Name: James Dacre
Occupation: Artistic Director at Royal & Derngate Theatres
Current release: INCIDENTAL: Music for the Stage on Filmtrax
Recommendations: I love Rough Trade’s Behind The Counter series, particularly the compilation curated by Max Richter / Icelandic label Bedroom Community, run by the composer Valgeir Sigurdsson.
If you enjoyed this interview with James Dacre, find out about his work on jamesdacre.com
When did you start in your current role - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I’ve been Artistic Director at Royal & Derngate for nine years, but I started directing professionally in 2003, initially making work on the Edinburgh and London fringe and then assisting over a dozen different directors. Two game changers for me were a Fulbright scholarship that enabled me to train in New York with many of my heroes, including the iconic American directors Anne Bogart, Gregory Mosher and Robert Woodruff and a travel bursary that allowed me to work with several European ensembles, including Odin Theatre in Denmark, Song of the Goat and Gardienize in Poland, Farm in the Cave in the Czech Republic and Philippe Gaulier in France. Those experiences really changed my approach to collaboration and foregrounded the importance of music, movement, and imagery in bringing literary work to life onstage: working in rehearsal rooms where I didn’t speak the language of the company rehearsing, I learnt how the visual, physical, and musical dimensions of theatre can offer a common language of communication across communities and cultures which can transcend linguistic barriers. Don’t get me wrong - unlike other art forms, it is theatre’s wordiness – the fact that theatre is predominantly about conversations and debates - that makes it the most powerful of art forms. Theatre can express language so powerfully, poetically, and politically that it improves our listening, opens our ears, accesses our emotions, and deepens our understanding of the world around us. But music specifically can do so much to serve the language of a play and to unlock the emotion of a story.
Tell me a bit about your perspective on the selection process of programming Incidental, please. How far did media / public awareness of an artist or band play a role in curating the compilation? How much room is there in your work for taking creative risks?
While our theatres were closed to the public during the pandemic, we were exploring ways to keep our audiences engaged, and ways to fundraise. We have commissioned a remarkable range of composers over the past decade to collaborate on our productions. These collaborations have become a very important part of our work and hugely valued by our audiences. In discussion with several of these composers the idea to release a compilation of their music from these stage productions was born. I felt that in releasing their music it was essential to capture a sense of the theatrical collaborations that inspired these compositions. So, we set their instrumental music against monologues and sound design from the productions that their music was created for.
Programming a regional theatre is always about balancing bold artistic objectives against commercial considerations and creating brave art for a broad audience; staging vibrant, popular productions celebrated for their for storytelling and humanity. So, it’s no coincidence that many of the stories featured on INCIDENTAL are very famous novels and plays. I hope that these compositions and monologue recordings will, cast new light upon each of these classic works.
Artistically, the aim of this initiative was to help raise awareness of the crucial role that original music plays in the theatrical process and to share the work of the composers, writers, and actors that I’ve worked with over the past decade with a wider audience. Each composer’s contribution is themed according to the production that they wrote music for and features spoken work performances from members of the original cast alongside a range of stage luminaries who have been supporting Royal & Derngate theatre’s fundraising campaign.
Working in this capacity with musicians can occasionally lead to deeper insights into the music itself. In which way, do you feel your work can change the way music and certain styles of music are perceived?
In all my productions music has played and important role in drawing an audience into the world of the play. For example, I approached These New Puritans to score Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by exploring the themes of science and technology in the book. Their original music for our production conveys the dizzying scale of Huxley’s World State and adds a powerful new emotional dimension to his vision of dystopia.
Aldous Huxley predicated that the future would be an “Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and the noise of desire” arguing that “all the sources of our almost miraculous technology” will be thrown together in an “assault against silence”. He talked of a technology which “penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions… news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemies”. He viewed music with suspicion but also with great respect, believing that when composed meaningfully, “after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music”. So These New Puritan’s challenge was both to argue for ways in which music can suffocate and inspire, both quash human creativity and nourish it.
How are performing stage productions and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between composition to brief and personal expression in this regard?
Creating music for theatre is all about helping to take audiences on a narrative journey.
