This International Women’s Day, we’ve teamed up with the Young Vic to celebrate the remarkable work of some of its female directors and collaborators, who told us about life as leading creatives on the London theatre scene.
In the first of two pieces, we spoke to Nadia Latif (Associate Director) and Nancy Medina (who directed Yellowman at Young Vic), two women whose work continues to win critical and audience acclaim at the Southbank venue.
You can read our interviews with Natalie Abrahami, Ola Ince & Eva Sampson here.
Nadia Latif is Associate Director and Genesis Fellow of the Young Vic. She trained as a director under William Gaskill at RADA and has worked since then exclusively in new writing. Nadia has worked for buildings and companies including the Almeida, RSC, National Theatre, Bush, Arcola, Theatre503 and Headlong.
I grew up splitting my year between Sudan and the UK. Whenever I was in London in the summers, my mother would keep me busy by taking me to shows, sometimes two a day.
Musicals, new plays, classics, work for young audiences – the lot. I knew from a very young age I had no desire whatsoever to be an actor, so I figured the only role for me in theatre could be director!
So how did you get into the industry?
I knew by the time I was at University that I was going to be a director. So in a sense it made me relax. I wanted to live my life a little, to have some experiences to bring to my work. So I actually did no theatre at University at all. Having said that, I purposely went to a London university so I could remain a persistent theatre audience member – so that time at University was really trying to comprehensively suss out the theatre ecology.
That meant by the time I applied to drama school, I had a pretty decent knowledge of how the theatre “worked”, and a fledgling sense of what I wanted to do, which was direct new writing. I only applied to one drama school – RADA –because it was taught by Sue Dunderdale and Bill Gaskill, both champions of directing new writing. They took 2 students a year, and you had to do most of the actor training (I still have nightmares about my leotard) as well as director training and directing your own projects. I was also really lucky to do stints at the Court and Bush in those early days, which quickly shaped me.
This year’s Olivier Awards are celebrating our inspirations – so who inspired a love of theatre in you?
Bill Gaskill was my dearest friend from the moment we met in my first RADA interview (actually that’s a lie, I was terrified, but it soon got better) right up until he passed away 2 years ago. Though we were separated by generations and experiences, we discovered quickly we vibrated on the same wavelengths in many and profound ways.
He taught me so much about the importance of belief in a play and what it says, how to provoke, how to love writers, how to understand the use of space, and how to find the truth of a thing. I miss him every day, and so dearly wish he were still around for me to talk to over a mammoth session of Scrabble, sympathy and scotch.
What’s your style as a director?
I think when I started as a director ten years ago we had this super old-school and pretty toxic inherited model of new writing, always assuming this draft/notes/draft/notes model. So I increasingly only really work with writers in partnerships over many months and years, and co-creating projects with them from the very seed of an idea. I think it gives us equal ownership of both the text and the eventual production. It also acknowledges that very few artists are only creative at the one job they’re allotted to do.
That extends to anyone I work with, really. I’ll bring in a design team to collaborate before a word of the script has been written, so we can all jam on the idea. I think your style is who you work with. I know that I gravitated to new writing because I didn’t see myself reflected in the classical canon, and I never wanted to be one of those directors doing a clever take for the sake of it.
What’s your directing highlight been?
Becoming the first ever black female writer/director team at the RSC in 2016, directing Somalia Seaton’s Fall Of The Kingdom, Rise Of The Footsoldier was pretty dope. It was a real testament to the faith of the RSC that they just let us get on with it. It was the freest and most creative I’d felt in ages. And we were both first-timers. They’d totally taken a punt.
More recently, becoming Associate Director at the Young Vic has kinda knocked me on my arse. I’d never really thought I’d become part of a building, much less one as key as the Young Vic. I’d never done so much as a workshop there. But the spirit of the building is being born anew, and I think Kwame [Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director] saw that taking on someone else new could be a good thing.
What advice would you give to anybody starting their directing career?
Don’t assimilate. Don’t look at other people making moves. They’ll make their moves, you’ll make yours. Just stick to your guns, find and use your voice, and people will respond to that work, whether now or in 50 years.
