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EP 2: Indhu Rubasingham

Indhu Rubasingham is the Artistic Director of Kiln Theatre.

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Indhu Rubasingham is the Artistic Director of Kiln Theatre.

Productions as Artistic Director include: Red Velvet (Evening Standard Award and Critics’ Circle Award, also at St Ann’s Warehouse, NYC and Kenneth Branagh Season, West End), A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes, Multitudes, The House That Will Not Stand, Handbagged (Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, also West End transfer and UK tour), Paper Dolls, The Invisible Hand, Holy Sh!t, and White Teeth.

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Jas:
This is Jas Nolan on the 11th March 2020, recording for Lights Up! at Kiln Theatre. Please can you introduce yourself and tell me where and when you were born, and what you do?

Indhu:
My name is Indhu Rubasingham and I am Artistic Director of Kiln Theatre. I was born in Sheffield, in 1970, but I grew up in Mansfield from 1976.

Jas:
That's really nice. Can you please tell me more about your connection to the East Midlands and growing up?

Indhu:
Yeah. So I went to primary school in Mansfield, till secondary school, and then I went to secondary school in Nottingham. So, I did GCSEs and A-levels in Nottingham.
I hated Mansfield, could not wait to get out of Mansfield. It was a very small town kind of place and I was desperate to get down to London. I loved Nottingham. I loved growing up in Nottingham and hanging out in Nottingham. But yeah, an interesting part of the world. (Laughs) Sorry.

Jas:
Who did you live with in Nottingham?

Indhu:
I lived with my parents and my brother.

Jas:
And what did they do for work?

Indhu:
So, my father was an eye specialist at King's Mill Hospital. My mum didn't work. My younger brother, obviously in that area, grew up. He actually loved that area and he ended up living in Nottingham for a long time. He's now in London, but he worked in Nottingham for a very long time.

Jas:
Hmm, so a nice connection with the East Midlands, then.

Indhu:
Yeah.

Jas:
What was your first memory of theatre?

Indhu:
Oh wow, interesting. Right, so I remember we got taken by the school to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the RSC quite a few times. I didn't enjoy it. I never went to see plays and was blown away. I didn't fall in love with theatre. But I think my first memory would have been through school, in secondary school. I don't think I went— Yeah, so I was quite old. Do you know what I mean? I was twelve/thirteen, through school.

Jas:
Was there a show that you went to see that really triggered you and you thought, I want to live in theatre now?

Indhu:
There were two things that happened. So when I was at school, when we were sixteen we had work experience, and I was on a science trajectory and terrible at the arts subjects. We got given work experience at school and, as a joke, I put ‘TV, film and theatre’, not thinking I'd get any of them. Also, in that time and in that area, there wasn't TV and film being made in the East Midlands, so I wasn't really aware of anything going on.
So what happened was, when I was sixteen, I got work experience and they put me at Nottingham Playhouse. I got work backstage with the stage management, and I just fell in love with that world. Part of it was this very—
It was summer, so it was really hot and Nottingham Playhouse had this brilliant outdoors bit. I really remember specifically walking out at five o'clock to go and have my tea – and I was in my cool clothes because I just felt I was cool at sixteen – and watching everyone leave their offices at that time, all in suits and looking really grey. Yet the world that I was part of felt very colourful and alive.
I also got really excited about— I was buttering the bread for the props and sweeping the stage, and I just found that world really magical. So it was just feeling that I was entering a very magical space that I found very exciting. So that was the first thing.
The show, the play that really meant a lot to me, was The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, and I saw that in Nottingham Playhouse. That was a contemporary play. It was the first time I'd seen a contemporary play because, up until then, I'd been taken to see Shakespeare's work at school. But I saw this contemporary play in the eighties about the AIDS crisis, which was a really big thing growing up at that time, and seeing a play that was talking about something now, that was political, just blew my mind. So it was between that play and that work experience that made me go, I love this world.
What I really loved about the theatre I was seeing was it was saying something about my world now, saying something that I really cared about and was really worried about. I remember it made me cry. It moved me. And I think what happened to me then – I was sixteen/seventeen – I realise is the power of theatre, that you can make someone think, change their opinion, see the world in a different way by moving them emotionally.

