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James Brining - From Dundee to Leeds

Home is on James Brining's mind a lot just now. As Dundee Rep's 
artistic director for the last nine years prepares to up sticks back to 
his Leeds birthplace to take up the equivalent post at West Yorkshire 
Playhouse, he's also in the thick of rehearsals for his swansong 
production at Dundee of a play that itself sounds closer to home than 
even he perhaps realised.

“What an amazing play,” Brining says of Further Than The Furthest 
Thing, Zinnie Harris' breakthrough work about an island community 
forced out by the eruption of a volcano. “It's extraordinary, but it 
isn't that well known. It's got such richness and scope in its themes. 
It's about religion, capitalism, displacement, refugees, deceit, truth, 
lies. It's about epic themes and domestic themes. The more you mine it, 
the more you find in it.

“My wife's from Orkney, and being Leeds born and bred, I'm not really a 
country person. But when I got to know Orkney, I started to, not 
understand the island mentality, but to have a sense of what it's like 
to be on an island, and to be physically surrounded by that much water, 
and with a sky so huge and with the horizon so present. It does do 
something to the dynamics of life. I became interested in that just as 
a geographical environment, and the isolation that can bring, but also 
the sense of community it engenders, both good and bad. So there's all 
these personal reasons for doing this play, which I think can be 
emotionally devastating.”

Another influence on Brining's choice was an exhibition by artist 
Elizabeth Ogilvie at Dundee Contemporary Arts, just across the road 
 from the Rep, which showed work that utilised water and light. With 
Ogilvie drafted in to advise, Neil Warmington's set for Further Than 
The Furthest Thing will see the Rep stage flooded with 29,000 litres of 

Such scale and ambition have been a feature of Brining's tenure in 
Dundee ever since he became Chief Executive and joint Artistic Director 
of the theatre with Dominic Hill in 2003. Dundee Rep had already been 
transformed by the creation of a permanent acting ensemble by previous 
artistic director Hamish Glen, and when Brining and Hill came in as a 
package, it broke the mould again. Over the next few years, while Hill 
concentrated on reinventing the Rep space with productions of Howard 
Barker's Scenes from An Execution and a rollicking new version of 
Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Brining seemed to look to more popular fare.

Musicals in particular have become a Dundee staple, with Brining 
directing the little known Flora The Red Menace as well as Gypsy and 
Sweeney Todd. It was his production of Stephen Greenhorn's Sunshine on 
Leith, however, that has been one of the Rep's biggest hits to date. 
Ostensibly a Proclaimers juke-box musical that was clearly a winner 
 from the start, Greenhorn's play had a credibility to it that went 
beyond the one-dimensional plotlines of similar vehicles. In a bold 
move, Sunshine on Leith took on two commercial tours

“We learnt a massive amount doing that,” Brining says. “People think 
that commercial theatre is all about spending massive amounts of money, 
when in actual fact you're fighting over every penny.”

When Hill left Dundee to run the Traverse in Edinburgh and now the 
Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, Brining stayed in Dundee, combining 
productions of Christmas shows such as Cinderella and A Christmas Carol 
with meatier fare including Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind and Edward 
Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

If the incorporation of Ogilvie's ideas into Further than The Furthest 
Thing show off some of the synergies that now exist between the Rep, 
DCA and other organisations as part of Dundee's ongoing cultural 
renaissance, it also hints at Brining's skills as a diplomat, 
politician and producer which have come into play just as much as in 
the rehearsal room.

“I don't think every director either can do it or necessarily wants to 
do it,” Brining says. “You have to end up balancing different parts of 
your brain and different responsibilities. I wouldn't be interested, 
and have been, in just being a freelance director who directs plays. 
That's not enough for me. I want to have some kind of control over the 
environment and the circumstances in which the work is being made, and 
also the bigger point of why we're doing the work that we do. What is 
the point of having a theatre in Dundee? What sort of work do we want 
to do, and what sort of relationships do we want to have, not just with 
the people who come and see plays here, but with everyone in the city.

“But things go in cycles. I'm really proud of some of the work we've 
created, especially latterly. We've done big shows, ambutious things, 
but the ebb and flow of that is that as an artistic director you have 
to have a level of patience, and think for the next nine months I'm 
going to be concentrating on a particular thing for the organisation, 
or you do a particular show in order for something else to happen. It's 
the bigger picture that interests me, but there's also a necessity to 
go into that rehearsal room, close the door behind me and to lose 
myself in play, I guess, just to remind myself what it's about. The two 
things for me provide a healthy and necessary equilibrium.

“There's a broader point here as well about who should be running 
theatres, and if it should be a practicing artist or not. For me, if 
the person leading the organisation is going into a rehearsal room and 
engaging with the technical staff and everyone else, that kind of keeps 
you honest. I am on the line when we're doing a show along with 
everyone else, and if I mess up then I'll carry the can for that. If I 
was just talking about policy and everything else, you can talk about 
that forever, but if people see you sweating because you care about a 
production so much, that's important, because it's a reminder that, 
actually, what matters is what happens onstage.”

