The Bunker Theatre may have announced its impending closure but its executive director Dave Ralf certainly has a lot to say!
Where were you 10 years ago?
Ten years ago, 2009, I was in my second year at university, writing an essay on John Donne’s poetry and desperately trying to impress my professors because I’d seriously slacked off the previous few weeks while rehearsing the first play that I’d written. I learned that year that directing your own work is a bad idea as a new playwright – frankly it’s probably not the best idea at any stage. The following year, I learned that directing theatre was not my calling at all – I couldn’t make myself care about the pictures on the stage, and only listened to the voices. Many years later, I’d find a good fit for that instinct: directing the radio dramas for Hotel Europe, which I made with Isley Lynn, David Loumgair and Philipp Ehmann and five extremely talented writers. But back in 2009, I was learning the jobs I wasn’t best suited for, concentrating on what I could offer and give to the theatre world I was then immersed in – and writing and producing had the edge over acting or directing.
Best show you’ve seen in the last 10 years?
I’m clearly tempted to confuse biggest for best, and the six hours of Ivo van Hove’s Dutch Roman Tragedies looms large in my mind in response to this question – I loved it, got lost in it, was fired up seeing Shakespeare in another tongue kick like a shotgun. Trilogy by Nic Green changed my idea of what theatre could be: personal, angry, funny, argumentative, political. And in the same year, 2010, The Tricycle’s Women, Power and Politics two-part short play programme not only set my brain on fire but introduced me to artistic programming and set my mind working about curation and audience development. I think about Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation a lot – it’s one that calls like an unbidden visitor but always has something interesting to say, and I value that very highly. I adored Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution at the NT – I’d love to revisit it having watched Breach Theatre’s brilliant It’s True It’s True It’s True. And Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus at The Gate has inspired and influenced my writing greatly.
What has been your professional highlight of the last 10 years?
I always joke that it’s setting up the workplace pension at The Bunker, and it’s probably true. Lots of my jobs aren’t glamorous, they’re meticulous, or painstaking, but they allow the machine to keep moving and the art to happen. At the same time, getting to support and work with artists like Eve Leigh, Roy Alexander Weise, Debbie Hannan, Milli Bhatia, Rachel De-Lahay, Anna Jordan, and even that Chris Sonnex, and alongside searingly good and generous producers like Annabel Williamson, Ann Akin, Matt Maltby and Robyn Keynes – all in the course of the last year! – has been extraordinary.
Top flavour of interval ice-cream?
I’m more likely to spend my cash on a beer or a G&T, but if they’ve got it, clotted cream.
What show do you wish theatres would give a rest for a few years?
I’m going to wilfully misunderstand the question and say that I don’t want less of anything. More, more, more!
Name someone who you think is a really underappreciated talent (in the world of theatre)?
Almost every single stage manager I’ve worked with. It’s an incredible feat of care and attention and presence to be a stage manager. It’s all guts and resilience and no glory, but they often develop an enviable sense of ownership and pride in a show – almost unlike any other team member – and it’s completely deserved.
Elphaba or Glinda?
I’ve never seen Wicked, I’m afraid! But when it comes to ranking witches, my personal preferences are as follows: Hilda Spellman over Zelda Spellman, Witch 1> Witch 3 > Witch 2 (and they’re all better than Hecate who should always be cut in productions of Macbeth), the Sanderson sisters from Hocus Pocus are equally perfect, and I saw Goody Osborne with the Devil.
What is one thing that you think would help theatre survive and/or thrive the next ten years?
The shifting of financial risk from emerging and early career artists and producers onto venues and organisations. This shift – especially in the London fringe theatre sphere, is the ONLY thing that will fundamentally change how representative, and therefore how rich, our entire industry is. If only wealthy people or those for whom extensive safety nets exist – like myself! – can get into making theatre in the first few years of our careers, suffer a few setbacks but stay in the game, then our entire sector is impoverished of those voices who could never begin to take those risks. There are – to my mind – no other considerations: the question is simply which organisations will raise the funds or put their stability on the line to take that cauldron of hazard away from individual artists and producers?
Which is your favourite theatre?
I suspect it’ll always be wherever I’m working. The Bunker’s got its claws in me deep. It’s got a big, deep stage – not many Off West End theatres have one like it, and it’s a big challenge to directors and designers, but when it sings it really sings. More importantly, I’ve built a family there over the last two years. One of the lovely things about announcing our closure – and there aren’t many – is how many people were upset not to lose a theatre but to lose a home, even if they hadn’t been programmed or worked extensively with us, it’s a place that has been valued very highly in a short space of time, which is very special, and is certainly how I feel, two years in.
Can you say anything about what’s to come for you, (in the next ten years or otherwise)?
I’ve no idea what’s next, professionally. Right now I’m doing my dream job, and I’m pretty exclusively focussed on ending well at The Bunker’s current site with an incredible final season. But there are two very important things in the next year for me: Firstly my wedding, to the exceptional director and brilliant human Rafaella Marcus which is going to be an exciting dramaturgical exercise, and more importantly, a very nice day.
Secondly, I’m making a trip to Oberammergau in Bavaria to see the once-a-decade spectacular Passion Play the townspeople present there. I studied mystery cycle plays as part of my degree, and I think that trip to Oberammergau will be extraordinary: a real life passion play with a history that dates back nearly to the English tradition of religious plays presented by local craftsmen in their own language. Imagine being a young labourer in York hearing Bible stories – the most important stories in your culture! – not read in Latin by priests but performed by your peers in your own language. Imagine, how powerful must those amateur actors have felt; how dangerous the whole exercise must have felt to the priests that normally controlled those stories – dangerous enough to ban them at several points. And imagine what the world would look like if everyone still had the same commitment to community drama as the towns of York or Wakefield or Chester did in the 1400s.