When Lorne Campbell was appointed artistic director of Northern Stage, Newcastle's most adventurous theatre producing house, he arrived at a tumultuous time. One of the theatre's main funders, Newcastle Council, had begun consultations to deal with a proposed 100 per cent cut in its arts budget. This came after two rounds of cuts by Arts Council England, Northern Stage's other chief funder, in the midst of swinging cuts from the UK government in an attempt to stave off the recession caused primarily by themselves in cahoots with the banks.
Several months on, and Newcastle Council has upped its contribution to Northern Stage by fifty per cent, and, if the theatre's Edinburgh programme of some eighteen shows that form the theatre's ambitious Northern Stage at St Stephens is anything to go by, as with many artists reimagining creative possibilities during lean times, the theatre is in the midst of an artistic revolution.
“There's an awful lot here that reminds me of Scotland after the millennium,” Campbell says of Newcastle and the north-east of England's theatre scene. “The scene was really waking up to themselves then, and artists were realising that it wasn’t about being parochial, but was about being excellent and ambitious, and that they could produce work that was world class. Newcastle and the north-east could be about to hit a critical mass like that in a very similar way. There's a whole range of really interesting artists who are either on the cusp of breaking through, or who could easily go on to the next level, and there's a huge level of ambition here.”
Campbell's appointment at Northern Stage sees the thirty-five year old Edinburgh-born director come full circle in his career. Campbell's first professional job was at Northern Stage, where he assisted on various productions. It was as associate director at the Traverse in Edinburgh where he really started to come into his own on acclaimed productions including Alan Wilkins' Carthage must Be Destroyed and Morna Pearson's astonishing debut play, Distracted. Both works won awards.
It was while at the Traverse that Campbell began to explore different ways of working via the cross-disciplinary programme, Cubed. After leaving the Traverse, Campbell directed several Scottish plays in Bath before co-founding Greyscale, a collective of actors, writers, directors and designers including fellow director Selma Dimitrijevic, actor Sandy Grierson and internationally renowned Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer's internationally renowned video design company, 59 Productions.
It was with Greyscale that Campbell and his fellow travellers developed a way of working which seemed to tap into the anarchic spirit of fringe theatre's loose-knit alternative and anarchic roots, while reinventing it for the twenty-first century on a par with a new generation of boundary-hopping theatre-makers.
Greyscale were, and remain a part of Northern Stage's forward-thinking development programme, and, while the responsibilities of running a building are different, some of Greyscale's spirit is clearly evident in Northern Stage at St Stephens. Artists involved include Daniel Bye with his latest solo piece, The Paper Birds and Third Angel, all of whom will be taking radical looks at the world in radical ways.
“There's an interesting line running through the whole programme that's about dissent,” Campbell observes, “and what it means to dissent. It's all relevant, timely stuff.
While by no means intentional, the centrepiece of Northern Stage's Edinburgh programme looks set to be The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. This will b e a late night show in which artists from Scotland, England and elsewhere will imagine the next ninety-five years following the imagined (or not) dissolution of the 1707 Act of Union via an ever growing ballad that will add a new verse each night.
“One of things it came out of,” says Campbell, “is that, coming from Scotland and working in Newcastle, I was both on the inside and the outside of this wonderful community of northern artists, who were starting to realise that they were a community. I thought it was weird that no Scottish artists existed as part of this community, even though they were asking the same sort of questions.
“Much of the reason for that was to do with this weird artificial line that was largely to do with the different funding streams that exist in England and Scotland. So we said, let's talk about independence, and let's start to imagine what a ballad for independence might be like. Each balladeer takes responsibility for the next five years, so by the end you have ninety-five years of imagined future history.”
Balladeers signed up so far include Cora Bissett and Kieran Hurley from Scotland, and, from England, Chris Thorpe, Lucy EllinsonEllinson, Daniel Bye and Alex Kelly.
“I'm really interested in what a folk tale us in that context, “ says Campbell, “and it's going to be something somewhere between a gig, a ceilidh and a political meeting. It's the most ambitious thing I've ever done,” Campbell says with relish, “but it also has the least amount of rehearsal time I've ever had, but there should hopefully be something very immediate about it because of that. It's big voices, big ideas and big politics with no sense of irony, talking about things that matter. I hope the ghosts of Joan Littlewood, John McGrath and Ken Campbell look down on it from above and approve of every moment. It's going to be a riot.”
Northern Stage at St Stephens, St Stephens Street until August 25th.
The Herald, August 20th 2013