Interview: Red Ladder Theatre’s Rod Dixon

With theatres shuttered for the time being, I’m going to be spending a lot more time chatting to creatives (at a safe distance, naturally), and the best of the situation is that I’m going to be keeping very good company if this cracking first interview of the lockdown is anything to go by. Rod Dixon, Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre since 2006, is all wisdom and passion when it comes to theatre. I could have edited this down into a pithier snapshot of this Sunday afternoon chat but actually, if there was ever a time to not short-change people stuck at home desperate for distractions, it’s now! So here’s the full chat with the brilliant Rod Dixon of Red Ladder Theatre – pour yourself a brew and get comfortable…

What drew you into the theatre?

I’m from Liverpool originally and I fell in love with a girl at the bus stop who used to get the same bus as me but went to a different school. She went to a girl’s school called St Julie’s and I thought she was absolutely wonderful. Every Wednesday night I saw that she was back on the bus going into town, so I plucked up the courage at the bus stop and said ‘where you going?’ and she went ‘I’m going Liverpool Everyman to the Youth Theatre.’ And I was like ‘What?!’ and she said ‘come with me’ so I thought wow, I’m in! So I went to the Youth Theatre at Liverpool Everyman but I didn’t tell any of my mates because this being Liverpool, it’s quite a macho city – so I used to take football boots with me and pretend I was going to football practice. But that was my introduction; love was my introduction to youth theatre.

That’s probably the best intro story I’ve heard to date…

– well it was a really amazing time because Liverpool Everyman was run by John McGrath then and he had an ensemble which included Pete Postlethwaite and Julie Walters and people like that, so it was an amazing building to be in. I was really lucky. And then I carried on at university in the drama society and all that kind of stuff and then went to drama school after that.

With Red Ladder Theatre priding yourselves on its radical origins and continuing with this mission of being ‘fearless’ and ‘agitating’, does each production you undertake inherently include those features or do you work to create and strengthen those threads?

Well I think for me, I don’t want theatre to be polemic – even though I love Billy Bragg, some of his songs are really on the nose – and I would like our theatre to be first of all entertaining for all, but have an underlying message about struggle and about kindness and about loving one another. The only reason we have a class system is because we have a Capitalist system. It’s very interesting at this time with Priti Patel’s comments about ‘low skilled workers’ – (but) it’s those workers who are holding everything together right now. They’re out there opening supermarkets and running the NHS, so for me, I think theatre should be really galvanising if possible.

The theme of all our shows is always struggle, which is a very wide theme if you think about it because the whole world is traumatised. And I personally believe it’s traumatised by the system that we live in and live by, which is breaking down, inevitably. So I don’t want our theatre so be so ‘radical’ that only Socialist Workers Party people will come and see it. We did a lovely show with Phill Jupitus in 2012 which was a pure music hall comedy called Big Society, written by Boff Whalley of Chumbawamba. And Tory-voting North Yorkshire farmers came to that…and loved it! You could tell they were farmers; they had big rosy cheeks and they were swaying along to lovely old music hall style songs about police brutality, so it’s that kind of ‘good night out’ in that 7:84 tradition that I believe is what makes theatre galvanising. It’s not about being on the nose and being political and shouting abuse at people, it’s about sharing good stories really – and that’s what all theatre should do.

Agreed – and I love that your brought farmers to the theatre! So, with the focus of the company generally being that sense of struggle, what kind of human struggle do you find most compelling and pressing? I think from your answer there I can imagine it’s the combinations of struggle which are most interesting to you but is there something specific that really gets your goat?

I don’t think there is actually a specific thing. I think there’s a unifying struggle – so for example, I’m researching a piece of work at the moment with a dance choreographer. Dougie Thorpe used to be a dance choreographer with Phoenix Dance for years and his own choreography is brutal; it’s not dance at all, it’s quite startling. And for ten years we’ve been talking about making a piece of dance theatre together that isn’t dance and it isn’t theatre, it’s its own hybrid. Because if you write ‘dance theatre’ on a piece of publicity for a Red Ladder audience, they will leg it! And when he’s not a dance choreographer, he drives taxis so obviously his stories are of sharing a taxi with all kinds of people and struggles and seeing the dark underbelly of society at 3 in the morning – it’s fascinating.

