It has almost been one year that the former director of Nice’s Théâtre National tendered her resignation and left. Where is she now and what is she up to?
The news created shockwaves on the French Riviera in early 2018: Irina Brook, the whimsical, charismatic, and very British general director at the helm of the Théâtre National de Nice (TNN) announced she would vacate the coveted job one year prior to the expiration of her second term, after only five years in office. Since then, hardly any news have surfaced about her whereabouts or new projects, much to the chagrin of the devoted followership she still has in Nice. From the bucolic English countryside where she is hunkering down during the mandatory self-isolation period, Irina Brook has now granted RIVIERA BUZZ a candid interview, unafraid to show her vulnerable and introspective side but also ready for another exciting chapter in her life.
A Bird’s Eye Perspective on Five Years in Nice
Much ink has been spilled about Irina’s tenure at the TNN, and just as much when she announced her decision, seemingly out of the blue, to step back. Over the course of the five years it became clear that the idealistic Irina who had arrived in 2014 was slowly changing into a much more sober version of herself. But what went on in her head that she would voluntarily leave her prestigious job and a secure monthly paycheck? She could in fact have served for ten years over three terms but she resigned in her sixth year, one season prior to the end of her second mandate. What had happened that made her take such a drastic step?
It was not an overnight decision, she says, but rather the accumulation of years of living and working in a way that went against her core… The daily routine of management obligations and overflowing schedules that stifled her free spirit and her creativity… the conflicts that sprung up around here wherever she tread even though she never sought them. And there was the classic dilemma every single working mother is familiar with, having to juggle a high-pressure job with raising two teenagers.
While there were those in Nice who worshipped the ground she walked on, there were also a good number of locals in the opposite camp, for a variety of reasons. The biggest point of contention: incompatibility. Paris-born but Anglo-Saxon to the core, Irina was simply not malleable enough to fit the rigid French sense of culture, and the bureaucracy and framework that governs even a cultural space like one of France’s most important theatres. She followed the beat of her own drum and her inner ethical compass, which she expressed in her work and activities. Instead of the Parisian style theatre of great French authors and leading French stage actors that the City had hoped for after Daniel Benoin’s departure to Antibes, Irina envisioned a popular theatre not only in content but also in look and feel, much like a 16th century Shakespearian stage. And then she had the courage (or “the nerve”, as some would call it) to mix up the arts and social issues such as the environment, climate change, or refugees…!
When Cultures Collide
“Now, why would popular theatre and current themes be a problem?”, the Anglo-Saxon mind is quick to interject here. To answer this question as briefly as possible without entering into a lengthy socio-cultural discourse, think of Shakespeare and Molière: even though their lifetimes did not quite overlap (the English Bard died six years before his French counterpart was born) they were both astute observers and reporters of the social conditions they were witnessing. But while Shakespeare wrote for the commoners in a straightforward, popular style often bordering on mockery and lèse-majesté, Molière had to carefully shroud his social critique in covert witticism to avoid drawing the ire of his aristocratic audience.
And both styles would influence the generations that followed. To this day, Anglo-Saxons, true to their irreverent nature, think nothing of tweaking the Bard’s immortal texts… adapting and reinterpreting them is second nature to them, while the French treasure their authors’ works in their authentic form and wouldn’t dream of touching as much as a comma of Molière’s sacred words.
One French spectator’s comment on the TNN Facebook page, after having seen Irina’s adaptation of Tempête/The Tempest in 2018, says it all: “Beau travail, décor superbe, troupe toujours remarquable ; je trouve que la pièce est devenue accessible avec ce parti pris mais ça manquait de texte Shakespearien pur”. (“Great work, superb set, outstanding cast. I think the play has become accessible but it lacked the pure Shakespearian text”.) Irina’s style just did not mesh with Nice, as we already analyzed in a previous article.
“Crazy to leave such a great position!”
