Christopher Haydon was Artistic Director at the Gate Theatre (2012-2017) and formerly an Associate Director at the Bush Theatre. This August he returns for his fifth festival at the Traverse as he directs David Edgar’s Trying It On – in which David, one of the UK’s leading political playwrights, explores the events that defined his politics, writing and his life.
Ahead of that, Chris recalls some of his favourite memories of the Traverse.
I love the Trav. Trying It On will be the fifth show I have brought to the theatre for the Festival (after Grounded, The Christians, Diary of A Madman and On The Exhale). But my relationship with this place goes back much further than that. As a student, when I first came up to the fringe, I had some of my most formative experiences here as an audience member. I have vivid memories of watching Zinnie Harris’ Further Than The Furthest Thing and Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way and being utterly thrilled by the theatricality and narrative brilliance of those shows. Since then I must have seen dozens and dozens of shows here – both in and out of festival – and I always get a profound thrill when I head down those stairs.
In fact, my first ever professional engagement as a theatre maker was as at the Trav. I was the assistant director on a 2005 festival show called The Found Man by Riccardo Galgani. It starred the brilliant Liam Brennan (who, ten years later would play the lead in my production of Diary Of A Madman) and told the story of an unidentified man washing up on the beach near a small and isolated community on the Scottish coast in the mid-nineteenth century. I was offered the job in my final week at drama school – so I found myself graduating on Friday and being in rehearsals the following Monday. It was a baking hot summer and I have vivid memories of rehearsing in a large room above an Indian restaurant in Leith. The smell of curry slowly cooking below was probably not the most appropriate thing for the setting of the play, but it certainly made it a unique experience!
What is it about the theatre that makes it feel so special? Well, there is something truly epic about Traverse 1 as a space. The vertiginous rake of the auditorium and the width of the stage gives the space a cinematic widescreen feel – it is the ideal place for stories that combine emotional intimacy with big, political ideas. It is a great place for an audience to reimagine who we are and what we might be as a community. Trav 2 feels even more intimate. When you walk down all those winding steps, you feel as if you are adventuring into some hidden, subterranean, imaginative world. This was where I first saw Gary Owen’s The Drowned World – still one of my favourite plays. It is where I first introduced audiences to the character of The Pilot in Grounded and was able to take people on an intense journey into the frightening world of drone warfare.
Yet it is not just the theatres themselves. The bar has an extraordinary vibe – at peak hours during the festival, you have to fight your way through two queues – one for each space – in order to buy some Traverse nachos – the best nachos in the world. And the expectant buzz of these audiences mingling together is addictive and exciting. The walls are plastered with posters for all the shows and so the whole experience ends up feeling utterly immersive. The festival is as much a social experience as it is an artistic one, and the bar becomes the ideal place to hang out and meet the artists who you have just seen performing – its democratic, accessible and fun.
There are other great things about working at the Trav that might be less obvious to the casual visitor. The backstage team are immensely good at what they do. I have a habit of creating shows that are technically very demanding. But the tech team here never bat an eyelid – they can work wonders with an electric drill and some gaffer tape to fix even the most challenging of problems. I sometimes think that you should be able to buy tickets just to watch the turnarounds between shows – when one large complicated set is dismantled and got out and another assembled and got in with incredible speed. The planning and choreography that goes into ensuring everything runs on time is acutely impressive. The skill of the tech team is matched by all the other departments – from marketing to producing – so you always feel incredibly well looked after.
So yes, I cannot wait to come back this year. Trying it On, like all the plays I have brought to the Trav in the past, is both entertaining and politically astute. It explores the last fifty years of radical politics and so what better place for it than Trav 1’s epic stage? Come see it, and together perhaps we can start finding some radical solutions for all the challenges our society faces.