So we’re researching and looking into making a piece of work that is narrated by an actor who is the taxi driver but then we have these dark interludes into people’s private lives that’s nearly all movement but with text laid on it. So in other words, it’s a gateway drug to dance theatre; we’re guiding people very gently into the world of dance theatre. It’s never been done by Red Ladder before and I’m sure my producer is scratching his head and going ‘oh my god he’s gone mad’. Andrea (Heaton) who wrote and performed Smile Club is writing it and she is getting really excited. Her career is really interesting, she worked with Imitating the Dog for years so there’s a lot of devised work and she’s a really brilliant performer. She hasn’t performed for ten years, so Smile Club was quite a challenge for her. But she’s really into the idea of writing this piece called Taxi. So you’ve heard that first – no one else knows about this piece of work –

I’ve got an exclusive? How fantastic!

Yeah – an exclusive – so we’ve got to do that now!

I love that – bringing audiences to new genres without them even realising it, that’s the perfect way to do it.

Well I think that’s what we do with theatre as well. As well as touring theatres we’ve got our own non-theatre circuit across Wakefield, Leeds and Barnsley, which is small working men’s clubs and rugby league clubs and social clubs. And we take our work into there. So we try and make sure the work is designed so that it can fit on a stage and look good but also carry the same production values into a working men’s club. But some of it was fairly obvious, like The Damned United was a no-brainer, the Leeds fans would come and see that whenever, wherever. And a show about Eddie Waring, the rugby league commentator, with a Rhinos player in it? No brainer. So we’ve kind of guided people into thinking ‘well this is alright, I’m having a good time and I get a cheap pint’ – without being patronising – but you know, ‘I won’t got to a theatre, that’s not for me, but I will go to a club’. So if we can get Taxi in there…

I mean, everybody gets taxis but nobody thinks about it, they just get out of the taxi and go ‘thanks mate, bye’ not knowing that they’re probably the 28th person that day that’s sat in that taxi and had an impact on the driver. If you’ve had an unpleasant customer, that carries a stain on you and it’s hard to be friendly to your next customer; that’s why when you get into a cab, the driver might be stony silent because they’re just dealing with the last idiot who just got in.

In order to make it work with dance choreography, we want to make it almost surreal, so we’re gonna go for a kind of graphic novel style, so all the characters are kind of heightened and a little bit off the scale, and a little bit filmic. So it isn’t just a kitchen sink ‘this is what it’s like to be a taxi driver’, it’s a visual experience as well, with pumping music and gauzes and (we’ll) have graphic novel style text put across a screen so that – again, at the risk of sounding patronising – so that younger audiences will go ‘wow, this is cool’ because we don’t want to just get the older, white working class audiences in (who have been coming to see us), we want to get teenagers as well.

Well that segues very neatly into the next question… You’re clearly very keen to support creatives and the arts beyond your own door, with Red Grit, your free Actor Training and an open invitation to help companies planning their tours and so on. Do you feel that there’s generally enough of that kind of support out there for fledgling creatives?

I think it’s hard – there’s been a massive move to get more of the working class into the arts. I’m working class, I got into the arts; I think it’s very, very hard to get into the arts, whatever class you are. Obviously if you have wealthy parents who can pay for you to live in London for four years, then you’re going to have a massive leg-up. But I’m trying to say to people that you don’t have to go to London.

So there’s a lovely actor called Tom Swift who we trained. He’s a plasterer and he did Parting Glass and Life and Soul which are two plays written by (Chris) O’Connor about male depression – sounds like a great night out right? It was a great night out actually! But Tom did Red Grit and several of our community choruses (he was in Mother Courage, he was in Shed Crew) and we thought he looks just right for the role of Jim. And we said to him do you want to do it? And he said ‘yes, definitely, I hate plastering!’ He’s a really lovely, responsive actor and he’s jumped into things like Meisner training and he’s paid for that out of his own pocket.