When asked what music has in common with storytelling, Keith Jarrett responded, “Well, I don’t play music, I play changes.” What I think that he meant is that music never stands still and that the canvas on which composers paint is time itself. Live theatre is like live music in that every moment is ephemeral and never to be repeated. Music, like narrative, is about change over time. That’s why so many major composers have learnt their craft by writing for theatre and why some of history’s most enduring composers hold storytelling at the heart of their work.
Just think of Henry Purcell, Edvard Greig, Kurt Weill, Benjamin Britten, Beethoven, Schubert, Handel, Leonard Bernstein and Philip Glass to name a few, going all the way back to Elizabethan England.
In fact, one of the spaces that I’ve found it most thrilling to collaborate with composers is at Shakespeare’s Globe, where I’ve staged both Elizabethan plays and new work. On Bankside, once the site of bear-baiting and brothels, The Globe continues the Elizabethan tradition of blending the sacred and profane, the rowdy and profound, loved for its sense of carnival, macabre and chaos yet offering harmony. It is a theatre with its head in the clouds and its feet in the clay, the perfect place to stage Shakespeare’s epics unafraid of asking big questions about the way we live our lives today. When 1500 people crowd around the Globe’s spare wooden stage eagerly await the start of a production, it has the electricity of a great gig or music festival. That’s a thrilling prospect for a composer because it provides such a vast canvas for them to work across – and enables them to shift between genres and styles with such versatility and ease.
The role of the arts is always subject to change. What's your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of the theatre today and how do you try to meet these goals in your own work?
Theatre is one of Britain’s great success stories: an economic growth engine and vital civic force which after the pandemic has so much to offer, fuelling local economies, nurturing our wellbeing, and bringing meaning and dignity to our lives. Regional theatres do so much more than simply put on shows. We nourish civic life and serve local communities, something that will be more vital than ever as we try to rebuild our society in the wake of Covid-19. Through our many outreach activities we play an important role in education and social care, providing creative opportunities for the young and vulnerable, and supporting vibrant local networks of freelance artists. In many towns the theatre is the main visitor attraction and at the centre of regeneration and economic renewal.
Theatres are one of the last spaces where people congregate to share experiences and to laugh, cry and ask questions about their lives without the distraction of smartphones or multitasking. In our dislocated world theatre is one of the last forums where it is possible to engage with two sides of an argument — something that has become all too rare in public life. Personally, I believe that the role of politically provocative theatre is to make an audience question themselves – never to tell them what to think. I really believe the value of theatre is to challenge and provoke and entertain, but to do so in a way that is not about the creators of the work, but to really ask of audiences how they feel about the world. As a theatre-maker, I create events that put the spotlight on audiences, not on myself.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of theatre still intact. Do you have a vision of theatre that could go beyond its current form?
Perhaps the most radical thing theatre can do in 2021 is not just airing the issues of the day, but insisting its audience sit or stand in one place, alongside one another, watching other humans doing and speaking and being moved to empathise with them on a human level. And insisting its audience do so, furthermore, without recourse to email, Twitter, Google of Facebook. Theatre cannot keep up with the speed of Netflix and Amazon. Instead, it must slow time down. That, perhaps, is the small, but potent act of resistance that all theatregoers undertake. Immersing audiences in a live theatrical experience and demanding their total undivided attention throughout is the most radical and progressive offer theatre can make.
Beyond the artform itself, I’m passionate about the ability of culture and creativity to live at the centre of civic regeneration, enabling post-pandemic Britain to become more community-minded. I’m fascinated by the ways in which people’s relationship with culture is changing and have dedicated my career to working in theatre and arts venues across the country, helping to foster civic spaces in which local communities connect with one another through arts and learning.
Throughout my career I’ve advocated for the potential of culture to contribute to education, healthcare, conflict resolution, digital practice, mental health provision and community regeneration. From helping audiences and participants to develop empathy, reflection and communication skills to developing happiness and wellbeing; from offering a safe space for discussion and debate and to welcoming those for whom a sense of community might not otherwise exist. All the work that I’ve done in towns and cities across the UK has been about building a sense of place and inspiring local pride, celebrating and boosting local and grassroots arts and culture and attracting new audiences for culture.