RSC honorary associate director Barry Kyle tells Terry Grimley about his adventures in bringing theatre to the Louisiana swamps.
You need a fairly long memory nowadays to remember when Barry Kyle's was a familiar name in West Midlands theatre.
One of the few theatre directors who might have had an alternative career as a professional footballer (as a teenage goalkeeper he had a trial for West Ham) he directed 32 productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company between the mid-1970s and the end of the 1980s.
Then he moved to America, and while he has directed several productions in London in recent years, he has never returned to this part of the world until until now, when he is directing the Belgrade Theatre's latest production of The Mysteries in Coventry Cathedral ruins.
The production - the Belgrade stages a new take on the city's medieval cycle of religious dramas every three years - reunites him with Coventry-born playwright Ron Hutchinson, with whom he collaborated at the RSC on the Stratford community playThe Dillen and The Irish Play.
"I was just thinking about what I could say about being back," he said when I caught up with him during rehearsals.
"The first thing is that Ron was brought up here and I lived in Stratford-upon-Avon for 16 to 17 years and three of my children were born here.
"I left the RSC at the time that former artistic director Terry Hands left the RSC, and so my era here was from the mid-70s through to the end of the 80s.
"Then I went to do King Lear in Prague, and then moved to America. I've been living in America since 1990 and my work has been pretty much everywhere except in England, except I did some productions at the Globe three or four years ago."
Although he lived in New York for a while and directed several Shakespeare productions off-Broadway, he quickly moved on to what he describes as his Gauguin period in the theatrically unlikely setting of subtropical South Louisiana.
He found an abandoned pig auction house with an earth floor among the swamps near Baton Rouge, and set about creating a theatre and resident company under the alluring banner Swine Palace Productions, which was formally constituted early in 1992.
"I was hypnotised by New Orleans and the South," he says, "and I had connections and experience I could make use of to bring together a diverse group of people to first create a company and then a theatre. Government people tend to listen when you talk about economic development and higher property values that, for example, encourage businesses to move into the area.
"A year after I left the RSC I remember finding myself in a parking lot at 1am in La Fayette, Louisiana, with a van full of equipment and thinking gosh, this is a big change in my life. The RSC can be a very comfortable environment for directors. You don't have to do much more than direct, but in Louisiana I had to do everything else as well."
There was a real pioneer spirit about the Swine Palace.
"Surprisingly New Orleans, for all its theatricality, has never been successful in creating a major thea-tre. After five years of being there I began to find out the reason why things were as they were. Down there, apart from Tennessee Williams, most writers have been journalists, screenwriters or writers of fiction, but we succeeded in putting this together and most of the work we were doing was Southern. Then gradually I did more Shakespeare."
The theatre was far enough away not to be affected by Hurricane Katrina, but the house Kyle used to live in was under 11 feet of water the next day.
"The theatre community which I played some part in developing, all of that was pretty much washed away in the hurricane."
Now Kyle's American base is Kansas City, were he has a professorship at the University of Missouri. It's another place you don't instantly think of as an international cultural centre, although he points out that his house is just across the street from the Nelson Atkins Museum, which has no fewer than 17 Henry Moores in its grounds.
Ron Hutchinson is also a longtime American resident, but in Hollywood. The pair hadn't met since their RSC days until their collaboration the Coventry Mysteries was first mooted 18 months ago.
"Ron's probably better known in America now than in England. He's had some really significant successes in the last two or three years.
"He does have a filmic flow that's needed for this story. The plays are fragments, but the tradition is very powerful. What you're looking at is one of the three principal traditions that Shakespeare drew on. It crossed my mind that this is the drama Shakespeare is trying to reform - this is the drama of faith and Shakespeare moves on to the drama of inquiry.
"For instance, the tradition of Lucifer's character in these plays is clearly influential on characters like Richard III and Iago, these comic characters in destructive roles.
"What Ron was asked to do was imagine this as having parallels with Coventry now. It's not a pageant, this is a new play with its origins in the tradition.
It centres on the idea of what would happen if a religious group wanted to destroy prevailing values, but a huge difference between this group and Al Quaida is that this is a doctrine of love.
"What would the cost be, and who would oppose people attempting such a thing? This is Coventry, it's a deeply multi-cultural, multi-faith community and while these plays have a Christian agenda, at the same time, it's Ron Hutchinson. I'd not expected these plays to be as funny as they are, but that's one of Ron's fortes."
What is the ruined cathedral like as a theatre space?
"It's one of the most wonderful spaces in the UK, and what this particular environment does for the stories is to provide a context of suffering and regeneration which is absolutely at the centre of what the Christian story is about. There are many different ways of using it and we have a particular approach to how it's going to be used, but it's kind of 'wait and see'." n The Belgrade Theatre presents The Mysteries 2006 in Coventry Cathedral Ruins from Thursday until August 5 at 8.30pm (Box office: 024 7655 3055).