Deepest empathy

As the new artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre, Anthony Clark has radical plans. For drama to matter, he argues here, it must allow us to inhabit one another's skin
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The Independent Culture

After nearly 20 years of directing and writing for regional theatre companies, including a six-year stint as the artistic director of Contact Theatre in Manchester, and 12 years as an artistic associate at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, I have returned to London as the new artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre. Having argued for years that more new plays should be programmed in our theatres, I am excited by the prospect of running a theatre where new writing isn't considered a risk, an optional add-on and a loss-leader, but rather the whole raison d'être of the organisation. At Hampstead, new plays are understood to be a direct way of exploring the times in which we live, a means of revitalising the industry and the main part of a strategy to draw new audiences to the theatre.

The most formative years of my career were spent working in London, first as a trainee director at the Orange Tree, and then as the first professional director of Britain's first British-Asian theatre company, Tara Arts. Before I started work at the Orange Tree the only plays I had directed, apart from a very misguided production of John Mortimer's The Dock Brief set in a birdcage, were my own. I used to design all my productions, and I daresay if I had been a better "study", I would have acted in them as well. Under the guidance of the Orange Tree's artistic director, Sam Walters, I learnt to rehearse professional actors; I honed the dramaturgical skills I had picked up in my drama degree at Manchester University; and I embraced the opportunities of theatre-in-the-round.

Walters had no truck with my "student-award-winning", autocratic approach to directing. He taught me to see that a production could be shaped organically in the rehearsal room, through the director asking questions of the actors and the creative team. So now, I try not to show, or tell, actors how to act. Instead, I search for the right question to elicit a response, which hopefully I can then mould into a performance by asking more questions. Working on new plays at the Orange Tree helped me to realise that every subject is potentially suitable for discussion in the theatre. But it is the things that we long to say in our everyday lives, but can't - because we haven't the ability to express ourselves, or because we are too inhibited by social convention - that have the greatest impact. Such things as declarations of undying love, uncompromised anger at authority, succinct political analysis.

At Tara Arts, I toured two new plays by Jatinder Verma: one, The Lion's Raj, examined the view of British-Asian youth of Gandhi's legacy. The other, Ancestral Voices, examined the persecution of elderly Asians by the young. These two plays introduced me to a new culture and a totally different way of looking at this country's colonial past. Working in two or more languages, and experimenting with theatrical forms from the sub-continent, also opened my mind to the possibilities of theatre. I realised that for theatre in this country to become more inclusive, people from diverse backgrounds had to be encouraged to participate, both as practitioners and as audience members.

Theatre is fundamentally about telling stories, and it usually relies on empathy for its impact. The more the people on stage have in common with the audience, the more that empathy is enhanced. I will never forget the delight on the faces of a group of Asian girls in Southall, who were studying Look Back in Anger for GCSE, after they'd seen Tara perform Ancestral Voices. They realised for the first time that it was possible to use theatre in this country to explore their own experience.

When I took over Contact Theatre, I was given a brief to attract people aged between 15 and 26 to the theatre on a regular basis. I explored the possibilities of integrated casting and of commissioning playwrights from diverse backgrounds. I wanted to pursue this with a vigour and consistency that would not only offer many practitioners opportunities to work in an area where there had previously been very few, but would help the company, over time, to change its audience profile.

Passionate and exhausting debates raged as we tried to analyse and assess the validity of what were doing from production to production. Was it "non-traditional casting", and if so, who were we trying to influence? Was it colour-blind casting, and if so, were the individual qualities we were celebrating really those assimilated from a white tradition? How far could the English tradition genuinely embrace theatrical expression from other cultures, when there weren't enough playwrights who were prepared to explore the possibilities of integrated casting? The discussion was never more heated and confusing than when we were casting new plays in which race was not an issue. If you are a writer with rigid views about the way that your characters should look and behave, I don't recommend that you write for theatre. Plays only triumph when their writers allow the creative input of others to bring them to life.

The challenge for me at Hampstead will be to build on the theatre's recent success in increasing the diversity of its programme without alienating its loyal audience. To be judged favourably, the plays will have to create an irresistible current between the action on stage and the audience. Theatre is a meeting of two parties, usually strangers, both with considerable expectations. For the meeting to be a success, both parties must enjoy each other's company, learn something from each other, and agree to meet again.

In any strategy that aims to encourage audiences to attend new plays regularly, an essential strand has got to be the ticket price. A low price is an incentive to take a risk. Most people have an idea about what they consider to be value for money. I would like to see catching a new play become as important to people, culturally, as seeing a new film, or reading a new novel. But in order to compete with these other forms of entertainment, theatre must be competitively priced. In my first season at Hampstead Theatre, we will present plays at extremely affordable prices.Up to 650 seats a week will be priced at £6.50 each for anyone under the age of 26 or on benefits. There will also be more performances at which our general concessionary rate of £9.50 is available.

I believe that too few new plays that reflect a genuine diversity are being commissioned and programmed at a price that people can afford. And there is not enough quality work presented for children and young people to give them a taste for theatre. I hope to do my bit to improve the situation as the artistic director of Hampstead Theatre.

Our autumn season includes plays from such established writers as Clare McIntyre, Stephen Lowe and Hanif Kureishi, a second play from Gregory Burke and a first play by Drew Pautz. It also includes a new play for children between the ages of seven and 11 by Barbara Norden.

The number of scripts that we receive has increased markedly since the new theatre opened. Building on various models of good practice, we are in the process of implementing a range of schemes to develop these scripts for production. In partnership with companies of like mind from both the commercial and the subsidised sectors, we are looking to co-commission, co-develop, and co-produce. We hope that this will not only increase our output, and help to create a theatre-going habit in a more diverse audience, but that it will also extend the life of each new play that we present. Once a play has lost its virginity, it is very difficult to secure a second production for it, unless it receives exceptional reviews and the general approbation of London.

Since I arrived at Hampstead, people have been asking me what my policy for the theatre is, and how different it will be from what has gone before. My policy will be best expressed by what we do, and other people will have to assess for themselves how far it differs from what has gone before. I want to present plays that are morally challenging and emotionally liberating, plays that both reassure and shake up an audience, through narratives that explore the paradoxes of human existence.

We live in an inexplicable universe that embraces the wildest extremes. As a species, we feel our capacity for goodness is inexhaustible, but we create and tolerate extraordinary human suffering. Our desire to forge relationships appears to be as strong as our need to destroy them. We live in a world without absolute values, and we need our art, and particularly our theatre, to rehearse our moral dilemmas, and to help us to define ourselves. Our species is unique in that we learn the best way to survive through empathy. And the theatre is the most wonderful place to tune up our ability to empathise.