Cardiff character: Phil Mackenzie

The acclaimed director on the triumphs and challenges of working in youth theatre today

Theatre director Phil Mackenzie of the Sherman Cymru

Phil Mackenzie’s work has been performed in 30 countries

At a time when the arts are facing widespread cuts, one theatre director is bucking the doom and gloom and proving that success is possible.

Phil Mackenzie is director of Creative Learning at the Sherman Cymru. In a career spanning almost 35 years he has worked as both a performer and a director and with collaborators young and old. These days he works extensively – though not exclusively – with young actors and school children, and what really draws him to youth theatre is the hunger that young people bring to their work and the opportunities this presents for experimentation.

“It’s an eternal journey of discovery with those young people. The payoff is seeing them embrace unknown adventures with such confidence and courage, and that’s very transformative,” he explains, his softly spoken words masking a ferocious passion for his craft.

He sits in the cavernous foyer of the Sherman theatre, sheltering from the piercing wind that sweeps the Cathays streets outside, a scarf wrapped around his neck despite the warmth of the room. Born in 1956, his silver hair belies a youthful energy that envelopes his words and his character. A native of Australia now living in Cardiff, nearly three decades of life in Europe have still not removed the twang from his voice.

Life changing experience

Theatre was not always his calling. He originally trained to be a clinical psychologist, but in 1976 he experienced a production so transfixing that after the show he found the director and explained that his life had been changed. That person was renowned actor and dancer Lindsay Kemp, and the young Mackenzie, never one for shyness, asked the director to teach him how to act.

It was not long before he moved to Europe and formed a body of work that has been the subject of much critical acclaim. He has created an all-female version of Reservoir Dogs (titled Dam Dogs) and a version of Macbeth that featured, of all things, six tons of sand. In 2007 he was rewarded with a prestigious Creative Wales Award.

Yet for someone who has had received so many plaudits for his work, he is remarkably down to earth when discussing his inspiration: “It might be just a conversation. The best ideas come from people just hanging out together.”

Phil Mackenzie of the Sherman Cymru

Mackenzie has been working at the Sherman Cymru since 2001

Forever learning

His constant proximity to a younger generation means an element of youthful curiosity about the world may well have rubbed off on him. He readily admits that he is always learning, despite his senior position: “All the time you’re trying to get better at what you do. And when I say ‘better at what you do’, I mean to get as much pleasure out of the work as you possibly can.”

It comes from a very simple thought, he offers: “‘I really want to be here’. That’s probably my ambition. In every moment, to think, ‘I really want to be here’.”

And does he feel he’s close to achieving that?

A broad smile breaks over his lips: “Oh sometimes I’m magnificently close, and sometimes I’m terrifyingly far away!”