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Interview: Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell

Stepping into the shoes of a high-flyer is never easy but Lorne Campbell, who has replaced Erica Whyman as artistic director of Northern Stage, seems cheerfully undaunted

Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell
Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell

Stepping into the shoes of a high-flyer is never easy but Lorne Campbell, who has replaced Erica Whyman as artistic director of Northern Stage, seems cheerfully undaunted.

Erica left Newcastle at Christmas having landed the number two job at the Royal Shakespeare Company and an OBE to boot. Since then the admired multi-tasker has also embraced motherhood, giving birth to a baby girl.

But an hour in Lorne’s company whizzes by and I am left with the impression of someone who will do things his own way and maybe with some style. He has a vision and a sense of humour, qualities that should serve him well in the North East.

First, though, let’s clear up the pronunciation of a name not that common in England.

It’s pronounced ‘lawn’, says Lorne obligingly. “Around Oban I think you’ll find one person in three is called Lorne.”

He, though, is not from around Oban.

“I grew up in Edinburgh and then went to college in Liverpool, John Moores, and trained as an actor.

“When I left college, myself and a friend started a little theatre company in Edinburgh doing mostly schools theatre.

“Through running Forge Theatre Company I started doing more directing, which I did enough to realise I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing, so I went back to college to do a Masters in directing at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (renamed the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2011).”

To backtrack a little, Lorne’s mother was an English teacher and his father a lawyer.

He recalls: “On my dad’s side of the family there’s a long tradition of flamboyant storytelling... never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

We have a good laugh at this, the journalist and the lawyer’s son.

But he goes on: “Really, I was taken to the theatre a lot as a kid. I remember coming to Newcastle to see Robert Stephens in King Lear.

“That was one of my fantastic moments as a young person in the theatre, one of those epic theatre experiences.”

Lorne Campbell, then, can join the lengthening list of current theatre professionals whose eyes were opened by the RSC seasons on Tyneside.

Lorne didn’t act at school until his final year. “I was in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (he played Lysander) and I was just bitten by it.”

He also experienced being directed by his mother who taught at his school.

With minimal experience and his parents’ blessing, he was “lucky enough” to get into Liverpool John Moores University where he met a man whose enthusiasm inspired him and remained with him, the Nigerian Esiaba Irobi.

“He was a writer and a director and the first person I’d ever met who completely embodied his art. In depressed mid-90s Liverpool he seemed so vibrant and inspiring.”

Irobi died of cancer in 2010, aged 49. Now back in Scotland, Dr Irobi’s former student was “starting to gain access to proper professional theatre”.

In 2001 he was sent on a placement to Northern Stage, assisting Alan Lyddiard – Erica’s predecessor – on his Playboys season, including plays by David Mamet and Harold Pinter.

“That was a really exciting and worthwhile experience. I learned a lot from Alan. I’ve a very vivid memory of him saying, ‘You can’t give actors power but you can leave power in the rehearsal room where actors can pick it up’.”

This, he explains, means encouraging actors to become active rather than passive participants and “take responsibility for what they’re doing on this stage in this place at this time“.

Finding actors, he says, “is a bit like falling in love. It’s finding a connection between you and someone else and between them and the material and the audience.

“You’re making a work of art that is ephemeral, that only exists on one night with that audience. Actors who really inspire me, like Mark Rylance and Kathryn Hunter, have the incredible gift of making something seem fresh every time they do it.”

Newcastle seems to have played no small part in 35-year-old Lorne Campbell’s career so far.

It was in 2004, while Forge Theatre Company’s touring production of Death and the Maiden was on at Northern Stage’s old Gulbenkian Studio, that he learned he had been accepted onto Channel 4’s young theatre directors scheme.

It sent him back to his home city to work at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre with Philip Howard, the artistic director.

“I really grew up there as a director working on new writing. I directed 15 to 20 shows.

“It was a hugely exciting time to be in Scotland with the birth of the new national theatre company.”

Rising to be associate director, he stayed until 2008 when he decided it was time to move on.