So I think, yes it helps to go to drama school but I think if you can hook into training like this – and Red Grit is physical training, it’s not about improvising, it’s not about trying to get onto ITV as an extra, it’s about the craft of acting. Some people get on with it and some people don’t, but he really did and he’s a great example of somebody who’s got some professional work. But that’s not the promise I make – you’ve got to be really careful about saying ‘do our training and you can be an actor’. It would be immoral to say that because it’s a struggle. Red Grit is mostly about people getting an insight into the professional theatre in the way that works in the rehearsal room and it’s just good for their own physical and mental health.

And the course is specifically geared towards that physicality of performance and ensemble-led elements? What draws you to that approach, that physicality and style?

Well I was very lucky to get a job as an actor with Kneehigh and it completely blew my mind because of the influence of (Jacques) Lecoq and Emma (Rice) had done some work with Gardzienice in Poland. We ran along the top of the cliffs every morning and we did yoga on the beach – it was hard but oh God it blew my mind. Then I was lucky to stay in Cornwall and I taught with Serena Fraser, who ran this little theatre school called The Hub, for unemployed people. She trained at Lecoq, so she used to invite people over from France and Spain to teach mask and movement and I learned so much more teaching there than I did in my years at Bristol Old Vic. That’s not to knock Bristol Old Vic, it was just very traditional; it was aimed at getting you into the RSC and the National and (it was) very text-based.

There are still people left down in Cornwall who are no longer performing but are teaching, like Nicky Rosewarne, a wonderful, wonderful physical performer and dancer and I’ve learned so much from just being with people like that.

There’s a little book called ‘Steal Like an Artist’ (by Austin Kleon). The best artists steal off each other and I’ve just developed my practice by stealing from all these people who I’ve been lucky to work with and I’ve made my own version of it. I think it does actually make for a better naturalistic performer if they’re embodied and aware of how to embody emotions rather than just gurning and pulling faces…which might be an Eastenders style of acting (belly laugh here)!

Do you use mask work as well?

Yeah. I use neutral mask as a way of learning how to embody – Phelim McDermott who runs Improbable is a fundamentalist at the Whelan Taping Technique and I had conversations with him and he encouraged me to do it. So in the last couple of years I’ve rehearsed all my plays using Whelan, where the actors never have their script in their hands. They tape record a unit and then we play it through a PA and they just listen to it. They don’t mouth it or try and learn it; they make eye contact and they can pick up props and they can touch each other and they can do things by impulse but they just embody the words and ‘what am I feeling at this moment?’

You do five separate recordings, each time wiping it clean, and each time they learn a little bit more about the feelings and attitudes and then on the sixth go you say right, do it. The first time you do it with actors they say ‘Oh no, I need my script’ and you go ‘no, just do it’ and they do just do it, virtually off-book and it’s so exciting. It’s not about learning the lines as a recital; it’s about feeling the moment. I sound like such a hippie when I describe it but it really works!

No, not at all, I think that sounds pretty amazing to be honest. Can I just come and be in the room for that some day and be a fly on the wall do you think? We could arrange that, right?

Yeah, any time! I mean, we rehearsed Smile Club using that and Andrea just loved it. She had a bit of a wobble on Day 1 at the thought of learning an eighty minute monologue which has four characters in it and she just had a bit of a wobble with ‘I don’t think I can do this’. I just said ‘trust me, you can’ and we finished the first taping exercise and she was off-book for the first unit and went ‘effing hell, I can do this!’ It was great and I’ve just become a bit fanatic about it now. We rehearsed Mother Courage in three weeks with it, and I used the excuse to Pauline (McLynn), who’s a very experienced actor, and the other experienced actors, that we’ve got Bea (Webster) playing the role of Kattrin and she’s profoundly deaf. If we do this technique, she’ll be able to hear the lines through her implants and they went ‘oh okay we’ll do it then’. At the end of it Bea said ‘I couldn’t hear a fucking thing!’

But it still worked so I can’t ever go back to traditional rehearsals now. Because actors go around holding their script like a comfort blanket and you’re waiting for them to put that script down and you don’t know if they can do it or not. It’s terrifying. But when they’ve, on day one, been off-book for three units, you go well you’ve learned that now, and that means in week two and week three, you’re just refining and refining – the sort of thing you do in the second week of the run when you’ve had Press Night and you think oh God if only press night was this week!

You bring new work like Smile Club to the stage but you also produced Mother Courage recently too – is it important to you to embrace works about struggle across generations and eras like that?