Jas:
So from your work experience at Nottingham Playhouse, how would you describe your own personal journey into the industry after?

Indhu:
So my journey was really, well, kind of convoluted. Like I said earlier, I was on this trajectory on sciences and I (sighs) fell in love with this idea of theatre, but didn't know what I wanted to do, at all, but just knew that this was the world I wanted to be part of.
At that time, I only knew about actors and stage management. I didn't know anything else. Also, I wanted to do a drama degree, but I was doing science A-levels, so I had to take a year off. Well, I was always planning a year off, but I had to do an English A-level because I couldn't get into a drama degree without an English A-level, at the time. So I went to Clarendon College in Nottingham to do that.
What I found really interesting was that I had to persuade my parents to allow me to do a drama degree, because they were a bit worried about ‘that's not a normal degree’. I didn't have to pay fees, student fees, which people have to do now, and it always worries me now whether I would've been able to do that if I had to pay fees.
So, I had to this English A-level to get in to do this drama degree, and I started my degree feeling utterly intimidated because everyone on my course had been part of the National Youth Theatre, had done a drama A-level, had been going to the theatre since they were six, and they knew what they wanted to do. So I totally felt that, in my first year, I was doing the wrong course, didn't know anything, had never heard of Brecht. There were just lots of things I hadn't heard of when I was doing this degree, so I didn't do courses. I just didn't feel worthy enough, so I didn't do courses. I didn't do the directing course. I didn't do things because I felt very intimated.
So, in the summer of my first year, I was quite angry with myself. I was going, you're here to learn and you're already stopping yourself learning because of yourself and your own fears. So, because I hadn't done the directing course, I made myself direct a play in my second year. That was another light bulb moment, directing, because I felt for the first time that I could combine my science, my quite analytical, scientific brain with this creative, intuitive side, and I loved it. I absolutely fell in love with it. Suddenly, I felt really comfortable in something. I knew I wasn't an actress; I was terrible. So then I was like, oh, this is really good, but I'm doing this as a student, I don't know what a professional theatre director does.
So then I got obsessed with everything directing and, also, this play – I was very lucky – got selected for the National Student Drama Festival. Phyllida Lloyd and Fiona Shaw, who are high-profile people in the industry, now and then, absolutely took me aside and said, "You're a director, keep going," which was the confidence boost I needed at that time. Then it made me get really obsessed about directing. I directed as much as I could at university, in the summer at Youth Theatres, and in my dissertation, in my final year, I went and observed professional directors, then moved to London to see what I could do.

Jas:
What would you say makes a good director?

Indhu:
So, the director is a leader, but it doesn't mean that they know everything. So one of the main responsibilities for a theatre director is creating the atmosphere in the room, creating a space that is safe for as much creativity to happen. So that's what a director is primarily responsible for, the energy and the space in the room. The other thing is to be able to bring the best out of everybody that you're working with, whether it's the designer, whether it's the lighting designer, as well as the actors and the playwright.
So, it's being able to read people. Emotional intelligence is really important, as well as an understanding of what you're trying to do. Then it's almost like you are the captain of a ship or an aircraft, or something like that, but you are only as good as everyone else is in your team.
So, it's a really frustrating role, on the one hand, because you have the power but your power is only valuable if you've got equal people in the room who feel as empowered and as brilliant. So what I mean by that is that, as a director, you're responsible for casting. Now, if you cast someone who isn't right, you can't do anything about it. Do you know what I mean?

Jas:
Yeah.

Indhu:
So you are only as good as the tools and the people you're working with. So that's what I kind of mean by that, if that makes sense.

Jas:
That makes perfect sense, and I think that's a nice way to put it, I think. So, as a director, what drives you to do your job?

