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“The biggest risk to new writing? Waiting for permission”: an interview with Mark Ravenhill

Posted on 28 March 2013 by Billy Barrett

life of galileo

“It’s funny how plays change their meaning night by night,” says Mark Ravenhill on his adaptation of Brecht’s Life of Galileo. “For the next few nights the audience are going to see it as about a change in Pope.” We’re in the Swan Bar of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre before the press night of Galileo, Ravenhill’s first production for the RSC as writer-in-residence. Best known for his plays Shopping and Fucking, Mother Clap’s Molly House and the recent cycle Shoot/ Get Treasure/ Repeat, Ravenhill’s residency has been heralded by many as a “shot in the arm” for new writing at the company. He’s also often said to be friendly and engaging in person, and I’m pleased to find this is true: sitting beside me on the sofa, he’s immediately open and charming, complimenting my trousers as I flap around anxiously with notes and dictaphone before we start. In Life of Galileo, Ravenhill says, “one pope is dying, a new Pope’s arriving, and Galileo has great hopes of the new Pope being more liberal and understanding of science,” but the play’s interrogation of the relationship between technology, religion and the state carries a contemporary significance beyond this obvious parallel: Galileo “gives you the real visceral excitement of scientific discovery…  It’s absolutely a pro-science play, but one with a sting in the tail: if we don’t all share in the profits of science, literally money profits, but also intellectual, ethical profits, then it can harm us.”

Life of Galileo dramatises the physicist’s research into a new model of the universe that puts the sun at its centre, opposing the geocentric dogma of the Catholic Church. “Most drama that deals with science is basically anti-science; science is out to get us, or the thing that takes us away from ourselves,” Ravenhill suggests, adding that the marriage of science and art is as present in the play’s form as its content: “Brecht could see a really clear line between the method of the scientist and the method of the dramatist”, he says, citing the playwright’s emphasis on “learning to think methodically, to observe, to break someone down into a series of tasks and checking results, always questioning.” In fact, “Brecht was really a great realist – we tend to think of [Brecht’s theatre] as some kind of attack on naturalism, which is true, but actually it’s not at all about artifice, theatre as theatre, its theatre that’s trying to find any way to get reality onto the stage.”

Given his distinctive writing style, I wonder whether audiences will recognise a Ravenhill resonance in this new version – “I’ve tried as much as I can to capture what I think is the voice of the play and of Brecht’s writing,” he answers. Aware, perhaps, that he is most often associated with his first play Shopping and Fucking, Ravenhill speculates that “the crude image of me is that somehow I’d up the number of swearwords and –” anal knifing, I pitch in, and instantly regret it “– Galileo plus swearwords and anal knifing, yeah. So there certainly isn’t that. Maybe people who have a different knowledge of my work might recognise something.” I’ve heard that he tends to take a practical and experimental approach to playwriting – pool (no water), for example, was developed alongside its cast in collaboration with Frantic Assembly directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett – did Life of Galileo evolve in rehearsal? “Not too much,” he replies. In adapting the work, “I had the German text and I had an English academic translation, so I just read the German aloud to get the sound and feel of it on the tongue – basically it was just me alone in a room acting it out.” As for whether this differs to his usual process, Ravenhill laughs: “every play has been totally different – I can’t say I’ve managed to boil it down to anything as dignified as a ‘process’.” It may come as some assurance to aspiring writers that his approach has been “totally different every time, from more or less having nothing but a pile of scraps on the first day of rehearsal, to writing half-drafts on the hoof as we go, to even a couple of times arriving in rehearsal with pretty much the play that’s the one that’s performed.”

