Madani Younis: ‘I fear that theatres will be only for the chosen few’


A report by Natasha Ripney for The Stage.

Pointing through the Bush Theatre’s newly installed windows towards the street, Shepherd’s Bush Market and the railway bridge, artistic director Madani Younis observes: “The Uxbridge Road is the most diverse road in the whole of Europe in terms of the number of languages spoken. If Charles Dickens were alive today, the Uxbridge Road would be his wet dream.”

The Bush is about to reopen after the largest capital project in the theatre’s history. Work is still underway: there are tables and chairs, paint, posters and books everywhere. The smell of new wood is in the air.

It’s clear that where the building sits, in the heart of Shepherd’s Bush, is important to Younis, as is the space he hopes to make here – open, accessible, a theatre for and of everyone in the community.

Younis is the sixth artistic director in the theatre’s history – and the first non-white artistic director of a London theatre building. Like a number of Londoners, he is of dual heritage. His mother was an English teacher in Trinidad, his father is Pakistani. His mother was “very mindful of the fact she wanted us to be aware of our ancestry and cultural heritage from both countries”.

We’re sitting in the part of the building that still retains its identity as a library, one wall lined with books, which seems apt. At home, he says, his mother used to set him texts to read: Derek Walcott, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, VS Naipaul – “the great Caribbean and African-American writers”.

Younis was drawn to theatre as a teenager: “The first proper play I got off my arse and saw was at the Old Red Lion.”

It was a play by Northern Irish writer Seamus Finnegan about the Troubles. “I wondered what this play would mean to me and I remember being captivated by the heat of the politics. It reminded me of reading Baldwin. That communion of the audience with what was happening on the stage – I found that thrilling. I felt alive in that moment. There was something about feeling that energy in a profound way. That experience stayed with me.”

Younis studied film as an undergraduate – he went to Southampton specifically because Finnegan was teaching a module there – before completing the MPhil playwriting course at Birmingham with David Edgar.

From Bradford to the Bush

Starting his theatre career in Yorkshire, Younis was artistic director of Freedom Studios in Bradford. While there, he collaborated with the Bush on a project that culminated in a two-week residency in 2010. He was appointed as Josie Rourke’s successor in 2012, after the transition from the Bush’s old home above a pub on Shepherd’s Bush Green to its current one, taking on the role as artistic director of one of the country’s leading new-writing venues.

“Those first nine months were the hardest as an artistic director. I was trying to find and nurture the work I wanted, while building a team and knowing I had to announce something.” Younis considers his 2013 programme, which included Janice Okoh’s Three Birds, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, Cush Jumbo’s play about Josephine Baker, Josephine and I, and Rory Kinnear’s The Herd, to be his “first proper season”.

“Growing up in London, I don’t remember ever seeing three black playwrights programmed back to back. I’d never seen that shit anywhere. I knew I wanted to do that and I knew these were the artists who could do it. I knew when I was making that announcement that it was speaking to who I was, and I knew we were ready for that, organisationally. Watching that season land in the way that it did was important.”

With that season, he felt he was making the work he believed in, “not programming in the way we think we should or that others may have over the years come to expect from a building like this, because that was how they remember it or they think it should be done”.

Younis says: “My offer was that I would respect the past – but the present looks different from the past by its very definition.” The 2013 season ended up being the theatre’s most successful season to date, playing to 99% capacity.

Is there such a thing as a Bush Theatre play? Younis shakes his head. “I hope not. That’s a narrow way of looking at things. There are qualities we are looking for: the questions the writer is asking and how those questions speak to contemporary culture. I’m excited by writers who look at the world from a different vantage point. That’s what I look for when I’m reading a play: writers who allow us to look at the world in a way that we otherwise might not, who make the ordinary seem extraordinary.”

He gestures again at the window. “My mandate is really quite simple: the Uxbridge Road – how do I reflect what’s on our doorstep?”

“A third of our audience comes from a two-mile radius to this building,” he says. The Bush Local scheme offers discounts to people living or working in the immediate area. “A building is judged on the work it produces – and, of course, that’s at the heart of what we do – but we’ve moved from a room above a pub that opened its doors at half-six in the evening into this building, which is open from 10 in the morning to 11 at night. That’s an opportunity, in terms of what we mean in the community.”