Indhu:
I don't know. No (laughs). What drives me to do my job? Oh my God, I think it is absolute passion. I really believe in the theatre. I really believe in that collective experience that you have that's a shared experience, and the stories you can tell. Also, with theatre, because there's less money involved than film and TV, you can be political, you can be more risky, you can be edgier on the stories you tell.
A real driving passion when I was starting was I just wanted to see different types of people and different stories on the stage. I was sort of fed up of being told what my narrative was, or what it meant to be British. It's got better, but it was even more singular when I was growing up.
So, I've always loved theatre. It's not an easy profession, there's not money in it, and I think that's a hard bit when you're starting. How do you survive? And also, coming to terms with the fact that you're never going to make big money, and are you okay with that?
So for me, it's been a real drive. Sometimes I've gone, why am I in this world? Because it is a tough world. But it is absolutely a passion and a drive to tell stories and to work in a collaborative art form.
That's the other bit; I love the collaboration of it. It's not like other art forms. For example, if you're an artist, you're working on your own, or if you're a musician, you could be on your own or in a group, but it only exists because you're working as a team. You can't do it on your own, and I also really like that aspect of it.

Jas:
I like that as well. You clearly really, really love your job, so I would really like to know, if you had three words, how would you describe it?

Indhu:
My job?

Jas:
Hmm.

Indhu:
All-consuming. Oh my God, you're hearing all negative words.

Jas:
(Laughs)

Indhu:
Yeah, all-consuming, responsible, or responsibility, and heart.

Jas:
I like that. I like the use of ‘heart’. So if you weren't a director…

Indhu:
If I weren't a director, what would I do?

Jas:
…would you have gone down the science route or would you have gone to do something completely different?

Indhu:
The only thing when I've thought, if I wasn't doing this, what would I be doing, would be medicine, because I'm obsessed with medical dramas.

Jas:
(Laughs)

Indhu:
And I love hospitals. Whether I would've got in or been any good…
That's what's really interesting about the arts compared to something like science, and I think that's the struggle I had, was that with science – well, definitely up until eighteen – you knew whether something was right. If you are doing a maths equation, there's a methodology, then there's the conclusion and there are your results of that. What I found hard with the arts was there isn't a right or wrong and it was like learning to trust my own opinion. With sciences, you're basing a lot of it on fact and you have to back all your theories by someone else's, or some proof of some kind, whereas with the arts, it's not that.
I used to think, when I used to get frustrated with the world I was in, it was like, okay, at least if I was a doctor, people would die or live and it'd be really clear-cut whether I was good or bad, whereas it's so subjective in the arts. The lesson, the journey for me, is actually trying to really hear and know what my voice is in that.

Jas:
Would you say that theatre could be used as a type of medicine?

Indhu:
Absolutely. Absolutely. If you think about the origins of theatre, it's religious but it's also the shaman. In really ancient cultures, the shaman was the storyteller, but the shaman was the healer in those communities as well. So the storyteller and the healer was the same person in very ancient societies, and I think actors are today's shamans, in theatre, because through them, through an actor, you are communicating a truth or a story that is being shared with an audience, and both are affecting each other. And I think emotional healing absolutely can come through that. I think emotional wellbeing and mental health is proven that, when people participate in the arts and culture, it absolutely gives them huge wellbeing and is really vital.
So, participation in the arts is really important for our wellbeing, our mental health, and everything like that. Yeah.

Jas:
Yeah, I really do agree with that. So, going back to your journey, was there anybody that you could pinpoint and say ‘They really inspired me, really championed me to do this’?

Indhu:
Well, my parents. Even though they were like, "What is this?" or whatever, I wouldn't have gone on my journey without their support and them kind of going, "Okay, you're telling us that this is something that you want to do. We'll believe you." So I think they were really fundamental, even though they didn't know anything about theatre.
The other person that was really amazing for me was an actor called Sotigui Kouyaté. He was based in France but originally from Burkina Faso in West Africa. So, Sotigui Kouyaté, because he had this West African tradition and he was a griot from Burkina Faso – the griot is the storyteller – but then he was an international theatre actor. So, I went on a couple of courses with him, but he took me under his wing and kind of championed me a lot.