Since this interview, Ravenhill’s residency at the RSC has been extended for a further year, and when I meet him it’s clear that he is proud to be involved with the institution. In fact, Ravenhill considers that the RSC owes much of its ethos and aesthetic to the influence of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble: in terms of design, “that very sort of real fabric, real wood and real metal and real sackcloth” and in performance, its concentration on being “about an ensemble of actors” rather than producing star vehicles. When I suggest that the company has become somewhat safer since its foundation, Ravenhill insists “it’s much more a case of gradually evolving at the RSC – of course there are going to be periods where it sits back a bit and acts a bit steady, and investigates and asks again, ‘why are we doing Shakespeare? How are we doing Shakespeare?’” and points out the ways in which it rebelled against the original Stratford season, which was “very much built around stars”; as he puts it, “you can’t exactly recapture that big turn”.

Ravenhill believes “the track record of new writing at the RSC is really good. Obviously it’s not all year round and it’s not in London, so it doesn’t have the profile of stuff at the Royal Court, but new writing’s always been a part of what the RSC does”. When I ask whether he hopes his residency will pave the way for more and better new writing at Stratford, it’s obvious he’s been expecting the question. “Who knows?” he asks, clarifying “I don’t have any particular axe to grind about them doing more new writing. I think they are the RSC, the main thing they should focus on is doing Shakespeare really well,” although  “one of the things about doing Shakespeare really well is to expose actors and audiences to new plays, which keep on questioning why Shakespeare wrote, and how Shakespeare works.” Ultimately, he reflects that the RSC strikes a successful balance: “it’s much healthier to have the two sitting side by side”.

He’s troubled, however, about what the next few years may hold for theatres generally in the wake of cuts to arts funding. “I think the level at which whole cities are going to absolutely lose all of their arts is something we didn’t really contemplate even five years ago,” Ravenhill ponders, though he’s optimistic that writers will fare comparatively well in this harsh climate: whereas “if you want to direct or act, you have to have somebody give you permission and the resources,” he reasons, “the great thing about writing is that you can just write. If you really want to write a play, there isn’t anybody stopping you… and then if you write a really good play, somebody will put it on.”

With the buzz of the ten-minute call blaring across the bar, I swiftly ask Mark Ravenhill a final question: If money’s not such an issue then, what is the biggest risk to new writing? He pauses for a second. “The biggest risk to new writing is writers not feeling confident enough to explore their own voice. The biggest risk to new writing,” he repeats, “is writers waiting for some sort of permission from an artistic director or literary manager to find out what they should be writing.” This tendency of playwriting to please, he stresses, is particularly prevalent in “the generation brought up on the national curriculum, and SATs and stuff. This generation that’s used to saying, ‘what are the rules? What are the aims and objectives? How do I fulfil the aims and objectives?’ …There’s a danger that these people arrive at a theatre and say ‘tell me what you want from a play – what are the aims and objectives of your theatre?’ And then a play is written with that mentality… that’s the deadliest thing.” Watching Ravenhill’s version of Life of Galileo later that night – a satisfyingly fresh take that certainly achieves his intention of “finding an English equivalent that’s equally energetic, light and springy and funny” – I consider this advice. Questioning and breaking the rules, after all, has always produced the most vital and illuminating work; had Galileo listened to the church, we might still believe the sun orbits the earth.

Life of Galileo plays at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon until Saturday 30 March. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/a-life-of-galileo/.

Image credit: Ian McDiarmid in A Life of Galileo by Tristam Kenton

Billy Barrett

Billy Barrett

Billy currently studies English and Theatre at Warwick University. Between reviewing and reading for his course, Billy writes, directs and acts in theatre. He tries to see everything in London, Warwick and beyond!

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Writing with Simon Stephens

Posted on 30 January 2013 by Ellen Carr

Simon StephensWhen I meet Simon Stephens he is in the middle of taking over the National Theatre’s (NT) Twitter account for an hour of #askaplaywright. He is running his hands through his hair whilst rapidly dictating answers to a scribe for the occasion. He is ebullient and engaged, and exactly how you’d imagine a writer to be.

