ATC’s Ramin Gray: “The search for who is the Weinstein of British theatre is an honourable search.”
“I’ve put in for the Dreamgirls day lottery and I have a very high regard for musicals,” declares Ramin Gray, Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company
In the month of Actors Touring Company’s fourtieth Anniversary, I thought it might be nice to shine a light on one of theatre’s most interesting characters, aka Ramin Gray. A man who’s not afraid to talk openly and honestly about real issues – Regional Theatre, Spacey, taste or Trump– while also knocking out cosmopolitan theatre.
“The single most inspirational piece of theatre, for me, is A Chorus Line,” he tells me. “which is a model for how to make theatre. The aesthetics and politics of that show are exemplary. There’s good and bad theatre and ultimately, it’s about taste.”
We are two minutes into our conversation in the crow’s nest of an office at the top of a flight of narrow stairs, behind the Royal Society of Arts, off Trafalgar Square.
Gray goes on to explain his theatre frustrations. “Something I find a bit depressing is that I go to the theatre and it’s generally of a rather good standard across the board… But frustratingly, it’s also become a ‘product’ and that’s a bit bloody annoying.”
“I’m so privileged,” he says about his Arts Council Funding. “I have taken that responsibility very seriously. I do understand that it’s a lot of money, but it’s a tiny amount compared to other companies.”
With such diverse and exciting work out on the road, I ask if it is fair to say that ATC do not mess about. “We get £207,000 from ACE every year,” he says, “we have to pay the salaries of four people, run the office and make our shows. The productions don’t make money. When you tour – you don’t make money. But, in the way the public have the right to free health care, they have the right to experience and engage with quality theatre wherever they are in this country. If you’re outside London it will feel like money down the drain, but that’s why we are here, to spread the love. Our USP is, I think, going off-piste, pursuing obscure and some might say elitist or you could say excellent, mainly international writers.”
Currently, Gray and Actors Touring Company have 5 productions on the road, from Plymouth to Scarborough and their international tour dates for 2017 include Helsinki, Barcelona, Dublin, New York, San Francisco and Hong Kong. This month sees the company celebrate their 40th anniversary making international and contemporary work.
Where would he like to see ATC in another forty years? “I remember when Eat opened up next to Pret A Manger and I thought that they were insane, but they both seem to have flourished,” he says, grinning. “I think it’s a shame that there isn’t another company doing international work on the scale that we are. Not just to challenge us, but to give people more of this fare. If the same people are scrabbling over new writing – the best thing would be if there was another company of a similar stature, doing work in a similar area of the repertoire.”
At the recent UK Theatre Awards, Lyn Gardner commented: “If you want to see the future of British Theatre then get on a train.” What does Gray think about the current state of play in regional theatre? “London is still so dominant, politically, culturally, financially, in so many ways. If you’re in Manchester, for a week even, you can go ‘there’s three things I wanna do’ and you can do them all. Whereas London is inexhaustible. And I think that’s why people in London rarely think about leaving to search out new things. I worked at Liverpool Playhouse for five years but my relationship with regional theatre is now very different as we always co-produce and tour. Standards are generally good but I tell you, a type of theatre that does not exist anymore – the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in the 1980s – That. Was. A. Theatre. Radical aesthetic, off-the-wall programming, I don’t think there’s anyone doing anything as distinctive or different and I don’t see why that can’t still happen.”
Ramin is busier than ever. Later this month his storming production of David Greig’s version of Aeschylus’ tale of escape from forced marriage and exile: The Suppliant Women arrives at the Young Vic. “The Suppliant Women is sung and moved throughout, we wouldn’t have shows like Dreamgirls without it,” he says.
I compliment the scope of ATC’s collaborators: Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, Royal Exchange Manchester, Young Vic, Orange Tree, Theatre de la Manufacture, Schauspielhaus Vienna, Bragenteatret, Unicorn Theatre and more. Gray’s perspective on diversity is unusual:
“Speaking as someone who doesn’t have a drop of Anglo Saxon blood in me, I think that the English are *on the whole* a remarkably tolerant, gentle and self-critical bunch,” he says still smiling. “You’re expecting me to say – I’m absolutely shocked at diversity levels: actually, we are doing a pretty good job. Of course, we have to make absolutely sure that there are no barriers to people participating and we have to make sure people are being invited to see our work. I grew up in the seventies and experienced a lot of racism, I got beaten up, called pakki and gay and I am none of those things…. I do think the world has absolutely changed for the better.”
He continues: “Do I feel I should be doing more? No. Do I think we should be doing less? No. I think we are doing a great job. I want to find new ways to excite people so they engage with the work.”
Is he shocked by the current abuses of power tsunami that is tearing through the industry ? “We are seeing that this is everywhere: Houses of Parliament, bankers, football, Harvey Weinstein and Spacey. It is about power and I think the reason it’s all kicked off could be to do with Donald Trump – the guy was elected President and he’s made a mockery of politics… Our faith has been rattled,” he says, linking the industry that enabled such behaviour to the wider society that voted for a self-confessed crotch-grabbing president.
“Not to excuse him in any way, but Weinstein became the lightning conductor. All the stuff that was in the ether around Trump coalesced in this thunder clap and now it’s rippled out and the ground is shaking everywhere.”
Does he think this is just the tip of the iceberg? “I think the search for who is the Weinstein of British theatre is an honourable search and some names have come up. More may come up. It is a terribly traumatic process and it’s right that we are examining it and bringing stuff to light.”
Who is his go-to collaborator? “David Lan,” he says -instantly. “I’ve done three plays with him. I really adore that man; I think he is an absolutely wonderful human being. He is an incredible combination of cunning, generosity and peerless intelligence.”
Gray explains his thoughts on the current climate for theatre makers. “I think there’s a fantastic energy around. I think it’s a powerful environment in which to be making work. But I’m also concerned that work is becoming blunt. Where is the nuance? Where is the subtlety? Stuff is not black and white. If theatre has value, it is precisely to explore complexity, the grey zone if you like.” Gray says with conviction.
And with that, via a gentle handshake and a recommendation that he go and see An American in Paris, “Take care!”, We say goodbye.
The Suppliant Women is at Young Vic, London until 25 November.