Ben Kidd

Ben Kidd, co-director of Lippy at the Young Vic. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Originally written for The Stage.

Ben Kidd is puzzling over what it means to be a director. Does it mean being in charge of a production? Is it about getting the most out of actors? Is it to do with serving the vision of another, or being the author of your own work? “Being a director only really consists in making decisions,” he eventually concludes. “You’re trying to assemble as many people as you can who you think are really really good at what they do – designers or writers or actors or whatever – and then you’re basically saying ‘that and not that’.”

We’re chatting in the bar of the Young Vic, something of a spiritual home for Kidd. It’s the theatre where he was given some of his early assistant directing opportunities, where he received the Genesis Future Directors Award in 2012, and where his Dublin-based company Dead Centre are about to present the London premiere of their show Lippy. “The Young Vic was somewhere that I found a like-minded assortment of people who thought about directing as a thing,” he explains.

Kidd arrived at directing via acting after training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. While training and working as an actor, he was “schooled in this idea that a director helps actors to connect with the text and delivers the play”, an idea that he has progressively broken away from. “There’s a perception of the director as being someone who is either birthing or yielding somebody else’s vision,” Kidd observes, adding that he is more interested in how directing might involve an element of autobiography.

“When I think back to who my gods were growing up, they weren’t theatre directors,” Kidd says. Instead his idols were writers and musicians – he names Bob Dylan and Patti Smith – who poured something of themselves into their work. “It would have been nonsensical if all their work didn’t bear the hallmark of who they were as people,” Kidd suggests. He believes that the same should be true of directing; he wants to “create a new thing in the world”, a thing that bears his signature as a creator.

“If you go and see a Katie Mitchell play, they basically all look the same and feel the same in a sort of profound way,” he offers as an example. “That’s not a bad thing. That’s because she’s in there, her politics are in there, her concerns are in there, and she’s filtered those concerns through artistic practice. That is what real artists do.”

Mitchell has clearly been a major inspiration for Kidd in the process of discovering what directing means to him. He recalls a workshop during which she demanded of the participants: “What do you want to achieve? Find out what you want to achieve and then find out the best way to achieve it”. Whether working with Dead Centre or freelance directing for the likes of the Young Vic and Headlong, this is advice that Kidd has tried to stick to.

He admits, however, that building a career as a director is “really hard”. Despite winning the Genesis Future Directors Award, directing a main-stage tour of Spring Awakening for Headlong last year and gathering a string of awards for Lippy, Kidd still only directs part-time, a situation that is common among directors in the UK. “It does seem to be that directors’ pay hasn’t kept up with pay elsewhere in the industry,” Kidd says, reflecting on the recent research into directors’ fees. “We subsidise the industry because there are loads of us who really want to do it and will kill for a job.”

On the one hand, this lack of money can be liberating and encourage greater risk-taking. As Kidd puts it, “you gain the bloody mindedness to make what you want because you’re not going to make a living from not doing it, so you might as well do it.” But on the other hand, the financial insecurity of making theatre can restrict who enters the profession and impoverish it as a result. “An art form probably is better if a wider section of society is in it,” says Kidd, “it’s going to have more interesting stories.”

Kidd has another thought about the role of the director. “I think that the job is just about returning an audience to a sensation you had when first read a play, or when you first heard of an idea,” he says. The best shows, he suggests, are built around points when that sensation is briefly captured and the mood suddenly changes – what a friend of Kidd’s describes as “David Bowie moments”. “Great plays often hinge on a moment or a series of moments that are a shift in atmosphere, a shift in emotional resonance, a dropping out of the world. Something happens where the world changes.”

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Jack Thorne: Everyday Heroism


Originally written for Exeunt.

Jack Thorne has a habit of apologising. “I’m so sorry,” he says again at the end of our phone call. “I hope you don’t have to transcribe this, because if you do it will just be a load of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’. It’s just the way my mind works.” Conversation with the writer travels at the swift pace of his thoughts, hopping rapidly from one idea to another, peppered with insistent “you know”s. Listening back to the feverish speed of Thorne’s speech, I can begin to understand the personality that drives him to write for ten hours a day, six or seven days a week. “Sorry, I’m not very eloquent,” he interrupts himself to say at another point. He prefers writing, he explains.

