Like a fighter jet climbing over the brow of a hill, but friendlier, you can hear Paulette Randall before you see her. She sports a striking armful of silver bracelets and bangles on each forearm that jangle joyfully as she moves her limbs, gesticulating as she chats or simply swinging her arms as she walks. Sitting opposite the accomplished director in the bar of the Tricycle theatre, it is hard to maintain eye contact as, like some kind of hypnotist’s client, I can’t stop watching the shiny objects moving in front of my eyes.
We are at the Kilburn venue to discuss Radio Golf, Randall’s new directorial project and the fifth of August Wilson’s cycle of 10 plays that she has staged at the Tricycle. I say it is the fifth, but Randall is herself unsure of quite how many of Wilson’s plays she has directed until she counts through them. The others, she confirms, are The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, King Hedley II and Gem Of The Ocean.
The latest is set in the 1990s – each play of Wilson’s cycle captures the African-American experience from one particular decade of the 20th century – where local property developer Harmond Wilks sees revitalising the decrepit Hill District of Pittsburgh as instrumental to his ambition of becoming the city’s first black mayor. The piece stars Danny Sapani, Roger Griffiths and Joseph Marcell, the stage and screen veteran whose inclusion Randall describes as: “like if you go into a jewellery shop and you want to buy something that you think you can’t afford, and suddenly you’ve got enough money to buy it”.
Randall is a bubbly presence, playful and jovial, but when we talk about the rehearsals for Radio Golf the smile drops just a little and there is a hint of sadness in her voice. Wilson died in 2005, and Radio Golf is the second of his pieces that Randall has had to stage without the playwright’s influence.
When she originally met him, in preparation for her first Wilson production The Piano Lesson, she was a bundle of nerves – “I’d never met anyone who was a Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer!” – and was delighted when Wilson said he could not make the transatlantic trip to see the show as she didn’t have to worry about her production meeting the playwright’s standards. But he did make it, and when the Tricycle’s Artistic Director Nicholas Kent subsequently suggested staging Two Trains Running, Wilson agreed with the proviso that Randall would direct once more. “That was the most incredible thing that had ever happened to me,” she tells me, “so I’m very privileged, very lucky that I get to do them.”
"Five pounds is a lot of money when you’re just working in a market"
Wilson played his part in the Tricycle productions of The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and King Hedley II, meeting with Randall and talking over the plays with her, but by the time she staged Gem Of The Ocean in 2006, his advice was no longer available. It is when discussing this that her voice drops and the bounce falls out of it. “It’s still as nerve-wracking as that first time,” she says of staging his work, “and in a funny sort of way even more so since August has died because I can’t talk to him about it. In a way it’s harder because I think the weight of responsibility [is on me] to get it right in his memory.”
It seems strange that a director with as much experience as Randall, who has worked at some of the most respected theatres in the country and run a theatre company – Talawa – should lack the confidence in her own convictions, especially when Wilson was so taken by her productions that he personally recruited her, but there is a certain self-deprecation about Randall that hints at insecurity and an inability to accept just how talented she is.
Earlier in her career, in 1990, Randall was the director of hit musical Five Guys Named Moe. Not many people realise this as not many people have ever seen her name near the production. She left the show after a couple of her creative colleagues decided that she was “too young, British and female” to direct what they saw as an American musical. “Just a couple of weeks later,” she confides, ruefully, “when I’m sitting in my flat and I’m still directing the show down the phone via the producer – which is strange – I was sitting there thinking ‘Do you know what, the thing that you should have done, Paulette, was you should have fired them.’”
Back then she was inexperienced. She has wised up now, but there is still a sense that she doesn’t know quite how good an artist she is, or that she doesn’t want to admit it. Endearingly, when she loses her train of thought or can’t put her feelings into words she scolds herself with the name “Inarticulate Randall”, as though she was a teacher telling off her younger, less eloquent self.
