Northern Stage artistic director Natalie Ibu interview: “I want more dialogue and less monologue.”
Northern Stage’s newish artistic director Natalie Ibu – who took up her post in the middle of the pandemic – has impressed with her inclusive strides since taking up post in November 2020; during the second national lockdown.
It’s true that Ibu has undeniably put the work in. But for all she has already achieved in her first year, I sense she is only just getting started. It has, in this industry, been a challenging time. Is being an artistic director in a pandemic fulfilling? “I love artists, and I love being a facilitator,” she says simply.
“I enjoy being able to say ‘yes’ and making things happen. The pandemic has certainly been challenging to my confidence. You know, there’s something about going back into a room and reminding yourself you can still do your job – I am fortunate to be able to do this in such a creative and rich region.”
She continues: “There’s something specific about joining in a historic pandemic; I don’t yet have a memory of this building; I don’t have a memory of these audiences.”
Ibu has also announced further plans for Housewarming, the autumn season at the theatre, which includes neighbourhood events this month, a series of performances in pop-up venues in July and August and will see the building reopen on August 25 with a Northern Stage and Unfolding Theatre co-production, co-created with kids.
Natalie will direct a new production of Jim Cartwright’s Road for her first show as artistic director of Northern Stage. It is, she says, the “dream play” for her to direct as the inaugural show for Northern Stage.
“It’s with Road that I found my vision as a director at university,” she says with a smile. “I love the fact this play will not be contained by a proscenium arch; it is sprawling, it spills out into the interval and pre-show. Road is about the stuff that matters, it’s about protest, community, living for the weekend and dreams, all things we have been reminded of that we have missed during this period.”
It opens in October, and will be designed by Amelia Jane Hankin, with lighting by Zoe Spurr and movement by Nadia Iftkhar.
Paines Plough’s Roundabout will also pop up in Byker during August and will present the company’s touring programme alongside community and performance work from Northern Stage.
Furthermore, Northern Stage will continue digital access to work, and will programme socially distanced performances once full capacities are permitted, restoring audience confidence delicately expanding possibilities and audiences.
We are talking in the week of a four-week delay to the final stage of easing lockdown restrictions in England: Andrew Lloyd Webber recently backed down over his threat to reopen his theatres without social distancing after being warned his entire staff and the audience could have been fined hundreds of pounds each.
So, would she be prepared to break the law and risk arrest for theatre? “No,” she says firmly. “One: because I dislike breaking rules and two: we’re talking about people’s health here… I love theatre but it is certainly not worth people dying over.”
The serious challenges facing arts freelancers leave a mixed picture for the future of British theatre. Looking ahead to two years from now, how does she want the industry to be different? “So much has been lost and cannot be regained,” she says with a sigh. “I want more dialogue and less monologue.”
She is also clear about what she wants to achieve: “I want to see a more front-footed approach to theatre being essential to people’s lives and I want a better understanding of our collective civic purpose, to acknowledge our role as civic players. I want us to fight for our audiences and our place on the cultural menu,” says Ibu.
Ibu, who was previously artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi, a company dedicated to championing black British narratives, says she hopes we collectively “realise the need for new and different leaders that engage new and different workforces and artists that are able to speak to new and different audiences.” She seems like precisely the artist she wants to be, precisely making the art she wants to make, delivering it on precisely her own terms.
The lack of diversity in the British theatre industry is an issue on which she is vocal. “The truth is, diversity just means difference,” is how Natalie puts it. “Difference is excellence and makes the pursuit of excellence richer, right?”
“Because diversity starts at the top, I am worried about how we look after those different leaders that we brought into these institutions in recent years and how they sustain their energy during this time. I am certainly worried about the unique set of challenges ahead for new artistic directors who are different, and as we rebuild and reopen,” says Ibu.
She pauses then adds: “I am apprehensive about whether the sector will use this opportunity that it has been given decisively and properly.”
Tickets for shows start from £10 and go on general sale from 1 July, with pre-sale tickets available to Northern Stage members and supporters from 24 June.
For more details and full listings visit northernstage.co.uk