TSOTA meets Rod Dixon, AD of innovative theatre company Red Ladder
[Paul Heaton & Phill Jupitus. Launching the ‘Save Red Ladder’ campaign. Image courtesy of Red Ladder]
Recently, TSOTA’s Sinclair Belle sat down with Rod Dixon, Artistic Director of Leeds based innovative theatre company Red Ladder. With a history spanning more than 40 years, the company specialise in pushing the boundaries of theatre for frequent play-goers, whilst also working extremely hard to bring art to new audiences. With the political landscape having a serious impact on arts funding at the moment, Rod gave us a unique insight into how the company keeps itself going and what Red Ladder’s plans are for the future.
TSOTA: For those who don’t know, could you just tell us what Red Ladder is, and how you’re involved?
RD: Sure, I’m Rod Dixon and I’m the artistic director for Red Ladder. The company was formed in 1968, as an agit-pop theatre group with a specific political agenda. Now, almost 50 years later, we’re still a company that makes work that has a similar agenda. I resist calling it political though, because that makes it sound like we’re all crazy donkey jacket wearing left-wingers who sell ‘Socialist Worker’ on the corner. Really, what we do is more about struggle and telling the stories of people who are being marginalised.
TSOTA: What does that look like in practice then? Can you tell us something that you’ve been involved in recently?
RD: We’ve just had a play that’s been on tour about the women in the Miner’s Strike, which is actually a comedy. The last show that we did of the run was at Hemsworth Miner’s Welfare, in a small village that was hammered by the events of that time. Apparently, they had more people put in prison in that area than anywhere else, and 30 years on the effects of that period are still deeply felt by the community. So, it was a real privilege to tell their story and bring it back to them, in a way.
TSOTA: In an instance like that, when the subject matter is so real, how do you feel the audience responds?
RD: Strangely enough, we’ve had standing ovations everywhere with this play, even in Hemsworth. I think that’s partly because it’s a comedy. Obviously, the Miner’s Strike is a grim subject, but when I went to the Miner’s Welfare to discuss it with them they said they hadn’t had theatre before and wanted to know what it was about. When I said it was a musical comedy their reaction was, ‘thank god!’ You know, they lived that strike and it was miserable and painful and they didn’t want to relive it in that sort of a way. There was one guy in particular who bought a ticket but decided not to come in the end, because he still felt so uncomfortable about his relationship with the events then. But, he was told by other people who went to see it that he had to catch it when it comes to Leeds, as it’s such a joyful production.
“I resist calling it political…because that makes it sound like we’re all crazy donkey jacket wearing left-wingers who sell ‘Socialist Worker’ on the corner…”
TSOTA: So, would you say that comedy is a technique that Red Ladder often uses to deal with difficult situations?
RD: Not always, but the writer that we’ve used, Boff Whalley, who creates these sorts of musical comedies is one of the original founding members of Chumbawumba. All of their music has a comically light feel to it, but underneath that it’s quite attacking and critical. So, you can be singing along to one of their songs that has beautiful melodies, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s about the Stasi, in East Germany. For me that’s very powerful. So, with this latest play, We’re Not Going Back, the comedy was in the scenes, but the real sadness was in the songs.
TSOTA: That sounds like a really interesting and powerful play. What other Red Ladder productions would you say that you’re particularly proud of?
RD: We have a show that started gigging in 2013, called Wrong ‘un and is still running today. It’s a one woman acapella musical, about a working class suffragette with a slightly different message to what we think about the suffragette movement. Although we often think about that movement being successful for getting women the vote, in 1918, it actually only won the vote for Ladies. It wasn’t actually until ten years later, in 1928, when working class women got the vote. So, the play focuses on the past of the suffragettes, the First World War, and women. But, it’s also about today as well because there’s a reference to Pussy Riot in it.
Image: Ella as Annie Wilde in ‘Wrong ‘un’, courtesy of Red Ladder
I guess I would say that like We’re Not Going Back it’s another show that has been really successful for playing to crowds that don’t traditionally go to the theatre, in places like trade union conferences, pubs, clubs, as well as theatres. I think it has been classically difficult to engage with certain audiences, and it still is. Most of the people who go to a venue like the West Yorkshire Playhouse are still white, middle-class, and fairly well educated. So managing to inspire other types of people feels like a real success to me.
TSOTA: How would you describe your typical venue and audience?
RD: Well, it’s a mixture really. We toured rugby league clubs last year with a play about Eddie Waring, the commentator. But, we don’t want a reputation for just doing one circuit, otherwise we’ll struggle to get back into larger venues and theatres in the future. What we really want to do is tour around smaller venues for a few years, gain some trust with different audiences, then drive people from the rugby clubs and the miner’s welfare etc. back to larger theatres. That way, even if they would say they don’t like the theatre, they might still come because they would openly say they like Red Ladder – because at the moment that simply isn’t happening.
‘Nicobobinus’ based on the book by Terry Jones is showing in London until Jan 4th 2015.
Photo – James Abbott-Donnelley
TSOTA: Why would you say that is the case?
RD: I don’t think the work that goes on the larger stages is particularly relevant to them. Obviously plays about the subjects we’ve talked about make sense, for those specific audiences. I think we do still struggle in this country with an arts that is quite elitist. My personal experience, coming from that sort of background, is that working class people feel intimidated by certain forms of art.
On the other hand, there’s also a huge problem with money. There just isn’t very much of it. In communities that we’ve been to, like Hemsworth, some people believe there’s more hardship now than ever. That’s mainly because in periods like The Miner’s Strike, people all helped each other. But with the bedroom tax and benefit cuts, it’s just really difficult.
“What we really want to do is tour around smaller venues for a few years… then drive people from the rugby clubs and the miner’s welfare etc. back to larger theatres…”
TSOTA: With that in mind, what is next for Red Ladder?
RD: Well, it’s difficult for us to get money as well at the moment, because we’ve had problems with arts council funding. So, our next production is going to be in London. It’s going to be two linked plays, both focusing on extremism. One play is going to be about EDL style extremism, called: Hurling Rubble at the Sun. The other is about Islamic extremism, and is called: Hurling Rubble at the Moon. They both sort of explore the fact that on either side of that line these people basically feel marginalised. They don’t feel like they have a voice, or that anybody is listening to them.
We’ve also been given the rights to produce a stage version of The Damned United by David Peace. He said that, of all the companies he could have chosen, he wanted us to do it because he feels our company is actually trying to give a voice to people who previously didn’t have one. With respect to The Damned United, we sort of felt that the film didn’t deal with the class struggle enough. So, that is going to be a big focus for us when we do our production.
Over the course of our full conversation, Rod further enlightened me about the problems the company had faced due to a lack of funding, the current roster of participants, and the company’s socio-political viewpoints. What stood out to me was the fact the Red Ladder has spent decades trying to bring thought provoking and boundary pushing theatre to its audiences. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem as though that will change any time soon.
Terry Jones – ‘Save Red Ladder’. Photo: Michael Clement
Both Hurling Rubble at the Sun and Hurling Rubble at the Moon will be running at Park Theatre, London between 13 May 2015 and 6 June 2015.
Filed under: Theatre & Dance