Randall somewhat fell into theatre; by all accounts it was a gamble that paid off. At the age of 18, back in 1979 – a date she tries to hide behind her jewellery-laden arm – she was working in Brixton Market, when a friend bet her five pounds that she wouldn’t apply for a Community Theatre Arts course. “Five pounds is a lot of money when you’re just working in a market”, grins Randall, so she won the bet and found herself falling in love with theatre.
"I can’t imagine not getting nervous or excited about going into a rehearsal room"
But back in the 80s, theatre was not as culturally diverse as it is now. Finding work in theatre was hard enough, but finding it as a black artist made the task all the more difficult. It helps if you have a character bold enough to take on the odds. “I was 18, and you don’t think that anyone can stop you from doing what you want to do. So even with a certain amount of political awareness, you still had youth on your side; you believed that you could get what you wanted and that you could change things,” she smiles.
The fact that she is talking to me today is testament to the fact that things have changed, and that she, by staying in the industry and fighting, has been part of that change. Again, Randall seems slightly bemused that any credit could be laid at her feet, that she is somehow unworthy of such praise, yet she is the UK’s leading black female director. If she is not responsible for changing attitudes, who is?
Having persevered to see the rise of black artistry in the UK theatre scene, Randall is now aware of an unexpected downside: “Because we’ve got more accepting that we can all do whatever, I’m much more redundant now because people don’t feel they have to have a black director; they can do it themselves. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that we’ve got to that stage?”
Randall has a timeless look about her. Whether it is the short cropped hair, the wide beaming smile or the jingling of the bangles covering the creaking of her joints, it is difficult to age the director. She speaks with authority, but with humility, and there is not a hint of cynicism anywhere near her, just passion. “I can’t imagine not getting nervous or excited about going into a rehearsal room,” she says, “or working with a group of actors or meeting a writer and exploring. It’s such an emotional rollercoaster. And it’s about being able to tell stories and hopefully getting an audience that completely engages with what you’re doing and goes along on that journey with you. It still excites me; still gets me going.”
"As long as I don’t get old and mad I think I stand a chance"
Storytelling is part of what makes Randall tick. It comes from her mother, who she describes as “a fantastic storyteller” and it seeps into her life and her productions. “I don’t think we do that enough now, sit and swap stories” she tells me earnestly, “because you find out so much about people when they tell you a story about, I don’t know, something you did when you were seven.” It is part of the reason she likes Wilson’s work – “he allows his characters to tell stories as well” – and part of the reason that she is fighting a personal battle against the technology that seems to hinder face to face interaction: “It’s a evil,” she says wholeheartedly, but smiling, “It really is, it’s a evil.”
As Artistic Director of Talawa, a post she left in 2005, Randall did not have the most comfortable of times. The country’s leading black theatre company had announced its plans for a purpose-built building before she had taken the role, and she had inherited a board that “weren’t particularly supportive of me in a positive way”. Having cut her losses – “it gets to the stage where you think ‘you know, I wouldn’t work this hard at a marriage’” – she is enjoying the freedom of freelance work. She has a production of Twelfth Night scheduled for the Nottingham Playhouse in 2010 and is re-writing her funk musical Up Against The Wall for the Bolton Octagon early next year. Yet the regularity of work and the ability for development that comes with Artistic Directorship still appeal and she sounds like she has one eye on a more concrete future. When I push her on the subject, suggesting she might have a company in mind, Inarticulate Randall endearingly reappears: “No, no, it’s just a, no, it’s just, no… well maybe, no, there’s nothing specific but I’m not saying no to it, because I think it’s possible.”
It is not long, though, before that articulation comes streaming back and the determination, grit and hidden confidence that have kept Randall in theatre become clear: “Years ago I said to myself that I wasn’t just going to be a sort of flavour of the month or one hit wonder or anything like that, and I intend to be around. I said ‘I’m here for the duration.’ And I’m really proud that I’m still here and I’m still doing it, and I still get as excited and I’m still passionate.”
That passion feeds her surge towards many goals, but one in particular, to stage the remaining five plays of Wilson’s cycle: “I want to do all ten, that’s the dream and it will happen; don’t know how, don’t know when, but it will happen… as long as I don’t get old and mad I think I stand a chance.”