NTS director Laurie Sansom plots 2015 strategy

Laurie Sansom. Picture: John Devlin
Laurie Sansom. Picture: John Devlin
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AFTER the huge success of the James Plays, NTS artistic director Laurie Sansom tells Joyce McMillan of his hopes and plans for 2015

It’s five months since its thrilling Edinburgh premiere, and nine weeks since the lights dimmed on its triumphant run in London; but still, no-one who saw it is ever likely to forget their first glimpse of Rona Munro’s huge James Plays trilogy, directed by the National Theatre of Scotland’s Laurie Sansom in in the first-ever co-production between the NTS, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

Set on a stage shaped like a mighty arena or cockpit – with a huge 15-foot sword driven into the heart of the playing-area, like a combination of gauntlet and gathering-stick – Sansom’s production, with design by John Bausor, was breathtaking in its scale and ambition. And although the plays themselves were controversial – with the Daily Telegraph describing them as “better than Shakespeare”, and one Scottish critic dismissing them as “a disgrace” – there was general agreement that Sansom’s huge and impressive production marked a stunning directorial debut for the NTS’s new artistic director, 17 months after he arrived to replace the company’s founding director Vicky Featherstone.

“If I’d reflected on it, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” says Sansom, recalling the James Plays experience in his little office at Port Dundas in Glasgow. “This is some job, running the NTS, particularly in 2014 of all years; and being in the ‘James bubble’ for six months was tricky, from that point of view.

“But it’s just that moment when you read a script and you think – ‘I must do this, how can I do it justice?’ From that moment, it’s all about the demands of the play, and if you lose the capacity to respond in that way, then you’re not really functioning as an artist any more. That’s the heart of a theatre director’s job; and whatever structure a company adopts, I think it’s vital that there is an artistic leader at the head of it.”

If Sansom recognises the demands of running Scotland’s ground-breaking “national theatre without walls,” though, he also seems exceptionally well-prepared for them. Born in Kent in 1972 – into a suburban home right next to the Brands Hatch racing circuit – Sansom grew up with both a love of the high drama of Formula One racing, and a sense that as a small, gay schoolboy from a strongly Christian background, he was never going to fit in easily.

“I had some great teachers, though; and when I joined the National Youth Theatre, I knew I had found a home. In 1990, I became the first student from my local school ever to go to Oxbridge, and although Cambridge felt strange at first – I was essentially a lower middle-class kid at a very traditional college – I threw myself into theatre, and never looked back.”

After Cambridge, Sansom endured a few lean years before he finally found an assistant director post at Watford. In 2002 he moved on to Scarborough, and four formative years working with the great Alan Ayckbourn; then in 2006 he landed the job of artistic director of the Royal & Derngate Theatres in Northampton, where his work was widely acclaimed as inspirational.

“I loved the Northampton job,” says Sansom, “but when I was approached to apply for the NTS, it struck me immediately that in terms of the range of the work, and the freedom to work in different styles, this is probably the best theatre job in Britain. The company can tackle everything from classics to new plays to site-specific work, it tours internationally yet it stages events in small community venues – the opportunities are breathtaking.

“And I was also thrilled by the aspect of the job which is about creative production and artist development – bringing together other artists to do their best possible work. The NTS has the resources to do that, and I find that immensely satisfying.”

What’s perhaps most intriguing about Sansom, though, is his enthusiasm for what he sees as the third aspect of the job – the continuing debate about how the NTS takes on its national role. Sansom’s predecessor Vicky Featherstone famously said, in a farewell interview, that she had sometimes felt “bullied “ about her English origins, as the non-Scottish director of a Scottish national institution; but after his baptism-of-fire experience of steering the NTS through Scotland’s referendum year, Sansom seems determined to fulfil that aspect of the company’s role with a professionalism and commitment that makes criticism redundant.

“I knew that it could have been very tricky, coming up to Scotland and being custodian of a national company at a time when culture should be at the heart of a vital national debate. I also knew that we could neither avoid the debate, nor – as a company – take a position on the yes-no question itself. So what we had to do was to provide platforms for discussion and expression that wouldn’t be identified with “yes” or “no”, but would allow people to explore all the different aspects of the question, and how it made them feel.”

According to most observers, the NTS’s referendum strategy worked exceptionally well, offering many spaces in which people could explore their deepest feelings about the choice they faced; in midsummer, for example, the NTS produced The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Five Minute Theatre Show of tiny five-minute online plays from across Scotland, in an explosion of grassroots creativity that movingly revealed aspects of the debate largely hidden from the conventional political media.

And when it comes to the future, it seems that Sansom combines a rock-solid commitment to the theatre-without-walls model on which the NTS was founded with a sense that the company has to be constantly broadening both the range of artists with which it works – he has recently taken on three new part-time associate directors, including Cora Bissett of Glasgow Girls fame – and the scale of the audiences to which it plays.

“I think Vicky did an extraordinary job in creating a national theatre that was committed to risk-tasking as a core part of its aesthetic. And what I feel is that we need to combine that with a real effort to reach out to new and bigger audiences – so that’s why I wanted, for example, to programme a big popular comedy like Douglas Maxwell’s Yer Granny as part of next year’s work.

“As for the future – well, the NTS is fortunate in being funded directly by the Scottish government, and we’ve been very well supported so far. In general, though, I think there is only going to be less public money for the arts in coming years, and that means we need to be working much more closely with the rest of the sector in Scotland, to meet those challenges. I’ve already instituted a regular series of meetings with the directors of all the building-based companies in Scotland, to discuss how we can best support each other. I really believe that ready access to the arts, to work that surprises and thrills, is vital to the wellbeing of people, particularly in tough times; and we have to keep making that case very forcefully.

“So what are my hopes? That the NTS can go on providing a platform for brilliant artists at the top of their game, and help them to find the audience they deserve. And I want us to be deeply involved in the continuing debate about what a national theatre is, and how it strives to reflect the life of the nation. Because that debate about how we relate to the wider society around us is key to all good theatre; and for us at NTS, it’s absolutely essential.”

• For details of the NTS 2015 programme, see www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/content