DEDICATION TO VISIONARY JULES WRIGHT

IN MEMORY

 

1948 – 2015 – BEYOND
THEATRE DIRECTOR | FILMMAKER  | CURATOR |GALLERIST

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Undoubtedly a visionary of our time, Jules Wright’s legacy lives on with the creatives she crossed paths with and inspired.

She was daring but her intuition never failed her, continuing to champion artists and designers that she encountered. Jules not only supported young creatives across various fields, but recognised and encouraged their potential.

 Jules lived her life to the fullest, in a way that others wouldn’t in their entire lifetime.

Moving from her hometown of Adelaide to Bristol UK as a Commonwealth scholar she completed a PhD in Psychology exploring the connections between behaviour, gesture and setting.

Her passion lied in theatre and Jules’ ambition led her to take on director roles at the Theatre Royal and Royal Court Theatre (as the first resident female director in the Theatres history) and going on to co-found the Women’s Playhouse Trust in 1984. Turning down a role to run the Sydney Opera House, Jules opted for her creative freedom and bought a disused Grade II listed hydraulic power station in the then derelict location of Wapping. Together with her architect husband Josh Wright, they transformed the building into a performance space of its own.

The Wapping Project celebrated and showcased art, theatre and photography in the multi-purpose Boiler Room which was transformed for each major exhibition. In Ala Champ Issue 6, Jules explained “It’s a very strange thing and it is hard to describe, but I always knew that The Wapping Project would be an extraordinary place. If I think about the productions that I’ve done, and the things that I’m most proud of, it is always when I’ve been challenged and not wavered.”

Jules’ network of visionaries all shared in her vision and created ground-breaking exhibitions with her at The Wapping Project: Yohji Yamamoto, Kris Ruhs, Keith Haring and Issey Miyake. Each exhibition was commissioned, original and site-specific. She once exclaimed, ”it doesn’t matter if only three people turn up to see what you’re doing, so long as you believe in it. A decade down the line the other millions who see it will realise they should have been there”.

Jules’ lens-based gallery The Wapping Project Bankside,  continues to run in Mayfair London along with a residency in Berlin, continuing her vision.

Such a generous and fearless individual, Jules Wright’s passing is a loss to us all, but she will forever be in our hearts.

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We celebrate Jules’ extraordinary accomplishments by revisiting our interview with her in CHAMP Issue 6. Shot by photographer Brendan Ollie, our conversation took place at The Wapping Project in 2012.

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You came to study especially in in the UK from your hometown of Adelaide, Australia.  What brought you to London?

 I always wanted to work in theatre and in my head that was where I wanted to be, even though that’s not what I studied. So it was a way out, I couldn’t imagine living in Australia and I’m adopted so I think that has some part of it. I always grew up wanting not to be there. You know, I had fantasies that I’m sure every adopted child has; of who their parents might be and what they came from. Mine was always being the child of a travelling performer, and so I imagined I was always left on Adelaide Railway Station by someone who is touring Australia. I always had that sense of not wanting to be there, and I was quite clever at school, so the possibilities of being abroad were possible. I was a Commonwealth Scholar, and so my university was paid for by the British government.

More incentive to come to London?

In fact, I reached Bristol first. Bristol is kind of the size of Adelaide in a way! I had a nice time there, and I studied just there. But I did my PHD kind of after I left, and finished it later. I came to London one weekend, and bought a copy of Time Out, and saw that there was a new director, Clare Venables, appointed to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. I immediately thought to ring her up and so I did. I said, “I want to be a director”, and replied, ‘Okay, but we don’t have any jobs at the moment’. Then in the New Year of that year she called again and said, ‘I’ve got a job for you’. However, she’d never seen anything that I’d done. I had just directed at University. I was offered to start in January, which I couldn’t do because I was still doing my Psychology PHD on Anorexia Nervosa and I was working with the whole family. So I couldn’t really walk out of the psychiatric hospital, and instead I began at the theatre in April. And that was it, that’s what I did. By the time I got there Clare was pregnant,, and she gave me my first production immediately. I was so ambitious! I was given a main stage production too, which was seen by directors from the Royal Court and then I was offered a job in Sloane Square. My career moved very fast. I worked as a theatre director right until the moment that I opened the door at The Wapping Project. The Wapping Project seemed to be the place I could put my stamp on and not have anybody tell me what to do. It has actually gone in a different to what I had imagined. I thought I would direct a lot here, but in fact having no public funding, we’ve had to constantly find finance for it – and so the restaurant because a source of income. It’s become a huge business and it just absorbs time. It was necessary but it was a diversion.

Going back, at University you studied Psychology. Why did you contact the Director of Stratford East which completely changed your career direction?

