Natalie Ibu Talks … ‘Protest’

Natalie Ibu holds many titles one of which is, director of new play Protest.

Brought to you by Fuel, Imaginate and Northern Stage in association with the National Theatre of Scotland, Protest follows Alice, Jade and Chloe as they prepare to challenge the status quo and tackle injustices. This new play explores the power of friendship, activism and believing in your own voice.

Protest is written by Hannah Lavery and directed by Natalie Ibu. We spoke to Natalie about the play and her work as Artistic Director of Northern Stage …

Please introduce yourself …

I’m the Artistic Director and Joint CEO of Northern Stage, serving North East audiences from our midscale venue in Newcastle. I’m originally from Edinburgh – where I lived until I went to university in Leicester at 17. Since then I’ve moved around England for various jobs before starting at Northern Stage and moving to the North East in 2020. My mum is half white English and Cameroonian and my dad is Nigerian so I identify as a Black, mixed-heritage Scottish woman, living in England.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …

Focused. I have the pleasure of having a job that’s actually made up of three components – the Artistic Director of a venue responsible for all the creative activity of the organisation, JCEO where I share the commercial and business responsibility with the other JCEO, and also director of some of the work that venue makes. I’ve been giving myself permission to enjoy the opportunity that being the director offers – focus. Focus on the work, on the people in the room, on the audiences the work will finally meet.

Tell us about Protest

It’s about three school girls living in a small town, coming up against things that threaten to underestimate them, break and overwhelm them. And – with the help of small acts of kindness, hope and community – them being reminded of their agency and their ability to stand up for what they believe in.

Protest – Northern Stage.

What’s your role?

I’m the director of Protest.

At what part of your career does Protest find you?

Protest is my third show of my tenure so far, at Northern Stage. It finds me – not for the first time – thinking about purpose and impact and how I can be of best service. Protest is a reminder that making art and contributing to culture is my activism.

You are the first Black Artistic Director for Northern Stage and previously Artistic Director of tiata fahodzi, the only Black-led theatre company in the UK. What drives your passion to succeed in these spaces?

I knew I wanted to be an Artistic Director of a building at the age of 17. A strangely specific ambition for a working-class Black teenager from a single-parent family at a time when people of colour didn’t really get to see themselves reflected very often in “mainstream” curated culture. I didn’t know that when I finally got my dream job, 20 years later, I’d be the only Black woman (at the time) running a large producing and receiving venue outside of London.

My passion for that role hasn’t aged in those 20 years. It was always about being of service to a place and those who called it home, it was always about doing life with communities, it was always about extending the welcome and advocating that theatre – plays and buildings – were a place of communion, a place to chew over the complexities of life, a place of relevance, that could be relevant to our daily lives. That purpose – at its purest – was the same, then, at tiata fahodzi and, now, at Northern Stage.

One of the challenges of running a touring company is that you’re always a guest in someone else’s theatre so the opportunities to make an impact – beyond the work you make on stage – were limited and so, so hard. At Northern Stage, I have more chances, more frequently, to try.

Protest – Northern Stage

What’s your current plan B?

Do a PhD. There’s definitely an alternate Natalie Ibu who didn’t apply for an Assistant Director residency in 2004 but did a masters and then a PhD instead and is probably now a professor somewhere reading books, lecturing and writing. When it’s time to do something different, it’d be nice to check in on that alternative life I think.

What are you watching right now?

I am fanatical about the Real Housewives – Dallas, Atlanta, Potomac, New Jersey, Orange County, Salt Lake City, Miami, NYC, Beverley Hills … I love them all.

What are you reading right now?

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. I am obsessed with it – so much so that I can’t wait to get in bed at night so I can read a chapter. Reading is my favourite act of self-care – it’s how I replenish my empathy.

What are you listening to right now?

Between listening to podcasts and audiobooks, there’s not enough space for music in my life at the moment, but I start the day with worship music and we have a banging playlist in rehearsals.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage?

I try and see everything that happens in our building, but normally take a break when I’m in rehearsals. However, I made an exception for our Young Company’s show – Am I Alone in This which was co-created by director Lindsay Nicholson, writer Elijah Young and 15 young creators. It was a brilliant meditation on loneliness through the lens of teenagers – super chic set, great ensemble work, and really insightful.

What’s on your bucket list?

Make a bucket list.

Celebrate someone else …

Part of what I love about being a director is the opportunity to bring together a group of experts and support them to do their best work. I’m working with Nadia Iftkhar for the second time – Nadia is a mixed heritage Newcastle-born and bred movement professional who runs Company of Others and works with me as a movement director. She’s really brilliant at what she does – she moves like water and is incredible at holding space, emboldening performers to engage with their bodies and movement, taking a random image or words or a draft from me and tapping in to translate it into a physical language. I balance inviting new and different artists to collaborate with Northern Stage and investing in collaborative partnerships that stretch everyone involved to make their best work.

Whose footsteps are you following in?

Everyone who came before me. Of course, it’s probably no surprise that – as a working-class Scottish, Black mixed heritage woman born in the 80s – I’m the first in my family to work in the arts but that was made possible because of the courage and care of my mother, because of the work of Yvonne Brewster, Mona Hammond, Carmen Munroe and Inigo Espejel, because of my early experiences of youth theatre and young writers’ groups at the Traverse.

What’s Next?

Back to the other parts of my role, planning 2025 and beyond and supporting artists to tell the stories they need to tell and supporting stories to reach audiences. I’m really excited about our summer activity at Northern Stage, working with the team to cast Cinderella – our Christmas show (it’s never too early to think about Christmas) and our co-production of the world premiere of I, Daniel Blake by Dave Johns (who played Daniel in Ken Loach’s award-winning film). It goes into rehearsal whilst we start sharing Protest with audiences and that’s what I love about a busy regional theatre – the cycle of making work is constant.

Where watch Protest?

Protest opens at Northern Stage on 27 April before going on a Scottish tour, including a run at the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival.


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