“When you’re working with new writing it’s clear that the author is the master of the material. The first production is the cradle of a new play and as the director you have to serve the writer’s vision.

“When I left I wanted to experiment as the author of my own work.”

In London, with partner Selma Dimitrijevic, he founded Greyscale Theatre Company.

“We were interested in finding writers who would work in a collaborative way and on a more level playing field with actors and directors and designers.

“We wanted to look at how we could energise the experience of an audience.

“That can mean audience participation but it doesn’t necessarily mean that. Really it means making work that could only work in a theatre, that couldn’t be film or TV.

“Erica was a huge supporter of our work. Almost everything we produced came to Northern Stage.”

Greyscale, by necessity, has now relocated to the North East, adding to a theatrical landscape that impressed Lorne in its energy and variety.

He sees his Northern Stage appointment as a natural progression of his earlier work. “That’s why I applied for this job and why I’m so excited to be here now.”

Just a couple of weeks into his tenure, his expressed vision for Northern Stage is peppered with questions: “What is a building like this for now? How do you make work that is important for this city, this region, this audience?”

Inevitably many of the answers will have to be found on the job since there isn’t time for head scratching.

Northern Stage, like others, is losing subsidy from Newcastle City Council and adapting to an age of austerity.

“It’s a very difficult moment, not just for us but nationally,” he acknowledges. “You can’t lie about how serious this is for art organisations and theatre has been cut down to the knuckles already.

“We have to expect further cuts this autumn and we’ll be faced with some hard choices.

“But I’m proud of how the sector has already responded to the cuts in really imaginative and generous ways.

“It’d be easy just to protect what’s yours but everyone, from artistic directors to festival programmers, has responded by looking for new ways to collaborate, to share resources, to support and nurture artists.

“One of the things that brought me here is that I think, despite these difficulties, we could be sitting on the edge of a really golden moment for theatre and performance in the North East.

“There’s so nearly a critical mass – not just in the city but in the region – of companies, of writers, of interesting artists that it’s almost a functioning fringe scene.

“Us in collaboration with Live Theatre, with Arc (in Stockton), with the Theatre Royal, Sage, Baltic and other partners around the region... if we can catalyse that moment then, in spite of cuts and difficulties, this can be a really exciting place to be.”

Lorne says one of his challenges is getting Northern Stage better known locally.

“This theatre is considerably more famous outside this region than it is here. It’s one of the most respected theatres in the country and the work produced here during Erica’s tenure set a benchmark of quality.

“Now we need to be a bit more famous at home. It’s very easy to travel round Newcastle and never walk past this building, even though we’re yards from the main shopping street.

“It’s about creating things here that people don’t just want to see but have to see.”

Lorne offers hints of the theatrical approach he favours. A Christmas show, he believes, should be “loud, raucous, irreverent, fun, even a bit scary”.

Coming up this year is Dark Woods, Deep Snow: A Grimm Tale, by Manchester writer Chris Thorpe. By the sound of it, it ticks all the Campbell boxes.

Before that, though, there’s The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, which would seem to do likewise.

It seems ironic that the Scottish new director of Northern Stage should be making his first piece of work for the company to be performed over the border but that’s the way it is.

Last year’s successful Northern Stage-led invasion of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe will be repeated in August, with Northern Stage at St Stephen’s again showcasing work made down here up there.

Northern Stage’s website describes the ballad project as “part protest, part prophesy, part poetry, part party” and says it will involve writers, performers, balladeers and special guests in creating an epic new ballad “with and for the audience” every night.

It promises noise and organised chaos.

It has Lorne, credited as curator, wreathed in smiles.

With the relationship between England and Scotland in the balance and the implications for the North East open to question, this could prove a timely contribution to cross-border relations.

It makes me wonder: could Lorne Campbell – working in partnership with Sue Coffer, Northern Stage’s newly appointed executive director – be the person to usher in that golden moment?

It should be fun finding out.

On Saturday it’s Family Day at Northern Stage as part of the Festival of the North East. The fun happens at the theatre from noon and most stuff is free. Check for details on www.northernstage.co.uk  or www.festivalne.com

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