But Irina is not one to give up easily. She valiantly fought for her vision, and for her convictions. She poured her heart and soul in her work, she earned the audience’s appreciation, she once and for all stepped out of her father’s shadow, she was named Officier de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres and awarded the Légion d’honneur in May 2017, France highest recognition for accomplishments in the arts. And her first four-year mandate (2014-2017) was extended by three years.
But by now she felt in her guts that it would be a steep uphill battle, and maybe one bigger than herself, to create real and permanent change in Nice. And ever so slowly she noticed she was changing herself and heading for the slippery slope of becoming a cynic. “Especially during that extremely packed 2017/18 season I felt like I was driving a 500 ton tractor with nowhere to go”, she admits.
The wakeup call came in March 2018, around the same time she was directing her annual opera, this one being “Romeo et Juliette” at the Opéra de Nice. Her usually robust health took a serious hit and it became clear to Irina that she suffered from burnout. “It was not so much the work in itself – in fact, I really enjoyed learning the ropes of business management. But I disliked more and more being “the boss” and having to make a thousand decisions a day,” she remembers. A couple of external events like a rather lukewarm reception at the legendary “Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord” in Paris – for many years the North point of Irina’s personal compass – , and fruitless attempts at new creations contributed to her overall fatigue. She also clearly saw that in many ways she wasn’t the right person for her job. “They had really expected a high-class director who would carry on the work of my predecessors, they certainly were not prepared for an ‘eco hippie’ like me.“
But even beyond that, she realized that she is facing a personal existential crisis. Once she understood that, she reached deep inside herself in order to recover and redirect her energies into an exit strategy.
If the Shoe fits…
The professional aspect aside, the mismatch went both ways. Nice as a city was just not a good fit for Irina on many levels. “It is a beautiful city but it is also too harsh for me. The light, the colours, the people, everything… there is nothing gentle about it.” She felt outside her natural habitat, yearning for the lush green of more moderate climates. Green is ‘her colour’, she says, despite the beauty of the intense blue of the Mediterranean sea and sky.
All throughout 2018 she reflected on her future as an artist and as a person. Her list of 2019 New Year’s Resolutions was revealing, showing her urge to refocus on herself and her relationships with others and with nature.
Then 2019 dawned, and with it came her announcement to quit the TNN at the end of the season. How would she describe her feelings after her departure? She only has one word: “Freedom!” But even so, she considers her five years at the TNN “a most difficult experience that I wouldn’t change for the world.” Asked if there is anything she regrets, she says, “I was often frustrated with myself for not being able to manage conflict better and to be a more inspiring leader” – something she vows to learn from on a human level, but she is also adamant that she does not ever want to take on another managerial leadership role. “I actually found power repellent.”
One of the two things she is most proud of is the good rapport she could establish with the portion of the audience that was open to her philosophy of doing theatre. The other: her work with Les Eclaireurs. Over the years she groomed this troupe of young aspiring actors into a highly accomplished company able to bring her revamped Shakespeare adaptations to the people with joyful exuberance and professional brio.
Laying the Foundation
In the spring of 2019 Irina took time off before the season was out. Ignoring the tongue-wagging, she went on a month-long trip to Japan. But what to the casual onlooker may have seemed a vacation, was in reality the germination of a seed that Irina had carried inside her already…
The Land of the Rising Sun has always held a special place in the heart of the Brook family. Her father Peter Brook is revered there, her late mother, actress Natasha Parry (1930-2015) had a great affinity for the country and its culture, and Irina herself had previously successfully mounted plays there. So it was only natural that she would seek a welcoming, soothing place like this one where she could turn inward and make sense of the recent past. She wanted to slow down, find solitude, meditate, and find her inner balance again. In the picturesque Japanese springtime, she discovered a new world, met Japanese artists, and reaffirmed her values that had been in danger of being run over by her job.
And she also reconnected with her creativity: in collaboration with the world-famous Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC) she began researching and developing “House of Us”, an installation based on the themes of isolation, loneliness, sadness, depression, and anxiety. What she couldn’t know at the time: her artistic look in the rear view mirror back to the social loneliness that accompanied her throughout the past five years in Nice would become eerily prescient of what was to hit the entire world just one year later.
