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Interview: Director James Scotland explores the effects of Western colonialism in The Ballerina

An artist-led organisation that creates a bridge between classic and contemporary performance, Outer Gaea theatre company aims to make theatre accessible to all. Their latest production, The Ballerina is described as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; a comparison that aptly depicts its unique and unsettling tone.

Colin Clutterbuck, a British diplomat is brutally arrested by the National Intelligence Agency. Accused of government conspiracy, Clutterbuck fights back against his intelligent and masterful interrogator, Pacifique Mumba. However, the young diplomat is soon to receive a powerful re-education in a play that explores the effects of colonial rule, the role of democracy and the future of Western foreign policy. Who are the figures behind the dictatorships and what is our role, in the Western world, in creating them?

After premiering in New York in 2019, Outer Gaea is bringing The Ballerina to London's Vault Festival. Run-Riot caught up with Director James Scotland to learn more.

Kerenza Evans: You are a founding member of the Outer Gaea theatre company. What was the initial ethos behind its conception?
James Scotland: The ethos was to build an international theatre company, founded by actors for actors, that would reinterpret the classics for a diverse audience. We felt that some of the old practices of theatre tradition had receded and we all shared a desire to cultivate those practices and fuse them with the new voices of theatre. For example, the repertory theatre system (The American Group Theatre, RSC & directors like Peter Brook) which is responsible for cultivating many of the Acting and Directing talents renowned across the theatre world today. OGC lives to create that bridge between old and new, known and unknown.

Kerenza: What are the key themes within The Ballerina?
James: OGC’s production of The Ballerina presents a theme of Africanism and questions the future of Western foreign policy, particularly confronting a British audience’s perception of democracy at home and abroad.

Kerenza: What inspired the title?
James: Ha! Im not sure I can answer that...You'll figure it out if you come see the play.

Kerenza: Has your experience as an actor influenced your role as a director?
James: Absolutely. As an actor of 11 years, I’ve picked up various approaches to work and have an understanding of what works best for me and my contemporaries. Whilst I have my preferences, there’s a natural versatility you get from working with various directors and soaking up experiences for over a decade.

Kerenza: What time period is The Ballerina set in? Is it influenced by contemporary politics?
James: The Ballerina is undeniably influenced by contemporary politics as well as age old imperialist attitudes that just seem not to relent. Our New York production in January 2019 took inspiration from the current political events at that time. Small edits were made which I hope resonate with members of the audience. Anne-Sophie Marie since decided that the time period would be cemented as January 2019 to serve as a marker for the state of politics and precedences that were becoming commonplace.

Kerenza: You've also taken the play to New York. Have you noticed a difference in the reception from American and British audiences?
James: To be honest, everyone who has seen the production has loved it. It's been very humbling. Prior to OGC's New York production, The Ballerina went through a series of revisions from short play all the way to feature length. I played the lead role and recall how complementary the audiences here in London were regarding the nuanced character that is Pacifique Muamba and the narrative as a whole. In New York, the production became more experimental and audiences were as moved as they were disturbed. A happy balance I thought.

Kerenza: What are your biggest fears as a director?
James: Not being recognised for the kind of work that I want to create. There are some meaningful lessons that I've learned as an actor and the mission is ultimately to bring those thoughts and ideas to the work that I direct and produce. To burn out due to the pitfalls of independent theatre production before we're truly recognised would indeed be a tragedy for myself and all those involved at OGC.

Kerenza: What are you planning to work on next?
James: Next, we’re co-producing a very special production of Othello dubbed 'White Othello' with international theatre company Restless Ecstasy. This is a Race-flipped version of Othello portraying a world where black supremacy is dominant and the white-body is heavily critiqued and censured. A radical take on Shakespeare’s Othello which addresses aspects of black pornography inherent in the piece and our culture.

The Ballerina runs at the Vault Festival from March 18 - 22 2020. Tickets are available here.

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