Brining hadn't planned Further Than The Furthest Thing to be his final 
production in Dundee. When he was offered the job, he was some way in 
to planning projects for next season, including She Town, a new play 
based around female mill workers in Dundee. Brining was also set to 
direct J.B Priestley's Time and the Conways in a co-production with 
Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre. Both of these will now be picked up 
by the Rep's associate director Jemima Levick, who must be considered a 
strong candidate to take over from Brining in Dundee.

“Nine years in one place is quite a long time,” he admits. “I have to 
say as well that there are a thimbleful of jobs I would've been 
interested in, and there are very few places I want to live in apart 
 from here. I hadn't planned to leave Scotland, but the job in Leeds 
just came up.

“I have a sense of the importance of West Yorkshire Playhouse to the 
city. When I was growing up there was Leeds Playhouse, which was part 
of the old poly. I remember going there as a kid, but when I left Leeds 
to go to university, that's when West Yorkshire Playhouse was being 
built. Then it opened when I'd mentally left Leeds, but I'd always 
watched its impact on the city, even though I'd never worked there.

“There's a certain point in your head when you're not interested in 
other jobs, because you've not been there long enough, or you feel like 
you've not completed enough but after eight years I was definitely 
getting a sense that it was probably time to start thinking about a new 
challenge for myself. I think also it's good for the theatre to have a 
new set of co-ordinates around itself. If I'd still been here after 
ten, twelve, fifteen years, you'd be able to see it in people's faces 
wondering why I was still here and thinking I'd be here forever.”

Brining arrived in Scotland in 1997 to run TAG, a post previously held, 
incidentally, by outgoing West Yorkshire Playhouse director, Ian Brown. 
Brining's career as a theatre director began at Cambridge University 
before he decamped to Newcastle to run a company on the Enterprise 
Allowance Scheme. Brining worked at the Orange Tree in  Richmond, where 
he first met Hill, and later ran Proteus theatre company in Basingstoke.

“There was something about Scottish theatre that suited me,” Brining 
says of the move north. “Theatre of all the artforms explores identity 
the best, and Scottish identity is always up for grabs.”

Such an attitude sees Brining leave Dundee Rep in pretty good shape. 
Not only is there an ongoing confidence in the work onstage, but as an 
organisation the Rep appears to be a tightly run ship. As evidence of 
this, at time of writing Dundee Rep is the only arts organisation in 
the country previously funded by the Scottish Arts Council as a 
three-year Foundation funded body to be given a guarantee of a similar 
status by Creative Scotland over the next three years.

“The way my time in Dundee has flown by is scary,” Brining reflects. 
“Nine years have felt like three years, which is ridiculous. The same 
ideas are still in place as were here when I arrived in Dundee, but the 
goalposts are always shifting, and that's not just about my own work. 
It's everyone involved in Dundee Rep who make it a success, and I 
really believe that a theatre has to contribute something to the local 
community. The challenge for whoever takes over here is to make sure it 
keeps evolving”

Further Than The Furthest Thing, Dundee Rep, April 24th-May 5th

Six of The Best – James Brining Chooses His Most Memorable Dundee 

Flora the Red Menace – John Kander and Fred Ebb - 2004

Kander and Ebb's little-known musical about starving artists, communism 
and love in low places.

“This was the first show I did in Dundee, but no-one had heard of it.”

A Lie of the Mind - Sam Shepard – 2004

Scottish premiere of Shepard's study of two American families in crisis.

“An amazing piece of writing, but not many rep theatres would do a play 
like that.”

Dr Korczak's Example – David Greig – 2006

Originally directed by Brining when he ran TAG, Greig's play looked at 
a real life paediatrician working in war-torn Warsaw in the 1940s.

“That's the show I'm maybe most proud of. It's this beautiful, delicate 
little show, but it's about these huge things.”

Sunshine on Leith – Stephen Greenhorn – 2007

Greenhorn's Proclaimers soundtracked show based around two squaddies 
readjusting to civvie street was much grittier than most jukebox 
musicals. It's most recent revival in 2010 featured Lord of the Rings 
star Billy Boyd in a leading role.

“This was hugely entertaining, but it also said something very serious 
about some things going on in the world today.”

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Edward Albee - 2009

Albee's lacerating study of a middle-aged couple at war over one long 
booze-soaked night.

“What a brilliant play that is. We had a set of brilliant performances, 
and you could see the audience at the end feeling like they'd just been 
in the room with these people.”

Sweeney Todd – Stephen Sondheim – 2010

The demon barber of Fleet Street with show-tunes scooped several awards 
for an epic production.

“I'd wanted to do this for ages. I saw Declan Donnellan's production, 
and was absolutely gobsmacked. Ten years later I tried to do it, but we 
never got the money for it. Then another ten years go by, and I finally 
get to do it. It's a fascinating play. It makes your heartbeat change. 
I could sing you every note of that show if you wanted.”

The Herald, April 24th 2012



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