The Everyman Theatre's new creative director is determined to make his mark in Liverpool, a city he resonated with for its "bolshy activism" and attitude, commitment to "the underdog" and firm opposition to the Tories.
Suba Das, 38, wasn't born into the middle class world so commonly associated with titans of the theatre industry. The child of Indian migrants who moved to England in the 70s on the quest for a better life, Suba and his twin brother were welcomed by the "white working class" people of Seaton Delaval, near Whitley Bay.
His father worked in the kitchen of an Indian takeaway and, determined for his children to succeed, he often took them to the library where they were encouraged to check out books and learn about the world. Being "semi literate", hilarity ensued when nine-year-old Suba's English education was ramped up by racy Anne Rice novels his father accidentally bought, not realising they weren't aimed at children.
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Such efforts paid off. Suba went on to read English Literature at Cambridge, after "jacking in" a law degree. He is the "only Oxbridge educated person of colour and working class person that has ever run a theatre".
Speaking to the ECHO in a little office adorned with Britney Spears and Madonna bunting, Suba said: "I used to think that made me quite cool, but I realise now the responsibility of that." Sadly, his dad died when he was just 10-years-old, so didn't get to see just how far his son has come.
Reflecting on his childhood, Suba said: "I had a very different upbringing. It's a really interesting thing for children born in those kinds of migrant circumstances; you become a translator for your parents really early on and that does a really interesting thing about power and support, and what that feels like."
"A city that told Rupert Murdoch to f*** off? Come on."
He continued: "My dad was the working class Indian man in the UK who bought me two Barbie dolls when I was growing up. My birthday before he died, he bought me a thing called a Fashion Wheel - which some of your readers may recall - an excellent, excellent device where you could make your own fashion designs because the original thought was that I was going to be Seaton Delaval's first internationally acclaimed fashion designer."
Clearly, he's always been drawn to creative prospects and industries, and found his career progressing rapidly in the arts. Suba believes his hometown shares a similar "spirit" to Liverpool, especially its affinity for the underdog. He said: "I literally did not experience racism growing up. After my dad died, his funeral was full of white working class people, and it was white working class women who really looked after my mum so I have this real issue with how that community is vilified because all I've ever known is, kind of, care and support for the underdog, or what have you, and a kind of 'you're all right, I'm all right', just be human really.
"That feels like it's part of the spirit here in Liverpool. When I got the email about the post existing, I was like 'wow', went through the process and all this, but it was that really bolshy activism. A city that told Rupert Murdoch to f*** off? Come on."
In the almost nine months since bagging the position, Suba has been determined to make important changes to ensure every resident on Merseyside feels both represented and welcome at the Everyman. He said: "We're really looking at how we can be a more inclusive and joyous space. This building is called The Everyman, has it been for every man?
"I prefer the word 'everyone' because let's take gender out of that occasion, but we've got more stories to tell that matter. I think people here have felt that the politics have come away from the organisation in recent years."
Suba praised the "iconic Willy Russell era and the activism of that", as well as chief executive Mark Da Vanzo and head of New Works Frank Peschier for choosing a "wonderful" string of plays during the time between former artistic director Gemma Bodinetz's exit and his arrival.
"The Black community in Liverpool have felt very alienated by that panto for many years"
He said: "Programming decisions were made in that time - nothing to do with me - but what a wonderful run of shows to come into because they were really putting a bit of politics back on the table and I now have to build on that and it was like, 'oh f***, that feels like a really high bar' and kind of gloriously, I feel like I sort of started to do that already with panto of all things.
"There was a bit of shaking it up and it being one of the most diverse casts we've ever had on that stage. I will say it because it's true and it's a matter of public record; the Black community in Liverpool have felt very alienated by that panto for many years, to the extent that when I arrived - and, testament to the theatre for convening a space to listen, we had an event, Everyman Connects, and I was meeting a lot of people for the first time and listening to a lot of criticism that the Black community had - to the extent of kind of sort of boycotting panto for the past 10 years because they weren't seeing that representation on stage."
Suba was moved to see "little black girls light up" after seeing "a black girl playing drums" and "a mixed race girl on bass guitar while doing full choreography" during the pantomime's run, adding: "I loved putting that out there and that to me is political. As theatre makers, we have to be much more on top of how young people engage with culture.
"It shouldn't be the case that black, brown kids, disabled kids have to imagine themselves as white and able-bodied before being able to identify with a show. That's what we did with panto."
The Everyman's famed rock 'n' roll pantomime has been a feature on many Liverpool families' Christmas calendars for decades. Suba was aware of the risk of revamping such a beloved formula, especially doing so immediately after the major impact of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
But it paid off. The ECHO was told the Christmas season saw around 51,000 people make their way through the Everyman's doors, with the panto and SIX going down a storm. Suba said he experienced "a real nervousness about changing some of the traditions that matter to people" and continued: "I really wanted to ensure people had a great time at Christmas - everyone deserves it. There was a full standing ovation at first preview."
"I should by rights be a millionaire by now and I was brought up on benefits"
Despite initial trepidation, Suba was keen to trust his instincts. He said: "I kind of banked on the fact that the taste of a gay man in his late 30s would be the same [as] that of some 10-year-old children and I was right. I love silly stuff and I believe that if you are going to put politics into something, and if there's protest in there; make it popular, make it fun, don't put shame into that.
"On closing night, after the curtain call, pretty much the whole audience were chanting, 'we want more' for five minutes. I was like, dazed, but I'm choosing to take that as a sign after my - coming up to - nine months here, that the city might welcome me sticking around, which is a big deal.
"I'm not from here, I would never pretend to be. I've toured shows here over the years, I think there is a crossover between that kind of bolshy Newcastle spirit and some of the energy here but I've got so much still to learn. We're currently doing our damnedest to open more doors for those conversations to happen."
Next week, rehearsals begin for the Everyman's upcoming production of Caryl Churchill's legendary play, Top Girls. Churchill "texts [Suba] sometimes" and despite being "terrified" about tackling the play "because it's a masterpiece", and impossibly tired due to working incredibly long hours, there's a real sense of glee and pride at his position at the theatre - and his new home in Liverpool.
Suba said: "A kid from Seaton Delaval and Caryl Churchill, this icon, I get to chat to her about putting her play on? How is that possible? It's possible because I've been supported by so many incredible people on this journey."
Of the decision to stage that particular play, Suba said: "It is us really overtly putting politics back on the table here." He continued: "I'm going to say it and if we get our funding cut, hey ho; it's the biggest kind of 'f*** the Tories' play imaginable. Caryl was asking 40 years ago what the f*** is going to happen to our society if we just assess people by their financial worth? We're going to be in some dark times and places and, lo and behold, here we are.
"The reason I'm doing it is because I really want people to know that certainly while I'm here, the questions we're going to be asking of ourselves are going to be, what can we do to make a fairer world? What's the point otherwise?
"I jacked in a Cambridge law degree to do this - I should by rights be a millionaire by now and I was brought up on benefits - this has to matter. I don't know how to do this job and it not be about wanting to just shift something because there's so much that's f***ed up in society at the moment."
Top Girls, set in the 80s with "bangers and shoulder pads for days", directed by Suba Das, will be at the Everyman Theatre from Friday, March 3 until Saturday, March 25. You can book tickets here.
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