Between People, Part One and Part Two: Rufus Norris interviewed by Sara Jane Bailes

Posted on May 17, 2016

Our brilliant team behind Mayfest Radio recently did a rather marvellous thing. They set up and recorded the longest interview with Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre, since he took up his tenure there.

In 2005, writer Dr Sara Jane Bailes (now Head of Performance at the University of Sussex) interviewed Rufus Norris for the Performing Arts Journal. They talked about his career and the state of British Theatre. The article was called ‘Between People’.

Eleven years later and exactly one year to the day of Rufus taking up his post at the National Theatre, they revisit that conversation in an hour long interview recorded exclusively by Mayfest Radio, called ‘Between People: Part Two’.

We provide both interviews in one place, 2016 and 2005. Listen and read below.

Rufus Norris interviewed by Sara Jane Bailes

Rufus Norris interviewed by Sara Jane Bailes

This interview first appeared in the PAJ 81 (2005) A Journal of Performance and Art.

One of the most consistently interesting theatre directors working in London at the moment is Rufus Norris. His production of Festen, a stage adaptation of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film of the same name, transferred from the Almeida to the Lyric in the West End where its London run ended in April 2005. The play was nominated for five Olivier Awards, and is scheduled to transfer to Broadway later this year. Norris’s production of Sleeping Beauty has recently transferred from London’s Barbican to Manhattan’s New Victory Theatre, and he is about to begin rehearsals with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal on a new verse translation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding by Norris’s partner of many years, Tanya Ronder, for a production at the Almeida Theatre. Alongside his career as a freelance director, Norris maintains his position as Associate Director at the Young Vic where he works alongside David Lan. Prior to this he worked with Stephen Daldry at the Royal Court (1996–1999) as an assistant director. Since 2001 he has collaborated with companies in Ramallah (Palestine) and Iceland as an extension of his work at the Young Vic. The following interview was taped on February 12, 2005, at Norris’s home in West London.

What always strikes me about your work as what I would call “a theatremaker who directs,” is the holistic integration and craft you apply to the many strands that make up the theatrical event, especially the emphasis you place on music—not simply as a constituent element of each production whether you are working with a devised or a pre- written script, but musicality understood more broadly as an architecture that influences your approach to text and collaboration with actors.

Well, I started with an engagement in music when I was young and that continued all through my childhood. I got involved in theatre when I was 15 or 16, but I would say that music has always been my primary artistic . . . not medium exactly, because I was never particularly good at it. I learned classically as well, and there’s no text, and you have these things called incidentals or dynamics, little bits of Italian written above the staff.

Like pianoforte?

Yes, or sforzzando or allegro or whatever. And a lot of them, well 95 percent I could safely say, are purely dynamic. They have no explicit emotional connotation at all. That’s very important, because what it does inherently is accept that someone who’s playing the piano or violin, if you tell them to play loudly or quietly suddenly, can’t help but find an emotional reason to do that. I think my grounding as a theatre artist is the same as my grounding as an emotionally expressive person. That’s really what my theatremaking is all about—give or take a little bit of craft and a sense of visual this and that—the emotional dynamics between people. As a director I think it’s important (as I also think it’s important as a writer) to not put in brackets “with tears in your eyes” or say, “I’d really like it if you could make me cry, the way you’re doing that”—that isn’t generally a great way to direct.

You know, that’s interesting to me, something I hear you talk about a lot: often the measure of good work for you is whether or not it made you want to cry, or whether it provoked an emotional response in you. Or perhaps whether it moved you.

Yes, I suppose whether it moved me is better, because movement, again, doesn’t have an explicit narrative to it: it’s in one direction or another. I suppose it’s a cliché, but the physical analogy or metaphor that I like the best in the relationship between the piece on stage (rather than individual actor), the energy on stage, and the audience is that you’ve got a fish hook in your mouth as an audience member and there’s a tension, constantly. Now, if you’re playing a fish, and you move it or it moves you, you go with it, and there’s an ever-changing dynamic as you reel it in. But there’s something about that engagement between live performance and an audience, where the deal is you don’t let me off the hook or you’re lost!

