‘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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album