Although Thorne’s addictive passion for writing was born partly out of a frustration with talking – “I think I started writing plays as a way of expressing the things that I couldn’t say,” he writes in the introduction to his first volume of plays – his characters often suffer with a similar struggle to say what they mean. Bookending his Plays: One, both When You Cure Meand Mydidae revolve around relationships in which the right things are never quite said; in the collection’s two monologues, Stacy and Bunny, the protagonists’ alienation is compounded by their inability to talk honestly to those around them. Even in Thorne’s most recent play Hope, whose cast of local councillors spend most of their lives talking to the community they serve, the right words are not always forthcoming.

“I feel I spend most of my life feeling quite guilty about things I should have done or things I should have said,” Thorne says, suggesting that this guilt colours all of the plays in his first collection. The other theme that these plays share, he posits, is that of help and everyday heroism. “I am someone who wants, as we all do, a better world, and I’m constantly looking for people that will lead me there; I’m a follower, not a leader. So I think my plays tend to be about someone looking for that: looking for heroes, looking for help, and what help means.”

In When You Cure Me and Mydidae, both close studies of bruised individuals trying and frequently failing to help one another, that theme is explicit. “If they could only be different people then they could be OK,” Thorne says of the characters, “but they’re not, they’re stuck with being the people that they are.” The lone speakers of Stacy andBunny, meanwhile, are people who desperately need help and aren’t getting it. Thorne describes Rob in Stacy, one of the most unsettling characters he has written, as “someone that’s drowning and is constantly looking for help from anywhere and is destroying himself and others in looking for it”. But for Katie, the mixed up eighteen year old at the heart of Bunny, he holds out more hope. “I think Rob’s pretty lost, Rob’s not going to get there. I think he’s screwed. Whereas I hope she’s on the way to getting somewhere.”

After the microscopic and self-declaredly personal focus of these earlier plays, it’s easy to seeHope, with its more ambitious and expansive look at local British politics and the state of the Labour Party, as a gear change. For Thorne, though, the play made him feel “more personally on the line than I ever have with anything in my life”. Thorne has been a member of the Labour Party since 1996 and grew up in an environment where politics formed an important facet of everyday life – “I spend a lot of time amongst political people,” he explains – making the subject matter closer to the heart than might immediately be obvious. Thorne was also nervous about Hope, he adds, because politics is a topic that naturally provokes disagreement.

“When you’re writing something that’s quite small and set in a bedroom and you’re just going ‘this is how I feel about the world’, people can’t really deny you your right to do that. Whereas when it’s about the state of a political party and how it works locally and all that stuff then you feel people can, because everyone’s going to have a different opinion of that and everyone’s going to have a different experience of that, so you feel very vulnerable.”

That perhaps explains why, despite the strong presence of politics throughout his life, Thorne has tended to avoid explicitly political subject matter in his plays. The other exception is 2nd May 1997, which Thorne describes as “a play about political people” rather than a political play per se. It follows the night of New Labour’s landslide victory through a triptych of two-handers: a Tory politician and his wife facing election defeat; a drunken post-Lib Dem party liaison; and two teenage Labour supporters blinking in the light of a new political future. “It felt for me like there were personal stories to be told from that night,” Thorne says, adding, “I’m always as interested in the personal as the political.”

Hope, which featured in the Royal Court’s “revolution” season at the end of last year, might be read as the bitter sequel to the anticipatory final act of 2nd May 1997. In spite of its title, it’s a play with an awful lot of pessimism about the current predicament of both local government and the Labour Party. But when I suggest that my stubbornly optimistic reading of the final scenes is just a product of my own tendency towards idealism, Thorne protests. “No,” he says, “you’re a romantic. I’m a romantic, I like that.” He admits, however, that getting the ending of the play right was “a real struggle”, and that he’s still not sure if the closing injection of hope is justified. “Would you really want him to be the dawn of a new age?” Thorne asks of Jake, the precocious, outspoken councillor’s son who offers a shred of optimism at the end of the play. “I’m not sure you would, because he’s a pretty messed up kid. So I don’t know. I like things that end with a question mark and not necessarily a full-stop.”