Jas:
When do you think your career in theatre really began?

Indhu:
I think a career in theatre is very rarely straightforward for anybody, if you talk to anybody, anybody truthfully, because right early on I got amazing opportunities.
So, I literally came out of university, I was an Assistant Director at Stratford East, I got this position, so I got to assist people like Mike Leigh, as well as [the panto 0:18:12], and I was twenty-three. I directed my first professional show when I was twenty-four. So the beginning of my career was like, oh, these things are really happening fortuitously. Then it got really difficult.
There was one moment where I was directing at The National, The Royal Court, and Chichester, three high-profile venues in a year. Then I was unemployed for the following year, couldn't get arrested (laughs). So, whenever I talk to younger directors, who are always getting frustrated about their career, like, "My career is not where it should be," der der der, I kind of go, "It's going to be up and down. There isn't this trajectory, this ladder, unlike other professions."
So I had incredible opportunities when I was in my early-twenties, again in my early-thirties, and again in my forties. So it's gone in very different ways. I think, also, being a woman and a woman of colour was very different when I started, but I don't regret any of it because all of it has informed me. Even at the toughest times when I questioned was I good enough, should I be doing this, what came back was ‘this is all I really want to do’. And actually realising that this is all I wanted to do when it was really tough was more important than everything going really well and just going, oh, this is what I really want to do. It's because, then, you really find your calling.

Jas:
Following on from that, you talked about being a woman and a women of colour, would you say that was your biggest setback, or is there something that you could say with that?

Indhu:
I wouldn't say it's a setback. It is who you are and it actually informs everything. It's a mixture of it informs who I am and it informs what I'm interested in. So it's not a setback at all. It is who I am.
But what is interesting is what makes me individual and specific, and it also makes me question the world in a different way than, say, a white man. It has made my journey probably different to a white man, but I don't see it as a setback.

Jas:
No, I like that. I like that [0:20:54]. So, not being a setback but, again, you talked about having a zigzag, uncontrollable career. How did you cope with that? How did you persevere and tell yourself that you can keep doing it?

Indhu:
I think you have to surround yourself with really good people. You have to find out who your tribe is. Again, this is something I say to younger people, find your tribe, find your real tribe, and who are they, because they are the people that are going to hold you when you're low. Everyone's going to be around when you're a huge success, but who's going to be there when things are tough and not as easy? And know that it's a long game.
We live in a world where we want results immediately. We need to be superstars by the time we're twenty-eight. Do you know what I mean? We live in this kind of crazy sense of time, but it's a long game and it's actually how do you manage a career that is going to span thirty/forty/fifty years. Also, it's really important that you manage your reputation. How do you want people to see you? How do you want to behave?
So, the things that you have control of, have control of, and just keep working, thinking, being inspired and surrounding yourself with people that make you feel good about yourself, as opposed to people that make you feel insecure about yourself.

Jas:
It sounds kind of like life is what you make it.

Indhu:
Yeah, absolutely. I think it's very easy— It's not very easy. We often think we are the victims of something that's happened, like, oh, I haven't got this job because of this, I'm not there because of A, B and C. What I find really interesting is self-examination. What are the obstacles we're internally placing on ourselves? What makes us think we don't think we're good enough? And changing that narrative for yourself because you're the only person that can change that.

Jas:
So, because you've surrounded yourself with these great people…

Indhu:
(Laughs)

Jas:
…and have a great attitude…

Indhu:
(Laughs)

Jas:
…is that what you've—

Indhu:
It's taken a lot of hard work (laughs).

Jas:
(Laughs) That's the hard part. Would you say that it's the people that make you most enjoy your job, or is there something else?