Because I wanted to be a Theatre Director. In a sense a psychologist is  close – if you’re analysing a text, you’re also analysing the relationships between people. You are  looking at the way people behave with each other and thats what real theatre is about. Behaviours.

So the skills you learnt there you could adapt and transfer to your new position at the theatre.

Exactly. But I also think that’s true for all of us. If we’re not stupid, then we can do lots of things.

I always thought I was going to succeed. I applied for amazing jobs and although I wasn’t getting shortlisted,  I felt compelled to apply. I was so ignorant. I thought, yeah I can do that job! i just applied for it! People were probably actually reading my application thinking, ’What is this person doing, how can she think she can run a major theatre?’

I think that’s what maybe stops a lot of people going for it as well. They don’t have that little ingredient of confidence, even if you call it ignorance..

It was a combination of ignorance and confidence.  I was very lucky that people always said yes. I wonder when Claire Venables, opened the door for me, she didn’t know me from Adam or Eve. I just turned up for an interview in Stratford in KFC, because that was all there was in Stratford! There were no restaurants or places to have coffee! And we got on really well. She was full of trust, and I feel that that has always happened to me in a way.

Or maybe you just know what limits there are, because in your mind there’s none. Anything is possible.

I wanted to be the youngest person to run a major theatre in this the UK, which I was. I was also the youngest artistic director in the country, and I thought, this is where I should be. It’s very strange, as you get older, your confidence wanes. Maybe you just know more. I’m not that hesitant really, and I tend to do what I want to do. Not to say that I don’t get fearful or nervous, or anxious as I do. But when I want to do something, I try to do it. Not feeling bound by anybody. I wasn’t like anybody because nobody knew who I was like, so I wasn’t constrained by being told that I had to be in any particular way. It was never imposed, or insinuated and I think I still feel that. You can do whatever you want to do, really. That is the joy of being adopted, for me at least.

Nothing is out of reach and it’s always going to be okay, at whatever you have a go at. 

I don’t say that I can really understand it. It’s a very strange thing and it is hard to describe, but I always knew that The Wapping Project would be an extraordinary place. If I think about the productions that I’ve done, and the things that I’m most proud of, it is always when I’ve been challenged and not wavered. Even if that has upset people on the way through. A lot of people actually feel I do things differently. When you’re strong enough to say,  well, maybe I am wrong, however,  if I am, then it’s on my head. But of course sometimes one wavers, and sometimes you think, well maybe I am wrong here. But for me, that has never been the best way to work. For me, it’s about being really uncompromising which means sometimes you do get things wrong, but I think it’s alright to get things wrong. 

That’s how you learn and progress.

You do actually. So I always remind myself not to compromise.  It’s good to have an outsiders opinion on your work, especially one you value. But it doesn’t mean that you have to concede.   I listen and think, thats a good point, or i hadn’t thought of that, or however that is a good point but I don’t agree with it. Or its not the direction I’m going in with this particular piece. If the criticism is something I hadn’t thought of it, then I think that’s a really interesting strategy, I move.

You have said the British understand paintings, but they don’t understand photography just yet. It’s the new generation. You didn’t think twice about taking a risk opening a lens based gallery? 

I always wanted to open a photography gallery because of that.  I think in 5 years time, London is going to be bigger than Paris In terms of collectors and collections, photography will find a new strong home in London. So no, I didn’t think twice about it.

Actually recently, did you visit at the newly opened Pace Gallery, Hiroshi Sugimoto against Mark Rothko. Perhaps it’s finished now, but anyhow it was beautiful the way they juxtaposed them. The main story they were trying to tell was ‘what is more truthful- the photography or the paintings? It’s great to see galleries exhibiting like this, and educating people.

Exactly.

The main Wapping Project space located in East London, is beautiful in grandeur, which is a Victorian brick building, and was formerly a hydraulic power station. For the concept and design of Wapping Project, you’ve always wanted to keep the interiors.

I would have liked to have kept it exactly as I had found it. A completely derelict building. The walls were covered in moss because it had been exposed to the weather, and in parts there was no roof. It was absolutely filthy, but utterly beautiful.  I don’t care if it ends up derelict again – maybe that’s what should happen to it.

With the Bankside gallery, why did you choose this location?

That’s where I live. I came downstairs, it was empty and I knew, thats for me!  I saw it and thought I’m going to try to do something commercial.

What is your selection process for the artists that you represent at Bankside?

Most of them I’ve shown here in the main Wapping Project space. Deborah Turbeville I showed  in 2002. Thomas obviously I know from here. Peter Marlow and Susan Meiselas the two Magnum photographers I’ve shown. Elina Brotherus I started working with here. Stephen Morgan here, Annabel Elgar here.  People who’s work I feel I would want to live with. I never represent anyone that I wouldn’t want in my home. They all have individual voices, you can like them or not like them. Very personal voices. For example, Lillian Bassman was key in terms of black and white photography in her generation. Deborah Turbeville’s work is so uniquely her, and everybody copies it. She’s in her late 70′s now, and there’s such a strong Turbeville voice. Paolo, with his Polaroids . Each is crucial in respect of photographic history.

