Kate Tempest is worried about how theatre alienates young people. “I was seeing loads of plays as research for Wasted,” she says, referring to her newly written play, which opened in Birmingham in March. “There were only three or four that were real for me. The rest didn’t have any interest in including me in what they were trying to say. It’s so elitist; there’s so much snobbery around it. It’s expensive, and when you go you’re surrounded by people who look at you like you’re a scumbag if you’ve got trainers on. I was turning my phone off about ten minutes into a play once, and this old woman turned around and hit me on the leg! I suppose she felt it was okay to do that because I was a young person in the theatre looking like I didn’t belong.” Wasted, Tempest insists, is going to be different. “I want my audience to leave feeling like they’ve been spoken to. I want them to feel uplifted, inspired, ready to tackle their demons.”

Tempest has reached playwriting in a rather roundabout way, and her crossing of genres marks her as an artist. “I started rapping when I was kid, trying to rap at boys on buses who didn’t want to listen to me. I didn’t know anything about poetry until I went to New York. I entered a slam there and I won it! So I kind of fell into spoken word poetry. I did another slam in London and won that one too. There were a bunch of poets there who put on their own nights and they started asking me to perform at different nights in London. I met a lot of poets and started getting a few more opportunities as a writer.”

Although she self-identifies as a “writer of all things,” Tempest has experimented with many different forms. She started performing as a solo rapper called XCentral Tempest, and still raps in the band Sound of Rum. She is soon to publish a poetry book and longs to write more plays in the future, despite the difficult process of writing Wasted. “It was absolute agony to be honest, it was terrific! Everything that I naturally do when I write didn’t apply. I’m very instinctive with my lyrics, but playwriting is not that. It’s careful consideration, it’s knowing exactly where you’re going, it’s all got to be what’s happening? Why? Who is this character? What is their motive? What are we saying here? Every confidence I’d built up through my career as a writer got smashed to pieces and I had to gradually learn how to express myself again. It was mental. I learned so much.”

As Tempest continues to talk about Wasted, the emotional power and quirky quotability recognisable from her lyrics appears. “The play is about three friends, on the anniversary of the death of another friend, who died when they were much younger. On this one day, they’re realising or not realising the changes they need to make to be the people they want to be. It’s dedicated to my friends, and the situation a lot of us are in at the minute. We get together, and we repeat the same conversations and desires, and we find ourselves stuck in this eternal moment of wanting to change but never quite wanting to make the jump. The play wasn’t written with an audience in mind, I want it to appeal to everybody. It was written from my heart for the place I live and the people I grew up with, and I believe it will resonate with people who grew up in different places with different people.”

“I don’t really know how the writing process begins,” she continues. “All I know is there’s a lot of love behind everything I write. Even when it comes from a painful place, it’s still pushed out by love. That sounds like a massive cliché, but I genuinely have a passion for what I’m saying and my desire to deliver it. I’m yearning after some kind of truthfulness in all this untruth that I feel surrounded by. Writing like this is the realest thing that I could be doing. Hopefully it connects to people.”

Tempest’s tone is reminiscent of a passionate yet peaceful activism, and she admits there exists some political motivation behind her work. “There’s lots that I want to change. I’ve realised over the last couple of years that poetry and creativity are not really the vehicle for bringing about change, but for explaining how you feel about something in your voice, which might inspire someone else. I’m not naïve enough to think a song can change the world, but it can change one person’s world and maybe move towards a collective change in consciousness. For example, I’m so troubled by the sneaky privatisation of the NHS. I’m so concerned about it. Even if a massive superstar wrote a song, it wouldn’t do anything. But if I can make a public declaration of my panic and my worry, it might remind other people of theirs.”

Kate Tempest is worried about how theatre alienates young people. But there is a solution and, with Wasted, she is leading the way. “The only solution is that young people should be writing and putting on plays. Young people from all walks of life. There needs to be much more of an avenue for young people to get involved in writing and producing plays. It’s such a challenge, such an interesting way of expressing yourself. The genre has all these specific conventions and forms, it’s fantastic. Never expect anything you write to be any good. With the expectation of being great, you will also have the fear of being rubbish and it will stop you from writing anything. You’ll have to write so much stuff that is no good before you write anything that is good. You won’t find your own voice until you’ve written in hundreds of other voices. There is no such thing as writers’ block, just a fear of writing badly. As long as you keep writing badly you will write something excellently.” With this, Tempest repeats the mantra that has defined her career: “Just keep writing.”

Wasted arrives at The Albany Theatre on Tuesday 17 April. For tickets and more information, visit www.thealbany.org.uk. The UK tour then continues until 26 May. Tour dates and more information available here.

Image credit: Elyse Marks