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Julia Pascal; An Interview with The First Female Director of The National Theatre

Through her performances and writings, Julia Pascal has fought throughout her life for minorities and has tried to give them a voice, at a time when many still face, on regular basis, attacks for ‘accidents’ of birth. First female director of The National Theatre, Julia’s ‘overtly political’ tone aims to shed light on a wide range of discriminations.


Charles de Falletans: Could you tell us more about your early career, why you decided to turn to theatre and writing?

Julia Pascal: When I was at university in London, I was also an editor of the Arts Department of the student magazine called Senate. In a way, what you are currently doing parallels what I was doing when I was your age (laugh). I studied dance as child. I wanted to be a dancer. Then it changed, I became interested in theatre as I studied literature in school. So, I left school at 17 and studied to become an actor. Trained and played as an actor for four years, until I was 24.

Towards the end of that period I began to change. When you are in your 20s, you discover yourself, you start ‘meeting the person you are.’ So, I stopped wanting to perform. Decided to become a director but I did not really know how to. I went to university and studied English literature; I thought it gave me credibility as a real and serious person. My studies grounded me and taught me the valuable lesson to support and back up everything I said. I eventually, went back to acting at the National Theatre in a company. When I was there, I asked an associate director, if I could direct on the side. Many actors at the National Theatre were looking for more work and so I did a couple of performances with them. One of them was the dramatisation of some of the works of Dorothy Parker. Thought it could work as platform performance. Following the early successes of the show, I realised that I was the first female to direct at the national theatre.

C: The world of theatre and culture overall can be a difficult one, especially for women. What made you fall in love with it? What is its importance for you?

J: I think drama training teaches to speak, to perform, to be aware of yourself in space. It’s marvellous training, I think we should all have it in school. How do you use your voice, How do you present yourself, how do you wear yourself, how do you exhibit yourself as Shakespeare declared. “How to show how you are!’ Drama gave me a certain confidence.

I have always enjoyed writing and I believe that theatre allowed me to express my beliefs and thinking. It became a platform where I could say what I wanted to say. I began to write for a magazine called City Limit; offshoot for Time Out. There I was a Dance editor, but I was much more interested in dance as an expression of another culture than dance Journalism. What are the history of dance, what are the politics of dance. Political ballet. Dance as a creative political movement. Then Wrote for the Guardian afterwards about it, worked very well. Wrote about everything that interested me; Jews, Germany, France about Dance. Of all my experiences, I found out I could write about everything and could sell everything. So all in all it was my writing that drove my passion towards theatre.

C: You’ve written articles about your vision of the ‘political theatre’, could you explain it?

J: My theatre is overtly political. I’ve always written about people on the margins. I have thought about bringing to light and discuss survivors, genocides, Shoah. My next play is about a Kurdish woman who is fighting in Turkey. I’m very interested in the question of cultural identity, nationalism, internationalism, religion, language, music, all these areas. How these areas affect all of our lives, how we live it, how we experience it. What is the secret language we have? My grandparents spoke Yiddish? What are these lost languages that we carry within us. I have been, totally influenced by my background. ‘I have always felt a foreigner within my country.’ My parents were born here but English wasn’t the language of my Grandparents who had a totally different culture. English history, is not my history. When my peers felt guilty about imperialism for example, I felt no guilt about slavery. My family were in Russia then. Made me look at European history and investigate that. So I am interested in my or other minorities’ connexions to many other cultures and how they relate to each other.

‘I have always felt a foreigner within my country.’

C: Are you thus critical about the history we learn at school and at University?

J : I am Very critical about the history we learn. First thing you learn in England; 1066, the Normans came and invaded. But we don’t learn that, William of Normandy came with Jews, he needed usurers. Moreover, we don’t learn that in 1290, the English expelled the Jews and the first deportation of Jews in Europe was from this country. Later, Jews were not allowed to come back legally. Cromwell didn’t let them in; parliament said no. The alternative histories I am very interested in. Women histories and other areas. When, I write about Holocaust Shoah; it is considered or viewed at least, as a male experience.