On the Wapping Project, every exhibition I’ve visited in the Boiler Room is the most remarkable installations, exhibitions that  I’ve visited anywhere. Can you tell me about the curation process.

They’re completely theatrical. And for me, it’s always about wanting people to enter a space and think  Where the hell am I?! From my point of view, the viewer or visitor becomes a participant in the piece. I always think completely sculpturally and in the round, which I feel comes from my theatre experience, particularly working in the big theatres in the round. I want audiences to feel like they are in the piece. Both a participant in the sculptural surrounding, while watching another story spinning out which Aldo includes the participant’s own imaginings . There are no words just images, so you’re active intellectually and emotionally in everything that we create.

You have had a wonderful ongoing working relationship with Thomas Zanon-Larcher. How did you meet?

I was working on big project here called Fashion Film and Fiction. I  wanted a photographer to work on that show, and Robert Cary Williams said he knew a guy, and so Thomas came down and showed me his portfolio. I saw that he shot people when they were mobile. I looked and thought, here’s someone that can shoot people without them having to stop. Thomas recorded that project. We talked a lot, and then out of that we came up with the idea of doing the story based on Ibsen’s heroine Nora from ‘A Doll’s House’. We shot it in Norway.

I direct a scene but it is like directing a scene in a film, the subject never stops moving. Thomas moves around almost like a character in the piece, so  performers ignore him. He’s extremely mobile when he works, even though it he carries a massive camera. We both work three dimensionally, and no body ever pauses. We work in public. Sometimes there are shots where there are hundreds of people. Then you look at Thomas’ backstage images, there’ll be a shot of Yohji Yamamoto completely concentrated, but you know that there are thousands of people around, and he manages to find these isolated, powerful images and gestures. So it’s very… collaborative.

Perhaps you both know no boundaries.

Yes. I watch Thomas work and think, how can you carry that monster? And move! It’s a very extraordinary thing to watch.

It’s like you’re directing this unconventional play, where everyone takes part in a story. And where even Thomas is part of it.

 Exactly. Also, I find people weld together as a team very quickly, in particular the group of people I work with. For example that shot of Lianna was taken at 5:30 on a tram in the middle of Vienna, full of people going home from work. She’s still absolutely concentrated in that moment of - “Is the person who’s pursuing me, on the tram?” You  look in her eyes, and see that her thought is precise. When you shoot between crowds there’s something they respect perhaps simply the fact that you’re working, because you don’t ask them to get out of your way. They move away and observe. We confidently and concentrated the scenes.

Almost unspoken cooperation. 

It’s a very interesting process, so much so that in fact it would be a very interesting to film. It is a rare process. There’s a lot to it and of course we argue. Thomas only uses natural light and this is a difficult situation in which to take a photo at midnight!  It’s funny afterwards but not at the time!

I’m excited to see the exhibition at the Bankside gallery. The images are beautiful.

They are stunning. You know, sometimes Thomas does straightforward fashion work and his last shoot for Sarah Burton was so beautiful but so informed by his narrative work.

It’s interesting, everyone that is like-minded is interested in similar things, so I wasn’t surprised when Thomas shot backstage for Yohji and Heider Ackermann.

Yes.  It’s because of the way one looks at things. It is fundamentally a shared aesthetic.

In terms of your attitude to work. You wanted to create Wapping Project, and financially it’s not really your main goal. You would like to simply create more. And it’s similar with Yohji, he just wants to design. And not necessary an attitude to work, but just to life.

Yes, and going back to my earlier directorial days at The Royal Court, we never worried if the shows were full or not. Some of the great pieces that we did, 10 people saw. But now they’re classics, and everyone says they saw them! If you’re doing work thats not in the centre of conventional ways of thinking then you have to believe in it, that it has merit and will be validated.

In any industry, a connector is one that naturally suitably connects people to roles or other like-minded people for projects. In fact, Thomas has said that you are a very good connector, and I have to agree with him!

But that always makes things exciting if you put people together. Maybe I am. I think I am a good commissioner, because I’m very good at enabling people to do their best work, and that’s crucial.

It’s important to surround yourself with the people you work with, those you admire and respect.

Indeed, and very often they’re very strong people too. So you respect their work, and there is mutual respect, so the piece is bigger than the sum of its parts. If you find good working relationships, a rare thing, then the collaboration  that takes place is healthy, has its place and is tremendously valuable.

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Interview published in Ala Champ Magazine issue 6

All images by Brendan Ollie ©