TAG gets a radiant new leading lady

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Emily Gray has her own theatrical style and vision but continuity of TAG's good work is important to its new artistic director, writes Brian Hayward

Late in the afternoon, Emily Gray is still bouncing with vitality and radiating charm, even though she has been up since 5am, travelling, interviewing and chairing meetings.

The first woman to lead the TAG Theatre Company since Christine Reddington launched it in 1967 seems to have paid close attention to those "extraordinary female mentors and very strong, competent women" whom she has worked with and been influenced by through the 10 years of her career, such as Jude Kelly of the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Ruth Mackenzie of Nottingham Playhouse (and Scottish Opera).

"I suppose directing was a male bastion that took a while to break down but I don't feel at all unusual in terms of my generation," she says. "Maybe more is made of it up here than in London.

"What is more important is that the continuity at TAG is maintained."

The continuity she speaks of is almost dynastic because for the past four years she has been Tony Graham's deputy at the Unicorn Theatre, where he went as artistic director from TAG. She learned much of her children's theatre from Mr Graham and with it the ways of working he had inherited and developed at TAG and subsequently taken to the Unicorn, so much so that they seem like sister companies, says Ms Gray.

Before her move to the Unicorn, she had been freelance, directing, choreographing and producing everything from mask workshops to new plays and community opera. Genre is immaterial to her; what matters is that her work plays to a responsive audience.

The year before Ms Gray went to the Unicorn she was working on musicals, operas and young people's theatre. The big, rewarding audiences were a life-saver for her at a time when she was "dispirited by directing plays nobody wanted to come and see".

She found making theatre for young people was "extraordinarily rewarding", partly because of the rigour it calls for because children are such an unforgiving audience. "If they aren't interested, they go to the loo, in droves," says Ms Gray.

"That's the challenge: you have to interest them at every moment. You have to tell a story at multiple levels. I use my dance background to make the story as physical as possible; I use music to tell what words cannot tell."

As for subject matter, there is little she rules out. "Death, disease and famine are all there in the children's world. Our job is to help them make some kind of sense of it."

Ms Gray says that her theatrical style will make TAG's productions more physical, more visual, more visceral. However, she also emphasises continuity.

"It would be crazy to ditch the good work that TAG has been doing," she says. "I know James Brining, the company's former artistic director, was planning a King Lear to follow on from his Julius Caesar. By coincidence, I was preparing a Lear at the Unicorn for primary schools, so that will fit with the TAG's strong tradition for Shakespeare in schools.

"I have had to prepare a two-year programme for the company and it includes Scottish plays of the last decade, new writing, everything. When I looked back at the programme, I realised that the theme running through was one of identity, generally with an outsider - someone who doesn't fit in, someone without a voice, trying to discover an identity - to answer the question 'Who am I?' It is a theme I hope will connect as much to teenagers as to a society adapting to changing cultures."

Before Ms Gray took a diploma course in theatre direction at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, she read theology at Cambridge University.

"I honestly don't know why I did it," she says. "It just seemed a good idea at the time. I have always been fascinated to know why people believe in things.

"Religion and theatre have always been closely connected, and I specialised in Indian traditions of religious dance and theatre, in Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism.

"A few years ago I spent a sabbatical year in India, visiting theatre festivals and talking to actors and writers.

"At Cambridge I spent an awful lot of time directing and acting in plays and just a little time studying theology. Theatre has always been important in my life. I suppose you could say it's my belief system."


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