Rebel Dawn: Acclaimed Theatre Director Ms Walton Talks About The Wherefore of Revolution Mix

Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton

If you love theatre, you will love Dawn Walton.

She is one of those names that pops up time and again during interviews with actors, who use words like ‘awesome’ to describe her and profess their love and appreciation of her. It’s not luvvie hyperbole, because Walton is one of those utterly genuine people who have been blessed with knowing their purpose in life. She is one of those highly intelligent people who has an appealing sense of humour… Also, she’s very, very cool.

Besides her own impressive career, Walton is driven to ‘make work’, and in doing so, she takes an awful lot of people with her. She gave Daniel Kaluuya his first award-winning break on stage in Oxford Street when he was a still a teenager [1]. More recently, she recently gave Ashley Zhangazha his first major starring role in the touring A Raisin In The Sun [2] to rave reviews; including ours [3]. She notoriously watches young talent from the moment they catch her eye until the day she can give them a job! She also engenders the kind of environment whereby the entire touring company of ARITS skipped across to Manchester Royal Exchange to support the Talawa Theatre Company during their previews of King Lear, and Talawa did the same with Eclipse at the Liverpool Everyman! 

Now, having made an unmitigated success of her Eclipse Theatre Company (ltd.) in just 6 years, and almost single-handedly created a nationwide theatre artist’s and lover’s network via the Eclipse Newsletter, Walton is now the driving force behind the remarkable Revolution Mix project. This is why, after her topping the TBB wish list for the better part of a year, we were delighted to be granted some time to speak with her…

Having met you and some of your network, I feel that we’re actually missing out in London, as far as black theatre is concerned. Having read the background to the remarkable Revolution Mix initiative and the portfolios of your 15 writers, apart from Akala and a couple of others, the vast majority are from the regions…

Yes, you are missing out on what’s going on. But, specifically, that’s how I came to be here. This Londoner recognised that there were black artists, black audiences all over the country, given nothing at all. That’s what’s at the heart of Eclipse. That’s why my company started 6 years ago. I wanted to honour those people, bring opportunity to those people. The [owners of these buildings] need a lot more encouraging, and are not as brave as they should be about being genuinely inclusive. I’ve always had that problem with this institution called theatre. I found it challenging when I was at the Royal Court. People were telling me that black people didn’t go to the theatre, and I was going, well what were those coaches I saw arriving outside Lewisham theatre, then? [laughs]

Whatever organisation I’ve worked for, there’s always been a moment where you go, hang on a minute, that [what’s on] offer is not interesting enough, and that’s the challenge. That extends into creating quality work… and then you start to batten down those arguments and have an argument for it and prove it through the work that you do, and then it becomes about the artists. It’s taken noise outside to go hang on a minute, big campaigns and several movements at once in order for that to shift. Because it has literally, got worse not better than when I was a youngster.

Wil Johnson recently took us through what black actors were doing in the 80s and 90s [read it here]. He said, we were working all the time, and the number of black theatre companies has fallen since then…

It’s true! They closed, they capitulated, lost funding. It has absolutely shrunk! Then you have to go into these situations or forming partnerships with organisations in order to survive. My survival, my existence is dependent on my coming out of the institution. I trained at the Royal Court, I trained at The Young Vic Theatre, I trained within those types of institutions. I don’t know how I managed it, but I managed to get in, and that’s what I did. I took that knowledge…

…And you were awards-nominated and award-winning within those same institutions, which can’t have hurt…

Yes which gave me opportunities to do things. But, of course, it’s what you do with that in the end. Because the offer that was coming back to me once I’d got a level of training and success was very limited and limiting in terms of the work that it was perceived that I could do, despite the fact that every time, I made very different choices, I was still told in as many ways as possible that actually the work that I’m allowed to do sits in a very narrow sphere.

…and the sphere is urban…

I just thought well, if that’s what we’re gonna do I’m gonna be the baddest you’ve ever seen. You have to make your own distribution systems; try and influence the organisations that have all the resources. You have to influence those and sit within them to be able to influence from the inside. If you can!

revlution-mix-banner-1280x335I was reading the press release for Revolution Mix and it said that ‘the culmination of Rev Mix in 2018 also coincides with the 70th anniversary of the docking of the Windrush.’