“Whatever your job is, do your bloody job,” is one of the best gems of advice he offers me. A Northerner by birth he holds “no truck with not working… what annoys me almost more than ineptitude in anything is laziness”. An hour talking to him will dispel anybody’s impression that to be a writer is not a real job, and if you examine his oeuvre you will know that he is anything but lazy. This is a man who clearly understands what it is to be a writer. He is curious about the world and what it is to be human, and our conversation covers everything from his writing process to men’s toilet behaviour.

A men’s toilet is normally “very functional and very quiet”. In the interval of a performance of his play Port at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2002 the opposite was the case, this toilet was “full of people talking to each other” and what they were saying wasn’t good. Stephens’ work has always provoked discussion, and you may know him from last year’s Morning at The Traverse, Three Kingdoms at the Lyric or his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time at the NT. Port is now being revived at the NT and I wonder whether it will provoke the same response as the cited 2002 performance, where one elderly audience member proclaimed “my husband lived through the war and that play was worse”.

Apparently “the play gave old people a bad name”, a comment to which Stephens comes back with the statement that “what they don’t realise is life is like that”. His plays are always about starkly real situations, even with expressionistic work such as Three Kingdoms, they “are plays that have fundamentally operated on a kind of psycho realist level”. Recent work has often been seen as very dark and lacking in hope; Port on the other hand is remarkably hopeful and has made Stephens wonder if he needs to regain his optimism. The experience of returning to Port after so many years has been, as he stated on Twitter: “Inspiring. Melancholy. Odd. Exciting.”

Place is very present in Stephens’s work and Port is “a story about a girl growing up and leaving Stockport” which is his hometown. “We see her from the age of 11 to the age of 23 with one apparently small scene played out every two years. The accumulated minutiae of her life gives her her life story of that age”. When asked about this importance of place Stephens responds with the following: “being human carries out on two particular axes. The axis of time is fundamental to the dramatist because it carries with us everything we remember and everything that we anticipate or want, and drama comes out of desire… but the characterstic of space is also very important, we define our sense of self in relation to where we are.”

Stephens is keen to impress, however, that Port isn’t an autobiographical play. Quoting one of his major influences, Sarah Kane, he explains that drama comes from “lived experience, observed experience and researched experience, and on some level you need all three”. There is as much of himself in Three Kingdoms as there is in Port. What he does acknowledge is that with every artist’s work there will be shared obsessions, returned to time and again, spanning all of their output even when every piece of work is extremely different. Stephens admires this in the work of artist Gehard Richter, saying that nothing has inspired him more in recent years than the Tate Modern retrospective of Richter’s work. He has a catalogue from this exhibition that he looks at every morning “just as a reminder of what an artist can be”.

Stephens is also inspired by music, and the musical landscape of 1980s Manchester played an important part in the creation of Port. “I would like my plays to inspire, excite, terrify and alarm audiences in the same way and with the same directness as music does to me”. This seems a fresh and youthful approach, but when questioned about writing plays to appeal to young audiences Stephens answers he doesn’t tend to write with any specific audience in mind: “normally I write for myself and anybody who likes it is a remarkable coincidence”. It’s in this way that the personal seeps into his work, and obsessions that he has spotted cropping up in his work with “tremendous repetition” are questions of “home and honesty”. Whilst we are talking Stephens realises that a new play he is working on “is the first play I’ve ever written that’s about coming home”. This, he puts down to where he is now in his life – married with children and a “sense of security and certainty” as opposed to a restlessness that abounded in his 20s.

I ask Stephens about his writing process; he writes on Word, on a computer with the Internet “looming and waiting for procrastination”. Procrastination is, he says, a useful tool and part of the “mulling process”. How does he procrastinate? By going on the Man United website or by doing “very old fashioned things like reading books”. He describes his process as “mulling, crystalising, writing”. The writing always comes last and “can be a matter of weeks or days even”.

