“Oh Rosemary, we’ve got a problem on our hands!” exclaims Natalie Ibu, interrupting herself mid-way through chatting about her new role as Artistic Director of Northern Stage. The situation? Obi Puff Puff, an adorable white Maltese dog who’s the star of Ibu’s social media feed and who I instantly asked to meet at the start of the interview, has helped himself to an entire bag of treats intended to be kept out of his reach.
Not many interviewees – or artistic directors for that matter – would be so completely accepting of a request to meet their lovely pet or discuss how his haircut makes him look like a little lamb (it really does, but please also Google the breed to see them with long hair too). But the Edinburgh-born director, who spent five years at the helm of theatre company tiata fahodzi, is an instantly friendly, warm and unintimidating person. Which, you’d expect, is at least partially deliberate, because approachability and a lack of pretention are the same qualities she’s looking to instil in Northern Stage while she’s in charge.
Ibu took the role in November 2020 and announced her first full season after just three months in the job. Ideally, and without a pandemic going on, she would have had “time to bed in and dream up a magnificent epic season” while overseeing a year’s worth of shows programmed by her predecessor. As it was, she decided it was more important to get Northern Stage back to creating and showing work as soon as possible in a format that would survive unforeseen changes to the route out of lockdown.
This is Us, as the season is titled, is split into three strands. The first, Can We Come in?, is a set of digital works suitable for people in full lockdown mode or long-term shielders. It includes Dear Tomorrow – Hope From Home, a set of six letters responding to the past year’s events which are infused with subtle notes of positivity, and Grief Gatherings, the latest part of Fevered Sleep’s project This Grief Thing, which invites people to share or listen to reflections on grief and death. The second part, Out on the Toon, takes theatre onto the streets of Newcastle, at a point when socially-distanced outdoor performances will be possible. Its centrepiece is Street Art Opera, a mashup of opera and video projection intended to help people reconnect with the city and see it – quite literally – in a new light. The final part, Housewarming, showcases a new production of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man and will take place in the theatre once audiences are safely allowed back in.
The first part of the season to open was Scroll, a collection of digital stories designed to be consumed as part of your daily routine (available online until December 2021). The basic idea is to provide an antidote to ‘doom scrolling’, that addictive act of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling though terrible Twitter posts, terrible news stories and terrible predictions for the future. It’s a behaviour Ibu confesses to being all too familiar with over the past year. “I was aware in multiple lockdowns that my ability to connect was really limited… so I had turned to social media, turned to the news, turned to briefings, to just sort of feel something again and feel like I knew what was going on in the world. And the news cycle was changing so quickly, you get addicted.”
But despite acknowledging the downside of this behaviour, Scroll isn’t about telling people not to use their phones or stare at their computers – it’s not the theatre equivalent of an angry school teacher endlessly intoning the evils of technology. Instead, Ibu wanted to look at how people are using their phones and tech, and then create stories that slotted into those patterns and behaviours. “I knew that I didn’t want to ask audiences to behave differently in order to engage with our work. Rather that we would meet them where they were, in their day, in their rhythm.”
It’s a refreshing attitude to digital that feels realistic and like a fairly accurate appraisal of contemporary life. It also connects with Ibu’s views on theatre’s use of digital in general. Post-pandemic, she doesn’t want Northern Stage to turn its back on digital programming, not least because she thinks it’s a great way to get audience members who wouldn’t be able to come to the theatre in person due to “geographical, societal or lifestyle barriers”. Yet simultaneously, she’s quick to acknowledge she’s not working for a film or TV producer, the live event is still what Northern Stage does best and what she wants to return to, ideally with digital events interlinked with the live performances.
Reaching new audiences is one possible perk to digital programming, but only if people have the technology required – otherwise it’s as prohibitive as a sixty quid ticket to the actual theatre. Is Northern Stage concerned about digital poverty? I ask. The short answer is yes. Specifically, she mentions the theatre’s ongoing connection to Byker, an area in the east of Newcastle which for many Millennials remains synonymous with Byker Grove and their never-ending shock at the fact *spoiler* Geoff died in that gas explosion. When a planned outdoor production of Lee Mattison and Jen Malarkey’s The Kids Are Alright had to be quickly converted into a digital show, the theatre partnered with organisations to provide tablets for residents. They’re also thinking about poverty in a wider way. When we talk, Ibu has just come from a meeting with the charity Children North East where she was discussing ‘poverty-proofing’ all the activities offered by the theatre so that young people can take part no matter what their financial background.
