‘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)

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
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
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'
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

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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker