Wednesday 16 August 2017

Meet Selina Cartmell - A new keeper at the Gate Theatre

From sewing on sequins to working with drag queens and training as a belly dancer, the Gate Theatre's new artistic director, Selina Cartmell, has lived many lives. Ciara Dwyer met her

Selina Cartmell: Toyed with idea of becoming an actress/midwife
Selina Cartmell: Toyed with idea of becoming an actress/midwife

When Selina Cartmell was a little girl, her mother took her to a pantomime - Mother Goose. At the end of the show, all the children in the audience were invited up on stage.

"It was the first time that I'd been on stage," she says. "I remember thinking that it was very exciting."

And so, the seeds of her passion were sown. She was smitten by the magic in that darkened room.

Since then, she has come a long and very interesting way; from sewing sequins on costumes for Cats, the musical, to working with a drag queen in Hong Kong. So bewitched was she by this man's presence, that she pounced on him on an opening night. She was working in the bar of the theatre and had no idea who he was, but she was drawn to him. (His name was Greg Derham.) She told him that she loved his enormous hat and ball-gown. Then she declared her desire to work in theatre. Still finding her way, she was hungry to learn.

"At 18, you don't have any filter," she says. "I'd be different now."

It was the beginning of a fruitful working relationship. Derham took her under his wing, took her into his world of performance art which included parties. "He was very sophisticated," she explains.

It was a turning point for her, and hugely influential for her approach to her future work. All of a sudden, the concept of theatre and performance became broader. Years later, when she set up her own theatre company, Siren Productions, the title was a tribute to this mentor - his show was called House of Siren.

When Selina Cartmell first started to direct plays in Dublin, actors and audiences were intrigued. Who was this passionate creature? There was something dramatically different about her work - invigorating and original. She knew that she had to put on her own shows to let people know what she was capable of doing. An exciting new talent, she seemed self-assured, passionate and had very clear intentions of her own. She asked people to work with her - she told actors that she had no money but she had lots of ideas. They would profit-share. They saw her passion and signed up. The news spread fast of this dynamic new director and she built up a family of actors who work with her a lot - Owen Roe, Olwen Fouere, Lorcan Cranitch and Camille O'Sullivan. Actors and writers enjoy the intense yet collaborative experiences of her shows. People will tell you that she is hard-working, very bright and a great visual artist. They also talk about her kindness and loyalty, the same traits she values in others. Generosity of spirit and friendship are important to her.

Now the 42-year-old Cumbrian-born director is the new artistic director of the Gate Theatre. Her programme will be announced on May 17 but already there are all sorts of rumours around town. They say that the opening show might be Gatsby, with all the seats taken out; and that perhaps people will have to dress up. (If it is true, how exciting!) When I put all of this to her, she will neither confirm nor deny anything. I scrutinise her for a reaction. Not a thing. Not so much as a flicker of her hazel-eyes. But no matter. For the story of Selina's life, before she got involved in theatre, sounds like some of the far-fetched rumours about the mysterious millionaire Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. The only difference is that her story is true.

Her trip to Hong Kong took place when she had finished school. The idea was that she would join her brother who was living out there and come home two months later. That was not to be. She was entranced by this new life and so, the couple of months turned into a full year. It was the making of her and her unique perspective.

"Hong Kong is 24/7," she says. "You get six different jobs and live in a shoe box. I got involved in all these different things. I even ended up doing window dressing. It's an amazing city, the energy and vibe of it."

She met an Australian girl who had gone to Bali to learn traditional Balinese dance. Selina watched her dance and knew that she had to do the same. Off she went to Bali.

From time to time, she'd phone home, when she could find a phone.

"Where are you?" her mother would ask.

Then she'd tell her that she was living in the middle of rice paddy fields. (No glamorous beach resorts for this girl.) She would get up at 4.30am every day to learn this style of dance which she tells me is "all about the eyes and the hands". She enjoyed the discipline of it.

And even when she returned to England to go to university, Selina set off on fresh adventures. One summer she went to Egypt with the specific aim of learning to belly-dance. She stayed with an Egyptian family and relished living life their way, as they baked their bread on the roof-top. Before belly-dancing was westernised, she tells me that it was a form of entertainment for other women. This was part of the attraction.

As you can gather, Selina Cartmell doesn't do ordinary. And she has always had the courage to follow her instinct. By the time she finished primary school, she knew that she loved drama and sports, so she joined a school in the south with inspirational teachers. She was a weekly boarder. By her teens, she was already a big fan of the work of Samuel Beckett. She went to see the Gate Theatre's Beckett Festival at the Barbican in London when she was doing her A-Levels. She still remembers the brilliance of the performances by Stephen Brennan and Barry McGovern and then years later, it was like a dream come true when she was asked to direct Catastrophe - a Beckett play - at the Gate.

But she wasn't so steeped in literature that she let popular culture pass her by. As a young girl growing up, music was important to her. She loved Bucks Fizz and Madonna and she isn't ashamed to admit it.

