Deborah Shaw is someone I had the very great pleasure of working with many years ago. She is a theatre director, festival director, producer and writer who was an Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Director of the acclaimed World Shakespeare Festival 2012 for London2012 and is Executive Producer and founder member of the Iraqi Theatre Company. She is also the Head of Creative Programming at Historic Royal Palaces, where she is responsible for artistic interventions, performances and new forms of creative interpretation at the historic, iconic royal palaces of London.
In this latter role, Deborah has been responsible for bringing together the team to execute ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, from a concept from ceramicist Paul Cummins. His idea was to ‘plant’ the moat at the Tower of London with ceramic poppies, one poppy for each of the 888,246 British soldiers lost during the 1914-18 war. Deborah brought award winning theatre designer Tom Piper on board and between them, these three have created a living art installation which is beautiful, artistic, educational, deeply moving and an overwhelming tribute to those who fell in World War One. In addition, the poppies were available to buy to support 6 service charities, and sold out.
The poppies were planted every day from 5 August until to 11 November and so the installation changed daily. Deborah had the idea that at the end of each day, the ceremonial Last Post was played on a raised area where a roll of honour was read out, directly under the Tower and in the midst of the flood of flowers. I saw this ceremony and it was beautiful, tragic and humbling. The watching crowds covered all ages and many were left close to tears.
In your professional life, what is the single best thing about what you do?
It can be a tiny thing, like seeing a small kid wide-eyed and open mouthed, having her world rocked by hearing some Handel for the first time at Hampton Court. Or something big, like commissioning new theatre productions from the bravest of independent artists from the Arab world. Or lately - creating a project like the poppies installation at the Tower of London and seeing how an artistic intervention can affect the image of even such an iconic place, making it a national focus of remembrance and personal tribute.
Do you have a creative hero / heroine and if so, why?
I’ve had several along the way – people whose creative imaginations have opened up new vistas of possibilities to me at key moments in my life. Deborah Warner for directing Titus Andronicus in the Swan and changing the way I thought about theatre. John Dove when I was a fairly new Assistant Director - I used to hide in the gallery at Watford Palace Theatre so I could watch his rehearsals; Luk Perceval – an undiluted genius. I try and catch every show he directs. I invited him to do an R&D project at the RSC – 9 days of bliss, seeing him share his secrets with a company of equally-besotted British actors. Ann Bogart, who has influenced a generation of theatre-makers on both sides of the Atlantic and is still happy to catch up over a cup of tea; Pippo Del Bono - life is his art and he doesn’t see any boundaries between them. Filming with his company in an abandoned power station in the Dolomites one summer was like being in a cross between Mad Max and La Dolce Vita.
Actually, there are about two dozen more…
What piece of advice do you wish you had been given at the beginning of your career?
I think I was lucky enough to be given it – by the aforementioned John Dove, who said ‘Of course, what we do isn’t a career, it’s a vocation’. I found that very liberating – not trying to follow a career, or worry about other people’s measures of success. Just be true to yourself.
If you hit a creative block, what is your top tip for getting through it?
Walk the dog.
And finally, for fun, if you were a shoe, what type of shoe would you be and why?
Can I be a boot? Any boot by Fly London – purposeful, practical, tough, recognisably a boot, but with a dash of crazy!
(More of my photos of the Tower of London poppies can be found on my flickr page.)