Interview: David Greig

Written for The Stage

David Greig. Photo: K Ribbe

“I really believe that theatre is encoded into the human DNA.” Playwright David Greig’s has been talking in this vein for about 20 minutes and his enthusiasm is infectious – the kind of voice all theatremakers should want on their side right now. It feels hackneyed to say someone is inspiring but if that tag applies to anyone it’s this passionate playwright who gets carried away with his own sentences and uses more adjectives than an overwrought critic.

A prolific writer, Greig’s career has spanned straight plays (Europe), arty pieces (Whatever Gets You Through The Night), sequels to Shakespeare (Dunsinane), ‘plays with songs’ (Midsummer among others), and pub evenings inspired by Border Ballads (The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart). He is now working with director Sam Mendes on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. To read more go here

How to fundraise

Written for Ideastap

How to fundraise

Finding sources of income has never been more important – or daunting. Honour Bayes talks to top arts fundraisers to find out how best to ‘make the ask’…

“Turn critical needs into attractive propositions”

This advice – from Head of Development at Bristol Old Vic Alan Wright – is a good place to start when tackling fundraising: in order to get anywhere, you need to communicate clearly why any donation is an attractive option. Director of Corporate Affairs at the British Museum Sukie Hemming agrees: “What you’re asking someone to do, i.e. part with their money, is actually really irrational.” To encourage people to invest in you, she adds, “you need to ensure it is a sure and viable project” that warrants such investment. Read more

How to update a classic play

Written for IdeasTap

How to update a classic play

In the year Chekhov met Cobain, radical interpretations of classics have been all the rage. Honour Bayes looks at what it takes to successfully revamp a golden oldie…

Stay true to the original…

2012 has seen Anton Chekhov get modern makeovers, with Benedict Andrews’ modern-day Three Sisters (including a rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and Anya Reiss’ The Seagull, set on the Isle of Man. While each text is decades away from 19th-century Russia, both playwrights remained faithful to Chekhov’s play. “I value the opportunity to meet the play and get to know its characters better,” says Benedict. He adds that the most extreme transformations come from a rigorous re-examining of the text: “The only advice I can give is to not settle for quick answers or second-hand readings – seek out the play’s DNA, its raw fibres, and try to expose them.” Anya looked for the pieces of the original that were eternal: “Once I found them, they became the supports… and it’s just a matter of bridging between these supports, using the original as a blueprint of how you get from these points.” Or as One Man, Two Guvnors writer Richard Bean puts it, “The plot’s [Carlo] Goldoni’s and all the dialogue is mine.”

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Interview: Howard Barker

Written for The Stage

Howard Barker is looking startled. “I’m amazed, why would you leave?” I have just told him about the reports of early walk-outs in response to his claim that his play Scenes from an Execution is an easy ride. He looks genuinely baffled, and says: “It’s a pretty easy play to get on board with, it doesn’t give you a headache”.

Many people would disagree with him but then that is the story of Barker’s life. A tragedian in a world where comedy reigns, he is a lone figure. Still he casts a daunting shadow across the theatrical landscape with early productions at the RSC and Royal Court, plays such as Scenes from an Execution and Victory – which received a swaggering Arcola production starring Matthew Kelly in 2009 – and the formation of his own company The Wrestling School, created to carry out his vision of the ‘theatre of catastrophe’. “I believe in poetic discourse, in the value of speech in a non-naturalistic way, it’s speculative… I’m not interested in observed reality.”

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Interview: Richard Bean

Written for IdeasTap

Richard Bean: Playwright

Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors is the National Theatre’s most successful export since War Horse and is currently running on both the West End and Broadway. Other plays include The Big Fellah and England People Very Nice. He talks to Honour Bayes about speaking the truth, writing what you know and not being cocky…

You became a playwright later in your career – what made you realise this is what you wanted to do and how did you go about doing it?

I never wanted to be a playwright. I morphed into one, having become a stand-up comedian with good material but a B-team performance, and then a comedy sketch writer for BBC. I wrote a play, Of Rats and Men, which went on the fringe and then the BBC picked it up as a 90-minute radio play.

I then started thinking that I might be able to write plays, and get them on, something I’d never believed. I wrote Toast which was a co-production between the National and the Royal Court and then all the doors opened.

