‘It’s about pushing boundaries’: Indhu Rubasingham on her rise to artistic director

Indhu Rubasingham is shaking up London’s Tricycle Theatre

When I first interviewed theatre director Indhu Rubasingham, back in the summer of 2010, she was adamant about one thing: she had no desire to become an artistic director, but preferred instead to concentrate on a burgeoning freelance career. When I meet her now, we talk in the office of the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre. Since May 2012, Rubasingham, 42, has been in charge of this highly-respected Kilburn venue. She succeeded Nicolas Kent – who was in charge for 28 years and acclaimed for his verbatim “tribunal” plays on political issues – and her wide-ranging, ebullient and multi-cultural shows have been proving award-winning, sell-out hits.

Why the change of heart? “That’s the problem with print,” she laughs, “the things you say come back to haunt you! My personal circumstances changed quite drastically ... even when I applied for the job, I didn’t know whether it was the right move for me. When you’ve been freelance for the majority of your career, I think it makes you slightly fearless. It’s not like I went into this going, ‘I’ve got to kowtow to anyone’s demands because I’ve got to keep this job’. I’m so used to not knowing what my next job is. I don’t feel I’ve got to hang on at whatever cost. It feels very clear.”

One of your previous concerns, I remind her, was that being an artistic director would be oppressively 24/7. Is that the case? “It’s 24/8! I think part of the reason is taking over an organisation that’s been run for 28 years in a particular way and being a very different type of artistic director means that everything is being looked at and changed or kept.” Was there much to change? “Yes, huge amounts,” she says, going on to talk in detail about the “organisational structure” and funding. “If I was going to run a theatre, whatever theatre, I would want it to be led by my vision, not taking on someone else’s vision.” One of the very first things she changed was the bar area. “When I worked at this theatre freelance before, I’d never stay in the bar and have a drink, but go across the road to the pub. So when I started I thought I can’t be the artistic director of a building where I don’t want to hang out.” She smiles, thinking of the warmer colours and improved choice of wine downstairs. “What you realise is that this goes hand-in-hand with income generation.”

Her biggest fear, now that she is an artistic director, is not being able to attract audiences with her choice of programming, she says. A joyously colourful double-page spread in the latest Tricycle brochure, itself an eloquent symbol of a revitalised theatre, belies this worry, proclaiming all sorts of positive statistics about Rubasingham’s first season in charge. Of these, the stand-out figures are the 98 per cent audience attendance and three awards garnered by Red Velvet, the play that opened her very first season.

Lolita Chakrabarti’s drama tells the story of pioneering black actor Ira Aldridge, and the racial prejudice he faced when he played Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1833; it is currently being revived at the Tricycle, once again with the mighty Adrian Lester, Chakrabarti’s husband, in the lead, before transferring to New York in March. Its groundbreaking success might look seamless now, but the project was actually a seven-year labour of love for Rubasingham and Chakrabarti, who originally envisaged the piece as a film script. “I said to Lolita, ‘Write it as a play – we’ll get it on quicker’. Famous last words!” Laborious rounds of development work and rejection followed, before Rubasingham took over at the Tricycle and staged it straight away. “I felt it was a calling card in one way, in the sense that it’s a play about theatre, race, politics and it’s about pushing boundaries, against all the odds.”

There are also strong rumours of a West End transfer for Handbagged, the stand-out hit of Rubasingham’s second season, which she also directed. Moira Buffini’s deliciously playful look at the often vexed relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher has two actresses portraying each of the women as their younger and older selves. However this fledgling project, expanding on a previously Tricycle-produced short play by Buffini, was nearly strangled at birth by the announcement of the similarly-themed Helen Mirren juggernaut, The Audience. “I said to Moira, ‘We’re a small theatre in north-west London, let’s just do it. It’ll get a different audience. Heck, who cares?’ I joke now, but my agent told me I was insane. I was scared.”

The success of these two shows will help the Tricycle’s beleaguered finances, which suffered from a major cut in Arts Council funding just before she took over. Pragmatic and forward-thinking, however, Rubasingham is so positive about the Tricycle’s future that she has just embarked on an ambitious fund-raising campaign for a £5m project to modernise all areas of the building.

Are we losing the argument for arts subsidy in this country, I ask? “No, not at all,” she says enthusiastically, before admitting that “we’re in a very dangerous situation”. “What really frustrates me is a sense of frigging entitlement,” she says suddenly. “You look at Government and the Cabinet and you see a marked difference from even when Thatcher was in government – [it’s very] private school, Oxbridge, male. How many of those people really understand what’s going on?”

Rubasingham says her two least favourite questions are “what’s it like to be a female artistic director?” and “what‘s it like to be an ethnic minority artistic director?” “I throw it back and say, ‘Tell me what it’s like to be white’ or ‘Tell me what it’s like to be a man.’” So I sidestep these, and ask instead who inspires her. The answer is her Sri Lankan immigrant parents. “I wouldn’t be doing this without their support. That’s an easy thing to say, but it wasn’t like they came from a culture where theatre directing was a viable industry.” Looking around the resurgent Tricycle, it is evident that Mr and Mrs Rubasingham’s faith in their daughter has paid handsome dividends.

‘Red Velvet’ is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6, until 15 Mar (020 7328 1000, tricycle.co.uk)