Where ethics and art collide…

By Max Lindon

“The three strands to my Durham bow were the debating Union, the comedy revue and the theatre,” says Giles Ramsay, in what is a comforting statement for all Durham students who find themselves neglecting their studies in favour of theatrical endeavours. “The skills I learned from these have certainly stood me in far better stead throughout life than my exceptionally unimpressive degree.”

Ramsay came to Durham in 1984, and soon he immersed himself in extracurricular life, particularly theatre – and has since launched an acclaimed career as a director and writer. For him, it seems his involvement in the Durham scene was good preparation for a career in professional theatre. “The biggest difference between student and professional theatre is income,” he says. “Also, there are noticeably fewer divas in the professional theatre.”

Still, the road to success wasn’t always easy. Even if the difference between the amateur and professional theatre worlds is less than some might think, it’s still notoriously difficult to break into the latter from the former. “Whenever I’m asked about my supposed career I have the image of a long corridor with office doors to the left and right of me. As I moved along the corridor over the years I was followed by the resounding smack of doors slamming. Eventually there was one door left open. Hey Presto – my career!”

Ramsay is the founding director of Developing Artists, which he describes as “an international charity working to support the arts in post-conflict zones and deprived communities around the world. Our projects connect a global network of artists, entrepreneurs and arts institutions thereby breaking down some of the barriers – physical or psychological – that prevent performing artists from fully developing their work and sharing it on the world stage.”

Developing Artists’ projects often involve working with people from conflict-affected countries. I ask him whether he thinks art is a way to relieve a sense of struggle. He replies, “I’m not sure that theatre really can help people with the direct trauma of war but by releasing their stories and formalising them into staged productions a greater level of ownership and control can be achieved and this in itself can be empowering.

“All our projects aim to be professional and selfsustaining for the artists involved so that they acquire the skills to earn an income from their work and initiate their own projects over the long term.”

Recent projects, for example, have included a production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women performed by 15 Syrian women from a refugee camp in Jordan that toured the UK, and a play from Jenin, which also toured the UK and has now returned for a run in Palestine. Ramsay highlights the story of a young actor called Ahmed Tobasi who, before starring in the Jenin production, had previously been a member of Islamic Jihad, but who now says: “Theatre can be my AK-47.”

For his next project, Ramsay is taking on the topic of migration, uncovering artists through workshops in Jordan, Palestine, Zimbabwe and the refugee camps in Greece and Italy, before bringing them together to perform what will be known as The Odyssey.

“I love theatre and travel and have been extremely lucky in being able to combine the two. If I’ve managed not to do too much harm along the way, that’s great.”

He warns, however, that “there’s an extremely fine line between doing good for others and feeling good about yourself… whilst a great many outreach programs do wonderful and important work, there are sadly also some which are frankly bogus and simply stuck-on in order to help with grant applications and fund-raising. It’s important to be brutally realistic about what the true motivation behind any aspect of a project really is.”

What advice would he give to others looking to follow a similar path to his? “Don’t always think about what’s in it for you, be prepared to work for free on occasions, genuinely try to listen and learn and at least be prepared to consider that when things go horribly wrong (which they will) the whole sorry fiasco might be entirely your own fault.” Giles Ramsay is one inspirational man, and a helpful reminder that genuine achievement is not always as easy as it might look from the outside.

Photograph: Giles Ramsay

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