INTERVIEW: Natalie Ibu, Northern Stage | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Natalie Ibu by Mathieu Ajan

I’ve known I wanted to be an artistic director since I was 17 because it spoke to my desire to be a connector and broker of people, of ideas, of conversations.” Natalie Ibu, the new Artistic Director and Joint Chief Exec at Newcastle’s Northern Stage, joined the company in November. For some, launching an entire Spring season mere weeks into the role during the height of a pandemic, and while the theatre industry desperately attempts to keep its head above water, might seem a daunting task, but Natalie’s vision for the company and her passion and optimism is infectious (in the best way). “For me, the role of Artistic Director is about being of service to artists, audiences and a place. Being useful is the thing that gets me up in the morning so the scale and potential reach of an organisation like Northern Stage has me jumping out of bed.”

Previously the Artistic Director of tiata fahodzi, the only Black-led theatre company in the UK with a sole focus on new work, she’s a passionate advocate for artist development. Natalie’s desire to tell stories, strengthen artist development and connect with communities has clearly been the driving force behind Northern Stage’s new programme, boldly titled THIS IS US. At a time when just surviving is tough enough, Northern Stage admirably strengthen their commitment to nurturing new talent with their Spring season. “Joining the organisation and the region in a pandemic has intensified my desire to stop, reflect and think about what talent development looks like in a postpandemic world. As part of THIS IS US, were holding space for some active deep listening and thinking with our artist community.” Part of this process includes joining the nationwide conversation about theatre and the arts, Devoted & Disgruntled (alongside Alphabetti, ARC Stockton, Live Theatre and Theatre Royal), on Thursday 25th February, where North East artists, companies, venues, funders and agents can ask about the future of talent development and what artists need to ensure their careers recover. Following on from this, Natalie will host So Good To Zoom You, a series of interviews with a different artist every day in March to try to make up for the ways 2020 has kept people apart. “There will also be round tables and opportunities to re-connect with each other and the building. I’m an advocate for artist development, yes, but I’m mostly a champion of supporting artists with what they need to thrive and we can’t do that without asking the question. So let’s ask the question first.”

The theatre’s Spring season is undoubtedly a response to the world we live in. “This season is an experiment – demanded by the moment.” Natalie says. “It’s not what I thought I’d be doing so quickly and not what I thought would be my first season, but it does share my unwavering commitment to radical generosity, to meeting audiences wherever they are, to Northern Stage being a place that collaborates with artists and with place and with the personal.”

I think there can be no going back we cant withdraw when things are back to normal’, we must build from here

THIS IS US takes the form of three strands: CAN WE COME IN? meets audiences in their homes, with micro-stories and digital plays streamed on demand (with many of them free to access) and kicking off with Scroll, an antidote to ‘doom-scrolling’, the series of digital story interventions are intended to replace those moments of mindless scrolling (Wednesday 27th January-Wednesday 10th February); six writers have been commissioned to write letters of hope in Dear Tomorrow – Hope From Home, with monologues delivered by actors including Ameet Chana (Eastenders), Ann Akin (I May Destroy You) and Vera Chok (Chimerica) delivering uplifting stories (Monday 22nd-Saturday 27th February); for those missing the pub (that’ll be all of us then), Gareth Farr’s Shandyland: Pint Size is a love letter to the Northern boozer, after the 2020 premiere and tour of Shandyland couldn’t go ahead due to the pandemic, this new short film will wet audience’s whistles and introduce Shandyland’s loveable characters (Friday 12th February); Tyneside-born film and theatre director Richard Beecham presents The Guitar, a bittersweet story about being Jewish and Geordie (Monday 8th February-Friday 25th June); Grief Gatherings is an open invitation to take part in small conversations which address the silence of grief (Tuesday 9th & Tuesday 23rd February); and there’s family-friendly glitz and glamour for half term, as cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat reimagines Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, in Duckie (Tuesday 16th-Saturday 20th February).

The second strand kicks off in March, and takes the programme out into the city. “OUT ON THE TOON is about meeting audiences in their new hyper local footprint, using the city as a canvas and playing with scale.” Natalie explains. Expect performance and installation on the city’s streets, from Milk’s High Vis, where members of the LGBTQIA+ community will be invited to anonymously record celebratory declarations of queerness in one part of Newcastle, and have these broadcast via Milk’s loud and proud hailer on the other side of the city; Street Art Opera blends opera, street art and animation in a double bill of outdoor video projections (Thursday 18th-Friday 19th March); Northern Stage’s exceptional Young Company will meet young people where they are for a series of Walk And Talks and Doorstep Music returns to the streets of Byker, as musicians play live while residents are encouraged to listen, make requests and sing along.

The final strand, entitled HOUSEWARMING, will be an emotional one, as Northern Stage welcome audiences and artists back into the theatre once it’s safe to reopen. The first production to tread the boards will be an adaptation of HG Wells’ sci-fi classic The Invisible Man (Monday 26th April-Saturday 8th May).

Natalie says of the programme: “I hope it says, to audiences, we’re still here, with and for you – meeting you in different ways and in different places, in different forms and different times. You can rely on us, no matter what.”

As we’ve become accustomed to accepting over the last year, nothing is guaranteed and everything is changeable, and Natalie is committed to embracing diverse ways of interacting with audiences and artists. “For me, the pivot to digital and embracing online programming has been essential for connecting with audiences whilst our building is closed, but it is also a vital part of our future as it allows us to reach more and different kinds of people beyond the boundaries of geography. What great potential. I think there can be no going back we cant withdraw when things are back to normal’, we must build from here.”

View the Spring programme of events here

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