Fanny Dulin and David Furlong are co-artistic directors of Exchange Theatre, who celebrate 15 years of making work this year.
How did Exchange theatre begin?
Fanny Dulin: David and I were already working as actors in the UK doing Tours in Education or language based plays, and some small fringe productions. Very quickly, as foreigners, we felt that our roles and jobs would always be pigeon-holed and that we needed to create our own work. And we felt among our peers a lack of knowledge of plays and theatre from outside the UK. For example, Molière seemed very obscure or misunderstood even to esteemed drama-school trained colleagues, whereas we had learned about Shakespeare and his modernity in our training abroad.
David Furlong: Classics are symbols but beyond the theatrical heritage, there was a gap in international theatre’s presence, in the plays produced, and in the proposed esthetics. So as migrant French speakers, we decided to bring plays from the French language repertoire in English to the UK. Because at the same time, we did feel a sense of entrepreneurship in London that we didn’t find anywhere, because performing arts have always been so well-structured, so much so that it was called ‘the industry’, something unheard of for us and that was fascinating. This gave us faith to start producing our own work.
What was the UK theatre industry like 15 years ago compared to now?
David Furlong: There was a paradox because, internationally, UK theatre was represented by Complicité, Cheek by Jowl, Deborah Warner, Katie Mitchell…; British people who explored international theatrical vocabulary and forms were at their peak and European theatre esthetic was starting to influence uk theatre-makers, so we felt a part of something that we thought was happening. But, in the end, to summarise, it was only at major leading venues like the Barbican, the Young Vic and the National… but we did not realise immediately how marginal this was and would remain. When working at low-scale, we found UK theatre to be actually very conservative, oddly divided between physical theatre and ‘straight’ plays, much less multi-cultural or imaginative that we had assumed. The mere ideas of foreign plays was always seen as exotic, so multilingual plays were even more a small niche. Also, some practices in rehearsal rooms were stuck in old traditions and bias. Fortunately, it’s evolved slightly on the place of devising, and how to create work collaboratively. And mostly we found that UK theatre is always a pioneer on the ideas of creating safe spaces in work environment and inclusive ideas. Perhaps because it had so much to fix… but everything all we now put in action within the company in terms of diversity and representation, or in terms of safety, it is certainly thanks to being part of UK theatre.
Where it’s not changed unfortunately, if not gotten worse, is that there is still hardly any non-British plays, new writing or classics… And apart from the Arcola, still not one major foreign theatre-maker leading a venue.
What would be a particular highlight of the company’s history to date?
Fanny Dulin: The first one would be when we got a residency for two seasons of bilingual family shows at the French institute. It was a recognition or our work from the institutions of our country of origins. Moreover, it allowed us to get a rehearsal space and office, this was a milestone to become really fully theatre-makers. And one of the highlights is certainly, when after a decade, we decided to produce everything in two languages and did our “Moliere for the 21st century” diptych: The doctor in spite of himself and Misanthrope. The two productions were Offie-nominated for Best Director (Doctor), then Best Production and Best Video Design (Misanthrope). These accolades were very encouraging, after ten years, we finally felt acknowledged as part of the UK theatre industry. But as this all happened at the same time as Brexit, It’s very polarised. It’s like being told “you’re welcome” and “you’re not” both at the same time.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Fanny Dulin: We started producing our shows in two parallel languages only in 2013, and we probably could have come up sooner with this formula !
David Furlong: Otherwise, on a totally idealistic note, I think we would have liked to be more aware of the structural barriers to foreign-born artists rather than finding out about unfairness as we went through them. As migrants, we tried to fit in, we were always very obedient, nice and polite even when we were treated unfairly or patronised, and now that we have the tools to recognise when something wrong happens, it makes me wish I could have flagged it sooner. I think it’s a bit sad to say that the way we operate a real policy of kindness and care within the company, actually comes from being ourselves treated with prejudice.
Do you work on other projects outside the company?
David Furlong: Aside from my roles in Exchange Theatre’s shows, I have acted a lot in with renowned companies such as Border Crossings, Theatre Lab, The Faction, playing great parts too, like Macbeth. I have been keeping strong connections with France, performing regularly in street theatre, or on stage in Bordeaux and Paris whenever I can. As a director, I was just getting my foot in some big doors when the pandemic hit and I was Jerwood Assistant director at the Young Vic on Orfeus but the show was cancelled.
Fanny Dulin: Even if not quite outside the company, what’s important with Exchange Theatre is that we now get involved with partner companies, either as co-producers, or by bringing our support to admin or space. The Exchange is very much found in this as well. And, yes, we’re still both actors which is is vital to remain artists and not just permanently seeking funding. I’m also a voice over artist, I have supervised French dubbings for Netflix.
How are you celebrating the anniversary?
David Furlong: Each year since 2006, we produced our own theatre festival. In this period of hardship, we had to cancel it for the second year in a row, with great sadness. For this special occasion, we decided to share a documentary we had in store and that was never released. It’s a true insight into our process, a focus on our human values through a unique documentary. It’s called IN Exchange and it’s a true cinematic experience directed by two young graduate film-makers, Marie Loury and Léo-Paul Payen, who followed us through the creation of Misanthrope from production to performance. It’s also a very intimate immersion in the life of a small-scale theatre company in the uk, and the in the bilingual work of migrants in theatre.
Fanny Dulin: We’re also holding an online retrospective of our work the whole summer as a celebration of our values more than our many shows. We’ve worked hard at using our social medias for more than promotion and with a meaningful agenda: we’re sharing videos of many people we’ve worked with through the years, sharing quotes, and championing our collaborators. I think that we create a meaningful human connection beyond working together and we want to show this exchange too. Above all, we can’t wait to be completely out of of social restrictions and gather everybody for a huge sunny picnic in September!
What does the future hold for Exchange Theatre?
Fanny Dulin: In the immediate future, our anti-bias family show, THE CAT IN (re)BOOTS is streaming as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, a great show to explain unconscious racism to kids.
David Furlong: And then, also as part of our anniversary, one of my translations, Break of Noon by Paul Claudel which I directed in 2018 at the Finborough, is about to be published by Shearsman Books and Menard Press in a wonderful never-seen-before edition complemented with essays by Susannah York and John Naughton. Also, before the pandemic, we were working hard at getting our work to France too, and we want to keep pursuing this. And thirdly, the covid forced us to become theatre-videos producers in a way, so I want to explore more in this direction by creating other external collaborations as ever.
Fanny Dulin: We also crucially need to get more financial support because the crisis is leaving us in a very delicate position. And I’m also in charge of all our education department, developing languages workshops through dramas for schools, as well as running our amateurs dramatics in French, who are a great dynamic community to support us.
David Furlong: And finally, also we’ll also continue the work we do to facilitate, and amplify the movement Migrants in Theatre, addressing the lack of representation and mis-representation of migrant artists in British theatre.
For more information on Exchange Theatre see their website: www.exchangetheatre.com