Features Published 8 October 2020

Debbie Hannan: “I’m stepping onto the ship at the exact moment it’s hitting the iceberg!” 

Traverse Theatre’s incoming co-artistic director Debbie Hannan talks class, the fringe, and rethinking theatre’s power structures.

Rosemary Waugh

Debbie Hannan. Photo: Vinnie Heaven

“I just worked my bollocks off!” is Debbie Hannan’s first response when I ask them how they ended up in the theatre industry. Currently, there’s a simmer of controversy following government suggestions that arts workers should ‘retrain’ or ‘get better jobs’. But the Edinburgh-born director’s career path shows, for many people, scraping your way into a career in the arts already involves juggling multiple jobs and skill sets. “I always had to work at other jobs at the same time to earn my way through,” they explain. “But you’re not meant to talk about that. So, I would always talk about it whenever I was meant to feel shame and silence, because I didn’t feel that.”

To be clear, Hannan isn’t talking about a smattering of part-time hours every so often. One of their post-graduation jobs, for example, involved working a 60-hour week at a box office call centre while applying for funding to start making theatre. But instead of wishing their route up to this point had been a little bit easier, Hannan appreciates the insight that comes from this personal experience of being a working class Scottish woman making a career in the London theatre scene: “Encountering the problems of getting into the industry has made me so much more conscious and I value that beyond having an easy ride.”

Hannan is currently awaiting news of when they start their new job as Co-Artistic Director of Traverse Theatre. Pre-pandemic, the plan had been to start at Traverse alongside Gareth Nicholls two weeks after lockdown officially started. The new one is to start in spring 2021 but, as they stress, what happens next is both unknown and subject to funding outcomes. “The truth,” Hannan says, “is that we just don’t know.”

“Lockdown has been very interesting in that I’m in the wrong country!” they laugh, before describing how the closest they got to returning to their home country after seven years in England was moving north of the river Thames in search of a new housing tenancy. “I’ve been in this weird limbo of staying as a freelancer and having an insight into what the Traverse is doing… I’ve really felt the sharp edge of both of those positions: I’ve had the worry of every freelancer about how to survive, as well taking part in advocacy for the industry, and kind of being on the inside of a building and looking at what ‘viable’ means now in the face of the crisis and government support.”

Despite the current uncertainty – “I’m stepping onto the ship at the exact moment it’s hitting the iceberg!” –Hannan remains clear on what they originally imagined being at Traverse would mean. As a child and teenager, they first encountered live performance (circus and magic shows being a big childhood obsession) in the Scottish capital’s theatres and at the Fringe, where they watched everything from jelly-splattered student productions of Sarah Kane’s Crave to a one-man musical about Toulouse Lautrec in Japanese. Years before pressing ‘send’ on the AD application, Traverse had already lodged itself in their head and heart:

“I really remember this distinct moment of hearing a Scottish accent on stage [at Traverse] and thinking: that sounds wrong! Because you don’t hear Scottish accents anywhere in fiction or in media, not in a mainstream way. I remember how wrong it felt to my ears, but after the two hours passed – it was a play called The Slab Boys – I remember being like, ‘Oh! This is a story I recognise, these are people I recognise. They’re sort of my parents’ generation but they’re still people I get’.”

John Byrne’s play, which is set in a carpet-making business in Paisley and is part of a trilogy, also interested Hannan for its aesthetics. “Slab Boys is really colourful; it’s really heightened; it’s 50s; it’s got music in it and it speaks to the popular tradition. Scotland isn’t a text-based culture, it’s a culture based on story and song.”

Anna Russell-Martin in The Panopticon at Traverse. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Hannan’s own directing work, from the incendiary Pah-La at the Royal Court to the punky The Panopticon for Traverse and the 90s-inflected Little Miss Burden at the Bunker, has a distinct and strong visual component to it. Along with being a “very visual person” who studied History of Art with English at university, the first question they ask of a play is what its visual world is like. American photographer Nan Goldin is a recurrent influence – “pretty much any mood board I’ve ever made has had Nan Goldin in there somewhere” – as is Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, but the biggest inspiration often comes from music videos. As a teenager they would watch Missy Elliott videos “like art works on repeat, learning from them what I now call the dramaturgy but back then I would just call, like, the story.”

This combination of different cultural reference points and the breaking down of traditional groupings and hierarchies is, Hannan explains, replicated in the ubiquitous Insta feeds where a snippet of Renaissance portraiture can sit side-by-side with a beach selfie and your own amateur lockdown art project. It’s also echoed in the director’s wider philosophies and approach to making theatre. The Traverse’s plan is to have two artistic directors, with Hannan working alongside both Gareth Nicholls and a new Director of Creative Development, Lesley Anne Rose. This structure is intended to make sure the theatre “isn’t speaking from a single figurehead, but more a collective set of voices who share values,” instead of the old pyramid-shaped structure that “creates weird cultures of fear.”

It’s not just the internal structures of running a theatre Hannan believes are in need of a re-think: “Scotland is a fascinating small country that’s recently become very politicised because of the independence vote… it’s a country of complex binary things that have been broken down. Like Edinburgh is the Old Town and the New Town; it’s the festival and the rest of the year; it’s Yes or No – do you want to be part of the UK. But when you’ve got a binary, you’ve got all this stuff in between,” they explain. “The image of Scotland is still white – and male. And how is that still a thing?! Contemporary Scotland is so much more complex than that.”