Well that was an exception – we normally just do new writing but because it was our 50th Anniversary we thought we’d do a Brecht and when we emailed the Brecht Society, the Brecht Estate emailed back and said we can’t think of a better company than Red Ladder to perform Brecht’s work. So that was a real compliment. I mean, they still didn’t want us to change things and they’d have been furious if they’d found out that Bea, playing Kattrin, didn’t just interpret the show, she ‘spoke’ (as in, signed using BSL) to other characters – her brothers, as well. So we gave her a ‘voice’, which is against the rules as far as Brecht is concerned!

Wow, so am I going to get you in trouble publishing this in an interview then?

No, it’s fine, it’s done – we’re not going to reproduce it. And we got a five star review in the Observer so what are they going to do about it? The thing about Bea is that she loved that because it gave her, as a deaf performer, a new lease of life. And she was cracking jokes with her brothers, and the deaf audience were falling about laughing and the rest of the audience were like what are they laughing at? So they got a separate show, it was great. I’d never worked with a profoundly deaf actor either so it was quite a new thing for me.

We had the wonderful Becky Barry, who is a hearing actor I know from years back, she’s a musician but she’s also fluent in BSL so she interprets from the stage – she’s done it a lot for the RSC. We had her playing alongside Bea so the deaf audience got interpretation, they got Bea’s version of the play, and they got this app that we use where they get the captions on their smart devices. It’s got its own Wifi and you do it within the space and they just sign up to this app and they can look down at their phones and get the script if they can’t figure out what’s going on.

So it’s ever evolving with new influences all the time then, that’s great stuff. So, if Red Ladder Theatre are focused on stories of struggle, and I think we can all agree that our current global situation is going to produce a lot of new work about struggle, are you going to be actively seeking out that work as your first project on the other side?

Well we’re trying to work it out. I mean, this could be six months, so we’ve had WhatsApp discussions and I’ve written a few blogs – but those are only interesting to those who are interested in theatre making really. And we can’t really do live stream because that would mean getting all the actors back together again and then we wouldn’t be safely distancing. I might write a bit about Taxi and how excited we are about it but I mean, it sounds a bit mercenary; it sounds like we’re trying to drum up interest in our work to come but we’re not really, we’re just trying to stay alive.

But it’s such a live medium, theatre. I don’t know – I’m scratching my head to be honest. I mean it’s lovely to see all the actors I know playing their Ukuleles into Facebook every day – here’s today’s song! It’s so gorgeous but the worrying thing for them of course, as Freelancers, is they can’t live on Statutory Sick Pay; it’s 94 quid a week. I don’t know whether the government are going to have to respond. I mean already they’ve responded by saying PAYE people are gonna get 80% – that’s basically Universal Basic Income really isn’t it? (laughter sets in)

It’s a socialist policy and it’s so funny that it’s Boris Johnson’s government having to do this when it was Jeremy Corbyn who was seen as the most dangerous leader ever in the history of Britain! And now we’re getting these wonderful policies forced on them.

But as a theatre maker, I’m really not sure what we’re gonna do. I don’t have an answer. We will find something, I’m sure. I suppose in a way it’s a bit like footballers talking about playing behind closed doors – maybe we should get back in the buildings and make an arrangement with Leeds Playhouse or whatever and say okay can we do a performance of this, give us two days to rehearse it, stick some lights on it and we’ll live stream it that way… We were supposed to be bringing The Damned United to York Theatre Royal in a couple of week’s time. Tom (Bird) was saying there’d be loads of Leeds fans who would love to see that – maybe we should try and make sure we’re safe and get together and make it within locked doors.

An interesting idea… I’ll be interested to see what comes next then.

In Part II of this interview with Red Ladder Theatre’s Rod Dixon, we talk love of dark clowns, Madame Gilles, his acting man-crush and his best ‘the show must go on’ tales. If you missed Part I, you can get caught up here but for now, grab brew number II and settle in…

So, lighter questions now… Do you have any hidden talents you’d now like to declare to the world?

Oh my God… I wish I’d had time to think about that! (much thought follows) I’m such an extrovert I’ve probably shown off all my life anyway. I’m really good at making pancakes! I may need to set up as a pancake business after this!