Of Rats and Men and Toast drew from your past working as a psychologist and in a bread factory. Should writers draw from their own life experience?

I guess. People are very sniffy about the usual advice “write about what you know” but in truth everyone does that. The great writers mine their own experience and understanding of life and can only really write about the culture they know and understand. So it’s pretty good advice still.

As a retired stand-up, do you think it’s helpful for playwrights to also perform?

All experience is useful. For me, it has helped in understanding what is funny, and why something’s funny, and how it can be funnier.

England People Very Nice caused quite a bit of controversy, as have some of your award acceptance speeches! Do you think it is part of a writer’s role to provoke the establishment and audience?

It’s certainly part of a writer’s task to speak the truth. And that’s all I’ve ever done. I wasn’t aware that my acceptance speeches had upset anyone. It’s my chance to do a bit of stand-up, which I enjoy. Paul Taylor [theatre critic for the Independent] said after one acceptance speech that he didn’t like me, that I was too cocky, but he was wrong. I’ve never been cocky in my life. He just doesn’t like me.

Do you think it’s important for theatre to be political?

I think overtly political theatre can be a bit tedious. The best theatre is very human, with the politics there just because the business of humanity, trying to live with each other, is inherently political.

You have had huge success with One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of the Commedia del Arte comedy, Servant of Two Masters. What’s the secret to a successful adaptation?

Usually truncate it, cut it, take out the verbosity, use full stops a lot.

This very British production has recently opened in Broadway. How much should a playwright let an audience’s cultural understanding affect their writing?

In an ideal world, one would be able to present a play to another culture in exactly the same way it was originally presented, but with a play like One Man, which only exists to make the audience laugh, it’s permissible to change the script. You can’t ask an actor to stand on an American stage night after night delivering a punch line which consists of “…. Swiss roll!” if the Americans don’t know what a Swiss roll is. It would be cruel to both actor and audience.

With a tragedy, one might change esoteric stuff just to get the meaning across. I had a version of Toast done in Geordie once, so that’s a wholesale change. It worked.

Interview: Martin Crimp

Written for Ideastap

One of the most acclaimed voices of modern playwriting, Martin Crimp’s work spans cult texts, such as Attempts on her Life, and bold adaptations of Molière. His double bill of plays, Play House/Definitely the Bahamas, marks his directorial debut. Here he talks to Honour Bayes about the importance of writing what excites you…

You have said you don’t see being a writer as a job you chose to take on, but something you have always been. Over the years how have you honed your craft?

Since writing Attempts on her Life in 1997 I’ve become more sensitive to the power of narration in drama, which I abandoned for a while in favour of a more fashionable ping-pong of fragmented dialogue. Going back recently to Definitely the Bahamas, a play I wrote in 1986, I’m struck by the fact that its climax is four pages of continuous storytelling, which remains powerful. So I would say honing my craft means trying to stay open to all forms of writing.

When you sit down to write what is your process?

The important thing for me in this world of endlessly rolling information is to empty my mind of all distractions. I still write by hand and I believe in the importance of the mark on the page. I improvise until I find an image or a tone of voice that feels alive. For example, I’d been improvising some tiny scenes of people offering each other gifts. After some months, one of these scenes, in which a woman gives a man an unexpected present, became the starting point for Play House.

Where should writers look for inspiration?

Inspiration is the mysterious collision of intense lived experience with intense literary experience. Whatever the experience, banal or remarkable, it’s the intensity that counts. Plus, for a playwright, the strange music of the human voice is central.

You have had long associations with the Orange Tree Theatre and Royal Court Theatre. Is it important for new playwrights to form a relationship with a venue?

The support of a theatre is a wonderful thing, but you shouldn’t be afraid to create diverse relationships with theatres and with directors. This will broaden your notion of what a theatrical event can be.

You have adapted a number of classics with a radical flare. What do you need to take into account when approaching someone else’s text?

You need to be clear about the rules of engagement. Is the plan to write a new play on top of an old one? – like Cruel and Tender, which is based on a play by Sophocles – or is it more simply to intervene by modernising the language and cutting? – as I did with The Seagull. In both these cases the conversation with the director – Luc Bondy in one case, Katie Mitchell in the other – was an essential part of establishing the rules.

Do you believe working on translations and adaptations affects a writer’s own craft?