Indhu:
Oh, absolutely, it's about the people. It's totally about the people. It's totally about who you're working with. Also, it's curiosity. I mean, that is one thing I should have said when you said ‘three words’. That is, fundamentally, the most important thing, is curiosity. You have to be curious about the world you live in, about people and other stories, other perspectives.
What I love about the job is that I have learned so much about other worlds, other cultures, other people. You also have to really engage with empathy because you have to be able to walk in someone else's shoes. So, when I'm directing a play, it's always about how do we make the characters rounded, because the other thing that I love about theatre is that we live in an area of grey, that complex area. We're not black and white. Things aren't good or bad.
Going back to the question you asked me about influencers, one of the things that I learned from Sotigui was that he said, "There's always your truth, my truth, and then there's another truth that's beyond us." In theatre, we're striving for that other truth that isn't about your perspective or my perspective but finding that something that is a bit more complex.

Jas:
What isn't quite so good about your job? Is there something that you don't like?

Indhu:
(Laughs) Oh, there are lots of things I don't like. Well, it's always about people, isn't it? I say that to members of my team, if they've got issues or whatever. I remember when I first started this job, someone said to me, "The hardest thing about this job will be the people." So, the best bit of the job and the worst bit of the job is people, because everyone brings their stuff into it and you're having to manage. How do I help that person do the best that they can?
So, it's people, it's money, it's fundraising. Working in theatre, we're always on a knife-edge financially. So, for example, it's always balancing the needs of I want to keep ticket prices really low, because I want theatre to be accessible to as many people as possible, but we have to also fund it. We also have to put those shows on, we have to pay people, so it's having the resources. Resources are always very tight in theatre. It takes up all my time (smiles).

Jas:
(Laughs) A lot of people have said time, actually, about time management.

Indhu:
Yeah.

Jas:
So, taking a break from your job and looking at the industry itself, I'd like to address the industry for women. What have you noticed as a woman in the industry?

Indhu:
I personally think I'm quite curious as to what's going to happen. So, when I started, when I moved down to London, it was hilarious. Like you guys, as a student I got attracted to theatre, the arts, because I thought it was really avant-garde. It was like all the free-thinkers, all the free-spirited people. I move down to London and I feel like I'm the last bastion of the British Empire.

Jas:
(Laughs)

Indhu:
Do you know what I mean? Everyone was Oxbridge. All the artistic directors were men, they'd all been to Oxford or Cambridge, and I was going, what world have I, as a student, come into professionally? But if you look around the country and you look in London at the artistic directors now, there's a variety of artistic directors.
So, I became an artistic director here in 2012 and, at the time, it was a bit of a thing that there were one or two of us, female artistic directors. So what I feel is, in the last ten/fifteen years, I've noticed there's a lot more emerging female directors coming up, which is great, and the leadership around a lot of London theatres is a real mixture. There's Kwame at the Young Vic, there's Nadia Fall, I mean the diversity of leadership in theatres has transformed compared to when I was younger.
So that is really great, but what's important to me, what I'm worried about, is that this is not seen— Because people are going, oh, that's great, everything's changing, and I'm like, yes, but is this going to be sustained? Do you know what I mean? Is this is a one-off thing, or is this a blip in time? What are we doing to sustain this?
The other thing that I really notice is whose stories are being told, because that's where the real power is. Who has the autonomy, who's in charge of the story? So, yes, it's the artistic directors, but it's also the playwrights who are telling those stories on the stage. How many parts are there for women? Who's really leading the story? Do you know what I mean? Is it a male voice, or is it a female voice? I can really subtly see the difference between female-led narratives on stage and male-led narratives, and I think there are far less female-led narratives. So we need to really—
It's not just about who's in the business, because the one thing I've realised is, if you're going to have those changes, if you're going to transform who are the leaders, it's not just about putting people in those places. It's actually how are those people going to disrupt and change the status quo? We all study the traditional form of storytelling, like the Greek tragedy or the Greek comedy, and it's the hero figure who comes through a crisis and changes. But that's a very male narrative.
What is the different cultural narrative? How is that going to change it? Different sexualities, as well as gender. So it's like, how are we going to disrupt the status quo? How are we going to disrupt the structures? That's what I think needs to happen more for it.
Also, it's about the ecology of the industry. So, it's not just about who's in theatres, it's who's reviewing theatres. Who's deciding what's good or bad? Who are the critics? What are drama schools doing? Do you know what I mean? Where's the pipeline?
What I'm really worried about is the pipeline, the people of your generation coming in. How much money do you need from your parents or your backgrounds in order to come into the industry? Therefore, if that pipeline is narrower than, say, when I was a student, who's going to be informing what the industry is?

