Sarah Punshon, the new artistic director of The Dukes in Lancaster, talks diversity and a disregard for boundaries
“It’s hard to put me in a box because my career has been so varied, which makes me a great match for The Dukes,” says Sarah Punshon, the new artistic director of the Lancaster venue she lauds as “a professional theatre that puts participatory work centre stage, a theatre that’s also an arthouse cinema, and a building-based organisation that regularly produces extraordinary site-specific work beyond its walls”. She adds: “The Dukes has this brilliant disregard for boundaries, a refusal to be categorised.”
Brought up in Leicester where she joined the local youth theatre, Punshon studied the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. Since then, she’s amassed extensive experience as a theatre director, including writing and directing The Astonishing Vacuum Cleaner Adventure, a new children’s show performed at Lancaster Arts Hear Me Roar festival.
“I love making work for families,” she enthuses. “So I’m excited about directing this year’s Christmas show and next year’s park show, becoming part of a grand Lancastrian tradition.”
Punshon has also directed episodes of Emmerdale, Shameless, EastEnders and Doctors (where she directed Pearl Mackie who plays Doctor Who’s new assistant), while her career has also seen her spending time as a Clore Fellow before creating some unusual live events, including a choral project for Manchester Museum and, referring back to her original ambition to become an archaeologist, a tented family event at the Natural History Museum in London.
She is married to writer and performer Daniel Bye and they have a ten-month-old baby daughter, Dot. “The great thing about moving to a new city with a small baby is she’s a brilliant conversation starter,” says Punshon, who has moved to Lancaster after spending most of her working life in Yorkshire and training at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. “It’s wonderful to hear the enormous affection so many people here have for The Dukes and the people who work here are all so interesting that I’m having a wonderful time just finding out what they all do.
“Places like The Dukes or Storyhouse in Chester are just really good examples of this incredible civic resource, which councils, businesses and local people are increasingly recognising. We’ve got better in the last few years at talking about the huge value of what a theatre does, although in our case and those of Storyhouse or HOME, for example, just calling them ‘a theatre’ is not nearly expansive enough to cover a multi-arts hub of activity where people might come to see an arthouse film, while their child could be part of the youth theatre. We also have an incredible outreach programme to all sorts of disadvantaged groups. Or people come to see, say, Northanger Abbey on the main stage. So, all these different groups are engaging with what we do. It’s a resource and people are starting to appreciate that we all need to support that. It’s also a reason why people come to Lancaster, with people coming to the park show from all over the place.
“I want to keep that variety and the high quality of the work that’s seen on our stages while also really listening to local people and to the people who work here about how they think we should go forward with our programme.”
In August, Punshon will be throwing open the theatre doors for Kickstart Open Space, a chance for Northern artists to take over its spaces for two weeks supported by the in-house team, while she will also soon welcome a new associate producer from Tamasha Theatre, who will work at The Dukes for 18 months with the aim of placing artists from diverse backgrounds centre stage.
Punshon will also be one of the course leaders on the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme (RTYDS) from August 12, at which The Dukes is offering people from all walks of life a chance to learn about theatre directing this summer – and it’s free.
In fact, Punshon herself trained under the scheme at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and remembers fondly that “the RTYDS scheme changed my life. So it’s great to be able to offer a chance for people here in the North West to learn about the craft of directing, with particular reference to The Dukes incredible outdoor show in Williamson Park. It’s quite amazing to think that the park show will be celebrating its 30th birthday this year and it’s a unique directing challenge I’ll be facing myself next year.”
Also leading the course will be Alex Summers, The Dukes’ associate director and head of its Centre for Creative Learning, which is devoted to creative industry training, education and outreach work.
The course starts and ends with an intensive full Saturday session with eight Saturday afternoon sessions in between. It begins during the run of Treasure Island in Williamson Park with the chance to see the show for free and then walk the route with award-winning director Joe Sumsion and discuss the challenges of this unique production. The course ends in October with an opportunity for the budding directors to work with Punshon to explore next year’s park show and how it might be staged, based on their new knowledge.
In between, they’ll explore the actor-director relationship, discover how directors collaborate with playwrights, designers and composers, and discuss the challenges of participatory theatre-making, focusing on the creation of Blackout, The Dukes’ autumn production, including a ringside seat at the technical rehearsal. Complimentary tickets to Treasure Island, Blackout and The Suitcase will be provided as part of the course.
By Kevin Bourke, Theatre Editor
The Dukes is keen to attract a diverse range of participants aged 18-plus to the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme but places are limited and the deadline for applications is July 20. For more information and to apply, visit www.dukes-lancaster.org/about-us/artists-hub
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