“I remember coming into cultural buildings and always loving theatre, but feeling that I was never reflected or included in these spaces.” Bush Theatre Artistic Director Madani Younis is on a mission to ensure nobody in the community around the west London venue feels the same as he did.
“In less than 20 years, half of all young people in our city will be of dual heritage. I’m mindful that the decisions I make today, and those of others of a similar mindset, will ensure these buildings don’t just become a cultural enclave for a chosen few, but exist as a shared space for all. Be you a bus driver in Brixton, someone who works in the City or someone who owns the laundrette up the road, you all give to this building. You all give to the cultural life of this city.”
Younis took over at the Bush Theatre in 2012. He took control when former Artistic Director Josie Rourke left to run the Donmar Warehouse. In the five years since, his impact has been phenomenal. In 2013, he programmed the theatre’s most successful season ever. And he has just overseen a £4.3-million refurbishment of the old library that is the Bush’s home. The main auditorium now seats more audience members, there’s a second studio theatre, and it has its own rehearsal room for the first time. There’s even a small space that writers can book so they have somewhere to hide themselves away and create.
Listen to Younis speak about his theatre, and you quickly realise that each and every decision he makes is driven by the west London community in which it sits.
“Our theatre is situated on the longest road in London,” he explains. “It’s also the most diverse road in Europe for the number of languages spoken along it. That road is my mandate artistically. I want to reflect it on the inside of this building.”
An exhibition of images of Shepherd’s Bush locals that hangs in the foyer is one way of achieving this. But most obviously this is seen in the programming of the theatre, be it a piece set during the building of the Taj Mahal, a play about an African-American boxer or a drama about young love. Audiences from all backgrounds see themselves, their friends and their lives reflected on the Bush Theatre stage.
It’s all well and good putting on plays that could attract a local audience but, as Younis points out, “In our community here we have one of the highest levels of social deprivation in the country sitting shoulder to shoulder with the highest proportion of £1-million-plus houses.” How do you encourage audiences from the first group through the door?
“For a start, we’ve reduced our cheapest ticket. It used to be £12; it is now £10 for the first year. Twenty per cent of tickets are priced at £10 for that year. That’s really important.”
It’s also important to be friendly. The new entrance to the Bush Theatre is nothing if not welcoming. On a sunny day, you can have a drink in its intimate garden space. Or step into the library and flick through a play text without even seeing a show. Keeping a usable library is one of the stipulations of the Bush being allowed to use the building. It’s a treasure trove of British theatre. And it’s free.
When Younis was appointed in 2012, he was a trailblazer. He continues to be so, driving the Bush Theatre forward and building on its already impressive reputation.
“Five years ago we were based above a pub, playing to an audience of 80,” he says. Now they have a studio space almost that large and an auditorium that can seat 200. But with everything now available, from energy-efficient LED lighting and roofs insulated with grass to performers, directors and writers drawn by the Bush Theatre’s reputation, everything about this west London venue comes back to those people living and working on its doorstep. “It’s all about ensuring that the work created on our stages feels like work that speaks to all of our communities.”