I’ll take it! And what makes you belly laugh?

I really really really love dark clowns so I went to see Red Bastard and it was so scary and so funny. My partner is also a performer and she’s kind of given it up and isn’t really interested anymore so we went to see Butt Kapinski at Edinburgh Fringe and she’d been directed by Red Bastard and she was so funny, Ella said ‘I wanna do that! I wanna be a dark clown!’ So that kind of live clowning really does make me double over.

Can you name a specific, sparkling highlight from your career to date?

There have been three occasions (this is a bit cheat-y) but there’ve been three occasions when an audience’s response to a Red Ladder show has been breath-taking. So we performed a show which was a beautiful musical comedy about the women in a miner’s strike called We’re Not Going Back, which Boff from Chumbawamba wrote.

We performed it at the Durham Miner’s Gala in the Durham Miner’s Hall to an audience of National Union of Miners workers, Labour Party people – big wigs basically – and we were a bit nervous about doing it for them because they might have been insulted by it. There was a beautiful song about Orgreave called This is War which one of the women sang, and the scene was set at a fish counter and they sang this song with beautiful harmonies. And then there was this dead silence at the end of it. And then the audience just stood on their feet, all eight hundred of them, whooping and shouting. The women on stage were stunned and almost fell into tears, and they had to get back on because it was the middle of a scene and it was just a moment which took my breath away.

And we did a show called The Shed Crew, which is a true story about a gang of teenagers in the 90s who lived in a garden shed in Leeds, scoring heroine and basically being feral. And the real shed crew, those who are still alive, came to see it. Only a few months before we made it, the lead character, in real life, died from bad heroine and so we re-designed the show as a tribute to him and we did it in a warehouse where we store all our costumes and sets so that the audience weren’t sitting in a comfortable theatre watching the underbelly of society, they were walking alongside it and understanding it. And the real shed crew came and you could feel the tension in the atmosphere as they watched their own lives being performed. Some of what we were performing was very grim, you know, shooting up with heroine and stealing cars and stuff like that – and they loved it. And weirdly, I didn’t know any of them but we had cast actors that looked them by pure fluke and they were having selfies in the bar afterwards, and oh my God it was so moving.

Then Mother Courage getting standing ovations every night. That sounds very trivial but seeing young people and old people seeing a piece of Brecht, which is about war, with tears in their eyes as they watched it – it just couldn’t be better. So those are three occasions. My lighting designer Tim Skelly said of all the companies he’s worked with, those are the few occasions where he’s thought ‘wow, we’ve actually moved an audience here and now and they’ve loved it and we’ve told their story.’ With Mother Courage, it was dangerous, but we invited refugees to come and see it, because it was their story; walking away from battlefields. That could have been really insensitive of us, the same with The Shed crew, but we got it right. And the refugee audiences were coming up to us saying ‘you shared my story, you told my story, and not in a patronising way but in a way that has honoured me, thank you’ and you go ‘wow, theatre can be really, really powerful if you get it right’.

Can you name a production which has had a lasting impact or influence on you?

Shock Headed Peter. I don’t know when it was – probably 2000. That was an Improbable show of Phelim’s and it was just awesome, it was unbelievable and I’ll never ever forget it. And it had an influence of me stylistically as well. I think that’s probably the biggest one – I mean, lots and lots of shows like Pete Postlethwaite being King Lear and Max Wall in Waiting for Godot, but those were just amazing performances. With Shock Headed Peter everything about it was just mind-blowing. When the lights went down you forgot you were in a theatre, you were transported – unbelievable.

The best kind of show! Who inspires you most in the industry?

I think Phelim is a massive influence. I think he’s a wonderful director and a wonderful human being. I have a man crush on Ben Whishaw. He was in a production of Mercury Fur, the first one, when I was working at Plymouth Theatre Royal and it was the first show where I have been genuinely terrified by what was happening on the stage. People were getting up and walking out, not because the show was bad but because it was just too much for them. He is quite remarkable face to face when you see him live – for me he’s one of the best actors ever.

High praise indeed there. Now, what’s the most enjoyably challenging part of your job?