He goes on: “My greatest fear is not that cultural buildings will not exist in 20 years, but that they’ll be an enclave for a chosen few. For all the public money that is given to these buildings, are they really for all the public? It’s incumbent on my generation to ensure these buildings continue to speak as broadly as they can. The young woman who works in the supermarket down the road contributes as much as anyone else in our society.

“In Shepherd’s Bush, we have some of the highest levels of social deprivation in the country, along with the highest proportion of £1 million-plus houses in the country. Last year, post-Brexit, we saw a 500% increase in racial attacks in the area. The Polish Centre was daubed in graffiti that night, but there was also a march and that was powerful because it was a community saying: not in my name.”

The Bush, Younis says, is a vital part of that community. “It’s intrinsic in the art we produce and how we serve our audience, not just in the evening but during the day; it’s about a holistic approach. To look at what a cultural building can do, what we can stand for and what we stand against – that’s what drives us.”

Addressing diversity

Younis takes increasingly long pauses as we talk. He is careful with his words. He chooses them with care, and this sense of care intensifies as the conversation shifts to diversity in the industry more generally.

“In the 1980s, Naseem Khan published his report The Arts Britain Ignores. Then there was the Eclipse Report in the mid-1990s. Money was made available to buildings to respond to the diversity question. Diversity went from a summer news story to something on the front pages – that was the big change. More conversations are taking place, but I’m always reminded that for black artists – in the political sense of the word – our promise is always the promise of tomorrow and never of today.”

Younis says: “Look at #OscarsSoWhite or the Brits. There is much more willingness to talk about these ideas. Have we moved on? Maybe the question to ask is: do the people with power in our cultural sector look any different than they did 20 years ago? For all the money that goes on diversity schemes, you have to look at who the beneficiaries of those schemes are.

“If you look at the leadership of our buildings, it doesn’t reflect a broad spectrum of class, gender, ethnicity and ability. It’s one thing to fly the flag of diversity; it’s another for men and women who have agency to stand up and make meaningful change. Those men and women have to ask questions of themselves, because the make-up of our leadership across the cultural sector has not changed.”

Q&A: Madani Younis

What was your first non-theatre job? Supermarket cashier.

What was your first professional theatre job? Artistic director of the Asian Theatre School, which was part of Red Ladder Theatre Company.

What is your next job? Reopening the Bush Theatre on March 18.

Who or what was your biggest influence? My mother. I owe the best part of my library to my mother’s good taste.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Be prepared and know the work of the director or the theatre you are working with.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I’ve always wanted to be a director but I once debated moving into something in the legal field.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I like to steal five minutes to sit in silence before press night.

Younis worries about the prospect of losing a generation of young artists. In a piece written in response to The Stage 100 list, published in January, he expanded on this: “How many more generations have to experience that feeling of being marginalised? Within the larger context, this is reflective of our cultural political reality at present. At a time of international conservatism, we continue to see the marginalisation of the minority voice. This list reminds us that we are peripheral in our society, not just in theatre, but in our society.”

He pauses again. He’s been asked about diversity a lot over the past few days, he says. It’s a hard ask sometimes; these are complex things to express, the personal, professional and political intersecting. “As a mid-30s man of south Asian heritage, I have been stopped and searched on the road – and I know if I travel to New York I’ll be escorted into a room at the airport,” he says.

“In my life out there, there’s a politics of race, and a prejudice one has to negotiate, and then being met with it in the theatre as well, it has a concussive effect – I’m being met with that in all parts of my life. To me, diversity isn’t a policy, it is my being.

“The reason I work in theatre is that I believe it can create social change. I am acutely aware that I have agency and power. I am able to change things. I feel empowered.” He slows down, smiling wryly: “But let’s not lie to ourselves – who saw Brexit coming in our world?”

Transition and renovation

Having been on the look out for a new home for many years, the Bush moved to the Passmore Edward Library on the Uxbridge Road in 2011, shortly before Younis took over. The new building afforded the company far more space than in its previous, rather cramped, home above a pub on Shepherd’s Bush Green, but it was built at another time for another purpose and there was more work to be done to fulfil its potential as a theatre.

Last year, it temporarily shut its doors for a £4.3 million capital project – £2.5 million from the Arts Council, £1 million from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and the remaining £800,000 from trusts, foundations and individual gifts. The project has created improved dressing-room and rehearsal facilities. It has created a new studio space, roughly the same capacity as the old Bush Theatre, and increased the capacity of the main auditorium.