So, do you think that character is intrinsically connected to that, because you pay a lot of attention to character? Is the movement or dynamic that you talk about partially realized through character? If we take the example of Festen, it’s almost entirely about the inner emotional lives of the family, to a greater extent I would say than most plays. Or maybe not, because I suppose that’s Chekhov too, right?

Yeah, it’s Chekhov and it’s Shakespeare. Most big stories have got people up against big stakes.

Yes, well, declaring incest by and to your father on his 60th birthday celebration among family and friends, it doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it?

It is big, yes! But getting your eyes put out by a couple of your bastard son’s mates is quite a big one and all, and he’s only got a small part, you know? I guess what I love about Festen, actually, is that nobody dies. What’s beautiful about it is that we didn’t all have abuse in our families, but we all have those cans of worms. We all know how to take the lid off something at a family get-together, and how frightening that is. How you can just see the repercussion of people who are courageous in every other area of their lives and how they will retreat to a terrific cowardice in the face of trying to preserve a status quo in certain cultures more than others. I guess very much in Danish culture, and I felt very much in ours, which is why it rang such a bell for me. But I don’t know about character really, because the exciting and engaging thing for me, and certainly how I like to direct, is to think about what moves an audience—what takes you from where you’re sitting, there, thinking about the job you’ve just come from or what you’re going to do later tonight, and what takes you out of that and into the story. It’s what happens between people, not what somebody is doing. I don’t care how good actors are, if they’ve forgotten that the important thing is what happens between people, and not that actors are brilliant, then it’s not happening.

But do audiences know how to respond to what they’re watching without being totally influenced by the media and the critics? In any scene that’s as big as New York or London, the theatre world seems so calcified, economically driven, and controlled. Isn’t it about knowing that they ought to be watching, or liking this particular actor or director because she or he is popular right now? I am curious what you think about this because it doesn’t seem as if there can ever be any surprises in London any more. Not in the mainstream.

I think it’s hard. It’s not that it’s stagnant; it has shifted. There’s quite a lot of life and a lot of movement going on within the industry and a great deal that’s very positive in some respects. But not in the crucial respect. It’s about energizing the whole— well, but you can’t do the whole culture. It’s always just about a few individuals, about a few little or even bigger companies having a go.

So have there been any surprises?

Well, it’s not that there are none, but they tend to be quite little.

Like the ensemble Shunt, perhaps? Have you seen their new show, Tropicana?

I haven’t, no. I’ve heard very mixed reports about it.

Did you see their first show, Dance Bear Dance, a clever and in many ways magnificent site-specific piece that inhabited a series of interlocking railway arches at Bethnal Green?

Yes—now there’s a case in point. The site-specificity of it was interesting; and the non-linear narrative thing was relatively interesting though a bit boring, if you ask me. At the end of the day, I think you need to know how you relate to a classic idea of a story. I’m not saying you have to do story. But I think you have to understand what you’re not doing. It’s like minimal music or anything else. Know that you’re doing a variation on a theme. Don’t just do the variation because everybody else does the theme and the theme’s boring: know what your variation is. But yes, Shunt. They had one fantastic moment in it, one really brilliant moment.

The mirror moment?

Yes! The mirror moment—total, pure theatre. You are one or two years old again, and that was just totally gorgeous.

Because you didn’t know for an instant where you were, actually, or what was real. All the parameters suddenly lifted.

But to go back to what you were saying—it’s a lack of surprise and a packaging of ideas that’s problematic in the theatre culture at present. I don’t know, it’s difficult with Shunt, it’s tricky. What do you think should have happened with them?

Well, I think the same thing will happen with Shunt as happened with Theatre de Complicite in the mid-nineties; and in a way it’s the same thing that they tried to make happen with Richard Maxwell in New York; the same thing that always seems to happen with anyone who’s doing something innovative. You either leave the country so that you can carry on making original work, pursuing your unfamiliar vision, like Peter Brook as an obvious example. Or you move into the National (or the equivalent) and become the mainstream avant-garde. You allow your work to be absorbed and you cease developing at your own pace.

