Interviewed – May 2020
Hello, thank you so much for answering our questions today. Why not start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
I’ve been writing plays for around eight years, including Drifters, Tiramisu and Kingdom of the Icebear for Theatre West, NightFlyer (Tristan Bates), Warped (VAULT Festival) and The Signalman (Old Red Lion).
How did it all start?
When I was five, I was in The Enormous Turnip at school. I got a cracker of a role, the Mouse (paper ears, skipping rope tail). He comes on at the end, fixes everything and resolves the narrative.
I never got over it. I’ve been on a mission to resolve the narrative ever since.
How did you end up as a playwright?
I had a lot of false starts and did a lot of jobs I didn’t want to do. I trained as an actor, but quickly found it wasn’t for me. I worked in bars, museums, offices and painting floors in a theatre. I’ve been a press officer and a teacher and I’ve scripted educational media for broadcast. But all the time I secretly wanted to write plays.
I got back into play-writing through two comedy shows, The News Revue in London and Brighton’s Treason Show. Scripting two-minute sketches week-in-week-out tells you a lot about structure.
I gradually built up my contacts, found actors and directors I wanted to work with and moved on to the kind of stuff I write now.
Your work is hugely versatile – last year’s Warped at the 2019 VAULT Festival sizzlingly tackled toxic masculinity through modern day Kray twin wannabes, while your adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman, which would be touring right now if not for this pesky pandemic, adopts a totally different tone. What are the themes and ideas that fuel you? What’s the connective sinew in your writing?
Thank you, that’s very kind. The stories I write are always sparked by something that happened to me or to people I know well.
I don’t choose a tone or a theme, they kind-of choose themselves. My stuff is often bleak and gritty, but that’s what writing non-stop comedy for ten years does for you.
I like plays where small actions, small choices, small objects, turn out to have huge consequences. I love it when you’re watching a play and you think you know where it’s going and then CRASH! The ground falls away and you realise you’ve been standing on a precipice.
The only theme-y things I’ve noticed in my work? I often have a very quiet character on the edge of the action and I often set it in a transitional space: a road, a corridor, a gateway, a doorstep, a stairwell. I love a good doorstep!
In 2019 you also began producing, leading to the formation of your own company. What made you want to move into this role and create Critical Moment Theatre?
Critical Moment is more of a brand than a company and to be honest, it’s still forming itself right now. The team behind it are all discovering what it is, as we work on our first projects.
It’s learning-by-doing and that means you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But it’s perfect for a writer because making it up as you go along is what we do.
I started it because I lack patience and I got tired of waiting. In theatre, both on and off the stage, if you want to see some drama, you have to make stuff happen.
What’s been the biggest learning experience in moving into the world of producing?
Always have a contingency plan. Because contingencies are always going to happen. And finding the right people to work with is the key.
The team I’m working with right now – composers, actors, poets, photographers – are absolute diamonds. It’s their glittery creativity that shines out when we get things right.
You’re a staunch advocate of no artist having to work for free. Has it ever been difficult maintaining the ethically correct stance if it meant losing opportunities?
Yes, it’s always difficult. Like the rest of us, I see call-outs every day asking actors, directors and writers to commit their time, energy and talent but with no mention of a fee.
Maybe that’s OK if it’s a short project, a one-day event or a scratch night, say. You might gain something else tangible: creative partners you can work with again or an ongoing relationship with a venue.
But one unpaid gig quickly leads to another which leads to another. If that becomes the new normal, how will you ever break free? People will come to expect it of you. And I am forever struck by the insouciance of those who constantly ask others to work for them unpaid.
With Critical Moment, we raise the money before we make the work. If we can’t raise the cash, we don’t do the project. Everybody who works with Critical Moment gets fairly paid for what they do because we all have to eat and we all need to have our work respected.
Despite the theatres being closed, you’ve still been busy with Speaking Stones, an audio trail giving a voice to statues and street art in Harringay. What was the inspiration behind the project?
Our local library was asking for artists to come and make work. And looking around the area we thought: ‘Who are all those stone people, iron animals and painted magical beasts we see every day?’ So we started to create an audio trail to find out. We’re curating a range of responses to all kinds of artwork from people who live, study or work in Harringay, or just pass through.
To begin with, we wondered how much art there really was out there. At first glance, all you see is an urban streetscape: shops, stations, take-aways, streetlights, a lot of traffic and a lot of concrete.