"It's good to have a bit of tack and as I get older, I think it's even more important to have it," she says. "It's all very well to have dark and interesting work but lightness and humour is very important, especially wicked humour."

Cartmell is good company. While she is serious talking about work and the Gate, she likes to laugh and will talk a little about her life outside work. She is not afraid of change or experimentation in work, or even simply, with her hair. One day she might have it cut tight and bright orange, and another day she is blonde. She wears chunky rings and well-cut clothes with subtle sexy twists - a flash of cleavage or silver or both. She runs, does yoga (hard-core Bikram, in 40 degree heat, of course), but she also goes dancing and love cocktails. She rises at 5am, to gather herself before the day really starts. Travel is her thing - she loves London and New York - and family is very important to her.

Her mother Annie worked as a midwife and her father Gordon is a retired accountant. On leaving school, she toyed with the idea of becoming an actress/midwife. She laughs at the mix. Later on, she realised that she wasn't good enough at acting. She enjoyed being directed in college and it dawned on her that that was the role for her. She believes that her mother's midwifery work is connected to hers - bringing life into the world, as she does with her productions. She tells me that she has her father's rational, logical side and also, she gets the air, the more artistic side from her mother. She has three older brothers and she believes that being the youngest and only girl meant that she has always had to stand up for herself.

When Selina was growing up in Cumbria, she was a bit of a tomboy.

"I was always climbing trees and I loved being out in nature. I still do. The landscape in the Lake District is a lot like Ireland."

She first came to Dublin as part of an Erasmus course for her degree, when she studied in Trinity and then 15 years ago, she came back. The plan was to stay for a few months but she met some great people and decided to stay. It's back to listening to her gut again. Now many of her friends in Dublin are actors with whom she works with on a regular basis. They are like family. Also, she has a bunch of non-actor friends - lawyers and teachers - and she asks them to see her work when it is previewing, to give their honest opinion. She doesn't want to be cut off from the real world.

Last January she directed her first short film - The Date - which she is currently editing. She had applied to do it long before she put herself up for the Gate job. She didn't think that she would get either but she thrives on pushing herself.

"Fear is good, isn't it?" says Selina. "You wouldn't be doing it, if you weren't pushed out of your comfort zone."

So, what does she plan to do now that she is at the helm of the Gate?

"I'm for continuity and change," she says. "When MacLiammoir and Edwards founded the theatre back in 1928, they set it up as an international theatre. They brought in Chekhov and Strindberg plays and all of those great international playwrights in contrast to what the Abbey was doing, which was O'Casey and Synge."

When she tells me that the Gate is her favourite theatre, her love for it is palpable.

"I think it offers a unique theatre-going experience like nowhere else. That's my opinion and I know you'll say, you would say that. But you feel like you're in one room. You don't feel like you're watching from a distance. You can see the sweat, you can see the colour of someone's eyes, the whites of someone's eyes. It's visceral. It's not standoffish."

And she's right.

"I have huge respect for what Michael (Colgan) has done and I feel it's good for me to build on his legacy. It's about putting my mark down. At the moment the Gate is operating on a 75pc box office capacity, so I can see why Michael programmed the way he did. But in order to break that Catch-22 situation, we are going to need more investment. My big passion at the Gate is launching the next generation of artists, and bringing the two together."

In an ideal world, she tells me that she would love to do a musical, an opera and a Shakespeare play every year. But she is not going to be hasty and blast us with everything new. She wants to hold on to the loyal Gate audience and build on it. If she gets the time to direct, she will do that too, but right now, when she is steering the ship, she can't go into the bunker of rehearsals. She tells me that she loves farce and she has never been asked to direct Oscar Wilde but would love to do one of his plays. This is in case people assume that her work will be so daring that they will be all dark. She can do froth.

Anyone who has seen a show directed by Selina will know that she is an intriguing individual. The memory of her productions linger long after the run is over. Anyone who saw Festen at the Gate will remember some cast members entering through the auditorium. Sweeney Todd was a blast - sublime brilliance from start to finish. She has worked a lot with playwright Marina Carr who is known for her darkness but comic moments too.

Will she bring some razzle-dazzle stars to the Gate, like Colgan did with Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand?

"If the stars have the chops and they really want to work in the theatre, why not? Why wouldn't you let some of those brilliant actors on the Gate stage? It's an actor-friendly artist-friendly environment."

Her life must be full-on with the Gate right now. Is there time for romance?

"There is a time for everything and absolutely, there is a time for romance and all those other things in your life. At the moment, I'm very busy and committed to what the Gate role is for me. But absolutely, I'm more than open to the rest of it as well. I'm currently not in a relationship but you never know," she says.

"I don't think a relationship should define someone but at the same time, I know how enriching they can be and how wonderful, and over the years I have been taken on some extraordinary journeys.

"Who knows when love can strike, but it can be at any angle, at any point, and you have to be always open to those experiences on life's journey."

But right now, the Gate is her first love.

"I'm excited, terrified and thrilled," she says.

So are we.

The best of luck, Selina.

Sunday Independent

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