When it was announced last week that Rupert Thomson had been appointed
as one of three specialist programme associates at the state of art
Lowry centre in Salford, it probably wasn't because of how Thomson
looked. Even so, clad in a vintage raincoat and cap with a neatly
hipsterish v-neck, tie and skinny jeans ensemble beneath, one can't
help but notice Thomson's resemblance to one of the back-street
dwelling 'match-stalk men' painted by the artist that gives the Lowry
The fact that Thomson was born and partly raised in the neighbourhood a
stone's throw from the centre - “South Manchester, not Salford,” he's
careful to note,” - built in the city's formerly run down docklands
area lends Thomson an even more striking frisson of post-modern cool.
It's an all too appropriate image too for a man who will flit between
the rough and not always ready expanse of Summerhall, where Thomson
will remain in post, and the Lowry's bright, airy interior which he
will occupy on a part-time basis.
“It's really nice to encounter this new organisation and how they do
things, and just re-engage with the north-west of England again,”
Thomson says. “There's a feel you get from the buildings, and I
remember going into the Lowry shortly after it first opened, so it
already has those associations, and there's a real buzz about
Manchester and Salford just now. There's a real sense of confidence
about the place, and hopefully there's something I can feed into that
with a Scottish influence and with an international influence as well.”
While Thomson will concentrate on the Lowry's theatre programme, he
will work alongside Lucy Dusgate, who will work on digital
programming, and Eckhard Thiemann, who will look after dance.
“The idea is that we're feeding in ideas for those artforms, and honing
an artistic vision for the programme of the Lowry,” Thomson explains,
“though very quickly it became clear that we all have overlapping
interests, and the more conversant we are about these things, the more
dynamic the programmes we put together are going to be.”
The reshuffle at the Lowry came about following the sad passing of
Robert Robson, the centre's Hamilton-born artistic director, who cut
his teeth working in community theatre in Glasgow and became key to the
development of Cumbernauld Theatre before moving to Salford.
Thomson's road to the Lowry began as a teenager when he first
discovered Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett's classic piece of
absurdist vaudeville. Thomson studied literature at Bristol University,
fell in love with music, and edited the university magazine before
moving to Edinburgh.
Here he edited arts and entertainments free-sheet, The Skinny, before
becoming artistic director of the Roxy Art House. This became a haven
for Edinburgh's off-radar music and arts scene before the collapse of
its owners, Edinburgh University Settlement, caused the venue's demise.
Once appointed as the first artistic director of Summerhall, it was
Thomson's programming of the Herald Angel winning Hotel Medea that gave
the venue its initial status on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This
epic rendering of Greek tragedy began at midnight, and put the audience
in the thick of the action as they were promenaded from room to room
before joining the cast for breakfast at 6am.
Since then, Summerhall has become an all year round multi-purpose venue
which has also housed arts impresario Richard Demarco substantial
archive. This is significant in that Summerhall's programme has tapped
into the spirit of the 1960s counter-culture and east European
avant-garde which Demarco was key in promoting.
Despite its successes, Summerhall – privately owned by philanthropist
Robert McDowell - has at times appeared dysfunctional. Rumours of the
centre's demise have been exacerbated by a recent shedding of staff,
while the sudden and still unexplained departure of visual arts
programmer Paul Robertson in August has also stoked the fires of
gossip. Whatever the facts of such matters, Thomson is already in the
thick of programming Summerhall's 2015 Festival Fringe programme, as
well as exploring potential future collaborations with the Lowry.
“It's already looking very positive,” he says. “There will hopefully be
substantial collaborations, particularly in the context of
international artists, and if we can make them work in the context of
both venues, we will.”
Much of Thomson's work is produced under the name Eleven, the company
he founded with his wife and artistic partner, Anu Selva-Thomson, who
until recently ran the education and artists residency programme at
Summerhall. Eleven is about to open The Home Straits, a programme of
cross-country events in association with Events Scotland designed to
provide a finale to Homecoming Scotland 2014. This opens tonight with
an evening with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy accompanied by musician
John Sampson, and continues throughout December.
“We were just really interested in the idea of home,” says Thomson,
“and obviously notions of identity have been really important this year
in Scotland, and even though home can be quite an abstract notion,
everybody knows what it means.”
While it's far too early for Thomson to give away anything concrete
about how his forthcoming programme at the Lowry might pan out, once
its first fruits appear, probably in summer 2015, given his roots the
Roxy and Summerhall, it would be fair to hope for something appealingly
“On one level,” he says, “the Lowry is a completely different space to
Summerhall, and yet some of the principles you can apply are exactly
the same. Summerhall may be be a unique old building, and the Lowry a
purpose-built space, but it's also steeped in the history of the
Salford Quays, so it's possible to have the same attitude in both kinds
This is an attitude clearly borne from Thomson's own artistic roots.
“I think it comes down to a sense that I haven't got a clue what's
going on,” he says, “and no-one else does either, so we might as well
have a bash, gearing towards what might be going on. That all started
with a deeply joyous moment reading Samuel Beckett for the first time,
and it was just that sense that, oh, it is possible to think like that.
So I guess there's a hunger for more moments like that, and those
really powerful experiences that art can bring, but also in
facilitating them for others as well as enjoying them for yourself.”
The Home Straits
The Home Straits is a nationwide programme of events curated by Eleven,
the producing company formed by Rupert Thomson and Anu Selva-Thomson.
The programme aims to explore ideas of home, borders, exile and return
for the finale of Homecoming Scotland 2014.
Home for Christmas: an evening with Carol Ann Duffy, John Sampson and
Little Machine – Edinburgh Festival Theatre Studio, Wed Dec 3.
Poet Laureate Duffy presents a new Christmas-themed performance in
collaboration with her regular musician John Sampson and the band
Little Machine, who have set some of her poems to music including six
as Christmas Carols.
There's no place like...' : two evenings of poetry and music presented
with Rally & Broad, with original commissions from Don Paterson, Martin
MacInnes, Stewart Home, Rupert Thomson, Jenny Lindsay and Rachel
McCrum. – The Tolbooth, Stirling, Thu Dec 11; Byre Theatre, St
Andrew's, Sun Dec 14.
Rally & Broad is the partnership of performance poets, Rachel McCrum
and Jenny Lindsay, who run spoken word cabaret events in Glasgow and
Return to the Voice by Song of the Goat - Tramway, Glasgow, Mon Dec 15
Commissioned by Eleven and Summerhall for this year’s Edinburgh
Festival Fringe, Song of the Goat’s Return to the Voice at St Giles
Cathedral fused ancient Gaelic and other traditional Scottish musical
forms large-scale theatrical performance by Polish maestros and Herald
Angel award winners, Song of the Goat.
There will also be a series of pop-up performances or interventions in
locations around Scotland, including Harthill Services, the Forth Road
Bridge visitor centre and the chip shop in Anstruther.
The Herald, December 2nd 2014