London’s culture zones named

London’s culture zones named

London mayor Sadiq Khan has announced the capital’s first Creative Enterprise Zones, funded to support artists, small creative enterprises and local people.

 Africa Centre’s £1.6m boost

Africa Centre’s £1.6m boost

The Africa Centre’s transplant from Covent Garden to Southwark has received a major boost with a £1.6m grant from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, while the Black Cultural Archive has been saved from possible closure by a government grant of £200,000.

TAITMAIL     Singing to the stars

TAITMAIL Singing to the stars

It was like a Sunday afternoon at a Southern Gospel Chapel. Massed choirs on the stage jigging around and waving their arms about, the audience responding by standing and clapping their hands above their heads as they hooted their approval, impassioned young conductors urging both choir and audience on to still more frenzy. 

TALK OF THE TOWN HALL   But they persisted….

TALK OF THE TOWN HALL But they persisted….

Patrick Kelly on the arts champions on local authorities who have made cultural revolutions happen

Julie Finch to run Compton Verney

Julie Finch to run Compton Verney

The new director of Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire is to be Julie Finch, currently the Cheltenham Trust’s CEO.

Thanet council plans museum handover

Thanet council plans museum handover

Campaigners are calling on Thanet District Council to halt its plans to sell Margate Museum, with more than 100 people have signed a petition to keep the heritage building, once a police station, in public hands.

DEA BIRKETT   Paris – where the show never closed

DEA BIRKETT Paris – where the show never closed

In the first of a series marking the 250th anniversary of the circus, Dea Birkett– the official Ringmaster of Circus250 – goes to Paris where circus is defying the gilets jaunes

Outdated systems blocking creativity growth - CIF

Outdated systems blocking creativity growth - CIF

Growth in the creative industries is being stymied by government and policy bodies working by out-dated definitions, according to a report published today by the Cultural Industries Federation (CIF).

Pitzhanger to re-open after £12m restoration

Pitzhanger to re-open after £12m restoration

Pitzhanger Manor, the dream country home created for himself and his family by Sir John Soane, in his time England’s most celebrated architect, is to reopen in March after major restoration.  

‘Purity’ of boys’ voices – it’s Garrett v Bach Choir

‘Purity’ of boys’ voices – it’s Garrett v Bach Choir

Opera soprano Lesley Garrett’s call for an end to male-only choirs has been rebuffed by the head of one of the leading ensembles in the world, the Bach Choir.

New CEO for FACT

New CEO for FACT

FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) chooses Arts Catalyst's Nicola Triscott and new CEO

DEA BIRKETT Fifteen years ago, a museum visit changed my life

DEA BIRKETT Fifteen years ago, a museum visit changed my life

Last week we reported on the reopening of the V&A’s Cast Courts. Here, Dea Birkett recounts her own especial memory of them

Friends buy Burnley Empire for £1

Friends buy Burnley Empire for £1

The Victorian Burnley Empire has been saved by a friends group, days before it was due to go for auction.

Fitzwilliam’s gift of the Great Belzoni

Fitzwilliam’s gift of the Great Belzoni

The larger than life archaeologist, explorer and circus strong man known as the Great Belzoni is to adorn Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

The smartphone Turner Prize

The smartphone Turner Prize

Charlotte Prodger has won this year’s Turner Prize for visual art with a 32-minute film shot on her smartphone.

Rogers to leave Birmingham REP

Rogers to leave Birmingham REP

Executive director steps down after 17 years

To all Dome-loving humans…

To all Dome-loving humans…

David Shrigley has created this limited edition print with proceeds from sales going towards the Build Brighton Dome community appeal.

How WWI enriched contemporary art

How WWI enriched contemporary art

More than 35m people, half the population, have engaged with the 14-18 NOW commemorations of the First World War, which has now ended after five years.

Ally Pally theatre reopens after 80 years

Ally Pally theatre reopens after 80 years

Alexandra Palace’s theatre and East Court reopened at the weekend after a £27m, three-year restoration project.

What's up in… Bristol

What's up in… Bristol

AI looks at what's coming up around the country – this week, the arts in Bristol. 

Bid to save Turner’s Thames view

Bid to save Turner’s Thames view

The government has mounted a campaign to save J M W Turner’s painting Walton Bridgesfor the nation by placing an export stop on it.

Victorian art world – recast by the V&A

Victorian art world – recast by the V&A

The Cast Courts at the V&A, two of the museum’s original 1850s galleries, have reopened after a seven year programme, restored and refurbished as they were 160 years ago.

Brexit: May's deal and the arts

Brexit: May's deal and the arts

The Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement still leaves the arts and cultural industries in doubt about the future.

Rhian Harris takes over in Lakes

Rhian Harris takes over in Lakes

Rhian Harris, director of the V&A Museum of Childhood since 2008, is to be the new chief executive of Lakeland Arts.

AI PROFILE Directing a future of truth

Ellen McDougall, artistic director, The Gate Theatre, London

The word that comes up most often in conversation with the new artistic director of the Gate Theatre is “conversation”. Ellen McDougall has conversations with her actors, her directors, her audience, her community – communities. Those conversations are becoming suddenly more animated as current events become more and more plangent. “It feels like a gauntlet’s being thrown down, and the great challenge is to pick it up” she says.

[Portrait image by Manual Harlan]

Her first season is doing that in the way the Gate always has, since it was founded 38 years ago by Lou Stein with the principle of bringing international classics to London, boldly and with 24-carat professionalism. That principle has remained through his successors, who have included Giles Croft, Stephen Daldry, Erica Whyman and Thea Sharrock, directors like Peter Hall, Katie Mitchell and Ian Rickson, and it has given formative early associations to actors ranging from Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Kathy Burke. Hall says in his diaries that this is the theatre to do something that no-one else dares to.