Stephens is full of words of advice for writers, one of the best of which he took from Stephen Jeffreys which is this: “before you read it, print it, with a title page and look at it”. He follows this up by reminding me that not many people can say they’ve written a play; “to have written a play you’re in the top 3% of the world population and it’s worth being fucking proud of”. This is possibly the best piece of advice a young playwright could ever hear.

The National Theatre have created a storify of Simon Stephens’s Twitter takeover; you can view it at http://storify.com/Nationaltheatre/askaplaywright-simon-stephens.

Port plays at the National Theatre Lyttleton until 24 March 2013. For tickets and more information, click here: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/port

Ellen Carr

Ellen Carr

Ellen is Artistic Director of Witness Theatre, a company she established after graduating from the University of Sussex in 2011. Ellen writes, directs and produces for Witness Theatre and spends the rest of her time doing more writing. She is currently writing her own blog witnesstoexperience daily, contributes regular features to One Stop Arts and can also be found writing the occasional screenplay.

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“New work not new writing” at the Almeida Festival

Posted on 07 July 2012 by Ellen Carr

Anyone in the early stages of a theatrical career will be familiar with how daunting and frankly terrifying it all seems. Taking your first steps into the industry one can be hit so hard by the ambition (and competitiveness that goes with it), the insular society and the seeming lack of support that you may consider giving up and going home. Associate Director Lucy Morrison, however, assures me that the Almeida Festival is on event offering young companies nothing short of a haven.

From 2 to 28 July the Almeida Theatre in Islington – a celebrity of Fringe theatres – is opening itself and its audiences up to an adventurous theatrical experience, a festival of work from emerging companies making and thinking about theatre a little bit differently. Morrison is the first to say that the work shown in this festival is “not what the Almeida would normally present”. Often known for presenting brilliant new writing, the festival’s focus on “new work not new writing” (that which is process-led) is an attempt to introduce “a different culture of theatre making to our audiences”.

This of course raises questions – and possibly eyebrows. Isn’t it a risk for an established theatre with a safely established audience to start introducing something new? Morrison stresses the importance of established institutions to be “thinking about work in different ways [having] conversations about the way theatre is made and to never be stuck in a default position”. This is where talk of the Almeida Festival must surely prick up the ears of any young theatre maker, as Morrison goes on to emphasise the importance of the festival as an exchange. It’s a dialogue between a “fairly established company with a brand and a profile” wanting to share its expertise and resources with young companies but also to “talk to young theatre makers” and really listen to what they have to say.

Morrison acknowledges that there are some brilliant platforms for new theatre out there such as BAC and the Barbican, but that the Almeida sits somewhere in between these. It’s the role of the Almeida Festival, then, to help develop the work of those companies who are on the way to performing on these stages in a future years. So what does the Almeida Festival offer the emerging companies taking part? One major benefit is the support provided both in financial terms, and the production assistance and expertise of such a venue. The aim is for the artists to feel challenged whilst in a very supported environment, enabling them “take risks where they might not otherwise and reach higher heights” in their work. Then of course there’s the benefit of the Almeida literally and figuratively being a bigger stage, introducing the artists’ work to more audiences, partners and funding opportunities.

So what can the companies involved in the festival offer the Almeida and its audiences? Morrison enthuses about the passion every company involved has for the work it makes, and comments on how the Almeida will first develop significant relationships with companies before commissioning them to be part of the festival. The companies they are interested in getting to know are those for whom it is their “raison d’etre to make the work”. She cites Ben Duke, Artistic Director of Lost Dog  – presenting It Needs Horses/Home For Broken Turns – as an example of this point. Duke formed Lost Dog after having trained as both actor and dancer and finding a gap between dance and the theatre world. The work made by Lost Dog is his specific calling; the Almeida Festival is not interested in those who have made a company “just as a stop gap for another job” but those who have “identified a gap that they need to make work in”.