The Edinburgh Hannan will return to has also shapeshifted in the time they’ve been away. The tourist economy, including the impact of Airbnb and general gentrification, is – in their opinion – a multifaceted question, one part of which is what the yearly International Festival and sprawling Fringe should ideally look like. Despite having so many fond Fringe memories, including being a kid who would wait out eleven months of each year in anticipation of “the exciting month”, Hannan is very aware of both the negative sides of the Fringe (“It’s everything about theatre turned up to eleven, and that includes the bad things.”) and hopeful this year’s unforeseen break might serve as moment to reassess and reimagine. “At heart, I’m a bit of an anarchist… there’s a bit of me that thinks a moment of burning things down is pretty useful every so often because it’s the catalyst for change.”

In an ideal scenario, Hannan would love to see the Fringe return to being an accessible and affordable place for sharing rough and ready work at an early stage in development – work that’s by and for all kinds of people. “Sometimes [the Fringe] feels like Utopia because humanity is all around you and expressing itself in every form, and somewhere there is someone like you, telling a story that is for you. That’s what I’d like to preserve going forward, making sure we haven’t shut the door on that.”

After doing a degree at Edinburgh University – including joining the university’s alternative performing society Theatre Paradok (the one “for people who didn’t have an RP accent”) – Hannan moved on to a Master’s at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland before assisting at the National Theatre of Scotland, training at the Royal Court in London and later becoming an Associate at The Bunker.

Getting an initial break, as so many people know, is only part of the picture. “As I’ve gotten further along I’ve seen that, for instance, Oxbridge connections really start paying out in your thirties,” they note first, before going on to say how it was noticeable that, “The men I grew my career alongside got trusted a little bit quicker than I did for things of a bigger scale.”

If I – as an interviewer – had a pound for every time an early-thirties female director has made this same point to me over the last few years, I’d have enough pounds to bail out the pandemic-struck theatre industry single handed, a point I make (in a slightly less hyperbolic fashion) to Hannan.

“It’s a massive issue. And it’s so hard to tackle because it’s insidious. No one is going to say, ‘Ah yes, I trust men more than women’ because they don’t even know that anymore: it’s totally unconscious.”

Gender biases, however, are not the only thing that came to Hannan’s attention when making the transition from Scotland to England. “I think the bigger thing in coming to London is class. It was suddenly [being with] people who had a different set of cultural values, and that was all to do with their education and background.”

The negative effect of these types of prejudice – conscious or unconscious – is pretty obvious in many respects but Hannan sees the ultimate cost of them on a very personal, human level. “The further you get into something, the more you can shed the things about you that make you, you,” they say. “And if you lose what’s true to yourself then you’re really fucked. You can take five years longer to get into the industry because you’re not from a monied background, and you will survive. It’s shit and it’s not fair, but at least you’ll get there. But if you lose the truth of who you are as you go – and that is the real cost of prejudiced systems – it chips away and erases and wears you down, sometimes explicitly and sometimes less so.”

One word Hannan uses a lot is ‘advocacy’. Their motivation and energy seems to stem more from ensuring other people are getting their voices heard and respected as from any great egotistical drive. One diverse group they’re particularly keen to advocate for is people with disabilities. Two of the short works Hannan has created in lockdown – Shielders with Traverse, and The Unexpected Expert for Headlong and the BBC – were written by Matilda Ibini, the same “phenomenon” of a playwright Hannan also worked with on Little Miss Burden. All three works feature characters with chronic health conditions and/or disabilities, but the issues connected to disability were not just present in a fictional universe when making them. For example, multiple members of both the cast and creative team for Little Miss Burden had their own visible and invisible disabilities, and associated needs.

Ani Nelson, Saida Ahmed and Michelle Tiwo in Little Miss Burden at Bunker Theatre. Photo: Kofi Dwaah

Aided by an “incredible” and “supportive” in-house team at The Bunker, Hannan sought to establish a rehearsal room where everyone could say what they needed without fear of damaging working relationships or – the perennial fear of many people with a disability – ‘making a fuss’. Many of these changes were practical, like altering rehearsal times to match daily levels of fatigue, some were dramaturgical or design-led, like making a multi-level set accessible everywhere for performer Saida Ahmed who uses a wheelchair, and some were about establishing an atmosphere where people could speak honestly “about bodies and their realities”.

To help achieve the last of these, Hannan put themselves forward as an example by sharing details of their own disability. “I said: ‘I’ve got a connective tissue disorder. I’ve got Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, this is what happens to my body, this is how I experience fatigue and pain and sometimes I’m going to need these things…’. Directors are often on some kind of weird power pedestal, but once you’ve brought yourself down to being a human alongside your fellow makers, it shifts the attitude in the space.”

Sharing this type of information marks something of a turning point for Hannan personally. Earlier in their career, the director preferred to keep their condition hidden, partly out of fear that it would compromise offers of future work in a “precarious” freelance career. “It’s a strange thing where I could essentially give up the privilege of being [seen as] able-bodied… with an invisible thing, you can take the cost on alone. You can be in pain and you can be fatigued and you can be all those things, but early on I didn’t say anything because of ableism – internalised ableism and ableism in the industry.” It took, for example, getting to the point of having a main stage show for Hannan to request the type of chair needed to stop their hips sliding out the socket, “because I was so conscious of what it would mean to ask for something like that… to have a moment of vulnerability.”

This fear that speaking up – about a disability or anything else – will result in being “struck off the list” is the reason Hannan subsumes responsibility for making sure things don’t go unspoken – especially as there’s a risk that in a difficult post-covid landscape for theatre, freelancers will be under more pressure than ever. “I know that in any position of power, I have to ensure that I advocate because we can’t assume that people will advocate for themselves.”

The Unprecedented Expert is available to watch online on BBC iPlayer here. Or watch mpre performances and films as part of Traverse Festival, at online venue Traverse 3. 

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

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