AI PROFILE Directing a future of truth
Ellen McDougall, artistic director, The Gate Theatre, London
The word that comes up most often in conversation with the new artistic director of the Gate Theatre is “conversation”. Ellen McDougall has conversations with her actors, her directors, her audience, her community – communities. Those conversations are becoming suddenly more animated as current events become more and more plangent. “It feels like a gauntlet’s being thrown down, and the great challenge is to pick it up” she says.
[Portrait image by Manual Harlan]
Her first season is doing that in the way the Gate always has, since it was founded 38 years ago by Lou Stein with the principle of bringing international classics to London, boldly and with 24-carat professionalism. That principle has remained through his successors, who have included Giles Croft, Stephen Daldry, Erica Whyman and Thea Sharrock, directors like Peter Hall, Katie Mitchell and Ian Rickson, and it has given formative early associations to actors ranging from Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Kathy Burke. Hall says in his diaries that this is the theatre to do something that no-one else dares to.
The Gate was founded above The Albert pub close to Notting Hill tube station, and its name had a double entendre, not only to relate to its neighbourhood but also to be the entry point for drama audiences could not have seen in Britain. It is a tiny 75-seat studio up a narrow flight of stairs which seems to change its dimensions with each production, part of the magic of the place that first attracted McDougall. It is a fixture, now secure in its Arts Council NPO status and some loyal benefactors.
“With little money and an awkward space” Stein says “it has shown how a small theatre, led with courage, imagination and a strong sense of what it is, can grow into one of the most important and internationally influential theatrical powerhouses of the past 35 years”. It has won most of the theatre awards going, and been nominated for the rest.
“That idea of an international outlook, whether classics or new work, or collaborations or devised pieces, that idea that we are forging connections with people who have different experiences of the world to us from different contexts is more important than ever” McDougall says, as we sit in the tiny closet that is the Gate’s library, surrounded by its archive, because it's the quietest spot in this hyperactive place.
And the need for the Gate’s role has never been more defined than it is now. “I think we're seeing, certainly in Western politics, a swing to the right, and an idea about closing off from outsiders, and an idea about national identity and being afraid of others” she says. “We live in a culture that wants us to feel suspicious of people that don’t look like us. That is all about shutting off, and I think it’s important to go ‘let’s break through that, let’s have conversations with people and let’s work together and make something together’”.
In her relatively short career so far, she is in her early thirties, she has always been able to work with diverse casts. “To make really proper work it has to be about what it means to be human looking at any emotional experience from as many different viewpoints rather than from a particular class or a particular nation”.
Ellen McDougall comes from a non-theatrical family, brought up in middle class North London. She got her first whiff of grease paint at her independent girls’ school, and discovered she was no actor at Edinburgh University, studying English. There she directed her first play instead, Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come in which the lead is played by two actors, the inner Gareth and the outer Gareth. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s interesting, how do you do that?’. I think of that moment often” she says. She has never been attracted by the easy option – the other play she did at university was Cymbeline, something she approached from the premise that it was impossible to stage.
After a brief period working in a post office, she got a job at the Young Vic assisting on a young people’s project, and then at the National Theatre, but her most formative time was a couple of 'years with the Secret Theatre, the experimental ensemble company of young writers and directors set up by the Lyric Hammersmith’s Sean Holmes between 2013 and 2015 while the theatre was being remodelled. On the first day she was given four writers and some actors to make plays with. And told by Holmes to do it on the main stage. “I’d never done anything on that scale before, and with a group of players I’d never known. It was completely terrifying, I couldn’t speak, I didn’t have time to think” she says. “But by the end of the process I was unafraid to walk into a room not knowing what I was going to do. I learned the benefit of being able to be open and let things emerge, and being unafraid of getting it wrong.”
She was already an associate director of The Gate when she was appointed, and had directed Roland Schimmelpfennig’s quirky Idomeneus there to acclaim. She likes the phrase once attributed to her as “challenging old certainties”, and her debut season certainly does that.
It began with her directing The Unknown Island, by the Nobel Prize winning Portuguese playwright José Saramago which has its own challenge, to the audience to imagine a new way of living, and got four star reviews all round. The first show is often a banker; this one wasn’t, even for a 75-seat theatre. “That play for me was asking questions about why we tell stories, what are they for, what do they do, what’s the power of them. It's about imagination and the idea of taking a leap of faith, not knowing how to sail the boat, not knowing where you're going - but we’re going to try.
“It's relying on our imaginations to feel quite radical in a world that feels dominated by pessimistic thoughts about the future. I wanted it to be joyful, and I wanted people to feel welcome and included, and for it to be an uplifting experience.”
The current production, The Gate’s second in her reign, is a co-commission with Jean-Pierre Baro’s company Extime from Magali Mougel, directed by Baro. Suzy Storck taps into some very deep and visceral thoughts, she says, dealing as it does in the way we think about women, about motherhood, what it means to have a child. “It tackles a taboo, even in this day and age, that says of course women want to have children, and the idea that you might not is considered quite dangerous still, isn’t it?”
In the new year comes Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman play about the race riots following the shooting of the black cab driver Rodney King based on confidential interviews Professor Smith had conducted at the time. In those circumstances people will give deep thoughts they might not in public. “Maybe we can start a conversation about moving forward from racial prejudice, ripping off a plaster and saying ‘let's look at all the ugly things happening under the surface’” McDougall says.
That will be followed by Trust, Falk Richter’s play about a crumbling marriage, directed by Jude Christian. McDougall feels it is a mirror of where the world is now. “Two people don’t trust each other anymore but can’t imagine themselves not being with each other. It’s effectively our relationship with the society we live in – it’s not working, it's damaging us, it’s unequal, unfair, destroying the planet, but we can’t imagine another way of doing things.”
There will be more co-productions, and one of the most exciting will be with English National Opera and its new artistic director Daniel Kramer with whom she is devising a kind of cabaret opera. “Fascinating on so many levels, very exciting for both of us, to look at opera as something other than the thing that only happens in one form.
“But somehow we’re going to have to get a piano up those stairs…”
2006 – Edinburgh University
2007 – Administrator at Chicken Shed Theatre
2008 – Runner up at JMK Awards (for most promising young director)
2009 – Staff director at the National Theatre
2010 – Directed Ivan and the Dogs, Soho Theatre
2011 – Nominated for an Olivier for Ivan and the Dogs
2012 – Associate at the Gate
2012 – International Development Award from British Council and Arts Council
2013 – Directs Henry The Fifth at the Unicorn
2014 – Directs Idomeneus at the Gate
2017 – Appointed artistic director at the Gate Theatre