The Gate was founded above The Albert pub close to Notting Hill tube station, and its name had a double entendre, not only to relate to its neighbourhood but also to be the entry point for drama audiences could not have seen in Britain. It is a tiny 75-seat studio up a narrow flight of stairs which seems to change its dimensions with each production, part of the magic of the place that first attracted McDougall. It is a fixture, now secure in its Arts Council NPO status and some loyal benefactors.

“With little money and an awkward space” Stein says “it has shown how a small theatre, led with courage, imagination and a strong sense of what it is, can grow into one of the most important and internationally influential theatrical powerhouses of the past 35 years”. It has won most of the theatre awards going, and been nominated for the rest.

“That idea of an international outlook, whether classics or new work, or collaborations or devised pieces, that idea that we are forging connections with people who have different experiences of the world to us from different contexts is more important than ever” McDougall says, as we sit in the tiny closet that is the Gate’s library, surrounded by its archive, because it's the quietest spot in this hyperactive place.

And the need for the Gate’s role has never been more defined than it is now. “I think we're seeing, certainly in Western politics, a swing to the right, and an idea about closing off from outsiders, and an idea about national identity and being afraid of others” she says. “We live in a culture that wants us to feel suspicious of people that don’t look like us. That is all about shutting off, and I think it’s important to go ‘let’s break through that, let’s have conversations with people and let’s work together and make something together’”.

In her relatively short career so far, she is in her early thirties, she has always been able to work with diverse casts. “To make really proper work it has to be about what it means to be human looking at any emotional experience from as many different viewpoints rather than from a particular class or a particular nation”.

Ellen McDougall comes from a non-theatrical family, brought up in middle class North London. She got her first whiff of grease paint at her independent girls’ school, and discovered she was no actor at Edinburgh University, studying English. There she directed her first play instead, Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come in which the lead is played by two actors, the inner Gareth and the outer Gareth. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s interesting, how do you do that?’. I think of that moment often” she says. She has never been attracted by the easy option – the other play she did at university was Cymbeline, something she approached from the premise that it was impossible to stage.

After a brief period working in a post office, she got a job at the Young Vic assisting on a young people’s project, and then at the National Theatre, but her most formative time was a couple of 'years with the Secret Theatre, the experimental ensemble company of young writers and directors set up by the Lyric Hammersmith’s Sean Holmes between 2013 and 2015 while the theatre was being remodelled. On the first day she was given four writers and some actors to make plays with. And told by Holmes to do it on the main stage. “I’d never done anything on that scale before, and with a group of players I’d never known. It was completely terrifying, I couldn’t speak, I didn’t have time to think” she says. “But by the end of the process I was unafraid to walk into a room not knowing what I was going to do. I learned the benefit of being able to be open and let things emerge, and being unafraid of getting it wrong.”

She was already an associate director of The Gate when she was appointed, and had directed Roland Schimmelpfennig’s quirky Idomeneus there to acclaim. She likes the phrase once attributed to her as “challenging old certainties”, and her debut season certainly does that.

It began with her directing The Unknown Island, by the Nobel Prize winning Portuguese playwright José Saramago which has its own challenge, to the audience to imagine a new way of living, and got four star reviews all round. The first show is often a banker; this one wasn’t, even for a 75-seat theatre. “That play for me was asking questions about why we tell stories, what are they for, what do they do, what’s the power of them. It's about imagination and the idea of taking a leap of faith, not knowing how to sail the boat, not knowing where you're going - but we’re going to try. 

“It's relying on our imaginations to feel quite radical in a world that feels dominated by pessimistic thoughts about the future. I wanted it to be joyful, and I wanted people to feel welcome and included, and for it to be an uplifting experience.”

The current production, The Gate’s second in her reign, is a co-commission with Jean-Pierre Baro’s company Extime from Magali Mougel, directed by Baro. Suzy Storck taps into some very deep and visceral thoughts, she says, dealing as it does in the way we think about women, about motherhood, what it means to have a child. “It tackles a taboo, even in this day and age, that says of course women want to have children, and the idea that you might not is considered quite dangerous still, isn’t it?”

In the new year comes Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman play about the race riots following the shooting of the black cab driver Rodney King based on confidential interviews Professor Smith had conducted at the time. In those circumstances people will give deep thoughts they might not in public. “Maybe we can start a conversation about moving forward from racial prejudice, ripping off a plaster and saying ‘let's look at all the ugly things happening under the surface’” McDougall says.

That will be followed by Trust, Falk Richter’s play about a crumbling marriage, directed by Jude Christian. McDougall feels it is a mirror of where the world is now. “Two people don’t trust each other anymore but can’t imagine themselves not being with each other. It’s effectively our relationship with the society we live in – it’s not working, it's damaging us, it’s unequal, unfair, destroying the planet, but we can’t imagine another way of doing things.”

There will be more co-productions, and one of the most exciting will be with English National Opera and its new artistic director Daniel Kramer with whom she is devising a kind of cabaret opera. “Fascinating on so many levels, very exciting for both of us, to look at opera as something other than the thing that only happens in one form.

“But somehow we’re going to have to get a piano up those stairs…”

 

CURRICULUM VITAE

 

2006 – Edinburgh University

2007 – Administrator at Chicken Shed Theatre

2008 – Runner up at JMK Awards (for most promising young director)

2009 – Staff director at the National Theatre

2010 – Directed Ivan and the Dogs, Soho Theatre

2011 – Nominated for an Olivier for Ivan and the Dogs

2012 – Associate at the Gate

2012 – International Development Award from British Council and Arts Council

2013 – Directs Henry The Fifth at the Unicorn

2014 – Directs Idomeneus at the Gate

2017 – Appointed artistic director at the Gate Theatre

 

 

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