BWW Interview: Artistic Director Madani Younis On The Bush Theatre's Reopening
This week, London's Bush Theatre reopens following a £4.3 million capital project. The building's revitalisation sees it become more sustainable and entirely accessible, with a new entrance, front-of-house area and garden terrace, improved backstage facilities, an expanded main auditorium, and a new 70-seat studio space - a home for emerging artists and producers. Madani Younis, Artistic Director since 2012, discusses his hopes for the Bush.
When did you begin planning the redevelopment?
It's been a couple of years in the making. It took us about a year of preparation and then a year of delivering the building. The preparation was really us stress-testing our ability to raise the level of money required - £4.3 million is the largest fundraising target ever in this building's history, so we had to be really sure we had the capacity and the reserves.
What was the major priority for you?
For 40-odd years, we were above a pub with 80 seats. Then we moved to the library, which is a beautiful old building, but we knew it also needed to function like a modern theatre. It's amazing architecture, but the most important thing is to reveal this building to the men and women who walk along Uxbridge Road. It's the longest road in London and the most diverse in Europe in terms of the number of languages spoken.
So the major thing was having a place that could speak up for them and that's fully accessible to them. My brief to the architects was to create a building that felt democratic, open and porous. We're able to engage with far more artists through our new studio space and produce more work, and that's a big part of our provision for visitors, but we want everyone to feel welcome to the building right from when we open in the morning.
Did you do much research into what would make it feel more accessible?
We had a really big period of consultation, holding structured conversations with local residents, local businesses, community groups, core audiences and the artists working in our building. We really sought to understand where they felt opportunities lay, and how we could create a building that would meet the needs of our organisation now and in the future.
How do you think the new building achieves that?
The architecture makes it much more pronounced on the road, more than it's ever been. People might know there's theatre in the evening, but not that it's an all-day space for those of us who live and work locally. It's just as important to have that provision for community groups working with young people, or for associate artists and new writers to explore.
People refer to us as a theatre, and obviously that's in our name, but in my imagination we're a cultural building. You speak to that idea of culture not just when audiences are coming to see a performance, but when a community group is doing a play reading in the library, or a mother and child are coming in to read a book together. It's about nurturing that cultural experience for everyone.
What did you learn from this past year, working outside the theatre?
We spent 12 months making work offsite during the redevelopment, and it was a really purposeful endeavour - we wanted to make work throughout our community, from the karaoke bar to the local club or church. It's really helped us deepen those relationships. It's been an affecting year for all of us, with Brexit, and it's made us realise the importance of having a cultural building that's open to all, that's a safe space, and that really speaks up for the marginalised voices and the creative voices of our city.
How do you find a positive strategy when many people feel powerless?
We are the heroes and heroines of our own story, and we need to focus on the version of the world we want to help create. We're clear about what we stand for at the Bush right now: we want to speak for all, to reflect the city we live in, and the city that will emerge in the next 10 years.
What would you say to those who feel theatre is already left-leaning? Should the Bush have a political viewpoint?
Art, at its very best, should be polarising - no one has the right not to be offended. We work in the realm of new writing, often premiering work, and that work speaks of the world from very different vantage points. That's what I'm interested in; there isn't a house style or one political stance.
But for those who feel art is too left-leaning or progressive, I would point out that if you're disabled, if you're a woman or an ethnic minority, those practitioners would certainly highlight major issues of access that continue today. There's actually a conservatism in how we make theatre.
Your new season has 50% work created by black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee writers. How important is that for you?
I've always been driven by the desire to represent diverse voices - for me, it's not optional, it's necessity. We have to continue to confront the world from all perspectives. This season of work speaks of the diversity of ideas, thoughts and narratives that are playing out both in our country and internationally.
With artists like Rajiv Joseph, Barney Norris, Nadia Fall, Jamie Lloyd, and Black Lives, Black Words, it's really trying to reflect the broadest spectrum of ideas. That's what I'm excited about: curating a diversity of opinions that shape, shift and rupture the moment we're all sharing.
Do you try to get a balance of viewpoints?
