Brian Hayward talks to TAG's new director, James Brining, as he rehearses a John McGrath play about the STUC
James Brining, TAG's new director, sometimes gets the feeling that everything he has done in his brief career has led him TAG-wards, and you can see his point. His CV, in the best theatrical traditions, starts with "trained at Girton College in Cambridge", which, he says, is nothing but the truth. "Three productions a term. That was my education." The ready smile leaps into his eyes: "Lucky I wasn't interested in reading English!" From Cambridge he went, he says, "about as far as you can go". Newcastle upon Tyne, in fact, where he formed the Rendezvous Theatre Company to present classic drama. Soon came his first show for children in the Gulbenkian, his own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland as physical theatre. From Newcastle the glory trail led to Basingstoke, where he directed a company dedicated to presenting new writers.
His three years there he considers the most pleasurable and painful time of his life. "Working with new writers is so thrilling, and so terrifying. With Hamlet, even if you do it on ice, you know the audience will take it. But with a new play, each time you can live or die, and you don't know which until the audience tells you."
In 1995, he became community director of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, where his work was mostly with schools and colleges. "There were eight secondary schools within three miles of the theatre, and they all wanted Shakespeare. Soon we were doing Shakespeare all over London." But there were also new plays in the Studio Space, youth theatre work and even the music score for a children's classic.
And so to TAG, which in its time has seen all of these things. Questions about being a new broom get a simple, cheerful answer: "If it works, don't fix it. TAG's been going for 30 years. It's in a position of strength, so it must have been doing something right. But I'm keen to go on opening up new audiences and new venues for theatre, and to find other ways of relating to schools other than as mere 'spectators'."
Asked about his future programme, he smiles more wryly. "When I arrived, I found I had three weeks to prepare proposals for the next four years' work. " (This was for the review of small theatre funding by the Scottish Arts Council, whose decision is to be made public today.) "So in the long term, we have to wait for the SAC. In the short term, I have inherited Tony Graham's programme, " and he gestures at the taped black circle on the floor of the ex-inner city Glasgow school.
The actors have gone for a coffee at a break in rehearsals for Worksong, a play to celebrate the centenary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, written by John McGrath and aimed at Secondary 3-4.
What is really exciting, and you have to be a theatre administrator to appreciate this, is that the run is sponsored by Scottish Power, the first business to put money into the low-profile work of a schools tour.
When I slipped into the rehearsal, it wasn't immediately obvious who was directing. There was this small group of people, each more casually dressed than the next, obviously having a lot of fun in working out what to do with a huge length of cloth. Then it became obvious - James Brining was the one asking the questions.
He interrogates the actors constantly, using his unflagging good humour to soften the intensity of the "thinking" demands he makes of them. "What's going on in your head?", "Where does that thought come from?" And on one occasion, "Why are you saying that?"; actor, after a moment's thought, "God, I don't know."
He looks all the time for the actor's identification with his role, and the actors appreciate it. As one was quick to tell me afterwards: "It's great, you can offer anything. If it's rubbish, he'll tell you."
Even with the brief rehearsal time available, he took time for research and team building. In the first week, the actors each researched a topic, and reported back to the group. They went together to the Summerlee industrial museum at Coatbridge to "get serious". Then the reading, and swopping parts, and discussion.
Asked why the performance will be "in the round", he answers that the space is "democratic, like the topic. The audience can walk round it, see it from different viewpoints, like a sculpture". The image is apt, because Brining's style is instinctively plastic. All the time you feel he is trying to muscularise the text, concretise the images. He tends to say things like "That feels like a new thought".
"Thoughts" and "different viewpoints" are important to him. The play will last 55 minutes, but before and after the audience will be involved in "thinking drama". The production will not have a "message", but the director wants every spectator to go away with a viewpoint, as long as it is his or her own.
Worksong will tour secondary schools in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Central belt in October and November. Pupils will be involved in creating situations based on the themes and issues of the play. Details from TAG, tel: 0141 552 4949