Madani Younis doesn’t mince his words. Stealing a precious half-hour during an otherwise jam-packed schedule, the Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, currently in the final stages of rehearsals for Perseverance Drive, speaks with the candour and urgency of someone with a powerful sense of purpose. “Within the next 20 years, half of all young people in London will be of dual heritage”, he explains. “I want to ensure that those generations feel that what is happening at the Bush is relevant to them and becomes part of their cultural experience.”
Since 2012, Younis has been shaking things up at the Bush. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that a sea change is afoot. Through an unflinching commitment to nurturing local audiences, combined with a wide-ranging artistic program, the Bush is reflecting London’s cultural heterogeneity by placing the voices of the city’s black, Asian and minority artists centre stage. The results speak for themselves. In 2013, the theatre played to 99% capacity – its most successful season to date – and since Younis’s tenure began, 50% of its main stage productions have been by BAME writers, with the same going for the percentage of main house shows staged by female directors. As impressive as the figures are, it’s not just a matter of the numbers looking good on paper. As Younis explains, it comes down to a question of attitude: “It’s not about schemes, it’s not about tokenism, it’s about embracing the plurality of our city spaces. That isn’t some holy-grail of an idea; we live in cities, we live in a country that is diverse.”
It’s undeniably refreshing to hear an artistic director expound in such matter-of-fact terms on the question of civic and cultural identity. After all, London’s diversity of colors and creeds is an unarguable fact, yet theatre itself continues to struggle in redressing the imbalance of representation. Instead of trying to muster up a solution through formulas or initiatives, Younis believes that it’s a matter of tapping into the lifeblood of the city itself: “I think London is a city where you meet the world everyday on the streets. How do I shorten the gap between art and life so we can confront the very best and worst of ourselves on stage? That attitude of wanting to embrace this contemporary moment we live in is the thought process that underpins our programming.”
This personal and artistic philosophy came to fruition long before he was handed the keys to the Bush. Born of dual-heritage (his mother hailed from Trinidad and his father from Pakistan), Younis was raised in London and was encouraged from an early age to read widely. His mother, an English teacher, furnished him with the works of James Baldwin and Derek Walcott, writers interested in the intersecting relationships of race, culture and nationality. However, it wasn’t until a 17-year-old Younis met the Irish novelist and playwright Seamus Finnigan that this burgeoning love of literature gave way to a fully-fledged passion for the stage: “For me that was probably one of the most arresting moments, when I watched a collection of his plays, entitled North, at the Old Red Lion. It was that visceral quality of experiencing the Troubles and the way Seamus managed to humanise these stories in a way that I could empathise with and feel provoked by’.
After graduating from university, Younis ventured beyond the capital to develop his craft in Leeds and Yorkshire. He worked with Red Ladder (just cut from Arts Council England’s portfolio of regularly-funded organisations), before taking the job as Artistic Director of Freedom Studios. With Freedom Studios, he created works such as The Mill – City of Dreams, site-specific performances that engaged with the cultural fabric of Bradford by tussling with notions of history, civic identity and community. “I was drawn to Bradford because it had an energy and a sense of self. I thought that city was speaking to both of my cultural origins. We wanted to make work that connected with our audiences, felt contemporary and was asking questions.”
Whilst London and Bradford may seem like words apart, Younis’s abiding sense of cultural context and civic identity provides an important vein of continuity that underpins his work at the Bush. Throughout our conversation, he refers to the Bush as a “home” – a place in which artists and companies are encouraged to grow and develop their craft. It’s clear from our conversation that there is nothing of the fortress-mentality when it comes to Younis’s approach to the Bush, and nowhere is this openness more apparent than in his approach to new writing: “Often plays we are reading are not final, rehearsal ready drafts. We’re willing to invest on a longer journey in developing work. You don’t have child prodigies in literature like you do in music or sport. You mature as a playwright and hopefully we’re part of that process. I think as a building that’s what we should be doing – nurturing talent.”
As our conversation draws to a close, Younis pulls me back to the subject of Robin Soans’s Perseverance Drive. “What I love about Robin and Perseverance Drive is that he is writing a story about eight black British characters and he is embracing the fullness of the city he lives in. As a playwright, he demonstrates the courage and the integrity to look at another cultural experience in great depth.” They are words that appear to effortlessly reflect the Bush’s own core principles: an unwavering examination of cultural identity, the exploration of differing yet shared experiences and the need to carve out new histories. It’s about more than just bricks and mortar. It’s attitude.
Perseverance Drive is at the Bush Theatre until 16 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Bush Theatre’s website.