Indhu Rubasingham is nervous and excited: after all, it’s opening night. When I speak to her on the phone, she is less than 24 hours away from the start of a new season at the Tricycle Theatre in Brent – her third in the post of artistic director. Not only has she hand-selected the works and artists that will be featured over the next five months, but she is also directing the first show of the year: Handbagged, written by Moira Buffini.
The play, which explores the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen, is certainly of the moment. Rubasingham is keen to emphasise that it’s “very funny and witty” despite the seemingly dry subject matter, perhaps going some way to explain why she was so keen to develop it from a shorter piece that premiered three years ago. “Before I’d even started [as Artistic Director], I’d said to Moira that I’d love to have you as a playwright,” she reveals. “We put the play on hold for a while, but we knew it would be different.”
They had already begun to work on a full-length version when Thatcher passed away in April, and although Rubasingham is hoping that it will strike a particular chord in light of recent events, she is keen to emphasis that she chose it because she found it “exciting”, above and beyond any other factor. After all, although Rubasingham admittedly has a wealth of directing experience to draw on (she has worked at the Gate Theatre, the Young Vic and Birmingham Rep, to name just a few), she has found that the best method of selecting any project is to go on “gut instinct… if I try to second-guess what the audience wants, or if I try to be commercial, I think I might make a mistake”. Happily, she hasn’t made one yet, and is thrilled to report that that during her first season the theatre had over 50% first time bookers, with “diverse audiences across the board in terms of age and community giving the place a real buzz”.
For Rubasingham, theatre is all about relationships, and this is apparent in both the plays she has selected, and the artists she has chosen to work with. Following on from Handbagged, veteran actor, director and comedian Kathy Burke will be bringing her distinctive touch to Once a Catholic by Mary J O’Malley, which opens in November. Although the play was first performed in 1977, Rubasingham points out that it is set locally, in Kilburn. She notes that “we’re in the most diverse borough in London, and that’s what makes the Tricycle so brilliant: we can speak both locally and internationally.” Indu has made it her personal mission to find and present stories that “tell of a human connection despite differences of culture, race, sexuality, religion or language”, and is especially keen to ensure that the theatre continues to attract a younger crowd, who she sees as the “future artists and future audiences who are going to sustain theatre”.
Luckily, it has become easier than ever for young people to engage with the shows on offer at the theatre this season, which also includes the multi-award winning Red Velvet by Lola Chakrabarti in its second run before a New York transfer. Tickets for the first two weeks of all performances are available for £10 to visitors under 26. Additionally, a new Young Ensemble has just been launched, which will be leading up the Tricycle Takeover festival in March 2014, when young people will have the chance to both programme the cinema, and to plan and execute productions for a week. “There’s a lot of potential for what is happening on the main stage being fed and inspired by the young company,” adds Rubasingham, who has a particularly inspiring memory of sitting next to one particular 16-year-old on his first trip to the theatre who was “blown away” by Red Velvet during its last run.
Rubasingham’s own route into the arts began at school, when she did a stint of work experience at the Nottingham Playhouse. Later, she was offered an Arts Council grant to work as an assistant director. Keen to replicate this experience for others, she has secured funding for a resident director position for the next three years. She hopes this will help young directors find an access point into the industry, as well as being a chance to develop “a necessary bedrock of skills”. Her recommendations to other budding young theatre-makers: form relationships with other playwrights and directors, find projects that you are passionate about, and try to gain access to organisations where you can be exposed to how the industry works. If you’re not sure where to begin, then perhaps one of the Tricycle’s programmes might be a great place to start!