Jake in Hope is just one in a long list of confused and often troubled teenagers in Thorne’s work: Rachel and Peter in When You Cure Me, the schoolboys in the final scene of 2nd May 1997, Katie in Bunny – not to mention his screenwriting work on shows such as Skins, The Fades and Glue. What is it that the writer finds so compelling about the teens? “It is a time when people are made,” Thorne says, “and that feeling of looking at that making of a person is a really exciting feeling as a writer.” His perspective on adolescence, however, has changed since he was a teenager himself, reflecting the gloom of the current political moment. “Generations have spent their lives feeling like they’re on the edge of doom. I think the thing that makes this generation specific is there’s so little optimism, it seems. So little optimism personally as well as politically. I meet young people and their expectations of life are so low.”

His fascination with teenage life is something that Thorne shares with Simon Stephens, who taught him on the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme. Discussing Stephens’s influence on a whole generation of British playwrights – Thorne laughingly characterises him as being “like a giant Buddha” – the younger writer remembers the party that was thrown when his mentor left the Royal Court in 2005. “It was an impressive bunch of young people there,” Thorne recalls. “Playwrights never go to any parties ever, they avoid parties like the plague in my experience, but it was full of people who just wanted to say thanks to him.”

Also like Stephens, Thorne relishes the collaboration offered by theatre as an art form, but he prefers to limit his contact with the rehearsal process. “What I don’t like is being in rehearsal, I’m not really a rehearsal type of writer,” he says, describing himself as a “very unhelpful” presence in the room. “I don’t write books because I like collaborating, but I’m a better silent partner than I am a vocal partner.”

One of the other reasons Thorne tries to remove himself from the rehearsal room, he tells me, is because he has such a clear and detailed picture of each play in his head. Only by stepping back can he allow other collaborators to put their stamp on it. Encountering the texts inPlays: One for the first time on the page – I have to admit to Thorne that I’ve only seen performances of his later work – this detail is immediately clear. Although he has “a lot of admiration” for writers who are spare with their stage directions, Thorne describes his approach as “trying to present as many pictures to the world as possible”. “Which I suspect makes reading them easier,” he says, “but I’m not sure makes staging them easier.”

In the past, Thorne has spoken about how he finds writing for the theatre much more of a challenge than writing for the screen. When I ask why, he suggests that it comes back to his interest in the small. While he stresses that screenwriting isn’t easy either – “it still fucking makes my hair fall out” – in film and television “there are always ways of getting dynamism and beauty and all those things you need technically in order to be able to tell a story”. In the theatre, on the other hand, “capturing that slightness on stage is a really tricky thing to do and I frequently fail at it in a way that I don’t with screen as much”.

“I’m constantly trying to think larger,” Thorne adds, but he keeps finding himself drawn back to the small and intimate. “That tends to be my fetish as a writer,” he says, musing that it might once again have something to do with help and heroism. “Heroism is often in the small, isn’t it?” he says, sounding pleased with the idea. “Capturing those tiny moments when someone’s life changes – that is the thing that excites me.”

Alistair McDowall

Pomona rehearsals - Alistair McDowall 2 (photo Manuel Harlan)

Originally written for The Stage.

Conversation with Alistair McDowall is cluttered with cultural references. Names of books, films and comics all fly off the playwright’s tongue; a rich and varied vocabulary of influences, from Sarah Kane to William Faulkner. “If I’m not working I spend all of my time consuming,” McDowall explains, “reading novels and plays and watching films and TV and listening to music and reading comics – whatever I can get my hands on.”