Sometimes it’s not really enjoyable, but I think the key to my job is keeping fear out of the room. And any time fear comes into the room in a big way, it challenges me in a different way. So with Andrea, she had a major wobble on Day 1 of rehearsal and I could see why; it was daunting, what she had to do.

The first production of The Damned United was mid-scale and it had six dancers on stage from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance doing football movements during the football match. Both of the lead actors – quite experienced – were really against the idea. They were trying to persuade me, in front of the other actors, not to do it because they felt it would pull focus from them… and they were wrong because it was perfect. But they were just frightened. They weren’t undermining me, they were just frightened that it would ruin the show and so it came from a good place – it always comes from a good place, because everybody wants the show to be the best show that’s ever been, that’s why we do it.

So managing fear is a big challenge and it’s a big part of a director’s job. It’s not an exact science. It’s just about making people feel safe, and making the room safe, and letting them feel empowered, so it’s important that those actors had the opportunity to say we don’t think this is gonna work and for me to then have to try and persuade them. I did actually manage it but when you’re in that place it’s a pretty uncomfortable place for everybody. That’s why I think, in a way, we as theatre makers, our job is to examine human behaviour. That’s what our job is. It opens the doorways to bullying and all kinds of things happen in rehearsal rooms that I’ve experienced as an actor as well as a director and how you manage that is part of your skill and I think after quite a number of years, I’m still struggling with it.

I love ending with this question so I hope you’ve got a doozy. Do you have a really good ‘the show must go on’ story?

Quite a few actually… We do this exercise that Mike Shepherd from Kneehigh taught me called Madame Gilles which is about maintaining the rhythm and the metre of a scene. Because Kneehigh used to always perform outdoors, you sometimes had to re-block entire scenes because you were performing on a cliff or in a quarry or wherever and you go ‘I’m gonna do Scene 6 up there in that castle window and shout it down’, so you’d have to build in that time to let the actor climb the steps and get to that window or light a fire torch on the top of a cliff where it wouldn’t blow out. So you’d have to change things constantly. It’s a beautiful exercise involving people re-building the scene over and over again according to what happens.

We made a comedy a few years ago called Sex and Docks and Rock and Roll, which was about a dock strike and it was very funny. There was a reveal in it and a policeman got hit on the head in Scene 1, was then bundled into a cupboard for the whole play and spent the whole play banging on the cupboard door trying to get out. The reveal was that – all the way through the play Auntie Mona talked about ‘Spotty John’ who left her in the lurch and left her with an illegitimate child and all this kind of thing. The reveal was that the policeman was Spotty John and when he opened up the cupboard she was supposed to go ‘(gasp) SPOTTY JOHN!’. And she was just about to go (gasp) when somebody’s phone went off in the audience –

– Oh no…

– So what they did was a Madame Gilles and they re-wound the whole scene in front of the audience. Without planning it, they just looked at each other and went ‘Gilles!’ and went backwards and then replayed the whole scene and the audience just absolutely loved it – it was just a show must go on moment and I loved them for it, it was amazing.

Oh and there was one more! We were performing a show at a working men’s club in Wakefield the week after students got kettled in 2010 or 2011. And in the interval, a young man came up to us and said ‘can I make an announcement please?’ And we said ‘ok’ and he stood up and got hold of one of the mics and said ‘yesterday I was kettled by the police and I missed my train and I had to borrow money from all the people around me to get home. It cost me £250 to get home and I want to pay all those people back. Could you put some money in this bucket?’ And he’s brought this bucket with him and the interval lasted 45 minutes as people got up and gave speeches about police brutality and it was so radical and left wing and it was ridiculous. In the end we had to stand up and say can we finish the show now? And they said yeah – you couldn’t write that!

And with my neighbours taking this ripe opportunity to hammer in some nails, Rod’s neighbours jumping to their lawn mowing marathon and son Noah arriving to raid the fridge, this cracking interview drew to an entertainingly eventful close, no doubt representative of all ‘working from home’ Zoom calls the world over right now…

Rod Dixon and Red Ladder Theatre will be back to thrill audiences another day on the other side of Covid-19 lockdowns. Why not take a look at their site for some more great background and keep yourselves entertained by rooting around in the past shows section? You can also keep up to date with Rod’s blogs and such via the Twitter page.

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