Told by an Idiot


Originally written for The Stage.

If there’s one thing that defines Told by an Idiot, it is collaboration. “I still hold with the notion that theatre is the most collaborative of art forms,” says Paul Hunter, the company’s co-founder and artistic director. “I think theatre’s at its best when it properly collaborates, so that’s always the starting point for us: the idea of collaboration.”

Collaboration, though, has meant many different things over the company’s 22-year life. It began with a focus on the actor, moving on to work with poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage and writers such as Carl Grose. The 2004 production I’m a Fool to Want You enlisted jazz musicians to capture episodes from the life of French writer Boris Vian, while in 2013 it forged an actor collaboration of a different kind with Edward Petherbridge on My Perfect Mind, a show inspired by Petherbridge’s stroke.

Hayley Carmichael, another of Told by an Idiot’s founders, insists that the shows – while different – all share the same philosophy at heart.

“Even if the starting point is brought to the room by one of us, what happens next is that everyone in the room is a collaborator and takes part in the collaborative process, which for us will always make the end result richer.”

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Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Cressida Brown


Originally written for The Stage.

Not many directors start their career with an ambitious site-specific project that generates headlines. Cressida Brown made an immediate impression 10 years ago with Home, a show set in one of the tower blocks of Leyton’s Beaumont Estate and based on the stories shared by its residents. It was, she suggests, an extraordinary fluke. “I didn’t even realise that I was a director until someone told me,” she remembers.

At the time, Brown was training as an actor at Central School of Speech and Drama. Wanting to do a site-specific version of an Edward Bond play during her Christmas holidays, she spoke to someone at the local council about available spaces and was pointed towards the Beaumont Estate – then in the process of being emptied ready for demolition.

“He said, ‘We have these three tower blocks and they’re being emptied’, and I said, ‘Great, can I go in there with a Bond play?’. He said, ‘We have enough violence on that estate, why don’t you interview the people who are leaving and create a play with their words?’. So actually it was somebody else’s idea that set me on the path for my whole life.”

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Gary Owen


Originally written for The Stage.

A certain philosophy characterises Gary Owen’s work as a playwright, in which complexity of subject matter is married to simplicity and clarity of storytelling. “There’s something very simple about someone standing on a stage telling you a story,” he says. In one-person shows such as Iphigenia in Splott or collections of monologues such as Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, characters simply address the audience and share their experiences. Directness and narrative are key.

Owen never intended to be a playwright. Growing up in rural west Wales, he hadn’t even seen much theatre in his youth – he describes his theatrical education as “very minimal”. But when plans for a career in academia began to founder, Owen found himself in Aberystwyth, where he fell in with a group of actors who persuaded him to write a play for them. That play turned into Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, which – via a long chain of readers – ended up on the desk of Vicky Featherstone at Paines Plough.

“To my extreme good luck it arrived when a couple of their commissioned plays were late arriving,” Owen remembers. “She decided to do it not having met me, which is probably something she’ll never do again. But it worked out well for me.” The play toured, Owen became writer-in-residence at Paines Plough, and Featherstone immediately commissioned him to write another play.

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Photo: Kirsten McTernan.

John Heffernan


Originally written for The Stage.

Arriving at Jerwood Space to interview John Heffernan, I’m nervous about using the ‘M’ word. The actor is rehearsing to play Macbeth – He Who Must Not Be Named in theatrical circles. But Heffernan, chatty and affable from the moment he sits down, is quick to laugh away any superstitions around the role.

“When you’re working on it everything would take twice as long if you were constantly calling it the ‘Scottish Play’,” he reasons. “We made the decision quite early on: we’ve just got to say it, we’ve got to dive in.”

This production, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin at the Young Vic, marks a welcome return to Shakespeare for Heffernan. It was the playwright who ignited the actor’s love for theatre: first via the television series The Animated Tales and then during Saturday matinees at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London home, the Barbican. Later, as a teenager, Heffernan ushered during the summer in Stratford-upon-Avon, watching the likes of Samuel West and David Tennant tread the boards. “I’m going to sound like a complete anorak,” he warns, “but I think I’d seen all 37 [Shakespeare] plays by the time I was 19 or 20.”

It took a while, though, for Heffernan to pursue acting. Instead, his early aspiration was to be a theatre critic. “I just thought ‘what job will allow me to sit in the stalls all the time?’” he remembers. “I enjoyed writing and analysing, and I thought it would be a really blissful, happy job.” While at drama school, he even did a bit of reviewing under a pseudonym – “I thought ‘This is great, you get two free tickets, you get a free programme, you get a free drink in the interval’,” – before friends warned him off trying to combine acting and theatre criticism.

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Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Penelope Skinner


Originally written for The Stage.

Penelope Skinner asks me: “Do we believe that women in general are hungry for stories about them?” The writer, whose plays have all hinged on complex female characters, quickly answers her own question: “I believe that they are.” These are the stories that Skinner often sets out to tell, countering a theatrical establishment that is still largely interested in male-centred narratives. “It happily coincides that I’m also most interested in telling those stories,” she continues. “I don’t think I could do anything else. I feel driven to tell those stories.”

Like many theatremakers, Skinner was first drawn to the art form as a child, when she was taken to see a stage adaptation of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. “It was really amazing,” she says, “and kind of life-changing in how magical it was and how transported I felt to a completely different world.” It was not writing that she initially aspired to, though, but acting: “I think I just assumed I wanted to be an actor.”

While acting “didn’t really work out” for Skinner, it did introduce her to new plays. “I moved to London to try to be an actor and that was when I became aware that people were writing new plays,” she remembers. Enthused by this fresh wave of drama, Skinner started regularly attending shows at new writing venues such as the Royal Court Theatre and the Bush Theatre, where she had a memorable encounter with Jack Thorne’s play When You Cure Me.

“I found it a very meaningful experience watching the play,” Skinner tells me, “but something about it made me want to write something myself.” Ten years on, she struggles to put her finger on quite what it was about the show that inspired her, but she suggests that it was “something about that experience, something about feeling that the audience had responded a certain way and feeling that something more needed to be said”.

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Photo: Bronwen Sharp.