Feel-good theatre - Meet Ian Brown, the man behind West Yorkshire Playhouse
PUBLISHED: 22:48 09 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:48 20 February 2013
He gave some of our biggest stars their first break, directed the 'amazing' cast of EastEnders and now runs one of Britain's best regional theatres. Ian Brown talks to Chris Titley Photographs by Joan Russell
Ian Brown was about as far removed from the glamour and greasepaint of theatrical life as its possible to be growing up on a farm in rural East Anglia. Yet today hes the artistic director and chief executive of the West Yorkshire Playhouse responsible for its reputation as one of Britains finest theatres. So how did he make that journey?
It began, he explains, with his parents. My dad was a farmer but really loved going out and seeing shows. My parents were very good at taking me to the theatre. They didnt just go to local am dram productions of Gilbert & Sullivan, but all the way to London. I would go off in a taxi to the theatre, sometimes with them and sometimes on my own, he said.
I must have been about nine. You wouldnt do that now would you? Ian also went to Stratford to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest, later learning that Patrick Stewart was a junior member of the cast. With three older siblings, he was often alone in childhood and, inspired by these trips, he would spend hours putting on plays and messing around. I bought a little toy theatre book of the Laurence Olivier Hamlet I was really fascinated by it, cutting out the little figures.
Ian describes himself as a Piscean who can be both very responsible and thoroughly irresponsible, and it was the latter quality that came out at secondary school. I mucked around a lot. I wasnt a good student and I was a bit of a handful in the classroom. Theres an anarchic streak to me. Fortunately he had a very good English teacher who put on a play every year which was a blessed relief from some of the other bits of school. I wanted to be an actor.
His dad was far from keen however, despite his love of the theatre. He thought it wasnt a proper job. So he insisted that I went to drama school and got a teaching qualification. Accidentally that was probably a good thing because I wasnt really an actor.
He really was a director, a fact he discovered during his time at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. After graduating Ian wrote to acclaimed theatre and film director Peter Brook who recommended he spent time as a teacher as preparation for a directing career.
A stint in a tough London comprehensive school followed I dont think Ive ever been so tired then he moved on to run the youth company at the Cockpit Theatre. Among the young actors were Michelle Collins, who went on to star in EastEnders and much else, and Tim Roth, later to star in films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Michelle definitely had a bit of spark to her. I worked with Tim on a very sprawly musical and he and Rita Wolf, who was in My Beautiful Launderette, sat down with me and cut the script together. They were great.
His break into professional theatre came at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. By then he knew where he wanted to specialise. He wasnt interested in posh theatre but new plays and theatres with a community aspect. I was very anti-elitist about who came to the theatre I wanted to widen the audience.
He moved north, to the Glasgow Citizens Theatre to run the youth company TAG, and from there he was appointed artistic director at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Here he staged an adaptation of the cult Irvine Welsh novel Trainspotting. Ewen Bremner played the lead role of Renton, before swapping to play the character of Spud in the movie.
Ian transformed the Traverse in his 11 years there, moving it to a new, larger home and adding an education department. He left in 1999 to freelance, and soon found himself in Albert Square directing episodes of EastEnders. I did Bianca having the affair with her mothers new boyfriend, the guy who was a fireman, he recalls with a smile. They are an amazing group of actors. I had perhaps not valued what they did.
They work extremely hard and lead very odd lives I think. They were all so committed to doing a good job on it.
Ian enjoyed working on the soap despite the huge technical challenge involved. The Queen Vics known as the directors graveyard because its really hard to shoot in it. But its a fantastic thing to do. Albert Squares like a toy theatre really and as a director you get to walk around it on your own. That was quite thrilling.
His heart wasnt in TV though it belonged on the stage. He was hired by Jude Kelly, then artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, to direct Of Mice and Men, and he took to the place immediately. I absolutely loved working in this building. I found the people really supportive and friendly, loved the auditorium, loved the Quarry.
After a spell as associate director he took over from Jude when she left in 2002, and dived head first into one of the worlds greatest plays, starring a future Doctor Who. Doing Hamlet for the first time came with that weird feeling wow, were doing Hamlet, the play Id worked on as a kid! Ill always remember Christopher Eccleston, what he looked like, his persona a very powerful thing.
Hes worked with lots of star names but (a little disappointingly) has no major bust ups to report. The guys with massive egos arent the sort to come to the Playhouse. Comedian Lenny Henry chose the theatre to undertake the greatest examination of his professional life playing Othello.
We provided him with a pretty safe environment for him to have a go at being Othello. He knew everybody, they all knew him. It helped calm him down. With 150 staff, two theatres, an education programme, a restaurant and a bar, the playhouse takes some running. Ians challenge is to keep taking risks on new writers and productions while still bringing in 200,000 people a year.
Set to make life harder is a new government intent on tackling a giant budget deficit. Difficult days lie ahead for arts funding, but Ian fervently hopes the politicians will recognise what they get for a relatively small amount of money.
It has a hugely civilising effect, having a theatre in the city, he says.
On a good night here, when youve got young people and old people, people from every background all in the same building, you do get a feeling that were all in it together. Its a good thing to share some of that happiness, to laugh together, to be moved by something together to feel part of something.