This passion for culture in all its forms – “generally I’m just a fan,” McDowall enthuses – filters through to his plays, which often marry the mundane and the fantastical. Brilliant Adventures shoved a time machine into a Middlesborough housing estate; in Captain Amazing, an ordinary dad is a reluctant, cape-clad superhero. “I think my plays sometimes feel quite noisy,” McDowall suggests, attributing this background buzz to all the cultural “stuff” that has influenced them.

“I was just obsessed with stories in any form,” he says of the many narratives that fed his creative imagination in his childhood and teens. After years of dreaming about making films, McDowall put on his first play with friends at the age of 16 and discovered a way of immediately bringing his ideas to life. From that point onwards he didn’t stop, continuing to write plays throughout school and university and staging his work in fringe venues after graduating.

The turning point came when Brilliant Adventures won a judges award as part of the Bruntwood Prize in 2011. For McDowall, the timing could not have been better: he had lost his day job in an art gallery the day before the prize was announced. “When I look back at that, the overwhelming feeling I have about winning it is just relief,” McDowall remembers. “I didn’t really have that much time to suddenly get above my station; it was just like yes, I can still eat.”

McDowall is frank about the economic restraints that hamper many would-be theatre-makers, who he describes as being “robbed of their talent” through financial circumstances. “There’s no reason why I should have been able to see this as a career,” he reflects on his own relatively modest background. “I just never really considered doing anything else other than making stories.”

When discussing his own stories, McDowall keeps coming back to their strangeness. Brilliant Adventures, which premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester after being recognised by the Bruntwood Prize, is “quite a peculiar play” according to its writer, while he describes his latest play Pomona as “really odd”.

Pomona, which is about to receive a production from McDowall’s fellow University of Manchester alumnus Ned Bennett at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, was born from the place that its title refers to. The playwright describes this desolate strip of land awaiting development in Manchester as a “ghost town” and recalls his desire to capture it on stage somehow, at the same time as being interested in conveying the experience of living in the 21st century.

“I wanted to write something that was more led by a certain kind of state of mind and mood and tone,” McDowall explains. “It feels internet-y in its form and structure and it’s about a certain type of anxiety that seems to me to be very, very contemporary.” And perhaps even more so than his previous work, it is strewn with pop cultural detritus, from TV shows to fast food.

Despite his interest in all the other cultural forms that inspire his work, McDowall keeps coming back to theatre because it’s a medium in which “you can do anything”, a realisation prompted in his teens by binge reading the plays of Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

“When I think of the things that had the biggest impact on me, it’s quite often that they reminded me that you can do whatever you want,” says McDowall. “You can do whatever you want, as long as you do it with passion and integrity and craft, you can do anything.”

Theatre is a “collective imagining,” he adds, later going on to describe a play as a magic trick. “I think the magic trick is almost aren’t we all having fun making this magic trick together, rather than actually trying to deceive you that it’s anything other than a magic trick,” he explains, capturing his interest in both narrative and theatricality.

The one thing that theatre-makers have to do, McDowall insists, is justify why their stories belong on stage. There might be no rules, but the question the playwright always asks himself is “does the audience still need to be in the same room for this to happen? And if the action could continue without them, if the equation is complete without them, it just doesn’t feel like it’s the best use of everyone’s time.” Or, putting it another way, “I’ve asked all these people to turn up, so I’d better fucking put on a show.”

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Jay Miller

jay miller the yard publicity shots-273

Originally written for The Stage.

There are few directors who, when faced with a lack of opportunities in their mid twenties, would start their own theatre from scratch. Jay Miller, however, is one of them. In 2011, in the midst of recession, the young director founded a theatre in a draughty warehouse in Hackney Wick. The Yard, built on a shoestring and constructed from reclaimed and recycled materials, was something of a conjuring act: bold, improbable and summoned almost from thin air.

Miller identifies three impulses behind the founding of The Yard: boredom, frustration and anger. “The boredom was with the theatre that I was seeing. The frustration was with an industry and a world that felt quite closed. And an anger because it was the time of the economic crash and I just felt angry that I’d been sold a dream by Tony Blair and graduated and entered into a world that felt like it was a trap.” When combined, this cocktail of emotions generated a determination to “just do something”.

