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Gregory Thompson Takes Over The Tron

There’s a feeling of déjà vu sitting down with The Tron’s new artistic director in the theatre’s grand Victorian bar. It’s a relatively short time ago that the job’s previous incumbent, Ali Curran, was seated at the same table outlining her future plans. Her surprise departure after only a year in the post left a vacancy that’s now been filled by Gregory Thompson. Where Curran followed in National Theatre Of Scotland departee Neil Murray’s shoes as a producer, Thompson’s tenure marks the arrival of the first rehearsal room based artistic director since Michael Boyd departed to run the Royal Shakespeare Company, leaving Irina Brown in charge.

It’s perhaps for this reason that Thompson doesn’t exactly go overboard on hard sell or spin. Even with his debut production of Grae Cleugh’s play, The Patriot, which can’t help but be viewed as a hint of things to come, Thompson isn’t giving much away.

“It’s a well-made play,” Thompson says of a work set among the idealists and hucksters co-existing within and outside Holyrood’s walls, “and there was something quite strong about the fact that this had a classical structure. It was contemporary, it was about Scotland, and it asked that question, what do you do if you want to make a difference? So, okay, it’s a play about Scottish politics, but it just seemed to have a resonance. And,” he adds pragmatically, “it’s only got four people in it, so we can afford it. These things count. The fact that there’s a new director doesn’t transform the financial reality of what it’s like to run a venue with 230 seats.”

Thompson will be best known to this country’s audiences through his work at The Citizens Theatre, where he directed a studio production of Brian Friel’s play, Molly Sweeney, and, in the main house, a contemporary looking take on Romeo And Juliet. Prior to this, he brought Jonathan Lichtenstein’s play, The Pull Of Negative Gravity for Mercury Theatre Company to The Traverse Theatre’s 2004 Edinburgh Fringe programme. As artistic director of AandBC Theatre Company, he directed an open-air production of The Tempest in Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad. More recently with AandBC, Thompson directed Henry V111 at part of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival at Stratford.

With such a colourful track record working under his own steam, one wonders why Thompson might want to run a building based company. Especially one limited by such an ongoing state of economic stringency.

“I’d reached a point where I’d done quite a lot in my freelance career,” Thompson says. “I’d done a lot of things that were like the icing on the cake, and I’d quite like to be baking the cake. It was quite good working at The Citz and going, oh, that’s how this building works, rather than coming in with a special budget and transforming the theatre with it. It’s quite nice to go to somewhere where you just do it week in week out. I dunno,” he sighs. “I mean, they could’ve appointed someone else. The Tron’s bigger than me, and I just happen to be the latest incumbent. I’m not the great white hope of Scottish theatre.”

Thompson’s bluntness can possibly be put down to his being born in Sheffield, “another Victorian city built on hills,” as he puts it. Here he was “a terrible actor” in youth theatre, preferring to look at the bigger picture rather than focus solely on his own part. Aged 17, he began assistant directing on shows. It was a while, though, before he felt comfortable in the role.

“It took me a long time to give myself permission to go into the theatre. It’s dogged my career ever since. I felt like I shouldn’t be in the theatre and wasn’t welcome for quite a long time. I gave myself quite a hard time about it, and I made my mistakes in public.”

The first thing Thompson directed off his own bat when he formed AandBC was a production of The Mahabharata, which he’d seen in Peter Brook’s version at Tramway. It was an ambitious way for a company who included a young Emily Watson to start. Acclaim trickled in gradually, until “It took 12 years to be an overnight success. My career’s just mad, really. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, the route I took, which was all based on thinking I wasn’t good enough, coupled with a desire to make a particular kind of show that I wasn’t seeing elsewhere.”

This ties in too with Thompson’s notion of putting his audience’s needs before any conceptual conceit.

“The big trick in the theatre,” he says, “is that we think what’s important is what happens on the stage. But who cares what happens on the stage? What’s important is what’s happening in the seats. The performance isn’t really taking place on the stage. The performance is taking place in the hearts and minds of the audience. The stage is just the starting point, and I suppose I’m more interested in whether people laugh or cry, and what they think about the show rather than making polished work. For most people who come, it’s not about the polish. It’s about the emotional impact. Which is why amateur theatre can work as well as professional theatre at times, because actually it’s not what’s going on onstage. It’s what’s going on in the seats, and it makes you humble, really.”

While one should take Thompson’s claim that he’s “making it up as I go along, really,” with a pinch of salt, his tenure at The Tron doesn’t, he insists, involve any five year plans. On a practical level, Thompson’s new role will see The Tron repositioning itself as more of a producing house, with less companies coming in and the upstairs Changing House space reconvened as a rehearsal room.

“The Tron isn’t going to be about the artist,” Thompson states flatly. “The Arches is about the artist. Tramway is about form. I’d like The Tron to be about the audience. We sit on the edge of the Merchant City, and you go one way and it’s a very different Glasgow to the other way. In some ways we should be some kind of bridge or melting pot, and it’s about trying to get those people through the door.”

Thompson sees The Tron too as a place for quality collaborations with the likes of Suspect Culture, but recognises that “part of my job is still being a producer, and of course we’ve got less slots to offer people, and are saying no to more people.
I realise I’m about to be disappointing a lot of people. Everyone comes along and says, well, we’ve got a relationship with The Tron. If I had a pound for every time somebody had told me that since October, we’d be able to do another show.”

Theatre, for Thompson, has a clear social function. It’s clear too he has no truck with the shock of the new just for the sake of it.

“When people go, oh, we’re dangerous, and we’re really pushing boundaries,” he scoffs, “it really p***** me off. Because the reality is, the theatre is a safe, communal place where we go to experience emotion. I’d like The Tron to be packed out every night. with the sort of shows I think are good. It’s a tricky thing, because there’s a social responsibility, and there’s personal taste. I’d like people to go, oh, you’ve gotta go to The Tron, because of the experience you have here. Which is the kind of experience I want when I go to the theatre. I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to be moved. I want to feel more alive when I come out. When I started going to the theatre, if I’d had that experience more often, I don’t think I’d have been a director.”

Even here, though, Thompson seems riddled with self-doubt.

“I don’t think I’m a clever director,” he says. “I don’t think my skills are in being a good director. I talk to my contemporaries, and I just think they’re really intelligent. But I don’t think like them. My ideal show is where people are moved. I’m not interested in what car we’re driving, but in where we’re going. And there’s an awful lot of theatre that’s, oh, I only travel in new cars, I only drive in classic cars, and if it doesn’t have classic upholstery, then it’s not proper theatre. But it’s where you’re driving the thing that’s important.”

The Patriot, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, previews tonight and tomorrow, then runs until May 12

The Herald, April 24th 2007

ends

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