When Philip Howard’s final Edinburgh Festival Fringe as artistic director of The Traverse Theatre ends this weekend, he can safely say it’s been one of the new writing theatre’s best since he arrived as a young associate director fifteen years ago. As well as Howard’s own production of David Greig’s play, Damascus, new works by Rona Munro, Enda Walsh, a new play every morning by Mark Ravenhill, and productions by stalwarts such as Rough Magic and Paines Plough give the appearance of, if not the Philip Howard all stars, then at least a summing up of the state of British theatre over the last decade. It is, Howard insists, more accident than design.
“A lot of people have said to me, oh, it’s your last one,” Howard says, “let’s try and make it the best, and I’m like, well, hang on, don’t we try and do that every year? I’ve tried every year to make it the best, but because last year there were no sell out hits by The Traverse, and because Damascus is a sell out, the way it’s turned out doesn’t help my cause, because it looks like we were holding onto it. I so wasn’t. If only people knew how much less control over our destiny we have. We just do the best plays we can as they come in. The idea of holding something back for my last festival is just a nonsense.”
Howard has a packed autumn season to think about before finally stepping down this coming December, when his recently announced successor Dominic Hill takes over. While Howard and his staff can never predict success, it does beg the question as to why Howard has chosen to quit during such exciting times.
“I’ve already done three presidential terms as it were as artistic director” he says. It would’ve been so easy to sign up for another one presuming that the board would even consider it, but I decided enough’s enough. I wanted to leave while I was still enjoying it, and didn’t want to be the sort of person who stays somewhere far too long. Three years ago when I signed this contract I always knew I would go now. That’s taken much of the sentiment out of it, because it’s been so carefully planned. It’s not as if it’s a shock departure or anything.”
When pressed, though, Howard admits that “the creative, positive, artistic, life-affirming reason I’m going, is that while I’ve loved the job more than I can say, and while I will always fight for theatres of this size to be run by artistic directors rather than executive producers, I need and want to be able to concentrate solely on directing plays. For the last three years I’ve been enjoying myself more in the rehearsal room. That’s made me a bit greedy and inquisitive about what it might be like working as a freelance director. The irony of all this is that it’s coincided with a period where there’s been this perception of us doing less well.”
From the outside, The Traverse looks to have had a troubled couple of years. Expectations for some plays were never lived up to either critically or at the box office, and formerly supportive critics grew hostile. Some commentators spoke of The Traverse as a spent force, harking back to some unspecified golden age in the theatre’s history, when smash hit plays were apparently produced every week. While no-one is pretending that, outside of Alan Wilkins’ Carthage Must be Destroyed, there has been anything out of the ordinary produced of late, the theatre’s harshest critics have very short memories.
It was Howard, after all, who directed the first professional full length plays by both David Greig and David Harrower, introducing two talents now considered international theatre stars. It was Howard too who first commissioned Henry Adam, whose play the People Next Door toured the world, while John Tiffany’s production of Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way was a major discovery.
Let’s look too at the stream of associate directors who’ve passed through the Traverse during Howard’s tenure. Tiffany, currently directing The Bacchae for The National Theatre Of Scotland/Edinburgh International Festival co-production, directed some of the theatre’s more obviously commercial hits. His successor Roxana Silbert is artistic director of Paines Plough, while a decade ago a young guest director called Vicky Featherstone worked on The Traverse production of Mike Cullen’s play, Anna Weiss. Current associate Lorne Campbell too is developing into a major director. Yet, both as enabler and director, Howard remains pretty nonplussed about how his reign at The Traverse is judged.
“I’m not sure when this golden age was supposed to be,” Howard muses, “but the reason why we’re not hanging our heads in despair is that we never really made the mistake of believing the eight or nine years of unbridled praise we received before it. I have waited so long for the honeymoon to be over, and it only finished at the point where I thought it wasn’t going to be. Two years ago when I knew I was going, I started asking myself why people were so supportive of us and let us get away with our mistakes. At precisely that point, which shows where hubris comes in, we started getting a slew of bad reviews, and I thought, well, that’s taught me a lesson. But I never really believed all the praise that was heaped on us. If you’re honest to yourself as an artist you shouldn’t need to be told by the cultural commentators whether your work is good or not.
“In general,” Howard says somewhat minxishly, “I think the critics have got quite tired of me. All I can say is it’s fully reciprocated. That’s what happens in life. People move on from each other. But I think overall, the work over the last two years has been far better than the work in my first two. If anything we’ve been a victim of our own success, because I believe we’ve raised the bar, and I think we’re judged by our own standards. And who can complain about that?”
When Howard arrived at The Traverse, its Cambridge Site was brand spanking new, and the legacy of the 1960s still loomed large. Since then, Howard has quietly led the theatre into the 21st century.
“From an interesting fringe theatre that still held a torch for the old Traverse,” Howard says, “we’ve made The Traverse into a proper national institution. I really believe in that maxim that every nation needs a new writing theatre, and that’s what I think I’ve achieved here, and helped make The Traverse important on the international map.
“Of course,” he admits, “there have been low points. It’s fashionable in these times to say Je, ne regrette rien, but that’s not the case with me. My biggest failure is not tackling City Of Edinburgh Council properly about their funding, and that ties in with another failure, in not making Edinburgh as a city love The Traverse in the way that audiences in Stornoway do when we visit with the Highland tour, or audiences in New York or Tehran or all these places we’ve been working. Someone said the Traverse is better known abroad than it is in Wester Hailes, and that’s true. There’s a political job to be done there, because we’re the third worst local authority funded theatre in the country. I have failed in convincing the Council to change their relationship with the Traverse. I’ve not been great at some of the politics and the schmoozing. All my colleagues are better than me in going to receptions, and that’s a failure.”
Artistically speaking, Howard’s directing style has matured into an undemonstrative elegance, with a very British respect for the text. By way of an aside, Howard takes issue with a recent interview with former colleague John Tiffany, which he chides as “A load of nonsense. I don’t know what John’s on about. Maybe he’s starting to believe his own myth. But he said he’s a very different director now, because when he was at The Traverse he believed a director should be a pillow for the writer, whereas now he says he’s realised that what writers really want is for the production to match the play. Well, what the hell is the difference between those two things? What I think he’s saying is that he wants to be a director who’s noticed. Well, bully for him. He’s brilliant, so why not?”
The day after Howard leaves The Traverse, he’s directing a radio play by Jules Horne, and while unspecified projects are in the pipeline, he intends taking “some serious time off. I’m not under any illusions how difficult a freelance career is going to be, and even if I struggle to get work, I’m really really excited about going into rehearsals and not having to do the rest of my job. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want to do a job like this one again, but for now I just need a fire break to explore other things. I’ve served writers loyally, and while the classics interest me, to direct a Shakespeare, I don’t know how you could do that without researching it for six months. I admire directors who can busk it in three weeks, but I wouldn’t dare. I’d rather not do it than have to compromise. I’d rather go and write about architecture again than do weekly rep. But I‘m not going to be hanging round The Traverse like Marley’s ghost.”
The Herald, August 25th 2007