But it’s way too early with Shunt to be talking about either of those options. I mean, you’re comparing them with Complicite.

Yes, but that’s because of how times are changing, how quickly people now look to the margins and recognize that place of intense activity.

And pull it in. I think that’s one of the big challenges, now, to somehow be able to hold your nerve and demand the apprenticeship that, in the back of your mind, you know you need. To somehow resist the promise of money.

I couldn’t agree more. That’s exactly what shouldn’t have happened with Maxwell, who got pulled in too soon from the downtown scene in Manhattan to direct a large-scale production for the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn, when he wasn’t at all ready. He was fine developing his own trajectory. That learning period, the period in which you develop a voice, a style, a set of tactics and strategies, is critical to an artist’s craft and his (or her) ability to realize their ideas. How long would you say your apprenticeship lasted?

Well, I trained as an actor for three years at RADA, from 1986 to 1989, and prior to that I played in bands and theatre companies and all that stuff. Then I worked as an actor from 1989 till 1992, and wrote music for theatre until 1997. I started directing in 1992.

What was the first thing you directed?

The Lizzie Play. If you’re lucky in life, I think that a couple of times something happens that opens something up, career-wise.

Or within your mental and critical landscape?

Yes. And I suppose one hopes that that happens a lot more in one’s life. But that was a major one for me, in that I didn’t even think of directing, I’d never thought of it. I didn’t want to be an actor—never wanted to be an actor. It was the training that I wanted, but I didn’t think beyond that.

Was The Lizzie Play one of those paradigm-shifting moments for you then, like when you go to a country like Australia or America for the first time and you stand in the context of a greater land mass and understand the world can have a different scale to the one you already know?

Absolutely. It changed what I knew was possible in terms of making theatre.

We‘ve both been in London as participant-observers of the theatre scene for nearly twenty years. We come from different backgrounds that intersect in quite interesting ways: there are seams where distinctions across different kinds of practice become muddier and we’re both drawn to those interfaces. I’m wondering how different you think things are currently, and if you think it’s a fertile or a fallow moment. Is there a generation of interesting theatremakers coming up now—and if so, who and where are they? Compared to the companies we were part of and surrounded by, like the People Show, Lumiere & Son, Station House Opera, Impact, Desperate Optimists, Insomniac, and so on. I’m working with a young company in Bristol right now, The Special Guests, mentoring them as they make their current show This Much I Know (Part 1), and they’re quite brilliant, I think. They just did a performance at Toynbee Hall and Artsadmin is supporting them. They’re very focused and committed, and they’re going to be interesting to watch as they develop. I recognize in them the same kind of commitment that was around Arts Threshold, and in those of us who worked with Pete Brooks. They’re not making the same kind of work, but as a company they’re “on it.” But I don’t know about the rest, I don’t know what it all feels like whereas right now with Festen you are right in the middle of the mainstream London scene.

I think I know where they come from, those companies, those energies. There are always people around who are interested in art in an individual way, or who don’t feel part of or don’t want to be part of a form that is already boundaried and defined, and they look for common minds. I ended up in theatre, you ended up in performance art related stuff; but we could both have ended up in the visual arts, and we could easily both have ended up in music. It’s just the people you meet at the time. So Pete Brooks, and Arts Threshold, in other words Brian Astbury, who also ran the Space Theatre in Capetown with Athol Fugard.He forced me to direct! And this small company that you’re mentoring, and the very fact that you’re mentoring them. A lot of the time these things come from, or are attached to, academic institutions. Our generation came from Lancaster or Exeter or Bristol, and actually, it was difficult for us and it’s difficult for them now.

Gael García Bernal in Norris’s Blood Wedding.


Rufus Norris


Scene from Festen, Lyric Theatre. Photos: Courtesy Keith Pattison.


Difficult because there’s no money and no structure, no real support?