Now, to be here in 2016 with funding in place and writers poised, the idea had to have originated several years ago. So few British establishments seem capable of doing that – forward planning; forward thinking. How did it all come about? You’d done 10 by 10, the short film series… 

I had done 10 by 10. The starting point was actually a weird moment. For Revolution Mix, [it] was a play called Moon On A Rainbow Shawl (MOARS), a play that’s often on most black writing courses I’ve done, that are specifically aimed at black writers. It’s known as a seminal black British play. It’s a play the establishment are happy and comfortable with doing. It was done recently at the National (Cottesloe 2012). The thing which shook me about that play was [it] was first produced 18 months after Look Back In Anger (LBIA). It was that close. It was the Observer Play of The Year – an astonishing achievement! But the legacy of Look Back In Anger vs the legacy of Moon on A Rainbow Shawl are very different stories. I have a nerdy thesis that I work through before I create a work. I have to have a series of questions that I’m asking myself, and I wanted to know why that was, why those legacies were different. Because, at the time MOARS started, I think they flew in black actors from America to do that play…

LBIA premiered 8th May 1956, Royal Court Theatre by John Osbourne. MOARS – premiered 4th December 1958, Royal Court Theatre by Trinidadian Errol John Earle Hyman (Cliff Huxtable’s father on The Cosby Show), Jacqueline Chan (T&T actress), Barbara Assoon (T&T actress)…

But, there are more black actors now, there are more black writers, more black directors… so why is that play the one that’s still being done occasionally? Why is that legacy not permeating through the institution?

That was my starting point, and then you start to look at the problems. When I tour, what was also interesting to me were 2 things – 1, when I talk to buildings, they’d often say to me no, they didn’t know any black artists that lived locally, outside of London. Meanwhile, [as] I’m touring and doing all of this development and culture, artists – writers in amongst them – would always be like, oh, thank God you’re here! When I arrived in Bristol we [said] how come they don’t have any relationship with those buildings? What is that?

British storytelling keeps the black narrative in very strict places. It likes the slavery story, the Windrush story, now it’s the refugee story, the third is gangsterism/criminal activity. Those are 3 places that the black narrative is historically allowed to exist in British theatre, of course there are exceptions to this. But I find that beyond irritating. The other thing that happens is, you either tell the actual stories in that way. Or, what the RSC are very good at – the European classic, like Shakespeare or whatever, set in an anonymous African or Asian country. They don’t even bother to name them most of the time and that’s how you do ‘black theatre’. That’s establishment theatre. You’re now not even using black culture, you’re using European culture, using cross-casting to achieve black theatre. All of this activity is to place black bodies, black stories, black existence in Britain outside of Britain – in another place.

It’s all rather convenient to have the celebration of Windrush. It was only 70 years ago. So we’ve done pretty well, considering we’ve only just got here! But, of course, this is a pervasive lie [laughs]! We know that black and Asian history is British history. Black and Asian British history goes back some 500 years or more! So, this was our jumping-off point: 500 years of black and Asian British history. Using talented artists that already have a level of experience that are not getting opportunities – untapped talent. We’re mining an arena of black and Asian British stories. This is an entirely original landscape! Nobody else has done this!  That’s the Revolution!

The 15 writers are stage playwrights, radio playwrights TV/film scriptwriters, novelists, poets, and performance artists. They are TBB Favourite Akala; Perrie Balthazar, Maurice Bessman, Leah Chillery, Lorna French, Tyrone Huggins, Afshan Lodhi, Archie Maddocks, Courttia Newland, Zodwa Nyoni, Chino Odimba, Janice Okoh, Juliet Gilkes Romero, Shamser Sinha and Paula B Stanic.
(Akala, Bessman, Chillery and Odimba all worked with Walton previously on 10 by 10...)

I am loving the three concepts you’ve hinted at already: Martin Luther King’s visit to Newcastle; the black men’s walking club in the Peak District; and the South Asian women’s Suffrage at the same time, in the same country as Pankhurst’s movement here in Britain!

Yes, and all of them are the missing British stories. Nobody tells them, nobody uses them as a jumping-off point, as an influence of our culture! Now if we did tell those stories, then it would be very embarrassing when people say things like, “we can’t have somebody black in a costume drama!” In fact, if you have Elizabethan England and you don’t have black people in it, I question the accuracy of your piece. Because there were so many black people in London [laughs], Elizabeth was being lobbied to send them home, because “they’re taking our jobs!” Sound familiar?