Translating sets the much harder work of imagining your own play into stark relief, because, when you simply translate, the imagining has been done for you. What’s interesting about translating is that it pushes you into areas of language you may habitually avoid; I resist this, but at the same time it excites me.

You recently directed for the first time. How has this experience impacted on you as a playwright?

I wrote the 13 short scenes of Play House in part as a directorial challenge. How do you give each short scene – and they range from punishing accusation to the exuberant physical expression of love – a strong separate identity, but at the same time create a seamless theatrical flow? It never occurred to me I’d be the one having to meet that challenge myself.

As for how it affects writing, I’d say it reinforces what I’ve always known: only write what it excites you to write. Don’t be afraid to create problems. Provided the writing is truthful, the director and actors will find ways of solving them.

Any room at the arts centre? The creative potential of live-work space.

Written for Guardian Culture Professionals Network

Melanie Wilson's Frida Kahlo designed bedroom at BAC. Photograph: Katherine Leedale/Press

Pushing through a door at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) you come to a corridor of further doors and stairs that lead down to a bucolic kitchen area, a bathroom and some bedrooms. Visitors used to the centre’s adventurous approach to its building may be tricked into thinking this is another mysterious journey in the style of The Masque of the Red Death.

But while these spaces were initially designed as part of last year’s One-on-One Festival, for a number of artists they have become home.

“It’s an amazing thing to be able to wake up and to run to the rehearsal room in your pyjamas,” says current resident Clare Beresford from Little Bulb Theatre. David Jubb, co-artistic director, grins: “You walk in sometimes in the morning and there’s an artist in their pyjamas with a bowl of cereal. It definitely has a much more homely feel now.”

Turning the 80-room town hall building into a home is at the top of Jubb and co-artistic director David Micklem’s agenda. Alongside their innovative Cook Up, Tuck In, Take Out programme, the artists’ bedrooms are the next step to making the venue a place not just for theatre but for congregation.

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Interview: Jon Cooper on A Lady Of Substance

Written for What’s On Stage

Shortly after graduating Kent University, Jon Cooper won a place on The Old Vic’s New Voices company 2006. Subsequently he was chosen to be part of the Old Vic’s US/UK exchange program. His first full-length play For Once I Was was developed at The Old Vic and then went on to have a run at theTristan Bates Theatre. A Lady of Substance was developed at the Manchester 24/7 Festival with director Matthew Dunsterand is currently receiving its London premiere at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

Talk us through the story of A Lady of Substance

It’s about an older poet, early 40s, who has had a relatively tragic experience happen in her life and is stuck in a cycle of self-destruction. She’s left her flat and then comes back one day to find that this 16 year-old girl has broken in and has been squatting. The two of them together have loves, the young girl of hip-hop and the older woman of poetry. Over the course of a 24-hour period the two of them spend time together talking and sharing and learning and writing, while also dealing with the loses that have happened in their lives and also going on a gigantic bender!

So there are some embarrassing hip-hop and performance poetry moments in it?

Well there are a number because I wrote them all! As a young middle class white man I’ve done a sterling job! No I believe that hip-hop is a continuation of poetry in many respects. Hip-hop is the selection of words and the refinement of the English language with a beat placed underneath it to help accessibility. You can learn as much from early hip-hop about the way a particular society was dealt with by the police and what it wasto live in those social conditions as you can from Keats about love. I thought that that was an important thing to be exploring. Also it’s a nice generational thing to have an older and a younger person who are trying to describe to each other why it is that they love what they love and actually finding that they have some common ground.

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Interview with Elizabeth LeCompte, The Wooster Group

Written for The Stage

Andrew Schneider, Scott Shepherd, Teresa Hartmann, Ari Fliakos, and Kate Valk in 'theft training'
Video Still: Zbigniew Bzymek

For experimental theatre troupe The Wooster Group, maintaining an up-to-date and relevant online presence is crucial. Artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte talks to Honour Bayes about keeping the company’s internet persona alive and engaging a wider audience via its video ‘dailies’.

On Christmas Day in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee turned an international community into a local one. The internet enabled national companies to have a global reach and theatre companies to communicate with international audiences. Today, the best theatre websites arethere to entertain and communicate identity as well as sell tickets.