Well I don’t know because I don’t do it now, I only did it then. And back then there was less structure and less money. The Arts Council’s got much more money now. It’s been great, having struggled away for a measly little project grant here and there for so long, to then have been on some of the panels that decide who gets revenue funding. I was on the London Arts Board and then London Arts. It was very interesting having an overview of all these companies scrabbling around trying to get a little bit of a very small pie, and then getting to a certain level and having absolutely nowhere to go. Three or four years ago—maybe five years—the Arts Council funding went up.

Because of Labour?

Yes—and now it’s just got worse again. But it will have to get a lot worse to get as bad as it was, say, seven to twelve years ago. That period was particularly rough, I seem to remember. But then, it could just be that those were my rough years. The Special Guests, who you’re working with in Bristol, they’re having their rough years now.

Well no, you see, they’re not. That’s what’s interesting to me, how it’s all shifted. I see them and I think about us at that age, early to mid-twenties, how we were managing or not managing to make it happen. I think what’s changed is the economic structures within which it all develops. For example, there is no income support any more so they’ve all got day jobs and then they rehearse one or two nights a week in the drama department where I teach, or in a space given to them by the Bristol Old Vic. So it all feels much more legitimate.

Well that’s a difference isn’t it, right there? Because we were all on the dole for years.

Exactly. And we had housing benefit, but most of us found that we couldn’t work because if we did we wouldn’t have been able to afford housing, which meant that we couldn’t afford to work. And that alternative but limiting economy enabled us to make work while keeping us poor and at the margins. Funnily enough, having day jobs young theatremakers seem to be more mature, more savvy. They’re more focused because of it, for lots of reasons, and they have to be more organized. The Special Guests, three years into their career, have an organization like Artsadmin behind them, and the Arts Council already aware of them and funding them, and important local arts venues like the Arnolfini in Bristol, who have an international profile, affording them status as artistic associates. They’re also given rehearsal space. Things have really changed. That couldn’t have happened to any of the companies we were involved with, not so quickly. There’ve been important shifts in the cultural infrastructure and the funding and support mechanisms available. But it’s also the difference between Bristol and London perhaps.

Yes, I know, it’s a different landscape now. But can I go back to that point about energy that we touched upon because I think the culture has moved forward in one particular way, theatre culture, that is, and that’s to do with craft, actually. Take Nick Hytner at the National. He’s doing a bloody good job there in terms of people delivering a higher standard of craft, but I think that there are a lot of lazy directors, who for many years have got away with laziness and mediocre work, and I do think that the ante has been upped. Not necessarily in terms of being really skilled at directing, and not actually being more or less imaginative in the way you direct, or making great theatre; but in terms of the skill of it, of making sure that it’s tight. Michael Grandage is another one. You never get bored in a Grandage show. He runs the Donmar and recently he’s running Sheffield as well. Now, it’s not to my taste actually, I find it too controlled. But it moves along, it looks great; he’s really got his hands on it. And that kind of level of sheer craft is good. It ain’t “it,” but it’s very good! You’ve got to be able to play the violin before you can make it sound like an extension of the human voice. You’ve got to get your intonation right first, which is a tall order, and there’s a lot people in the past who haven’t even done that.

So let me ask you, do you think that those are the most important theatre houses in London at the moment for seeing a serious dramatic play, for seeing good new writing? The Donmar, the Royal Court, and the Young Vic? Is that where you would expect to go?