But once we started looking, we found artworks sneaking in all over the place. It has been a delight discovering it all and we can’t wait to share it.
Speaking Stones is supported by The Mayor of London’s Culture Seeds Fund and we’re hugely grateful to them, as well as Haringey Library Service and our other community partners, for backing us.
How have you adapted to this new existence of social distancing and staying indoors, in terms of managing Speaking Stones, and in your everyday life?
Originally, Speaking Stones was going to grow out of workshops and live events. But when Covid came, obviously that had to go on hold, though we’ll come back to those things when the virus crisis is over.
We moved our audio trail online and discovered it’s exactly the project for these times. We launch a digital map with audio clips on 30th May that you can access from your sofa as easily as you can from the street. So it’s ideal for bringing the outdoors inside for anyone who still has to shelter.
And in my everyday life? I have tidied my desk, so that’s a bonus.
What’s your top tip for other creatives struggling with quarantine life?
Do what you can and don’t fret about what you can’t do. Creativity isn’t a commodity and you can’t use it up, so if you can’t do your project right now, that is totally fine. Return to it when you can.
That’s what I’m telling myself and it keeps me going.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do once the lockdown is lifted and we’re allowed outdoors again?
I’m looking forward to getting on the 29 bus with a notebook and jotting down all the wacky stuff people say to each other. I’ve really missed that.
Speaking Stones launches on 30th May. What kind of community response are you hoping for?
We just want people to check out the digital map we’ll put up on @StonesSpeaking and have fun spotting artworks they know or artworks they don’t and hearing how other people have responded to them.
If you live in Harringay, I hope you’ll get a buzz out of seeing the art on your street put literally on the map. And hearing it too!
And if you’re looking in from somewhere else? Here’s a chance to see wild and wonderful sculptures and paintings you’d never get to see otherwise. And maybe you’ll feel like exploring your own street (virtually or actually) to see what overlooked gems might be lurking.
Are there plans to apply the project to other areas? And what else does Critical Moment Theatre have in the pipeline?
Speaking Stones is a simple and robust concept and we’re very keen to take it to another part of town, or another town altogether. We’ve been invited to try our approach in a local nature reserve and we’re really looking forward to giving that a go.
We have a new play coming up and we were in discussion with a venue about opening it there when lockdown put a stop to all that. With everything so mixed up now, it’s impossible to say what will happen to that production, but we have big hopes for it.
As well as writing and producing, you’ve facilitated the growth of a number of aspiring playwrights through teaching at university, leading workshops, and through the insights on your Twitter. What are some your favourite pieces of advice to offer out?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of new writers of all ages and the things they come up with never fail to amaze me. I love to read the stuff other writers write. It’s a continuing revelation.
My top tip? Take notes. All the time, everywhere. Human stories are streaming out around us, brimming with excitement and passion and horror and joy and hope and mystery. The more you look, the more there are.
If you do that, you’ll never have to face the terror of the blank screen or the empty page. You’ll have started writing long before you ever get to your desk. Note-taking is a painless way to let the story come and find you, rather than the other way round.
What was your favourite piece of theatre from 2019 and why?
There’s a lot to choose from! But if I had to choose just one it would be Shook by Sam Bailey. Why? Because I forgot I was sitting in a theatre watching a play and simply experienced it as if I was there with them.
Papatango’s production was due to transfer to Trafalgar Studios when lockdown struck. And if some theatre somewhere does not do something to remedy that on the other side of all this, then I feel sorry for all theatres, because they will be missing out big time.
What’s the biggest change that needs to be made in the theatre industry?
We need to say goodbye to that word ‘submit’. Actors shouldn’t ‘submit’ head-shots or self-tapes, writers shouldn’t ‘submit’ scripts and directors or anyone else in this industry should never ‘submit’ a proposal or a funding application or a CV.
Deep in that word’s DNA is the idea that creative people are supplicants and that the power to make theatre lies elsewhere, with organisations, venues, or a class of very important individuals. That’s not true and they would be lost without us.
The first step to taking charge of your career is to stop thinking like a supplicant. So send your stuff by all means, but never, ever submit it!
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions – stay safe and keep washing your hands!
You’re welcome. Bring on the soap.
Interviewed by Ryan Mellish
Photography courtesy Martin Malcolm
Find out more about Malcolm, Speaking Stones and their supporters from the links here:
Twitter – @MartinJMalcolm @StonesSpeaking #SpeakingStones
@LDN_Culture #CultureSeeds @GroundworkLON
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