The Bush theatre’s new Artistic Director Madani Younis talks to Charlotte Marshall about how he plans to run one of London’s leading new writing theatres by losing control and writing across all the buildings in London.
On his past
The Irish playwright Seamus Finnegan, who wrote about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and would then move to London [first drew me to theatre]; I remember seeing his work at the Old Red Lion in Angel. I call myself British because I was born here and I lay claim to that idea. My parents’ stories, I respect them, I think they’re important, but my stories are about the here and now. I’m as British as anyone else and I call this country home. I think what Seamus’s work really showed me is that however small or removed politically you may be from society, theatre becomes a space in which an idea can be expressed. Whether or not it’s accepted is quite another thing, but the idea that theatre can be a democratic space is really powerful to me.
I’ve always written and directed. I don’t come from inherited wealth or anything, I knew very early on in my career I was not willing to wait for someone else to give me permission to make work; I wasn’t going to look for internships or seed funding. There were five artists that established my first company [Freedom Studios] and we lived in a two bedroom apartment for about three years because we were all in it together. As much success as I had early on in my career, it never translated into anything financially so I had to just keep making work, both because I had an urge to do so, but also because it was a means to an end.
On the debut season
We [the Bush theatre] celebrate our 40th anniversary this year. We moved into a new building and for the first time in 40 years, have a building that faces out to a community within a very particular context. The Uxbridge Road is the most diverse road in the whole of Europe. In the first season, each of the shows I’ve programmed signalled a different intent from me. Chalet Lines, which is the show that will open next week, is in association with Live Theatre in Newcastle and will perform at Live in autumn this year. The intent behind that is how do we, as a building, create ways in which new writing travels in a much more fluid way with partners and companies across our country?
The Beloved, which is our first international co-production for this building or for this organisation in I don’t know how many years, is being created by a Palestinian/Israeli company Shiber Hur. I visited Israel in November of last year to see the first draft of the show and it’s stunning. I suppose that signals the international intent.
Dominic Savage, the BAFTA-winning film maker, I’ve commissioned to write and direct his first piece of theatre. I think we live in a moment where I, and artists like me, look at the world in a different way and I think people should move more fluidly between different mediums and I think Savage represents that intent.
We’ve got Dry Ice by Sabrina Mahfouz who’s our Leverhulme Associate Playwright, and Caroline Horton, again an Associate Artist here. Both [their] shows will play as part of a double bill across a week. I describe Sabrina Mahfouz as being the Charlie Parker of writing; I think she just writes to a completely other beat and yet it’s a beat that’s completely intoxicating and a beat that you want to support.
On the theatre
As part of my first season we will test the potential of what we hope will become a studio space. So in our first season our Associate Artists will develop work in that space, rehearse work in the space, and we will also present a show in that space [Mad About The Boy]. We really borrow from the idea of how our main space was first developed which was through a project entitled Where’s My Seat? It allowed us to understand the configurations and the potential of the space and in a not dissimilar fashion we’ll be doing that in the first season with the studio space with a view that in the autumn or the early part of next year we actually programme a body of work in that space.
We have an attic space that was used a couple of weeks ago for Jericho House who did a piece entitled Revolutionary Square responding to the Russian elections. We’d given Jericho House a week to create a piece of work and literally two weeks after the elections there was a piece responding to what had happened. That attic space will be very much used as a reactive space, a space where artists can propose ideas on very short turn around. I think the idea of being contemporary and almost being forced by various conditions to programme nine, 12 months in advance means we’re not always on the pulse of what is happening, so having that attic space, with that particular remit, allows us to be more reactive in that fashion.
On the people
We have a very committed core audience at the moment that has supported the Bush over a number of years; we continue to honour that audience. We continue to invite them to be a part of this journey and they have become the bedrock on which we have been able to make this move possible. This context that we’re in now allows us to speak boldly and in a much more engaged way with new audiences. I think it’s incumbent upon me, as it is upon my peers, to speak to audiences we’ve not necessarily had sustained conversations with in the past. With this first season we have a scheme called Bush Local; as a Bush local you get tickets for £12 across all our shows, you get discounts at the bar. We’ve also introduced an under-26 scheme which also goes to those who are unemployed, on benefits etc.
This building is a subsidised theatre and I think those within our community should have a stake in this building and should know this building is both supported by them and that is it a democratic space. Theatre is at its best is a democratic space, and I think it’s signalled, in a really basic way, by the fact you go into our theatre and it is free seating, there is one ticket price and actually that is really important for me.
It’s so important for me that the team I have around this building – the people who work front of house and so forth – have a set of shared principles as to why we wake up at ungodly hours and finish after the last train stops. This is a moment in time, and so we make this moment count. I’m not looking to be a footnote in the Bush’s history and for my team as well, I think we’re very clear that this is something we’re going to embrace and look to deliver something. My principles are simple; I want the Bush theatre to be open, I want it to be porous, I want it to be plural and ultimately I want to lose control. That’s where I start from, that’s the unifying idea that the team and I share in this. We begin from that premise.
On being a leader
I work at what is an institution but I am an artist that makes work either within or outside the walls of these buildings, and I think me being on the inside of this building means those like me that have existed outside of these buildings for so long find a discourse that allows them to engage. That’s why for me it was so important that in my first season all of the playwrights and directors have never before been presented, produced or programmed here at the Bush. I am new and so should they be. That doesn’t suggest in the future that one won’t work with writers over the past three of four years, but that was important for me.
Josie Rourke told me to be brave, to be bold and to do what it is I do. I think that’s what’s great about the Bush, you come to learn you can only be who you are and I think in a way I want to respect the history of this building, honour it, continue to deliver what it has stood for, but I’m looking to be me and to be very clear about what being me means and hopefully that becomes an important moment for this building’s history.
It’s very important to me that I do ultimately lose control. As much as I will be the person who takes responsibility for this building, the idea that others can be empowered through me being here in a way that maybe they couldn’t have in another context is very important for me.
On the future
Something I’d said at the interview was I want to write across all the buildings in London and I want to create site-specific works. At the moment I’m developing a show which is inspired by the period of brutalist architecture that created the social housing that we now know as our tower blocks. I’ll create a show on the rooftops of two high rise blocks of flats with the audience and the actors split across the rooftops, sharing in the experience of one show. By its very nature, site-specific work is seen as being rooted to a location but because of the idea of brutalist architecture being almost a state policy, we are exploring the idea of taking this show to four cities across the country because every city you go to has a symbol of brutalist architecture in the form of social housing.
I hope in five years we have artists that use this moment at the Bush as a springboard to creating a sustainable career, we have artists in this building that ultimately can take my job from me and make it their own. It’s an honour to work in this building but I know what it’s like to make work living in a two bedroom apartment with five other people, it doesn’t change who I am, that trajectory just means I’ll never forget what it is to work with nothing. I don’t know quite what my legacy will be but I hope it’s good [breaks into laughter].