Theatre interview: Gareth Nicholls on moving to the Traverse

The chance to work with Scotland's best new playwrights prompted Gareth Nicholls to move from the Citizens' to the Traverse, writes Joyce McMillan

Gareth Nicholls, associate director of the  

Traverse Theatre
Gareth Nicholls, associate director of the Traverse Theatre

He’s young, thin, wiry, with memorably bright eyes; and as he bounds along the corridor from the Traverse office into the bar, the theatre’s new associate director Gareth Nicholls could hardly look more like what he is – one of the rising stars of Scottish theatre, who has just completed an outstandingly successful two years as resident mainstage director at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, and is now moving on to work alongside artistic director Orla O’Loughlin at Scotland’s leading theatre for new work.

“I do feel that it’s a privilege and a thrill to be here,” says Nicholls. “It was great to be at the Citizens’, in a theatre with such a fantastic history, and now it’s great to be here, in a completely different theatre that also has an amazing history and personality.” He goes on to talk happily about his latest show, which will open at the Traverse in August, as part of this year’s festival programme. Titled Letters To Morrissey, it’s the third in a series of semi-autobiographical monologues by the brilliant Glasgow-based writer and performer Gary McNair, who has already won international acclaim for the first two shows in the trilogy, Donald Robertson Is Not A Stand-Up Comedian, and the 2015 festival hit A Gambler’s Guide To Dying.

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As with the other two shows, Nicholls is credited as both director and co-creator, so closely has he worked with McNair on this trilogy about growing up in Scotland in the 1990s. “I guess Gary’s writing really resonates with me,” Nicholls says, “since I was growing up in a working class community in Yorkshire at around the same time, and experiencing many of the same situations and feelings.”

Born in Wakefield in 1984 – to a dad who was a joiner and a mum who worked at Debenhams – Nicholls discovered his passion for theatre towards the end of his school years, when his previous interest in design began to be overtaken by his growing success in theatre arts. In 2002, he came to Glasgow to study Contemporary Theatre Practice at the RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland; he was attracted to the course because he wanted to be an all-round theatre-maker, and that impulse to bring other artists together and create whole projects led him steadily towards directing. After he graduated in 2006, he continued to work often at the Arches, with fellow CTP graduates including McNair.

Yet for Nicholls, there was often something missing from that world of passionate, small-scale, self-made performance. He longed to work with text, with big plays both historic and modern, that were driven by character and by brilliant writing; and he launched himself into almost a decade of work as an assistant director, learning the craft by sitting alongside Andy Arnold of the Tron, or Mark Thomson at the Lyceum.

In many ways, it was a golden time for talented young artists emerging onto the Scottish theatre scene, with the Arches operating at full power, and the new National Theatre of Scotland just creating its first shows; it’s probably a mark of the level of activity at the time, and the platform it created for that generation, that Nicholls says he has never felt a need to move away from Scotland since he arrived 15 years ago, although he has worked on projects elsewhere.

In 2007, Nicholls became one of the first generation of NTS Emerging Artists, working on NTS Learn projects all over the country; and then, after a steady half-decade of work on his own projects and as an assistant director, in 2014 he landed the two-year job of resident mainstage director at the Citizens’, where he directed acclaimed productions of Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, David Harrower’s Blackbird, and – last autumn – a new version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, which played to capacity audiences over three weeks.

“I guess I was nervous,” says Nicholls, “when Dominic Hill at the Citizens’ offered me that first mainstage show so early in my residency. I had been assistant director on his Hamlet, just before, and I had learned so much from him – his rigour in interrogating the text, the way he challenges actors, his willingness to be open and organic about how a production evolves. But to be honest, I felt I was ready. I wasn’t a kid, I’d done nine or ten assistant director jobs over almost ten years, I’d put in the work; and when it came to directing Into That Darkness, it just felt quite natural. And yes, there is a special thrill in directing for a bigger stage, and reaching out to a much wider audience. When we did Trainspotting last year, 46 per cent of the audience had never been to the Citizens’ before, and a huge proportion of them were young. And that is an absolutely brilliant feeling, to reach out to a new audience, on such a scale.”

So why the move to the Traverse and towards new work, just when Nicholls was hitting his stride as a major director of modern classics on big stages? The answer couldn’t be clearer.

“It’s because I’m conscious that these plays I’ve been working on are contemporary classics, and that those texts don’t come from nowhere – in fact many of them wouldn’t exist without this theatre, the Traverse, and what it does to develop writers. After Letters to Morrissey, I’m going to be working on a Traverse Christmas show with Morna Pearson, who I think is one of the most gifted writers around in Scotland at the moment – and that’s just the beginning. I love great texts, and I want to be involved in helping to create the next generation of great Scottish contemporary classics. And for me, at the moment, it’s hard to think of any job more exciting than that.” ■

Letters To Morrissey is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, from 4-27 August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; Trainspotting returns to the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow from 18 October until 11 November.