Those, and the National, primarily. My favorite among those is the Young Vic, but then it would be because that’s where I’ve been nurtured of late, it’s my home. But I think that probably the most interesting place, consistently, in the last seven or eight years, has been Battersea Arts Centre (BAC). It combines a lot of things that we’ve been talking about. Those companies that we’ve been talking about, who emerge from the regional universities, they get a certain amount of nurturing there. But then they all feel they’ve got to go and play in the London venues and get their international touring—and they do have to. They’ve got to get their little national tours or their international gigs, and renting a theatre in London isn’t possible, and you end up losing a lot of money, and hundreds of us have over the years and all the rest of it. But what BAC have done, and still do, is initially provide space but then also time and development and ideas and staffing. And then a kind of reputation with which to enhance the work. They also do fantastic seasons, their Octoberfest, and the Opera Season, twice a year. Nowadays, there’s not an interesting theatre company that doesn’t go through there. It’s amazing the amount of young theatre companies who owe that really crucial period of their lives to Tom Morris, basically. I mean, yes, it’s a company of people and a team, and David Jobb is doing a really good job now because Tom’s gone to the National (and you have to say hats off to Nick Hytner, that’s exactly what he should do, and he did it)! And Jerry Springer, love it or hate it, is a little idea that came out of BAC. It started as a Scratch Night, and then a Scratch half hour, [evenings where anyone can get up and share work-in- progress], and then they did it again and so on, and that’s how it developed.

So BAC is continuing to perpetuate that strong, lively, risk-taking, work-in-the-making, inclusive theatre culture, you’d say?

Yes—I think so. I mean they have their struggles, because perversely, the more recognition they get, the more their local council seems to want to withdraw their support. Tom was a hard act to follow and David is doing really well. So it will be interesting to see what is happening, when somebody who comes from a quite formal way of doing theatre comes up against a group of people who just don’t work like that and whose idea of process is completely different. It’s something I’m having to deal with as well, because I’ve had a little foot in the process camp. All the Wink stuff has been process-led.

So is Wink, the production company that you set up in 1993, still going?

Well, no, it’s not. I mean it is, in as far as we still have a bank account, but we don’t operate. But then again since we last did a Wink show, I’ve probably done four or five shows with Katrina [Lindsay]. This morning we were designing the Blood Wedding that’s going into the Almeida. And it’s not Wink, but it’s the same people. Andrew Maud, who was in The Lizzie Play, is in Festen; Danny Cerquiera and Helena Lymbery—Helena was in the first show at Threshold tooæthey’re both in New York at the moment; Andy Frame is also in Festen; Danny will come back in again for Blood Wedding, you know. It’s a shame that it can’t be the Wooster Group or Forced Entertainment.

I’m curious that you mention the Wooster Group. Why do you wish you could be the Wooster Group? And why do you mention Forced Entertainment? Are you referring to their set up, the way those two collectives have chosen to organize their working conditions? Because formally, I have to say, their work seems so different from what you do.

Well yes, of course it’s different, because it’s not . . .

It’s not text-driven, or driven by certain conventions of narrative exposition, and neither is it reflective of mainstream values.

Yeah, absolutely. But there’s an awful lot more script-led stuff around than what I do. Of course it’s totally different in a way. But I think we begin to stray into a whole other big area about audience and exposure and accessibility and populism. A lot of the people in the Wooster Group have had opportunities to go elsewhere and do other work. There’s just something about the deliberateness of the work, it’s very specifically chosen work, and the deliberate quality of their work is a lesson to absolutely everybody. You know, you can love it or hate it or whatever, but absolutely everything is exactly as they mean it to be when you get the show. And the rigor and the standard of excellence that they adhere to is absolutely phenomenal.

Each of those companies maintains control of their productions. I mean the Wooster Group—and I think this is really relevant because it’s comparable to the whole Arts Threshold set up—have control over what they do. So their mode of production, their production organization if you like, is of their own making. They bought the Performing Garage so they own the space where they make work. They self-produce. They don’t perform anything until they’re ready to and they develop through several works-in- progress for as long as two years. We’re talking about an almost thirty-year span of labor here, and twenty years now with Forced Entertainment. It’s no surprise that it’s fundamentally about economics, because the means of production is in their hands, which means they can keep to their own aesthetic. They don’t have to cast anyone they don’t wish to collaborate with, or make work in a way that isn’t devoted to realizing the vision of the company members, but most specifically Liz LeCompte, of course, in the case of the Wooster Group. You’re in a system that’s at odds with that, and the product is very different.

You know, there was a period when I loved what Forced Entertainment were doing, both in terms of what they were making and how they were doing it.

What particularly did you like about their work?

Their subversion, really.