So, that’s where we are. This is the pervasive lie that goes about, and this is what limits our art, our culture! Why would we do that? So, I’m trying to address those things AND enrich the canon at exactly the same time. That’s what we’re doing with Revolution Mix.

Congratulations on securing almost half a million pounds! But this time last year I was attending all kinds of diversity forums, but particularly one at the Bush Theatre, which Pauline Walker of the Alfred Fagon Awards hosted, and the main worry was that arts funding cuts would create more risk-averse gatekeepers, restrict programme planning for theatre which would affect black and Asian work. I think I laughed out loud when I read that you had managed to secure half a million pounds for exactly that [laughs]…

Talawa & Eclipse group selfie

Talawa & Eclipse group selfie

Thank you. It’s difficult to talk about it, because, we’re in the middle of it. It’s not something I have any distance on. I honestly am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to be able to deliver in this way. It’s what it enables that’s really important. I’m really grateful that those funders were able to see what it is we were trying to do and the way that we were doing it. But, there’s a story in that if we do all the films that we want to do, we do all the touring and make the radio shows, we could easily reach a million people. So it’s a million pounds for a million people. That’s pound a person [laughs]. It’s good value for money in hard core terms of what we’re trying to give, although Eclipse has been very successful at delivering quality work… It’s an investment not just in us – it’s an investment in the artists and the ethos, and what we’re trying to achieve and it’s an investment in the partnerships that we’ve created in order to achieve it. We lead on this, but there’s a lot of people involved. It’s important that we’ve been able to find a way to articulate our goals, our aims, our audience needs and to be supported for that! It’s really extraordinary. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Not only are you championing diversity and creatives from outside London, but you’re also bringing attention to the fact that theatre does exist outside of London…

It’s the most important thing that we do! It’s twelve venues that we’re working with. To use the word diversity, there’s an imbalance. One of the things that Eclipse tries to tackle is inequality in all its forms. One inequality is funding. The balance of funding to London vs the rest of the country! It’s extraordinary. There’s no reason for it and as a touring company, I will often be in London, see something and think, hang on a minute, I know there are audiences for this in Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Coventry… We know those audiences. We want them to see that work! They’re asking me for the work!

They’re the people that are telling me what they need and that’s every kind of people, not just the obvious mono-cultural black audiences! I’m talking every kind of people are asking us for this kind of work! They’re going Why do we have to travel to London to get it?

So many black actors who do a lot of touring work say that they’re always sold out, whatever the work. I haven’t met anyone who confesses to having played a show to an empty house.

This is a historic thing where people go, oh can’t leave London, they don’t wanna see the work. This is a complete lie. The demographic of this country has changed hugely over the last 70 years. try and find a place where it [hasn’t]. There’s well-established black and Asian communities here in Sheffield, for example. There are different groups of people who live in this city. Why wouldn’t there be? So, the idea that the institution still serve something that they believe exists is a bit of a mistake. I cannot go anywhere and not find somebody [laughs]! People are everywhere.

So this name Revolution Mix – I’m really getting on board with this sense of revolution, because I read a brilliant line where you said you want to achieve critical mass and create a tipping point. Because you can back up all that you’ve been saying with your 6 mid-length tours, the short tours the films and radio and add it to the data you already have, like that statistic showing that in some venues you increased box office revenue by 30% with new visitors – people who had never been to the theatre before..?

Yes, our new-bookers. So the thing we’re very good at, and the reason why I can be so confident in doing a project like Revolution Mix, is this. We know that we attract new audiences to the theatre – new bookers. We know we do it at a rate of 25-30% across our tours… in those venues. So we’re bringing new audiences to the theatre, and they’re not just BAME because the percentage of BAME people in the population is less than 25%!

We’re also bringing people to the theatre who are called ‘experience-seekers’ who are at the other end. So we can connect with hard-to-reach audiences, and we connect with people who are looking for something something new to go and see. Not only that, but, I think it’s something like 60% of our audiences are more likely to go back to those theatres and book a second ticket within 6 months! Now, I knew all these things. But now we have the evidence, we’ve had the research done on our tour data. We know there’s value in what we do.