Jas:
Could you identify any advantages of being a woman in the industry?

Indhu:
Well, that's why this is a really interesting time because, with everything that's happening with the Me Too movement, what I'm loving about this moment in time is that these questions are being asked. Quite a lot of things that I knew were happening when I was younger in the industry are being exposed and you can't turn a blind eye in the same way that you have been able to. So it's a really potentially powerful moment to kind of go, no, I'm not taking that, I want to change this, and I'm going to push you to change it.
I feel much more confident to kind of call out bad behaviour than I would've done even ten years ago. It's a good moment. Things are being reflected, things are being seen, cracks are being exposed, and that's also going to cause a backlash, as we're seeing as well, but it's good.
I think what is good about this moment is we're challenging how we're making decisions, and I think there was a time when we didn't. So, an interview process, which could be very weighted – so, interviews for jobs like artistic directors – were often done by boards, and most of those boards were not in the theatre. They were lawyers and other positions. They wanted for their ‘leader’ very male attributes, and the interview process absolutely was focused on that. What I think we're now challenging is, who are on those interview panels? We're recognising unconscious bias and we've just got to keep pushing those processes and those structures that disadvantage different sections of society.
So I think we've just got to be aware, and we are continuing to be aware, of our biases. In somewhere like here, we try and look at that all the time – and all of us have unconscious bias – and what are we doing to address that? If we're saying we're trying to make theatre for everybody, what are we doing all the time to make sure that we're addressing that, because we're never going to achieve that if— I think I'm a person that's half-full, so the disadvantages are always your advantages as well.

Jas:
Yeah, that's true. I like that. I know you said you don't like to go to interviews and talk about your achievements…

Indhu:
(Laughs)

Jas:
…but I'm asking you now. What is your greatest achievement?

Indhu:
Oh man! I think being Artistic Director here and going through the whole— We rebuilt this theatre. So, I started something and had no idea of or anything about it. I think if I'd known how hard and difficult it was, I'd have never have started it. But to have created this building – no – to have led the process that has created this building is something I thought was beyond my— It was never even in my— It wasn't something where I said, oh yes, I can't wait to be an Artistic Director and lead a whole building campaign project and raise nearly £90-million and nearly kill myself in doing it. So I'm really proud of what this theatre is doing and the people I'm working with, I think.

Jas:
So is there a production that you're most proud of?

Indhu:
I love all my shows. They're all like my babies. Do you know what I mean? People go, "What's your favourite?" and I really find that difficult because I think to direct any—
Everything I've done, I've genuinely felt really passionate about and loved, and I think I have to to do it. I really loved Passover, which I've just done. The last two shows I've done here, I've been really proud of. When the Crows Visit was looking at gender violence in India, and then the play before that was called Wife, which was looking at gender politics through the ages, through the lens of Ibsen's A Doll's House.
I've loved those plays, and those two plays in particular, Wife and When the Crows Visit, were plays that we commissioned here, started from nothing and have developed and grown. Yeah, I really enjoyed them.

Jas:
What advice would you give your younger self?

Indhu:
The two things which I'd give myself and I also say to other people is it's a long game, be patient, patience. The other thing is, be yourself, be the best version of yourself. You cannot be like someone else. We're always going, oh, that person's like that and they're doing really well, and you're going, oh, if I was a bit like that, I'd be better. There's no point in comparing and contrasting. You can only be the best version of yourself.
People always say, ‘follow your dream’, but following your dream is really hard. It's not an easy choice, and there are sacrifices, which is why I kind of go, it's patience, it's perseverance, it's find your tribe, because anything worthwhile is going to be difficult. Do you know what I mean? If it was easy, everybody could do it. So it is absolutely about perseverance.