Greyscale, which is presenting Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, “came into being because they were bored of theatre”. There is a revitalising spirit behind the Almeida Festival, one that keeps the venue young and stops our theatre brains from falling asleep. There’s an educational side to it that is shown in two productions presented by Young Friends of the Almeida, The Mini Dream and Parallax. The Young Friends is the education department of the Almeida and Morrison doesn’t think people know enough about “how deep it goes”. Essentially it is a theatre company for young people that mirrors the exact set up of the Almeida company, offering participants a vital chance to gain hands-on experience of the theatre industry – so perhaps they won’t have so daunting an experience when they first step into it.

Another piece of work that Morrison is very enthusiastic about is Mass Observation from Inspector Sands – a company with a “very egalitarian way of making work where the traditional hierarchy of theatre making is torn up”. Mass Observation tackles the huge subject of the Mass Observation Archive set up in 1937 to chronicle everyday life. Morrison describes the production as “utterly charming and disarming” and shows amazement at how they are “biting off the head of a big theme but are able to bring such a gorgeously light touch to it”.

It is an appreciation of different ways of making, approaching and thinking about theatre that marks the Almeida Festival. The importance placed on relationships with young theatre makers certainly gives hope to those struggling with their first steps. However, Morrison also acknowledges how hard the companies involved have had to work for every hand-out and bit of support they’ve received. If you continue work whilst struggling through every pitfall and hardship then it seems support eventually is out there. The overpowering message of those behind the Almeida Festival seems to be to make the work you want to make and “absolutely believe in it”.

The festival runs until 28 July, presenting “a kaleidoscope of theatre for the culturally curious”. For more information on the shows and to book tickets, visit www.almeida.co.uk/festival-2012.

Image credit: It Needs Horses/Home for Broken Turns by Lost Dog

Ellen Carr

Ellen Carr

Ellen is Artistic Director of Witness Theatre, a company she established after graduating from the University of Sussex in 2011. Ellen writes, directs and produces for Witness Theatre and spends the rest of her time doing more writing. She is currently writing her own blog witnesstoexperience daily, contributes regular features to One Stop Arts and can also be found writing the occasional screenplay.

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Spotlight On: Blanche McIntyre

Posted on 05 April 2012 by Catherine Love

Director Blanche McIntyre has had a whirlwind couple of years. From working with Max Stafford-Clark, to garnering rave reviews and awards on the London fringe, to making her West End directing debut at the Trafalgar Studios, there can be little doubt that she has made her mark. Asked how she first started directing, however, McIntyre laughs: “This is a bit hilarious and is going to sound quite childish,” she warns me with a grin. She explains that at the age of 15 she saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry VI Part Three, directed by Katie Mitchell, and immediately thought that it was “the best thing I’d ever seen”. Inspired by the experience, McIntyre decided to put on a medieval play with a group of school friends, a project that accidentally but quickly ended up with her in the director’s chair.

“The first thing I realised was that I’m an absolutely terrible actor and the second thing I realised is that directing is incredible fun… After that I never stopped,” McIntyre says, with palpable enthusiasm. “It’s addictive. You discover quickly that the only thing that can get you over the sadness of the last production being over is setting up for a new one to happen.”

While McIntyre’s directorial approach varies depending on what she is working on, one point she is adamant on is the importance of doing things herself. Although many directors find assisting a helpful learning experience in the early stages of their careers, McIntyre flatly admits, “I was awful at it, have always been awful at it”. She dislikes having to suppress her own instincts in favour of another director’s opinion and believes that the best way to learn to direct is to have the full responsibility of a production’s success or failure placed firmly on your own shoulders. “The responsibility is with you always, so if the audience doesn’t come that’s your fault and if the actors don’t like it that’s your fault,” McIntyre explains. She goes on to analogise assistant directing with learning to drive a car by watching someone else do it. “You can learn brilliantly, and many people then become great directors after doing it, but there’s always a moment when you get in the driving seat for the first time and realise it goes a lot faster than you thought it did. Learning how to not feel safe is a really important part of learning how to direct.”