So where did the name Revolution Mix come from?

It came from me. The original idea was a mixtape! My inspiration was stories of the greatest songs in the world. I’ve just been talking about Prince (R.I.P.) who is my absolute hero.  I’m still reeling from that news. I was literally just telling stories of when I first heard Prince. I’m really interested in the universality of storytelling. A great mixtape has has stories – great songs like ‘Think’ on it (Aretha Franklin) or ‘Four Women’ (Nina Simone). They appear to be about one thing but are actually about something really universal. Think is a really great example… It’s a song that appears to be set in a domestic situation – the wife telling her husband to fix up. But actually it’s a shout to America saying they need to respect the black population of America! There’s wonderful duality in it that makes it universal. It’s the same duality and specificity of A Raisin In The Sun, that it speaks to people many, many years later and across the Atlantic. It’s a similar thing. It started from a mixtape – telling different stories that people across the board could relate to. Revolution, is fairly obvious why I chose that. There’s a revolution in our music with vinyl coming round again. Revolution is about change and this was about [me] wanting that action in the Movement, as it were. I don’t think of it as a project, I think of it as a Movement, perhaps. That people know it as something that we’re doing, not something that we’re talking about. Revolution is action.

That has been very important to you… Less talk, more do…

Oh God, it really has. I get bored of all the conferences, hundreds of people sitting about. I’ve said this before, the diversity issue brings out the talking people, saying, “Oh yes, we really want to. But it’s difficult because…” I just don’t really care for it. Do it! Because you’re in a position to do it, so do it [laughs]! Change it!

Are all the pieces written or have you got them all on tight schedule?

Oh my God, no, they’re not all written. They’re all writing. They’re artists! They need their timescales. What’s happening is, some of the first drafts have come in, which is really exciting. Theatres are working with the writers. Each has its own way and own relationship… I want them to have their own relationship with the writer. But, the writer arrived with their own idea, with a proposal for what they wanted, the story they wanted to tell, perhaps even how they wanted to tell it. They arrive with that. This is unusual! Also, the theatres did not pick, per se, the writers! The writers were paired with the theatres, which again, is unusual. I’m grateful that the majority understood what we’re trying to do, because it’s about making a new match that you wouldn’t necessarily make. Somebody they wouldn’t have had a relationship with otherwise. Then the writers have their relationship with the theatres. But really, in year 1, it’s all been about those writers writing.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you actually inspired a revolution of actual movement – Londoners picking up and seeing these works outside of London and people outside of London coming in for the first time?

That’s what we want! One of the most active things you can do is tour a piece of work. What I also think is interesting is that as we’ve been developing our audiences over the last 6 years, those audiences – our cultural ambassadors, have become very confident in contacting us and saying, listen, there’s nothing on here at the moment [laughs]. There’s nothing I want to take my family to see. Do you know if there’s any work that I can see somewhere nearby? I go, yeah! There’s this show on in Manchester, there’s this one on in Leeds… So we started creating a monthly newsletter that has shows, opportunities, jobs… we’ve been supplying that information as a direct response to our audiences.

Are you going to run for Culture Secretary one of these days, Miss Walton?

[Laughs] I don’t think I’m a politician, I’m just an artist! That’s what I do, that’s my response to things. I guess politicians have another way of responding, but my response is to make work, and that’s all I could ever do.

This is a really interesting time for Eclipse. We are growing as an organisation. When I started 6 years ago, it was just me. Now there’s a core team which is growing and allows [the development of] things like Revolution Mix. Our tendrils are reaching out to as many people as we can possibly manage at this time. We also get people contacting us, wanting to contact people across the UK – individuals, organisations… We use our mailing list, Facebook page and Twitter

I had to go to Bristol, because I’m working with Selina Thompson (Dark and Lovely) on her new show Salt which [opened] in May Fest down in Bristol, and then it’s going up to Leeds at the end of June as part of Yorkshire Festival 2016 [find out more here] – In February, two artists got on a cargo ship, and retraced one of the tours of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle – from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica, and back. It was a long journey backwards, in order to go forwards. This show is what they brought back.

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Interview for The British Blacklist by  @DescantDeb