After assisting top directors on both sides of the Border, Debbie Hannan is ready to go solo. Interview by Joyce McMillan
When the National Theatre of Scotland announced its 2019 programme a few weeks ago, the names threaded through the press release sounded like a roll-call of major Scottish theatrical and literary talent, from the Makar, Jackie Kay, and the brilliant young novelist Jenni Fagan, to NTS associate directors Stewart Laing and Cora Bissett. Up there among those names, though, was one other, less familiar to Scottish theatre-goers, perhaps, but likely to figure strongly on any future list of major Scottish theatre talent: the name of Debbie Hannan, the 30-year-old Edinburgh-born director who, come November, will take charge of the NTS’s planned production of Fagan’s award-winning 2012 novel The Panopticon, about a brilliant young girl without home or parents, trapped somewhere in the dark underbelly of a cruel surveillance society.
Hannan has also just been named an associate director of The Bunker at London Bridge, working alongside recently-appointed artistic director Chris Sonnex to present a programme of new work that’s intended to challenge traditional patterns of power in theatre – whether of gender, race or class – and to create, says Hannan, a kind of “underground revolution” in the theatre which is based in an old underground car park. And with several other projects already in the pipeline – including a summer production of Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One at the Tron in Glasgow, and a long-term project with London-based American writer Sarah Kosar to create a large-scale show about Monica Lewinsky – Hannan says she feels that for the first time since she began her professional directing career, almost a decade ago, she is moving into a year when every project she is undertaking is a show that she has actively chosen, and helped to bring to fruition.
“It’s not that I haven’t loved most of what I’ve done in theatre so far,” says Hannan, of a career that was kick-started by the opportunity to assist the NTS’s first artistic director Vicky Featherstone on work that included the elegiac 2011 site-specific show Enquirer, about the future of print journalism.
“I’ve been an assistant director to some truly great people, and I’ve learned so much, from Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany at NTS, Dominic Hill at the Citizens’, Graham McLaren at NTS, Stewart Laing at Untitled Projects, and then many more great directors in London since I moved down here in 2012. But if you’re a director, you really want to work on your own shows, the ones you have a passion for. This year, for the first time, that’s what happening; and it really is a great feeling.”
When it comes to the question of how she knew that she would be a theatre director, though, even Hannan seems unsure of the exact source of her tremendous impulse towards the job. Born in Edinburgh in 1988, she is a second cousin of the Scottish playwright Chris Hannan, who was then writing much-praised plays including Elizabeth Gordon Quinn for the Traverse Theatre, but says that his success had little impact on her as a child. Her father, though, is the journalist and trade unionist Martin Hannan, and her home life in Edinburgh was full of books and films and political discussion.
She recalls being “a wildly imaginative child with a huge sense of justice”, who loved to organise huge imaginative games for big casts of other children; and at Holy Rood High School, she encountered the legendary drama teacher Frances Paterson, who firmly suggested when Hannan was 15 or so that while her classmates were having a go at acting or writing plays, Debbie should try directing.
And from that moment, it seems, the directing has never really stopped – although there was pause when Hannan went to Edinburgh University in 2006 to study English and Fine Art, and found herself mainly surrounded by students from privileged Home Counties backgrounds who made comments about her Scottish accent, and called her a “POSO” (Person Of Scottish Origin).
“I had never really encountered the full force of British class structure before,” says Hannan, “and it was a real shock. But I kept my end up; and eventually I found my people, friends that I could work with. We had a company called Theatre Paradok, that did European plays in a building round the back of the Traverse, things like the Marat/Sade and A Night At The Circus – theatre with a political and socialist heart to it. And in 2010 I got various bits of funding together, and went to the RCS to do the one-year MA in directing.
“I know people still argue about whether directing can be taught, but it was a great experience for me. And after a year, I literally emerged lying about my age – I was still only 22 – because I wanted to direct so much, and I thought no-one would take me seriously if they knew how young I was.”
Since 2011, though, Hannan’s career has only gathered pace. After her experience assisting Vicky Featherstone at NTS, she followed Featherstone to the Royal Court in London in 2012, winning a prized trainee directorship at the theatre. Since then, she has directed at
Soho Theatre, the Young Vic, the Royal Court and the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, where she staged brilliant studio productions of Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground, and in 2015 Howard Barker’s supremely demanding and surreal 2012 play Lot And His God, a show that featured one of the finest performances ever given by the much-mourned actress Pauline Knowles, who died last year.
“I think I just try to cultivate the muscle of going towards what I’m interested in,” says Hannan, of the bold and even brave work she seems to choose. “I chase writers that I like, and I tend to seek out more knowledge where I think there’s a gap. I love Barker, for instance; he’s just so morally complex, so timely, and so unforgiving. Superb, really.”
For now, Hannan is happy to be working in London, a city whose sheer diversity she finds thrilling; but she remains clear-eyed about the limitations of most London theatre, particularly when it comes to reaching beyond a middle-class audience. She has noted that in a theatre scene increasingly populated by people wealthy and privileged enough to gain access to it, there can be as much pressure to become “less Scottish” as there is for theatre workers to conceal their working-class origins, for fear of not fitting in.
“Early on, after I came to London, I did minimise my Scottish accent – which wasn’t that strong to begin with – because it seemed people just couldn’t understand me. I didn’t realise that the whole culture here is just different – people are always telling me that I’m very “direct” or “blunt,” and that I’m quite radical, although I think my politics are just sensible. The cultural baggage you carry is just different; and I’m OK with that now.
“I can see how organisations and structures here say they want diversity, and appoint people from diverse backgrounds – whether it’s women, or black people, or working-class people – but then start to assimilate them and steamroller out the differences, instead of hearing what they have to say; and I’m becoming more aware of that, and more resistant to it, and therefore more Scottish again.
“So for the future – well, London is brilliant, and some of the projects I’ve done here, like one I did recently with Muslim feminist Bangladeshi schoolgirls in Tower Hamlets, have just been mind-blowingly interesting.
“But London isn’t everything to me, as it is to many directors, and I can see myself working in other places. I would love to come back to Scotland, and one day I really would like to run a building. I love the idea of creating a community, and a landscape where artists can flourish, although I think I would always want to be making my own shows as well.
“So yes, looking back at what drove me to do this, I think it’s always been about trying to imagine and create a better version of the world, using light and sound – all the power of theatre. In the act of theatre-making, you literally have a new space in your mind, that you try to share with the audience; and that’s why I believe that the decimation of theatre funding in England, particularly outside London, is a deliberate attack on our ability to collectively imagine a different world – very repressive, and sinister.
“Audiences do seem genuinely hungry for something different, though – not just entertainment, or escapism, or even dystopian visions any more, but something new, as if theatre was a kind of kindling-space for the shifts we need to make. So I am glad, for the child I was, that I found this work; where I can really use all that wild imagination and curiosity, and try to make the kind of theatre that helps us to imagine new worlds, when we need them most.”
The Ugly One is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 4-20 July; The Panopticon will be presented by the NTS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and Platform, Glasgow, in November.