Director of Hit Black Watch Play Swaps Easterhouse for Elite US University

Scottish Daily Record
March 5, 2011
Paul English

Five years ago, John Tiffany was standing in Glasgow's Easterhouse, directing a play in which a cameraman was abseiling down a high-rise tower block.

Last week, he stood in front of 200 academics at Harvard University, and told them all about it.

It's a long way from a Glasgow housing scheme to the graceful halls and leafy courtyards of the Ivy League university, but John Tiffany has made the leap from an office off the M8 at Cowcaddens to America's most famous educational institution look easy.

And it's all down to a bunch of swearing soldiers.

As associate director of the National Theatre of Scotland, John has been behind some of their greatest success stories, notably the globetrotting phenomenon that is the company's military play, Black Watch.

The show returns to New York for an unprecedented third run next month, hot on the heels of the National Theatre's current boxing-themed hit Beautiful Burnout, now running at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn.

In New York alone, Black Watch has been seen by almost 40,000 people – and still has critics in thrall four years after its cast of effing and blinding soldiers first marched into town.

Back then, no one involved with the National Theatre was thinking about giving lectures at Harvard or being courted by the producer of the James Bond movies – yet that's now John Tiffany's reality.

Since September last year, he has been on sabbatical at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, an annual programme which brings 40 people from all around the world together to study, exploring everything from the US federal government's policy on email spying to the role of singer Aretha Franklin as a figurehead of gender issues among black Americans.

Later this year, John will open his first musical on Broadway - an adaptation of Oscar-winning Irish flick Once, which starred Glen Hansard of Commitments fame.

John was head-hunted for the job by none other than Barbara Broccoli, owner and producer of the James Bond movie franchise, after she saw Black Watch and set her sights on wooing the 39-year-old Yorkshire-born director, who has lived in Glasgow most of his adult life.

Sitting in his studio in the basement of one of the university's famous redbrick buildings, John admits the play, for which he won an Olivier Award (the theatre world's Oscars) two years ago, has changed his life.

He says: "When Black Watch was in New York some of the directors from the American Repertory Theatre got in touch asking me to come up here and do a workshop at the Radcliffe Institute on Black Watch because it wasn't just about theatre, it was about conflict and veterans.

"So my being here at Harvard is all down to Black Watch, of course it is. I'm a theatre director, I don't have an academic bone in my body.

"But there's a lot of cutting-edge stuff going on here, and it's the don't a huge honour to be here. I genuinely mean that."

With the National Theatre of Scotland, John deals with up-and-coming actors and stars of Scottish shows like River City and Taggart. my This week, he was holding court with Anna Deavere Smith - star of The West Wing and Nurse Jackie - when she came to talk at Harvard.

Black Watch's success in the States has brought the world of working-class Scotland to the shores of New York's East River, and there's a good deal of cross-cultural referencing running through John's chosen study topic too.

As we sit talking in his office-cum-studio, he makes mention of language studies done on the kids of Maryhill and explains why he wants to run an MRI scan on the brain of the guy from the Irn-Bru adverts.

The director is spending the year studying the notion of dialect and how we unconsciously alter our accents and speech patterns in response to whatever situation we're in.

The subconscious psychological manouvres known as "style-shifting" and "code-switching" are easily explained as the posh voice your mum sometimes uses on the phone.

He says: "Scotland is full of codeswitchers and style shifters because the accent often has the p*** taken out of it.

"There are massive associations with dialects in Scotland."

There are obvious, important implications for actors once their director becomes aware of these things.

One of John's current Black Watch cast, Borders-born actor Jack Lowden, who starred in the Irn-Bru adverts, will soon be strapped up to an MRI scanner while acting.

John hopes it will help scientists find out which part of the brain actors use when they are in character.

He's also working with local drama students and will direct a play at the end of his tenure to capture his findings. He hopes to run it in Scotland when he returns home.

John says: "I've always been fascinated by language and how people play with it. One of the most brilliant and useful pieces of research has been done in Maryhill, which I only found out by studying at Harvard.

"Professors have been working with teenagers and measuring the impact of things like EastEnders on teen culture.

"What they found was that while teenagers from working-class cultures took on some speech patterns from EastEnders - saying 'fink' instead of 'think' - kids in Maryhill didn't because they said 'hink' in the first place.

"Stuff like that fascinates me. I'm interested in subtle changes like that. Often it's unconscious, and when you have characters communicating things on stage without realising they're doing it, that's pure gold."

John's studies have helped him put a name to other social language changes, like the way anyone who watches too much American TV now goes up at the end of sentences.

It's known as a high-rising terminal - which isn't the same as a train station in the Gorbals. John explains: "It came from Australia via California. Going up at the end was previously something you did asking questions.

"Statements went down at the end. The high-rising terminal has messed that up, because it's not a question, it's a statement and there's a certain smugness to it."

John is clearly passionate about what he's learning and can't wait to bring it home. And his passions are rubbing off on the revered academics as well as the future business leaders and politicians around Harvard Yard.

Dean of the Radcliffe Institute Barbara J. Grosz says a clip of Black Watch was a key part in John landing his fellowship.

She adds: "The play took our breath away. We didn't know of it before, but we do now.

"One of the reasons we bring people from around the world is that we want to open the eyes of people in this country and the Harvard community, and give these people something from other parts of the world to take back.

"An essential part of the programe is to bring people from different perspectives, backgrounds and lives together and see what happens. One thing we try to do is bring people together in different combinations than they would normally encounter and see what happens.

"What John is contributing here is a particular way of viewing the world."

But with Barbara Broccoli, Broadway and the cream of the Ivy League after a bit of him, how easy will it be to return to a poky office on the wrong side of the M8 on a Monday morning?

Make no mistake - John knows where his bread's buttered. "Being here and having the time to think and preparing for the lecture I gave on the National Theatre of Scotland and the work we've done has made me even prouder," he says. "I'm desperate to get back. I'm not going anywhere for a while."

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