Orla O’Loughlin may have stepped down from her role as artistic director of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh after seven years in post, but her presence is never far away. Her final production, of Kieran Hurley’s play, Mouthpiece, is still running, and a trailer of it plays on a loop in a TV monitor in the bar. As part of Scotland’s new writing theatre’s just announced Spring 2019 season, O’Loughlin’s Herald Angel winning production of Cora Bissett’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit, What Girls Are Made Of, is about to head out on tour. Apart from anything else, even though she’s preparing to start her new job as vice principal of drama at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she only lives ten minutes away, and can’t keep away from the place.
“We’re neighbours,” O’Loughlin beams, “and it’s a nice place to be.”
With Mouthpiece as her parting shot, to say O’Loughlin and the Traverse are parting on good terms is something of an understatement.
“I think it’d been a good year for the Traverse, so it feels like a good time to be leaving, to leave the Traverse in a healthy confident state, - with three of our shows this year – Mouthpiece, Ulster American and What Girls Are Made of – guaranteed significant future lives. I’m really proud of that, and I’m really excited to see what the next evolution is here.”
O’Loughlin has mixed emotions about her departure.
“This place has been significant for me,” she says, “and I’ve given my heart and soul to it. The people here are extraordinary, and the artists I’ve worked with have been so inspiring and challenging, but it’s time to go. It’s time for the next challenge, and I’m someone who likes a challenge. I like to keep moving, and it’s the longest I’ve done any job.”
O’Loughlin came to the Traverse after five years running the Shropshire-based Pentabus theatre company. In her seven years in Edinburgh, she has directed a series of plays that began with Morna Pearson’s The Artist Man and the Mother Woman, continued with Ciara by David Harrower, and includes works by Stef Smith, Zinnie Harris and Gary McNair.
“I hope through my work I’ve been able to contribute a bit to that conversation about who we are and where we’re going, what’s important to us, what has to change and how we’re gonna’ do it,’ she says. “And a show like Mouthpiece I think beautifully coalesces so much of what I believe in. I think it embodies so much of what the Traverse exists to do, which is to confront and challenge and hold a safe place for difficult stuff.”
While artists taking on academic roles is far from unusual, O’Loughlin’s move to Guildhall seems to fit with an aesthetic which has made developmental work more forward facing. The most high-profile of these events was The Traverse 50, a major initiative which celebrated the Traverse’s half century by working with 50 writers over the year.
“I think the Traverse 50 is something we’re still feeling the reverberations from,” O’Loughlin says. “You think part of that fifty was Frances Poet, Martin McCormick, John McCann, Ellie Stewart, Sylvia Dow, James Ley – and look at them now. It was my second year at the Traverse, but what a wonderful induction into the history and legacy and the characters and stories of the place, so it was a gift.”
O’Loughlin’s new post feels like a natural fit.
“My conversation with Guildhall is that your new vice principal is an artist, and I come to you as a director. I’ll be working as a director, both within and outwith the institution, but what I’ll also be is a strategist, reimagining what it means to be an artist in the 21st century, and how we equip our artists to be robust, have agency and understand their role in society. That isn’t what it meant five years ago, twenty years ago, a hundred years ago, and we need to ask what our responsibilities are, where is our agency, what do we want to say and how are we going to say it?”
This again ties in directly with O’Loughlin’s time at the Traverse, which has seen her nurture a new generation of writers and theatre artists in a way that has made the Traverse itself appear a different place to how it was seven years ago.
“And the world is a different place,” she points out. “The world is moving so quickly and so chaotically that everyone seems to be in a state of change and flux. But I’d like to think that we’ve produced work that more broadly represents the society that we exist in, in terms of gender parity, working class experience, questions about gender or family or place and nationhood. I’d like to think we’ve put front and centre a range of voices and experience, and that range feels more representative and inclusive and diverse.
“I’d like to think that’s what’s maybe shifted, is that this new generation of Scottish writing talent are at the top of their game, and not only work in Scotland, but whose work travels internationally and on the major stages of the United Kingdom. I’d like to think we’ve had a role in supporting and encouraging that, and giving them their main stage debuts. I’m really proud of that, because when I started at the Traverse I could see who the current generation were – David Greig, Rona Munro, David Harrower, Zinnie Harris – but who was next? Who was coming up? And now I think we can see them. They’re here.”
One of the biggest blows to the Traverse during O’Loughlin’s tenure was an 11% per cent funding cut from arts funding body Creative Scotland, which had a serious impact on the theatre’s day to day running.
“It was really tough,” O’Loughlin admits, “because that cut came out of nowhere. We had no forewarning. We’d just had a very successful 50th year, and it came out of the blue. However, as a response to it we doggedly said we were going to do more, and weren’t going to be diminished by it. But there’s no doubt it took its toll psychologically. It’s hard to hold an organisation steady through that, and we were shocked for a long time. I think there’s maybe a subtext of, oh, well, the Traverse can take it, but actually, like nearly every other institution, we’re held together with sticky tape and blue tack and string, but we couldn’t lose faith in it, because we believe in what we do, and now we’ve just had our most successful year ever.”
It is now up to the Traverse’s new artistic leaders to help navigate conversations about funding now. Associate director Gareth Nicholls has been appointed interim artistic director for an unspecified period while the Traverse takes stock. In the meantime, O’Loughlin’s loyalty to the theatre and its achievements are plain.
“I’d like to think that they’d recognise the great success that the Traverse has enjoyed, particularly this year,” she says. “Audience numbers are way up, we’ve had the most successful festival on record, and so much of our work is up and out there, so let’s hope the Traverse will be recognised.”
Mouthpiece, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until December 22. Details of the Traverse Theatre’s 2019 Spring season can be found at www.traverse.co.uk
The Herald, December 18th 2018