“Basically, we’ve moved the door,” says Younis, “and that one thing has given us a lot more space.”

The project has also addressed issues of temperature control – the theatre, as with many buildings of its age, was too hot in summer, too chilly in winter – and seating. Crucially, the building is now fully accessible and a newly built terrace area will make the theatre the only public building on the Uxbridge Road with outdoor space. In addition to this, the terrace will create a second entrance, opening up the building in more ways than one – making it more porous.

Following the revitalisation of the building, Younis’ new season will consist of 50% of the line-up created by black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee writers. Talk only gets you so far; it needs to translate into action.

“Diversity used to be a euphemism for ‘black’ but if you include the white working class, ethnic minorities and the disabled as people who are marginalised in theatre, you have to wonder what the dominant culture looks like, if not merely a reflection of what the dominant culture has always been in our country – a reminder of what empire meant. For all of our left-leaning, liberal policies, the narrowness of that dominant group continues to surprise me.

“If you’re a young, black or working-class or disabled artist and you don’t see yourself in those buildings, you start asking: where do I see myself? We, in the cultural sector, are responsible for that. There’s always this sense of needing more money, for audience development or training artists. I struggle with that idea: that in order to achieve diversity, buildings need to ask for more money when their public subsidy has been given by the public at large – not just some of the public.”

Madani Younis’top tips for theatremakers

• Make the work that you want to see on stage and that you believe in. Do not try to second-guess your audience. Make that work with integrity.

• There is another version of what theatre can look like. A young artist might inherit what my generation and the generation above me leaves, but that is not how it has to be. There is not a blueprint for how to be an artist. There is not a career development path that guarantees you anything. Someone once told me that, in order to succeed, we first have to learn how to fail.

• We live in times where playing to the middle ground is doing no good. Stand up, with confidence, even if that doesn’t feel fashionable. Don’t be what you think an artist should be – because we have too many of those. Invest in your craft. Stand up for the fucking things you believe in.

Welcoming back the community

The building’s reopening will be marked by a week of ‘housewarming’ events, kicking off on March 18. The highlight of this week will be Black Lives, Black Words, a project started by American playwright Reginald Edmund in 2015 to explore the black diaspora experiences in cities around the world. It’s an ethos that chimes with what Younis has been saying about reflecting the world beyond the theatre’s doors. The Bush has commissioned four new pieces for the event by the black British writers Rachel De-Lahay, Winsome Pinnock, Somalia Seaton and Mojisola Adebayo, and plays by American writers will also be performed.

For Younis, the decision to welcome people back to the building in this way was about capturing a moment. The past year saw the Bush become itinerant, while the building was shut during the capital project. The theatre took work out in the community. It programmed a series of short plays inspired by the Uxbridge Road and performed them in clubs and churches in the area. Younis’ production of The Royale was revived in the nearby Tabernacle. Stepping outside the building was an opportunity to engage with the community directly, to forge connections and start conversations.

“What struck us was how much we were talking about American politics and, to a greater degree, how we were immersed in what was changing in our city. The Black Lives Matter movement felt significant to us. We wanted to capture this moment that was affecting us all and show solidarity with artists. It is a gesture of what this building stands for.”

The opening production of the season will be Jamie Lloyd’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s play Guards at the Taj, which premiered at the Atlantic Theater in New York in 2015. “It’s a play about the privilege of art and that’s a really potent idea: who is art for? Who is beauty available to? And what does it mean when you’re not included?”

Later in the year, the theatre will stage Taylor Mac’s Hir, a play set in white, working-class America, while the studio will open with an Up in Arms co-production of Barney Norris’ latest play While We’re Here. The studio will also present Ramona Tells Jim, a new play by Sophie Wu, a writer who was part of the first cohort of the Bush’s Emerging Writers Group, “so it’s exciting we are producing her play”.

Younis is an energising person to talk to. The care he feels, both about the Bush and the wider industry, permeates every-thing he says.

“Running a building like this, I wake up every day knowing I will be met by something I wasn’t expecting. It’s about being nimble. Because nothing teaches you, and nobody can ever really tell you, what it’s like to be an artistic director, of how much your DNA becomes entwined in this building.”

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