At the moment I am researching new play. Set in 1940, in a camp the south of France, near the French border the play will discuss the lives of the German ‘indésirable’ in such camp. It will also discuss the 1940 Vel d’Hiv who is never, or rarely discussed in history books. I am thus interested in all of these secret histories. What is not told? I sometimes funnily feel like a spy…

C: You have fought repeatedly for women; can you tell us more about women and theatre?

J : The fight for women in theatre is a fight that has been going on a long time. There have been conferences and debates since early 1980s. The problem is that we are taxed not to be represented. Women’s voices aren't equally represented. Moreover, the majority of the audience is women, but women’s life isn’t represented there. There is an annihilation of human experience. Half of the population isn’t there!

The theatre industry, here in England, also represents the country. Because of Shakespeare and others, England is a country of Theatre. As such it becomes the face of the country. But such face is only male. It is not equal, and in that sense it should be against the law.

The National Theatre has never had a female artistic director, The Royal Shakespeare neither. All jobs should be advertised but they are not. If I were the male director of the National Theatre I could just give a job. No one is checking. It is Public money but no one is concerned about who and where the money is going. Open government is happening. The system is corrupt; it is a male mafia. It is a feudal system, Kings who have their court and appoint young men who are the younger part of themselves and as such participate in the establishment of a corrupt system which is difficultly overturned. Women are then parked in a small box called diversity. Normality is the white male experience. We are not diverse, we are half of the population and we are to be represented equally!

C: What are you doing to change that? What can we do?

J : I am meeting with the arts council for women We’ve met with the arts council, this can’t go on, it’s shameful. Whether there are actions I don’t know. Unless they threaten to withdraw money from the companies, nothing will change. The people who are appointed are already within the system. Doesn’t occur to them that there is something wrong because that is what they are used to. They don’t want to offend the people that have hired them. Moreover they will mitigate it. For example, the head of the Young Vic is now a black man which is great but it is only change in the surface.

C: Can you discuss about your views on racism and how it affected you?

J: It is hard. I lived in the north of France. My husband was mayor of Maubeuge. I was called an Arab because I had curly hair. And then when I told them I was Jewish, I experienced racism as such. All the clichés came out. Here it is more subtle. In England I am seen as the wrong minority. I am a Jew and therefore I must be rich; I am not rich! We are also constantly blamed for what is happening in Israel and with Jews around the world. You become part in something whether you like it or not. But why hate the Jews and love another minority. I forbid myself to use the word race. I hate how people are placed in box. We are not binary creatures. For such involvement and fight against racism I have had death threats. It’s dangerous. You can pass this fight, but I’ve chosen not to. An ‘accident’ of birth will not determine who we are and who we become!

C: What about your upcoming play, Blueprint Medea?

J: I am very interested in women on the margin. I have a friend who works for the Red Cross and knows I am interested in extraordinary people and thus introduced me to this Kurdish women who had fought in Turkey. I have always been interested in the Kurds as a kind of people who have been repeatedly displaced. Although they are Muslims they are not. They are not Arabic because of their culture; language, music and others. Abraham was a Kurd, he came from Yur. So who are these mysterious people? Who were these women who decided to fight, not having children, fighting for feminism? I found that I was admiring these people. I couldn’t fight; I am physical coward however I’m not a mental coward.

I thought I would write in the framework of Medea, the mythical character who is very powerful and commits the worst sin, killing children. I struggled with how to make that work as a play, the audience should see it but not obviously know the myth. But also, how do I justify a women killing children? So I eventually spoke to lot of women. One of them very interestingly declared – ‘If I thought I would never see them again.’ She had an Iraqi husband, and the children belong to the man. If they break up, she won’t see the children ever again, he will take them away. So in sense killing them would be a way possessing them, of having them forever.

My character is a faulted heroin. She is not sympathetic; she is so multi-faceted and complex. It is a character that will make you question so much. It was also a challenge for me and I have to say I loved writing it. As she didn’t speak much English, I had to take away everything that wasn’t necessary only to keep the essence.

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