Setting a new stage

February 3, 2021

From writing fantasy tales at school and fashioning plays as a teenager, to helping connect audiences with fresh talent and performances, Natalie Ibu has always been a creative sort. Now, as Northern Stage’s recently appointed artistic director and joint chief executive, she is using her inventiveness to navigate the Newcastle- based theatre company through the COVID-19 pandemic and position it for future success.

Dramatic irony often forms the bedrock of many a good production.

It was apt then, in the world of the scripted paradox, that Northern Stage had planned to run a show carrying the title, ‘Where Do We Go Now?’ in 2020.

The performance – from Northern Stage’s Young Company – had been scheduled to follow previous productions that had asked, ‘Where Do We Stand?’ and ‘Where Do We Belong?’

That the curtain failed to rise on an examination of identity and direction was as satirical as it was serious.

Since March last year, we, as a nation – and indeed a global community – have desperately sought clarity and a route forward amid the stubborn brume of coronavirus.

Those questions, to a large extent, continue to remain unanswered, but Northern Stage is working on a resolution of its own, which aims to inspire and reawaken creative minds that may have fallen idle with lockdown lethargy.

Spearheading the endeavour is Natalie Ibu, the Newcastle-based theatre company’s new artistic director and joint chief executive, who took up the role in November.

Scottish-born Natalie has worked across Britain at a host of well-known establishments, including national touring company tiata fahodzi – the only black-led theatre company committed solely to producing new work in the UK – and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

For Natalie, the opportunity to take Northern Stage through the next part of its journey during a global pandemic is an exciting challenge.

It also marks another significant chapter in a career that first began to crystalise in creative writing lessons at school.

“There wasn’t a lightbulb moment as such – if you’d asked me as a seven-year- old, I’d have probably told you I wanted to be a nurse one day, a teacher the next, an actor after that and a dancer the following day,” Natalie explains of her childhood ambitions.

“But I was definitely attracted to theatre and I used to like to write a lot of stories, many of which were conspiracy theories about my CDT teacher Mr McClintock,” she laughs.

“My school consisted of a big main building and some huts that were used as classrooms, which used to get very warm, and my friend Marianne and I would write tales of plots about why we were being kept in them!

“I grew up attending Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, becoming part of its Young Writers Group, and I remember meeting the artistic director Philip Howard.

“I don’t know exactly what it was – it could have been how he held himself or the words he used – but there was something that instantly drew me to him and his job title.

“We had no obvious reason to connect; he was a very posh white man, and I was a black, mixed-heritage, working-class teenager – I didn’t look at him and think ‘there is my kin’.

“But he just inspired me and gave me a title for the role I wanted to be, for the job I wanted to do.”

Whatever the catalyst, Philip’s influence was immediate and with a career goal now set, Natalie headed to Leicester’s De Montfort University to study a Theatre with Arts Management degree.

She joined the East Midlands-based New Perspectives touring theatre company as trainee director after graduating, which paved the way for future work at venues including London’s Roundhouse and Royal Court.

Taking over at Northern Stage during a pandemic, she admits, has been a unique experience compared to the previous milestones in her career, but it hasn’t dimmed the ebullient Scot’s enthusiasm.

Indeed, despite the lockdowns of November and January, Natalie worked with the theatre company’s team in a few short weeks – with much carried out from their respective homes – to devise a programme of work that responds to the current social landscape.

The initial thrust centres around ‘This Is Us’, which is scheduled to run in three phases from January.

Beginning this month with ‘Can We Come In?’, it features digital offering Scroll, which provides bitesize stories from nine artists, including poet Bridget Minamore and director and writer Leo

Skilbeck, for consumption by audiences at home in the moments when we often find ourselves scrolling mindlessly through social media on our phones.

From March, ‘Out on The Toon’ aims to use the city as a canvas, with ‘Housewarming’ earmarked as the time for audiences to begin returning to Northern Stage’s building once it’s safe to re-open.

“‘This is Us’ is a remedy for a life lived in lockdown, in isolation and in bubbles,” says Natalie, during a video call with North East Times.

“It is an experiment demanded by the moment and a reflection of how we are committed to meeting audiences in different ways, in different places and in different forms during these COVID-19
times – no matter what.

“I have a real passion for theatre and for bringing people together shoulder-to- shoulder – and we have a very important role to play in doing that safely when we can.

“But lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions mean we can’t do that yet, so we are providing other ways for people to engage with us and, crucially, each other.”

The change Natalie refers to was evidenced by the theatre company’s work with Kitchen Zoo in December on a new adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

That performance was screened to more than 40,000 children in 274 schools, as well as care home and hospice residents, thanks to donations from supporters including the Hoults Family Grassroots Fund at the Community Foundation and The Barbour Foundation.

“Things are changing; ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ was a theatre production for the screen,” says Natalie.

“People’s lives are constantly moving, there is so much to juggle, and we want to be part of people’s lives as they negotiate the complexities of the moment.

“For example, Scroll features two- minute micro-stories that have been created specifically for the screen, and people can plan them into their days, rather than using social media for escape.

“We’ve commissioned artists from across the nation to create stories that people can engage with during their daily routines.

Natalie continues: “If you’re between business meetings or have zoned out while boiling the kettle for a cuppa, Scroll provides a different kind of distraction that doesn’t involve you doom scrolling or looking at Twitter, Instagram or Facebook on your phone.”

While forcing theatre companies and the wider performing arts sector to reassess its means of output, Natalie says the pandemic is also affording the industry with an opportunity to re-engage with the public’s palate.

“We’ve all been watching channels like Netflix and lots of box sets during the last year, be it things like Breaking Bad, Keeping Up with the Kardashians or even the latest events on Bridgerton,” she says.

“We must ensure theatre is relevant and useful to people and complements what we are engaging with elsewhere.

“There is definitely a challenge for theatre to catch up with the values and tastes that have changed during the last year, but there is much opportunity too.

“We are now speaking to a national and global audience because of COVID-19, with our ‘Can We Come In?’ digital programme allowing us to reach anyone, anywhere.”

However, while the pandemic may have helped stretch the boundaries of Northern Stage’s reach, Natalie says a focus on the local will remain crucial to her role, with a strong platform already in place to do so.

The winter COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions mean Natalie has yet to fully integrate herself with Northern Stage’s community work, which includes long-standing support to engender social change and empower residents of Newcastle’s Byker Wall estate.

The company’s team delivered emergency food parcels, creative learning and activity packs and made welfare visits to people during the first lockdown last year, and, when restrictions eased in the summer, worked with partners to organise Byker Best Summer Ever 2020.

Funded by StreetGames UK, in partnership with the Department for Education’s Fit and Fed programme, the outdoor creative activity project included den building, football, storytelling and cooking.

In addition, two Doorstep Music series – one financially supported by Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness and Well Newcastle Gateshead, and another backed by the National Lottery Community Fund – brought socially- distanced live pop-up performances to the estate in August and December.

“I want to be useful and of service, but to do that I need to know the people around me,” says Natalie.

“In normal circumstances, I’d have arrived here with a year’s worth of a programme in place, which I’d have helped run while also getting to know my new community.

“To know a place and its people – and for them to know you – allows you to become more relevant and useful, and I want to know the people of Newcastle and the wider North East, the area’s complexities and its audience.”

Natalie Ibu