Free At Last! On the Way to a New Life
But all is well that ends well. Upon her return to Nice in June 2019 she was unsure how to cross the finish line of her tenure… maybe just leave quietly, or go out with a bang? Not willing to have to make yet another decision, she left it up to her team to take matters in their own hands, and to her surprise she received a jubilant, touching send-off. All those who had mattered the most to her during those years – artists, associations, kids, schools – threw her a memorable love-in farewell party… proof that her investment of time, energy, and goodwill was not in vain after all.
And something amazing happened on her last day at the TNN. As she took a final stroll along the Coulée Verte just outside the theatre, she discovered an eco-festival bringing together like-minded people who, thanks to her, had finally found a platform for their ideology. She left Nice, realizing that the seeds she has planted have started to sprout some tendrils after all.
Even after moving away, she would have the same affirmation on several other occasions, not least during the heated debate about the future of the TNN building itself. Mayor Christian Estrosi wants it torn down and rebuilt elsewhere – a suggestion that Irina had made several times and that always had fallen on deaf ears before. The temporary relocation of the theatre to the newly renovated Franciscan chapel whose origin date back to the 13th century, is another such example… Irina had expressed how ideal that space would be but no one seemed to listen to her at the time – but that is exactly where the TNN will be going until new premises are built. These are the things that leave her with a certain satisfaction and the good feeling that all was not in vain and that she did leave a positive stamp on the city after all.
Where to Now?
In the months following her departure from Nice as soon as her final season was up, she fell back in her old nomadic ways for a while, meandering from Paris to London, Vienna, Japan, New York, and Massachusetts, but then came back to London to be with her son Prosper and daughter Maia as they launched into higher education.
As good fortune would have it, she was staying in Somerset with her kids and a young friend when the coronavirus-related self-isolation period began – a blessed situation for her who adores the awakening of spring in the English countryside. But a woman of wings rather than roots, she senses that although this is the right place for this time, it may just be another stop on her life’s path. “It is hard to think about where to live but what I do know is how much I need nature around me,” she says.
It is uncertain what will become of the project Irina worked on with the SPAC in Japan; it is on hold for now until 2021. But she takes it in stride, with a grain of philosophical wisdom, and as a lesson to live in the present:
Theatre craft is in her DNA and will always be a part of her but she is done with theatre as an institution and locked inside a building. She believes that Covid-19 has also fundamentally changed the way people will experience theatre. Instead of being confined indoors, the theatre of the future – or at least of her future – is one that tours village squares and festivals, as she has already done with her Eclaireurs, and she is looking forward to doing that again sometime down the road.
But this past year also made Irina discover a new passion, or rather revived an interest she has held since childhood: transmitting emotions through the art of video-making. It is not entirely surprising… just think back to the video featuring OGC Nice soccer/football players reciting Shakespeare, which she produced together with Gaëlle Simon in 2018. She has used lockdown to teach herself the ropes of video editing, and – being the 100% person that she is – is now quite proficient at it. Her preferred topic: childhood memories and dreams. She began creating a series of 40 second video clips which have gradually taken on fairy and nature themes, quite in keeping with her spiritual and dreamy side.
Any story about Irina Brook can only ever be a snapshot in time because she incarnates Shakespeare’s line “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” What we have come to witness over the past six years is the development of a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly…the maturation of a woman of great talent who came to the wrong place at the wrong time – far too visionary and cosmopolitan for a seaside town like Nice – but who fearlessly faced her challenges and grew with them, trading her erstwhile idealism for pragmatic maturity and introspection. It will be exciting to watch what she will make of her newfound wisdom, and how it will flow into her future work. But whatever she will do, it is bound to be of playful, poetic beauty, and of course never straying too far from William Shakespeare.
All photos courtesy of Irina Brook