Ibu’s genuine commitment to the off-stage functioning of the theatre reflects the importance she places on being the head of an organisation. Unusually, Ibu specifically wanted to be an artistic director – not a freelance director – from a very early stage in her career. Indeed, even her degree in theatre and arts management was perfectly chosen to combine the artistry of making theatre with the cold, hard (and very necessary) practicalities of running a building. She credits this early impulse to be an AD to a meeting with Philip Howard, who held that role at Traverse Theatre in Ibu’s hometown of Edinburgh from 1996-2008. It was Howard’s welcoming manner that captivated Ibu more than any explicit comments he made about the job, and she now sees the role as being “a broker and a facilitator”. She’s also realised, as time has passed, that she doesn’t always “need to be the lead artist in the room” – interestingly, she isn’t directing any part of the opening season herself because she felt it was more important right now to be “radically generous with opportunities.”
Nurturing other people’s talents is a particular passion of the Scottish director. In an article for The Stage in January this year, she raised the question of whether it is ethical, given the devastating effect the pandemic has had on theatre, to be encouraging new people into the industry when so many existing practitioners are either desperately clinging onto their careers or have had to leave for other work altogether. Which would be the better approach, I ask, seeking out new talent or supporting those who are struggling to survive? “My instinct is the latter. So, it’s not only about keeping those who are fighting to keep their careers going but also bringing back the people we’ve lost.” She goes on to mention the unemployed artists and creatives who have had to take jobs on building sites or in supermarkets. While she stresses that there shouldn’t be any snobbery around those occupations, she’s also “interested in how we can bring people back into the sector and retain those who are currently in it.”
And this drive goes beyond the present circumstances. “I think the sector has been too seduced by the idea of new and young and sexy,” she says, explaining that theatre should have always been doing more to support artists no longer categorised as ‘emerging’, instead of just focusing on youth. Throughout March, Ibu is hosting So Good to Zoom You, a series of daily Zoom calls with whoever wants to sign up for them. In ordinary circumstances, she would have started her tenure with “ten coffees everyday” with local creatives as a means of getting to know the area and its theatre scene. The Zoom calls, plus a virtual version of Devoted & Disgruntled looking at talent development in the North East, is – she hopes – going to fill in the gaps and help her get better acquainted with the area.
I ask her if she thinks there are specific issues and challenges artists in the North East face which are different to those living in other areas of the country. “Let’s have this conversation in 6 months’ time and I’ll let you know!” is the initial reply. “One of the things that I have heard is the sense of disconnection across England,” she goes on to mention. “I’m from Scotland so Newcastle and the surrounding area are the centre for me, it’s the midway between London and home so I see it as a really important nucleus in our ecology. But I think the feeling is that artists and the community can feel quite disconnected up here. People in the south don’t really pay attention, potentially, to what’s happening here. Or don’t feel as mobile in terms of coming up to see work.”
Outside of the theatre world, Ibu is also looking forward to getting to know her new hometown better full stop. Having relocated in the autumn of 2020, her footprint has been mainly confined to what she calls “the circuit” of local parks and, she’s pleased to add, a bridlepath from which she takes sunrise photos on the early morning dog walk, although she has made it as far as the glorious North Eastern coast a few times. Working from home hasn’t always been the easiest: “Something I knew and forgot and then relearnt, is to take the weekends off. It is very easy when you’re working from your spare room or from your bedroom or from the living room to not understand that there are no boundaries around work and life.” She now tries to insist on giving herself more rest time, “Because ultimately I think all of our inspiration comes from life, right? And how can you be inspired by life if you’re not living?” And that includes binge watching, binge reading and looking after a very sweet dog who I really hope wasn’t severely ill after eating all those treats.
For full details of Natalie Ibu’s first season, visit Northern Stage’s website.