For Miller, doing something meant creating his own alternative. So what was it that he was failing to see elsewhere in London theatre? “I wasn’t seeing a system that developed new artists in theatre,” Miller says. “I was seeing a fringe system that sought to replicate a larger subsidised model of theatre, and when it wasn’t seeking to replicate a larger subsidised model of theatre it was replicating a commercial aspect of the West End.”

Instead, the aim of The Yard was to nurture new work and to focus on the role of space in audience experience. No black box here. Building on a personal interest in architecture and roping in a few friends, Miller designed a theatre that was part warehouse, part Greek amphitheatre.

He explains that the desire was to marry something of the booming immersive theatre scene with a self-consciously theatrical design. “We wanted a space which felt like an experience, which felt inclusive and which felt very live. But we also wanted to in some way acknowledge that it was theatre.” Miller adds that “the friction between that design and its context goes some way to releasing this energy that I was seeking to find in a space”.

Right from the start of his career, Miller knew that he wanted to run theatres, which begins to explain the genesis of The Yard. “I was always really interested in spaces and the effect of spaces on people,” he says. Despite a stint at Lecoq in Paris and a range of acting and directing experience prior to setting up The Yard, he insists that his real training has been on the job. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started The Yard, so I’ve learned as I’ve gone.”

The Yard started out, Miller admits, with “a worrying lack of planning” and no real business model. “The biggest punt that I ever took in the moment when I thought ‘let’s make this happen’ was gambling that other people would be feeling similar things to what I was feeling, that people would be thinking similar things to what I was thinking,” he recalls.

Since then, both the space and the theatre it presents have evolved, scooping two Empty Space Awards and an Off West End Award in the process. “The programme at The Yard is organic,” says Miller, explaining that each new season has developed out of the previous one. Shows that have been presented as works in progress often return for longer runs, while themes emerge and reappear.

The latest development is a shift towards a mixed programme of four to five week runs interspersed with seasons such as this year’s NOW 14, which offer an opportunity for artists to show work in shorter bursts. The current autumn season, for instance, consists of two four week runs for These are your lives and The Hundred We Are, while submissions are for next year’s NOW 15 are opening later in the month.

Miller confesses, however, that the support The Yard is able to offer artists is restricted by the limited resources that they have to work with. While he insists on the importance of paying artists whenever possible, he adds that “we don’t have huge wads of cash to give out”. Instead, the theatre supports artists in a range of different ways, which often includes taking on a producing role.

The ultimate goal for Miller is “to achieve a real balance between opening our doors, developing and investing our resources in artists, and then putting on what we think is the best work in the UK”. It’s an ambitious set of aims, but one that Miller is confident of the need and desire for among the London theatre community.

“That punt, that gamble that other people must be thinking and feeling similar ways to me, paid off.”

Duncan Macmillan


Originally written for The Guardian.

“There’s nothing I can do in my life to compensate for the fact that the world would be better without me in it,” says Duncan Macmillan, smiling over his coffee. It’s a bleak statement, but one that the writer and director explains is grounded in climate science. Each of us in the west, with our hefty carbon footprints, is a drain on the planet’s resources.

When we meet, Macmillan is buried deep in research about the worsening state of the environment. This is all in aid of 2071, a new project for the Royal Court that he is co-writing with climate scientistChris Rapley. For the past six months, the two men have been meeting regularly at University College London, trading their respective expertise in an attempt to bring climate change centre stage.

Directed by Katie Mitchell, 2071 follows her 2012 show Ten Billion, in which scientist Stephen Emmott painted a gloomy picture of our planet’s future. Macmillan tells me that Rapley’s outlook is more complex, challenging our understanding of how we affect the environment. “I thought I was concerned and had read well about it,” he says, “but it’s a whole other thing talking to Chris.”

