Who were your influences and role models?
I had a great teacher from when I was 11, who looked out for me and helped me navigate some difficult times and remains a close friend. When I was 14, an electrician, working at my house, gave me my first ever book – apart from school texts. It was Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and it started my love of story and encouraged me to read and explore the big wide world that was beyond the chapati pan. I also met some incredible people through my early theatre experiences, who opened doors for me and welcomed me into a world I was not at all familiar with.
Who encouraged you?
At secondary school, in particular, we were known as factory fodder and not much was expected of most of us. We were working-class kids who were seen as people who would end up in factories and manual jobs, girls who would get pregnant young or get married off in arranged marriages and boys who would get into trouble and potentially end up locked-up – at least that was the general expectation of most teachers. Of course, there were always individual teachers who might see a spark in someone and encourage it, but generally there was little encouragement. It was just really about getting through the system.
In the theatre world, I was lucky to meet Ruth Mackenzie when she was fellow in theatre at Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill and she has always encouraged and supported me. Major Road was a national touring company, based in Bradford, led by Graham Devlin, that influenced and shaped my approach and understanding and Rachel Feldberg gave me my first proper opportunity by inviting me into Red Ladder theatre company, through which I met and worked with some extraordinary individuals on some great shows.
Tell us about your first job in theatre.
My first job was a short few weeks with Red Ladder. They then persuaded me to return to work on a touring show as the stage manager the following year – a job I knew little about. I had the privilege of working on a brand new play written by the wonderful Scottish writer Rona Munro called Winners and directed by Gwenda Hughes. It was 1987 and the whole team was female and culturally mixed. We toured the country, connecting with young women through youth clubs and in community settings. It was such a great experience and I learned so much.
This led to me becoming more involved in the company, learning lots about theatre, new writing and touring to non-theatre spaces, like youth clubs, getting involved in strategy and policy development, as well as shaping future projects. I went on to tour several other new plays over the next couple of years and was closely involved in developing new work such as Bhangra Girls, which Nandita Ghose wrote. The show toured nationally, specifically reaching South Asian girls groups in 1989 with a subsequent BBC TV adaptation.
What are the main challenges that you have faced in your career?
All the challenges faced by coming from a working-class environment with limited money, education and access to opportunities, and on top of that, being a woman and of Indian heritage. The challenges were wide-ranging, some systemic and structural, some social and cultural and many that don’t go away.
Is there a particular theme which is central to your work?
I suppose I like strong narratives and story, partly because I started my career in new writing and work for young people, but also partly because I’m interested in the new and recognise the lack of complex narratives of our diverse nation on our national stages. Much of my work is political and feminist but not necessarily overtly so, but it matters to me that people who look like me or who had little or no access to the arts have a voice and a place in the cultural life of this country.
What are you most proud of?
Projects that have had long-lasting impact, like setting up the Asian Theatre School at Red Ladder in partnership with Theatre in the Mill, which eventually became Freedom Studios in Bradford. Co-creating Contacting the World festival for Contact as part of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. It became a powerful international network of young people making work together for many years and spawned a huge number of talented young people who remain connected and committed to the arts and activism.
Is it more difficult for women to make a living than men working in the theatre?
Yes – I think women, as in many other sectors, have a difficult time in all aspects of the industry in all sorts of ways. But pay parity is an issue, as is access to opportunities especially in certain roles, and even more so if you are a parent.
If you could give your younger self some advice now, what would it be?
Don’t worry so much! Break the rules – they need breaking and remember: your different perspective, because of who you are, is your strength not your weakness.
Tell us about your favourite productions – your own or by someone else.
I’m very proud of Tide Whisperer by Louise Wallwein that I made at National Theatre Wales in 2018. It was such an ambitious and complex show in terms of logistics, taking audiences on an immersive experience through the streets of a seaside town, some going on boats and everyone gathering together in Tenby harbour at the end in a story that explored migration and the refugee crisis.
In 2001, I made a brand new production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It was my first show as co-artistic director of Leicester Haymarket with Willy Loman played by Joseph Marcell as a Black salesman with a mixed-heritage family (seen by some as a controversial decision at the time). It remains a memorable experience for me and proved hugely successful with audiences.
In 2011, I saw The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, created by Bob Wilson, Marina Abramović, Antony and Willem Dafoe. It was an astonishing visual and musical feast that remains very vivid for me, even now.
In January 2020, I took up the post of creative director/CEO of Leeds 2023. Leeds had been bidding to be European Capital of Culture but unfortunately, just days before the bid presentations, the announcement came that the UK was no longer eligible, given the outcome of the referendum and our planned departure from the European Union. However, Leeds decided to do it anyway, so I’m trying to navigate all the complexities involved in creating a landmark year of culture for Leeds in 2023, in these extraordinary times.