I'd take the word 'balance' with a pinch of salt. I'm an artist - I'm not offering a documentary, or looking for an equation that makes everyone happy. My mission is to create culture that reveals our true humanity to each other, so we can meet on new ground.
How much is informed by your own experience of accessing theatre?
Some of my formative experiences of London - which probably aren't unique to me - were coming into this city, rightly described as the Mecca of theatre, but finding the images of me on those stages were few and far between, and probably not the portrait one would hope for. It's tough to feel invisible in the art form you love - and I really fell in love with theatre - so that was something I had to come to terms with early on. At the Bush, I want to ensure the next generation of artists don't have to feel like that.
What made you choose Black Lives, Black Words to open the season?
The opening event always sits a bit separate from the season, and it felt really significant to me. Black Lives, Black Words was created in Chicago by the poet and playwright Reginald Edmund in 2015 in response to the Black Lives Matter movement - it's an invitation for artists of colour to come together and share their experiences of living in America today.
The interesting reality for me is that if we really think about it, Black Lives Matter is not a new phenomenon. It's a continuation of a conversation that's always existed, in both our countries, looking back to Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. Looking at Britain today, it feels just as important to continue to document, present and critically respond.
We commissioned four original short plays from British writers - Rachel De-Lahay, Winsome Pinnock, Somalia Seaton and Mojisola Adebayo - to present alongside existing American plays, because if people look back in 20 years and ask what we did to open our building, I want us to make a statement about the moment in which we're living and the voices that need to be heard.
Do you think theatre should be current and reactive, or do we sometimes need time to respond to events?
With Black Lives, Black Words, this reality can be traced back centuries - it's an ongoing, everyday debate - so in a sense it's not new. But it also feels really important to confront the big issues of the day, and stand in solidarity with artists and citizens around the world.
How big a challenge do you think subsidised culture is facing?
I must say: our project cost £4.3 million, we had £2.5 million from the Arts Council, and our local authority supplied another £1 million. At a time when the trend nationally is local authorities not prioritising culture, it was such a privilege to work with ours, who felt so passionate about wanting us to succeed and really recognised the value of culture to our community.
My greatest fear is not that cultural buildings won't exist in 20 years, but that they become the domain of the chosen few. It's incumbent upon me and those running these buildings that we speak to everyone; whether it's the local librarian or the bus driver, their taxes help enable what we do. When I'm thinking of how we spend this money, I'm thinking of those men and women first and foremost. We're in an amazing country where subsidy enables culture - we must never forget to serve those we support us.
How important was it to offer £10 tickets in the new season?
Our cheapest ticket before we closed was £12 - now it's down to £10. That's so important. I know what it's like for friends with young children: if they go out, it's the cost of childcare, travel, dinner to make an evening of it. It's not just the ticket price - that's something we have to keep in mind.
What work are you doing to encourage the next generation?
The proudest thing for me, on a personal level, is the growth of our community engagement department - working with Nubian Life day care centre through to the local primary school and everything in between. We've found a more holistic engagement. For the elderly too - often theatre wasn't on their radar while they were working and raising children, so it's as important to engage or re-engage them as it is to offer supplementary support to children.
We have a really important programme of community workshops with young people, especially small children in schools. The Government's policy on arts education is such a grey area - we really don't know how much value they place on culture - so we're mindful that we want children to feel a professional theatre is going to support their needs and give them that example of making work.
How would you like to see the Bush grow over the next 10 years?
We're at an amazing moment - this building allows us to dream really big. The Bush has always been a bit maverick, a bit naughty, a bit cheeky, and I don't want us to lose those qualities that have defined and characterised it. But as we look ahead, over the next 10 years, I believe cultural buildings need to speak from a place of love as well as loudly and proudly about how important culture is.
The best way to do that is create circumstances for the best writers, the best actors, the best directors to do their best work and speak to everyone, not just a chosen few. That's how you make meaningful change, in theatre and beyond.
Find details of the Bush Theatre's redevelopment and new season here
Picture credit: Richard Davenport, Helen Murray