“I sound like a broken record,” Macmillan laughs a moment later, catching himself using the word complicated yet again to describe Rapley’s insights. Conversation with Macmillan is punctuated with these moments of thoughtful, anxious self-awareness. Intense but amiable, he has a tendency to pause mid-thought, picking apart his own statements as soon as he makes them.

It’s a tendency that Macmillan’s plays share. Monster, the play that scooped two awards in the inaugural Bruntwood prize for playwriting, prodded uncomfortably at ideas of responsibility. In Lungs, a conversation about starting a family is folded into concerns about the state of the planet, interlacing the personal and the global. And when approaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke set out to “represent the challenge” of the novel’s ambiguities rather than attempting to solve them.

“I can’t speak for what theatre can or should do, but I know from my perspective I’m interested in complexity,” says Macmillan. “Chris [Rapley] keeps saying, ‘It’s a little bit more complicated than that.’ And I’ve always thought that would be a really good subtitle for any good play.”

The same complexity applies to Macmillan’s career. Increasingly, he has been working in a number of different roles, from co-directing Headlong’s 1984 with Icke to collaborating with Mitchell on her multi-media productions in mainland Europe. One frustration, however, is the pigeonholing impulse of the British theatre industry. “I think there’s a perception that the playwright is someone who writes the spoken text and that everything else is the domain of the director,” says Macmillan, adding that this is not the case with many of his projects.

Not that spoken text doesn’t interest Macmillan any more. He admits that Lungs, for instance, “is essentially just talking”. That play, which is currently on the road with touring company Paines Plough, spans one long conversation over several years. Its agonised back and forth between a couple deciding whether or not to have children was Macmillan’s attempt to wrestle with some of his own anxieties.

“I found myself worrying about these things and I didn’t know the solution,” he says, discussing the “anxiety debt” that his generation has inherited. “Putting characters on stage who talk about those anxieties makes them quite absurd. And they are. It is absurd that you can have a conversation now about whether or not you want to start a family and at the same time you can be talking about the industrial revolution.”

At the same time as travelling the UK, Lungs is also part of the repertoire at the Schaubühne in Berlin, in a German production directed by Mitchell. While the form that Macmillan initially imagined for the play – no sound, no lights, no props – was an attempt to “break out of a certain kind of formal cul-de-sac”, Mitchell’s production finds a new visual metaphor to communicate the narrative. In her version, the two actors are poised throughout on static bikes, powering the stage lights as they pedal.

“What I enjoy most as a theatre-maker and as an audience member is getting my brain to do more than one thing at once,” says Macmillan, pointing to Mitchell’s production of Lungs as one example. Another isEvery Brilliant Thing, which tours alongside Lungs this autumn. In this interactive monologue, misery and ecstasy are two sides of the same coin. The subject might be suicidal depression, but the show itself manages to be joyously life-affirming.

“It’s the least cool piece of theatre ever, in some ways,” says Macmillan. Staged in the round in Paines Plough’s portable Roundabout auditorium, the formal gesture of the show is deliberately democratic, while its message for those struggling with depression is unashamedly heartfelt. “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it.”

Like so much of Macmillan’s work, Every Brilliant Thing came out of a desire to say something that wasn’t being said. “I didn’t see anyone discussing suicidal depression in a useful or interesting or accurate way,” he says. Similarly, at the time of writing Lungs, he felt that he “wasn’t seeing enough about what it’s like to be alive now”. He positions both of these plays as interventions of a kind, adding with an apologetic smile, “that sounds really grand”.

Theatre at its best is, he says, “incredibly direct and incredibly interventionist”. He talks about Wallace Shawn’s monologue The Fever, which the actor and playwright took into people’s homes to shock them into a crisis of conscience. “I find that really inspiring.”

So is 2071 an intervention? The questions it poses – “What is happening to our planet, and what is our role in that?” – would suggest so. Still, Macmillan insists, it is not quite as simple as issuing a manifesto for saving the planet. As Rapley might say, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Photo: Geraint Lewis.