Of a certain set of rules?

Yes. And the wit and courage with which they subverted it.

The Wooster Group and Forced Entertainment are clearly inspiring to you and your methods of working, but who else’s work do you admire, in the States and here?

Well lots of individuals really, because it’s an individualistic world. You know, Ian Rickson when he’s on form and with the right new play, he’s brilliant. Then Stephen Daldry, when he’s got the right idea with the right text. All the work he’s done with Caryl Churchill is great. Well, everything Churchill does is great.

Who are your favorite writers?

Churchill, Martin Crimp, and then of the younger ones, I’ve got a soft spot for David Eldridge and that’s why I keep working with him. Debbie Tucker Green, she’s really fantastic. There’s a play of hers coming up at the Royal Court called Stoning Mary, and I consider it the worst series of events in my career so far that I’m not able to do that play because it’s probably the best and most important new play that I’ve ever been offered. Now I don’t know whether it’s going to be any good, because I’m not doing it! No, joking aside, I don’t know how well she’s going to get served. But actually, she’s only done one play before which I didn’t do, and it was really good, so it’s got nothing to do with me and it’s absolutely to do with her! It’s fantastic, really fantastic.

So to bring us to a close, do you think that the London theatre scene is relatively healthy now from where you’re positioned?

I think the ground has nutrients in it. And I think the sun is shining. But I think a lot of the plants that come up, the really quirky ones, get hot-housed too quickly. It takes a special kind of nurturing or a special set of circumstances that can bring through the really surprising people. I mean, when I look around, if I’m going to be completely blunt, I don’t think the competition is that tough at the moment for mainstream directors. But you know, there’re so many more now, and I look forward, really look forward to going and seeing work. I love it when I see something that makes me feel old because I think there it is, finally. It’s funny, it’s Ian McNeill’s thing [the designer of Festen] when he says, how does he put it, “It’s just a plaintive call to your peers to get on with the business of inspiring you.” I yearn for theatre that is beyond my capability.


  1. Shunt is a collective of ten diverse artists who have worked together for over five years (since graduating from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama) to explore the “live event.” The company’s work is largely site-specific, incorporating theatre, dance, visual art, sound, video, and circus. Shows often have an experiential quality, part of an ongoing examination into the relationship between performer and spectator. The company currently works in premises near London Bridge. The Shunt Vaults, situated at Bethnal Green in London’s East End, where their acclaimed show Dance Bear Dance (2003) was made and performed, is a 70,000 sq. ft. labyrinth of archways that was a bonded wine vault for the last one hundred years prior to the company taking over the space. Their current show, Tropicana, a collaboration with the National Theatre, is on until June 2005. (
  2. This refers to an astonishing moment in Dance Bear Dance where about half an hour into the performance the audience is herded together to stand before what appears to be a mirrored wall. Seconds later, while gazing into a mirror image of themselves, it becomes apparent that this is no mirror but another group of audience members standing opposite: each group peers at the other through a large archway that leads to a second space where another performance has been simultaneously taking place. The other audience group has been moving throughout this other vault, both groups unaware of the other. From this moment on, the dual space remains open and the two audience groups become one.
  3. The Lizzie Play is an adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story, “The Fall River Axe Murders,” in Carter’s anthology Black Venus, based on the “true” story of Lizzie Borden who killed her father and step-mother with an axe. Lizzie became Norris’s first ensemble play at Arts Threshold and began to establish many of the characteristics that mark his directing style, including strong ensemble acting; a simple and organic non-realistic set; music, and a predominant visual style. Deirdre Strath, with whom Norris has collaborated on several occasions since, adapted the original story. Several years after it was first made, the piece toured as a British Council show and secured Norris’s reputation as an innovative young theatre director.
  4. Norris began his directing career setting up the theatre ensemble, Wink, with Katrina Lindsay (designer) and Natasha Chivers (lighting designer) in a small abandoned church basement near Paddington in 1992, with the encouragement of Brian Astbury. They called this new, collectively run theatre venue Arts Threshold.