set in a riven religious community in Harlem, persuading Marianne Jean-Baptiste to return to the British theatre for the first time in more than a decade. With Ronder’s play Table he also opened the National’s temporary studio space the Shed. With Broken he also directed his debut feature film, set in a notably violent suburban cul-de-sac. It won Best Film at this year's British Independent Film Awards.

But the calling card that best advertises Norris’s theatrical instincts is London Road, the musical account of the murder of five sex workers in Ipswich. Created by Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork, it wasdescribed by theartsdesk as “an exceptional piece of theatre”. He is due to shoot a film version before he takes over on the Southbank in March 2015.

In short, Norris is an artistic director who breaks with what might be seen as a National Theatre tradition. Unlike Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn he is not known as a great Shakespearean, he has no established relationship with a leading British playwright as Richard Eyre did with David Hare and Hytner with Alan Bennett, and he didn’t go to Cambridge. His only orthodoxy as an NT artistic director is that he's not a woman.

“This appointment is a great honour,” Norris said this morning, “and I am thrilled at the prospect and challenge of leading this exceptional organistion, where it has been a privilege to work under the inspirational leadership of Nicholas Hytner. The National is an extraordinary place, full of extraordinary people, and I look forward with relish to the task ahead – to fill our theatres with the most exciting, accessible and ground-breaking work our unique and broad community of artists has to offer.”

This piece was originally published on theartsdesk.com

Rufus Norris - the new Director of the National Theatre, on London's south bank. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.
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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.