At the weekend, Madani Younis stepped down as artistic director of the Bush Theatre, a role he’s been in since 2012.
A lot has changed in those six years: the theatre moved from being above a pub to a new venue with two stages in Shepherd’s Bush in 2017, a swish redevelopment costing £4.3 million, while Younis has overseen box office success and West End transfers. Now he’s about to make his own move, becoming creative director at the Southbank Centre, the biggest arts centre in Britain, in January.
But beyond this shiny gloss of success, the real achievement has been changing what goes on inside the Bush: the stories that get told, and the stories the theatre tells about itself.
When Younis first started, he would sit in his own auditorium and be “the only person that looks like me”. That is no longer the case. The theatre’s artists, and its audiences, look a lot more like the London we actually live in.
His programming has been trailblazing in developing work by artists of colour — recently, Arinzé Kene’s smash hit Misty, which earned Kene a place on the shortlist for an Evening Standard Theatre Award this year, and Doctor Who writer Vinay Patel’s epic love story An Adventure.
He has also launched schemes such as Up Next, Project 2036, and Passing the Baton, which offer support to BAME aspiring producers, directors and writers. The aim is to create structural change at all levels.
“That’s not about being ‘right on’, that’s about going: ‘When you’re in a theatre, let it feel like you’re in London,’” says Younis, who was raised here by a Trinidadian mother and Pakistani father, and who lives in Watford. “We programme and we nurture and we celebrate the version of London that I love.”
Not that it’s always been smooth sailing: “It was definitely hard at the beginning to find the artists and defend my choices. At the beginning, people said ‘That s*** is too radical’,” he says, adding that people questioned whether it was financially viable to programme whole seasons by artists of colour.
Which people, I ask — the theatre’s board? The press? “All of the above. I heard it from everyone.” Even writers he wanted to commission were sometimes surprised, he says, recalling a woman of colour telling him she didn’t think the Bush was a venue that would want her.
Younis is a forthright presence, and while his arguments are often delivered with the smooth, unassailable control of a politician, you can feel that they’re underpinned by an uncompromising conviction that greater diversity genuinely improves the arts for everyone. Oh, and it also shifts tickets.
“One might sound very virtuous trying to win the moral argument — and I need the liberal guilt of the arts about as much as I need crack,” he laughs. “The truth is that we needed to win the economic argument.”
Over the past six years, diversity has also become a key topic across the industry. Yet sometimes it still feels more like a buzzword than a commitment, accompanying hand-wringing but not action. Are we seeing real change, or just lip service?
“A lot of people are talking about this, and we’re living it and we’re living it super-proudly,” says Younis. “We are seeing change — change that is well overdue in our sector — [but] I think there is a long way to go. Look, I could sit here and be super negative about the corporatisation of diversity. The truth is that I’ve spent too many years expending my energy critiquing those who are very privileged.
“I made a decision a few years ago to go: ‘Let me celebrate those who are actually making the difference that we want to see.’”
And when it comes to celebrations, none has been more joyful — or irresistibly symbolic — than the West End closing party for Misty, Kene’s blazing show probing the notion of “a black play”, just over a week ago. It turns out Kene was Younis’s very first commission.
“That play bookmarks my tenure, and what a beautiful way to bookmark it,” he says. “That’s really what I am about, what this building is about: being able to support young talent at a time when they’re dreaming very big.”
It’s also about supporting artists when they’re losing faith in themselves: Kene, Younis reveals, actually tried to give the commission back. “We invested a lot of money into Misty. Arinzé was like ‘This is not happening Madani’, and my response was ‘Look dude, we’re going to give you some more money’. He continued to write. He never gave up, and we never gave up.”
The Bush recently announced its next artistic director: another young talent, Lynette Linton, a 28-year-old director without many high-profile productions on her CV. Might she be seen as a bold, risky choice?
“Nahhhh!” laughs Younis. “She’s only a few years younger than I was when I first started. By the grace of God we’re in a financially good position — Lynette can come in and have fun. Most buildings are experiencing what it’s like to have someone of colour at its helm for the first time; the Bush is on the second chapter.”
In 2012, Younis became the first artisic director of colour at any major London theatre. Today, he gives shout-outs to Nadia Fall at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic, Indhu Rubasingham at the Kiln (formerly the Tricycle), and Justin Audibert at the Unicorn. It is important, he says, to “have power looking different”.
Arts sector roles don’t get much more powerful than heading up the Southbank Centre. Younis will oversee literature, dance, performance and free programmes, in a restructured role alongside director of music, Gillian Moore, and director of the Hayward Gallery, Ralph Rugoff.
“When my mother came over here as a nurse, she knew of the Southbank Centre because a steel pan band from Trinidad were involved in the opening. So in my family it’s held this emotional place,” he says. “That building was created as a symbol of hope, post-war — and we’ve never needed it more than we need it today.”