What’s your dream job in the directing world?
Man, this whole damn life is a privileged dream. And I’m only just getting started.
Nadia is currently developing a slate of short and feature-length films, the first of which (White Girl) shoots this month. She also occasionally writes articles that focus on race, gender and popular culture. She is also writing a book of essays examining the creative, cultural and social experiences of being a black woman.
Nancy Medina hails from Brooklyn, NY. She received her MA in Drama Directing from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Nancy has previously won the Young Vic’s Genesis Future Directors Award along with fellow director Lucy J Skilbeck, and directed the Young Vic’s recent smash-hit drama, Yellowman.
What made you want to become a director?
I was a part of the Creative Arts Team Youth Theater in NYC. A few of the members and I created our own theatre company, devising and writing our own pieces and renting out off-off-off- Broadway spaces to perform, and it soon became evident we needed a bit of leadership.
I just so happened to be pretty organised, and stepped out of performing and started directing. I decided I really loved being in the role that put all the different elements of how we told our story together.
So how did you get into the industry?
After graduating University it was evident that being a director was what I wanted to do, although I kept training as a performer. With some very talented friends, we fundraised and put on some small fringe-level shows. I started a new company with two other female directors. We put on new writing festivals in NY and LA.
I moved to the UK. Starting from zero again, I self-funded two productions in Bristol, then started getting some freelance work. I then went for my Masters in Drama Directing at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which was a HUGE game changer for me as I was able to meet many more industry professionals that had been previously out of my reach. I won the emerging directors prize from Tobacco Factory Theatres, then steadily got more freelance gigs from there. I most recently won the Young Vic’s Genesis Future Director Award, and was able to put on Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman. I feel humbled and blessed for the experience.
Who inspired a love of theatre in you?
New Yorkers inspired a love of theatre in me. Growing up in New York City when I did was a privileged experience of sorts, as I was exposed to the best artists, local and international. If you were a musician, playwright, singer, actor, dancer, artist etc in the 80’s and 90’s, in my mind you were the epitome of passion, struggle, integrity and inspiration.
My father was a dancer and worked extremely hard to keep his family clothed and fed, whilst working as a janitor full-time, and still kept dance in his life, even if the big highlights were on a float in a parade – he seemed to have boundless energy. My father and all those hard core New Yorkers keep me honest and steady on my quest to being an artist.
What kind of projects are you interested in?
I am a storyteller. I am drawn to well-written text, usually character-driven, about flawed people or communities with a deep emotional undercurrent.
The older I get the more I want to tell stories of people like the ones I grew up with to better understand them and myself. I want to dig deeper into society, our problems, our triumphs, our loves, our sadness, our repulsiveness — all the things that make us human and complex.
Do you have a proudest moment as a director?
During every production I’ve worked on I’ve had some moment of revelation on how lucky I am to love what I do. That never ceases to amaze me. But I guess I would say my proudest moment was Yellowman at the Young Vic. It is a beautiful play, about people who matter and I felt that I did right by it. I am very proud of the journey that the entire cast and team went on and of the beautiful production we created.
What advice would you give to any emerging directors?
On a practical level: do your homework. Find out who people are, who is running and programming theatres, who major playwrights are – be in the know. Join networks like Young Vic’s Director’s Program & JMK that will let you know of opportunities.
On a personal level: don’t compare your career to anyone else’s. To be an artist, is to follow your own individual path. And although we work in worlds of make believe, be honest with yourself about the real world. I grew up in a deprived area of Brooklyn, I am a woman of colour, I am a mother of two, and the unique aspects of my life have stalled my career at many points. But if your passion is strong, always strive to meet and engage with the artist inside yourself.
What’s your dream job in the directing world?
My dream job is to have a steady and flourishing freelance career. Future dream projects include getting into the bigger scale of theatre and design potential.
I have a novel in mind I’d love to do a theatrical adaptation of – that is the big dream at the moment.
Natalie’s next upcoming show is Natalie Mitchell’s When They Go Low, at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, as part of the NT Connections Festival in April.