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Orla O'Loughlin - The Traverse Theatre's New Artistic Director

There's a sense of wonder about Orla O'Loughlin when she talks. As the newly appointed artistic director of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre winds her way deep into the bowels of Scotland's new writing theatre in search of a dressing room, it's as if she's applying the same geographical unfamiliarity to her brand new role in arguably the best theatre job in town. Everything, it seems, is an adventure. As well it might be. Unlike most of her predecessors, O'Loughlin has no track record working in Scotland's theatre scene, and, since her appointment in August 2011, has kept out of public view as she surveys the lay of the land before her.

 “It did feel like I was being kept under wraps,” she says almost five months on after picking up the mantle left behind by the departure of Dominic Hill after four years to take over the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, “and I was allowed to walk freely in the streets, which was great.” Since then, while O'Loughlin has been overseeing practical and domestic arrangements for the move, she's also been “starting to contemplate living and working in Edinburgh, moving to a different country, and really beginning to study the form, really, of the Traverse and of the Scottish theatre community, because I'm brand new to both. So I suppose I was trying to be a good student, and trying to get a sense of the context and the history, and the politics with a small p, so that I would arrive with some fuel in my tank, I suppose, so I'm not beginning as a total newbie, but have some sense of context to inform the decisions I'll be making and the direction I'll be taking things in.”

 While at time of writing, she's only been in the building for just over a week, O'Loughlin's four month reconnaissance has at last given way to getting her feet under the table. “It feels like I'm ready to be here,” she says, “and that the building is ready for me. I feel very at home already, but I've a very long list of people to meet. For me it's a series of encounters, this first couple of weeks, at least, getting to know our writers under commission, writers who we might be thinking about commissioning, our audience and our supporters, as well as getting to know the organisation itself.”

 O'Loughlin comes to the Traverse from Pentabus, the Ludlow, Shropshire-based company she ran for five years, and who will provide her calling card when her production of Tim Price's already acclaimed play, For Once, ends its UK tour at the Traverse in April. Prior to this, O'Loughlin was an International Associate at the Royal Court, following on from a stint as a staff director at the Royal National Theatre that was preceded by a year as resident assistant director at the Donmar. With such a track record, and with Pentabus' increasing profile as a company touring areas of Britain which rarely hit the headlines, the appeal of moving into a major producing house is a bit of a no-brainer.

 “Early on in my career I spent a lot of time working in buildings with national significance, working with some very prestigious writers and artists” O'Loughlin observes, “and then I went off to run my own company. But I always hankered in the long term to be part of a gang, to have a home, and to be a host, I suppose. I knew I wanted to run a building at some point, and the Traverse just feels like such a natural fit. I've spent the majority of my career working with writers, trying to create the conditions for writers to make work that is provocative, resonant, contemporary, political, whatever it is that they want to do, and there's something about the chameleon as a symbol of this theatre that very much felt like a mirror of how I operate, because I don't have a house style as a director. Everything I've done has been completely different, because it's all been writer-led, and writers are all different. So there's something about the eclecticness of this theatre that felt right for me.”

 O'Loughlin's use of words such as 'gang' and 'host' points to an approach more social in its outlook than merely being just about the work.

 “I think we're involved in a very human pursuit,” she says. “I think we're in a position to look at what it means to be alive in these times, and if you're inviting people into your home, you have a responsibility to them, to push them as well as welcome them. You want to ask the big questions of writers, and push them beyond their comfort zone. I'm really wanting to reach out to a new generation of writers, as well as our more esteemed ones. I also want to learn as much as I can contribute. But there are no secrets. I'm brand new, which could be quite useful, because I'm pretty much new to everyone I meet, so there's no baggage.”

 Of Irish parentage, O'Loughlin grew up in London, and initially trained as a singer. After studying drama academally, she trained a teacher, and ran a drama course in a boys school before friends gave her the confidence to study directing. O'Loughlin then founded sob Theatre, who presented work at Battersea Arts Centre prior to winning her director's bursary at the Donmar. During that time she worked in the West End with the likes of Michael Grandage, Sam Mendes and Gwyneth Paltrow, simultaneously doing what she calls “dirty messy work at BAC.”

 Being able to straddle both worlds is something O'Loughlin sees as essential for her new role, and she points to Midsummer as the perfect example of this. David Greig and Gordon MacIntyre's lo-fi musical began life at the end of in Traverse 2's hundred-seater space in a production that made a virtue of its minisculr budget. Three years on, the Edinburgh-set musical rom-com has paid dividends several times over, and this month embarks on a three-month tour of Australia as a fully-fledged commercial phenomenon.

 Clearly thrilled to be in post, O'Loughlin struggles for a word to sum up her perceptions of her new home from the outside. “The Traverse is very cool,” she says eventually. “It feels kind of legendary, and one of my jobs is to try and bottle that spirit and fill the place with it throughout the year.”

 At the moment O'Loughlin can't say much about her concrete plans for the immediate future. She has her first Edinburgh Festival Fringe season to plan, and has yet to decide what the first play she will direct for the theatre will be. There's also the small matter of the Traverse's fiftieth anniversary in 2013. How things pan out remain to be seen, but O'Loughlin's varied experience will undoubtedly influence her tenure.

 “A play can be many things,” she says, “and it can be staged in many ways in many places. I think you have to have a real strong connection and sense of responsibility to your immediate locale and where you're from. The connection between people and place is really important for me. I'm a city girl, but after being with Pentabus I also bring this sense of a call of the wild with me as well. With that I hope also comes a spirit of adventure. When I say anything is possible, I really believe it.”

 www.traverse.co.uk The Herald, January 17th 2012

 ends

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