Punchdrunk’s site, a panoramic online landscape, perfectly encapsulates its immersive theatrical journeys. While other artistic ventures such as Retz have gone even further, staging ‘networked narratives’ that use the internet as an integral part of the company’s work.

One company whose online persona is particularly alive is experimental theatre troupe The Wooster Group. For the last 40 years, The Wooster Group has been creating innovative work at the forefront of a New York and ‘in the know’ international theatrical community. But only recently has it been able to share its practice regularly with a wider world audience. “It’s been an idea for a long time, but it was too expensive and too difficult and I would always give up,” admits artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte. “It took us a long time even to be able to afford a line coming into the garage.”

Eventually, LeCompte spearheaded funding for a project of video ‘dailies’ which, since their launch in October 2010, have been watched by more than 150,000 people worldwide. But while such sponsor support is vital, her biggest piece of advice for any company wanting to develop their online media presence is that it must be artistically led. “[The person behind it] has to be someone you get in because they want to know something more about you and show how the company works. [For us] it had to be someone who wanted to examine who ‘we’ are.”

Zbigniew Bzymek in troilus cressida this goes in the garbage Video Still: Zbigniew Bzymek

For LeCompte, that person was Zbigniew Bzymek, an associate artist of the company and cinematographer who holds ultimate responsibility for the group’s online vlog. Forming the heart of The Wooster Group’s website, these films act as windows into every nook and cranny of the company’s day-to-day life, as well as a marketing tool when the need arises. A patchwork of content from fragments of rehearsal, a chat with an intern, abstract shots of lighting desks or audience reactions, each video gives the viewer an ever growing history of shared experiences with the troupe.

As with all digital media, it is vital that these are kept up to date. To maintain its 24-hour turnaround, the company spends an hour at the end of each day of rehearsal sitting together going over and discussing Bzymek’s footage in what has become something of a ritual. LeCompte is clear it is important to build this online work into the central fabric of everyday company life.

As well as giving a vivid flavour of the present world of The Wooster Group, the videos are also used to contextualise current work with older pieces. For a company with a large back catalogue, LeCompte believes this is a good way of keeping an archive alive and kicking. “We try to make it work so that if we go to the archive it has something to do with the work we are doing now or something that we’re trying to sell. For instance, we just finished a DVD of To You, The Birdie (Phaedra) that we’re selling, so we tried to work in one of the archive films from that.”

Scott Shepherd in 'cheer up'
Video Still:Zbigniew Bzymek

Anyone who has seen one of The Wooster Group’s David Lynch-style adverts will know this is not just about selling, but it is interesting that even for one of the least establishment theatre companies its vlog is capitalised successfully in this way. It is vital, however, to make a website more than just blatant advertising, no one wants to feel like they are watching QVC.

LeCompte believes the personal nature of the films also increases their audience base in the same way a celebrity name would. “So many people now are used to seeing celebrities in the theatre, even I go and see somebody I know from something else in a role.” Just as with a celebrity, “when people come to our theatre they know something about us that they can project on to the performers, a subtext or a meta text that I think is exciting”.

Daniel Jackson and Kent Barrett in 'FUTURE REAL MOMENTS (screen tests)' Video Still: Zbigniew Bzymek

Perhaps most importantly, the vlog enables LeCompte to fully realise an underlining working practice of hers, that of a totally open process. “[Rehearsals are] always open to whoever wants to come as long as you have room and [the blog] makes it much easier because we have a tiny rehearsal space and can only really accommodate about five people usually.”

The Wooster Group’s online video blog embodies its real life ethos exactly. This is why this artistic digital project is so successful in communicating the company’s spirit to an ever expanding international audience. And this is only the beginning. For Troilus and Cressida, their World Shakespeare Festival collaboration with the RSC, LeCompte plans to live stream rehearsals with a narrator, telling viewers what is happening as it appears.

Elizabeth LeCompte and Scott Shepherd in 'TROILUS & CRESSIDA - this goes in the garbage'
Video Still: Zbigniew Bzymek

Will this be a performance in itself or just a source of information? “I’m hoping it will be both, to elucidate the process without it being academic. I’m hoping people will be able to see and experience it and at the same time it will be entertaining for them, because sometimes the process is very boring,” LeCompte laughs, “and I don’t feature showing anything really boring, ever.” Great advice, it seems, online or not.

The Wooster Group Video Dailies (Troilus & Cressida)