Interview: Orla O’Loughlin reflects on seven years in charge at the Traverse

Orla O'Loughlin
Orla O'Loughlin
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When Kieran Hurley’s new play Mouthpiece opens at the Traverse Theatre next month, it will mark a final bow for Orla O’Loughlin, the theatre’s artistic director since January 2012. Come December, she will move on to become vice-principal and head of drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London; and this moment of her departure seems to mark a natural pause for thought in the history of Scotland’s acclaimed new writing theatre, which still enjoys a global reputation for its role in discovering or fostering new Scottish playwrights from Stewart Conn, Donald Campbell and John Byrne back in the 1970s, to the current generation of younger stars – not least Hurley himself, whose recent hits include Heads Up and Beats.

In many ways, the seven years since O’Loughlin’s appointment have been remarkable and traumatic ones, both for the arts in Scotland, and in much wider political terms. O’Loughlin has steered the Traverse through the independence referendum campaign of 2012-2014, and then through the geopolitical shocks of Brexit and Trump; and also through a time when arts funding in Scotland has been the subject of apparently endless debate and anxiety, with the first director of Creative Scotland, Andrew Dixon, resigning during O’Loughlin’s first year in Edinburgh, and the second, Janet Archer, announcing her departure this year.

The Traverse was among the theatre organisations that took a sharp hit during the Creative Scotland funding round of 2014, suffering an 11 per cent cut in its grant which has never been restored. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that instead of plunging immediately into a full recruitment process for a new artistic director, the Traverse board has decided to take the opportunity to review its priorities, and to consider how best to use the £860,000 a year it still receives from Creative Scotland, alongside its substantial box office and sponsorship income. The theatre’s current associate director Gareth Nicholls – director of this year’s Festival smash-hit Ulster American, among many other shows – has been appointed interim artistic director, and the full recruitment process for a new artistic director should be completed by next summer.

O’Loughlin is clear, though, that if there is one thing that did not contribute to her decision to leave, it was the Traverse’s funding situation. “I don’t want to understate how profound the anxieties have been around the Creative Scotland funding process,” she says, “particularly over the past year. In the end, you have to have some kind of trust that due process will be followed; and it seems that in the last funding round, that often just didn’t happen.

“None of that played any part in my decision, though. There are funding problems everywhere; and for me, it’s more a matter of feeling that I’ve actually achieved most of what I wanted to do, when I was appointed. When I came to the Traverse, I was conscious of the wonderful generation of playwrights that had emerged in the 1990s, led by David Greig and David Harrower, and I wanted to make sure that there was a new generation that would make the same impact. And when I think of the playwrights that are now coming through as our leading voices – Morna Pearson, Stef Smith, Gary McNair, Rob Drummond, Kieran Hurley, Adura Onashile – I think we can say that has been achieved.”

O’Loughlin is also delighted to be leaving at a high point in terms of the Traverse’s performance during the Festival, always essential to its worldwide reputation and financial well-being. The 2018 Festival programme was its most successful on record; and another memory O’Loughlin particularly cherishes is of the Traverse 50 initiative of 2013, when the theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary by inviting a group of 50 new writers to take part in a year of events, performance and development work. “I’ll just never forget the range of people I met then,” says O’Loughlin, “and the feeling around the Traverse when they were there.”

Nor is O’Loughlin likely to forget the impact of Scotland on her own work, which previously involved working as an assistant director with some of the biggest names in London theatre, developing a successful career as a freelance director, and running the Shropshire-based new play company Pentabus. “I think one thing I’ve had confirmed is that the artistic community here has politics in its blood, and that theatre here is expected to say something, directly to the audience; and in these times that’s incredibly important, if only because theatre is now one of the few places where we can still get together in the same space, face each other, and tell it like it is.

“I’ll never forget performing John McCann’s Spoiling, about the foreign minister of a future independent Scotland, at Theatre Royal Stratford East just before the 2014 referendum; and how as the polls got closer, the London audience just ceased to find it funny, and began to find it threatening. And I’m also delighted that my last show will be Kieran Hurley’s Mouthpiece, a great play about Edinburgh, in which a boy from the outskirts of the city meets a middle-class woman playwright, and they form an unlikely friendship.

“So one thing I have definitely learned is that it’s the message that matters, the sense of having something to say; and that if you don’t have that, it just doesn’t matter how perfectly-crafted your production is, or how perfectly finished your set.

“Of course, there is always a huge weight of expectation on any new director of the Traverse. You’re expected both to take huge risks and to achieve world-class excellence, nearly all the time. Yet given the amount of talent that’s here, and the sheer commitment of everyone in the organisation, I can only see a very bright future for the Traverse; and I hope I’ll be back here from time to time, to see how it evolves.”

Mouthpiece is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 1-22 December