The other quality that is essential to McIntyre’s understanding of directing – and a quality that she has no shortage of herself – is passion for the work. “If you are not excited by a script then you really ought not to do it,” she says firmly. “Partly because someone else could do it better than you, and partly because the quality of the production comes from the intensity of your affection for it.” Discussing the work that excites her, she singles out an awareness of how a piece might be staged and sensitivity to what is going on inside the characters’ heads. “Psychologically very acute plus dramatically quite daring – I’m a total sucker for that.”

This enthusiasm was clearly not lacking in McIntyre’s acclaimed productions of Accolade and Foxfinder last year, both staged at the tiny Finborough Theatre. The two plays were very different and captured McIntyre’s imagination for different reasons. Emlyn Williams’ controversial play Accolade, which had not been revived since its premiere in 1950, was traditional in structure but not in content. McInytre explains, “that tension between the old-fashioned way in which it had been put together and the extraordinary punch that the storyline carried was amazing”. Unsettling dystopian fable Foxfinder, meanwhile, was striking in its boldness and the economy of Dawn King’s writing. “It’s spare and that makes it all the more powerful,” says McIntyre.

The performance space was also particularly important for McIntyre’s visions of these two productions, each of which utilised the intimate but versatile Finborough in different ways. For McIntyre, the relationship between audience and play that is created by the use of the space is vital to its impact. “With Accolade, it had not to be a traditional proscenium arch play where you sit on this side and they act on that side and you do the judging,” she explains. Instead, the audience were made to feel like intimate guests in the home where the drama was taking place, immersing them in the play.

Contrastingly, the aim with Foxfinder was to separate audience and actors, evoking Greek tragedy. “Greek tragedy emerged as a way of articulating the troubles that the Athenians were experiencing in the context of myth, and I thought that Dawn was doing something very similar,” says McIntyre. In the strange world of Foxfinder, the belief that foxes are responsible for the country’s plight draws many implicit parallels with the ways in which we seek to place blame. McIntyre tells me that to achieve the intended effect, the stage was raised “like a temple”, making it a public space where the actors were very much on display to audience members. “It became a strong space,” McIntyre adds. “It became charged.”

Since mounting these productions, McIntyre now has both a Critics’ Circle gong and an Off West End Award to her name, achievements that she is clearly delighted by, but that have had little effect on her approach to her work. “I hope that it will make a difference in that I hope it will make it easier to get things I love on and have attention drawn to them,” McIntyre says. “Apart from that, it hasn’t made me feel that I’m a better director.” She has currently moved onto another challenge which is different again, directing The Seven Year Itch at the Salisbury Playhouse and trying to overcome the ghost of Marilyn Monroe.

McIntyre admits that she is up against it trying to produce a new version of something so iconic, but tells me that the play on which the Monroe film was based is very different to its big screen sister. “The girl in it is very independent, very smart, very sparky. She’s naive but she absolutely knows her own mind and she’s very confident. This is quite lucky for me, because it means that I can do something different with it but that still fits the text – I’m not distorting it.” McIntyre does still have her concerns that fans of the film might object to it, but concludes our discussion of the production on a note of cheerful, determined optimism: “What I hope is that it will be strong enough as a piece to stand on its own merit.”

As we wrap up our interview, McIntyre’s final piece of directing advice is to speak up – about what is good as well as what is bad. “If you like what someone’s doing, say it. It’s very usual to think that it makes you look weak by saying something is good and that it makes you more powerful to withhold that, but the strongest thing you can do is be the person who knows their judgement well enough to say ‘that was good, keep it’.”

The Seven Year Itch is at the Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 7 April. For tickets and more information, visit the theatre’s website here.

Image credit: Dominic Parkes

Catherine Love

Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist, editor and copywriter. She is one of the editors of Exeunt and has written for publications such as The Guardian, The Stage, Time Out and IdeasTap, as well as working with organisations including Fuel.

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