Riwa: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This is Inspired, a series where an artist invites someone who has influenced their creative lives, to share the stories behind their connection.
I'm Riwa Saab. I'm a Barbican Young Poets alum and interdisciplinary artist, specialising in theatre directing, poetry and singer songwriting. I'm a final year student of Performance and Creative Enterprise at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
In this episode I'm speaking to Kirsty Housley. A director, writer and dramaturg. She won the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award in 2003 for Cue Deadly, a live film project. Her work has twice been nominated for the Stage Award for innovation, winning in 2017 for The Encounter.
Kirsty is currently developing new work with the National Theatre, Clean Break and Hampstead Theatre. I invited Kirsty because I was eager to have a conversation about her thoughts and processes behind the inspiring theatre work she creates.
Riwa: Hello, welcome to our listeners. I'm super excited. I'm Riwa Saab. I'm here to speak with Kirsty Housley who is a director, writer, dramaturg and is one of the most prominent creatives in the theatre world today. Her shows have been on at the National Theatre, the Barbican, the West End and many other venues. Kirsty, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Kirsty: It's a pleasure, thanks for having me and it's lovely to meet you.
R: So nice to meet you. So I wanted to speak to you because I was drawn to your work because I know you work a lot with devised and new writing theatre. My introduction to the theatre world started with devised work because that's one of the primary ways of storytelling through theatre in Lebanon where I grew up.
So I moved to London in 2018. I visited a couple of years before that as well and suddenly there's a whole array of theatre and styles that I get to engage with and I started to gravitate towards the devised work, the new writing work and one of the first shows I saw was A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer that you worked on and it went on at the National Theatre with Bryony Kimmings and Complicite. I was super inspired by it and just with that as an intro I wanted to ask what was maybe one of your earliest influences in theatre. What brought you into the theatre world?
K: Ahhh. So I can remember really clearly actually. I had a sort of, I suppose quite a common story which is that I had a really inspirational drama teacher. So my first access point to theatre was participation. I hadn't really been to the theatre. I mean I had been to see a musical and a panto at the local theatre in Southampton. It definitely wasn't a regular part of my life. I definitely hadn't been to London to see any shows or anything like that. So my kind of access point was having a drama teacher who encouraged us to make our own work. So I saw the work that he was making before I sort of became part of that youth theatre, before I was doing a drama GCSE or anything like that. So I'd watch this youth theatre that he'd created make work and thought it was really extraordinary and really wanted to be a part of it. I was never really interested in acting but didn't know enough about what any of the other roles were. We'd just make work collaboratively, maybe we'd have a theme, maybe we'd choose a theme and then we would make a show together. So my first access point was participation. Then after that the same teacher took us to see a piece of theatre by a Welsh site-specific theatre company called Brith Gof, who I don't think exist anymore but I'd be absolutely overjoyed to find out that I'm wrong because we saw a piece that they made called DOA and it was in a huge building that they'd built this huge structure in the middle of and you could go into the structure with the performers. It was just this, I mean it was very different to the musical and the panto I had seen prior to that! It was extremely physical, visceral. I just remember not realising that you could feel that much watching a piece of theatre. I just knew I loved it so I kept doing it for as long as I could. I did it for A Level, I went to University and studied it and just sort of kept trying to put one foot in front of the other and see as much as possible but you know I didn't go to the National Theatre until I was in my twenties and moved to London. I think in a way, those two points of inspiration were really useful. I guess they would be what you'd describe as 'Non-traditional' British theatre, where as maybe if I'd grown up being taken to these big institutions to see 'well-made' plays I wouldn't make the work that I make now.
R: Right, that's super interesting. I think it's always the drama teacher, the people that drive us into the worlds of you know, the art-forms or practices that we do that bring us into it. That sounds very similar to me. Having a drama teacher who says 'Try this' or 'Check out what this theatre group is doing', 'Check out what they're doing'.
I guess my next question would be how would you describe your style? Do you think it's still really housed in that form of quote unquote 'non-traditional theatre-making?
K: Yeah I think it's non-traditional just because I think that what's traditional in this country is actually quite narrow. I think loads of theatre falls outside of what people think as traditional and I think the thing that I really want to say is that I don't think audiences care. I think that's a theatre-peoples distinction... what's traditional and what's not? I think that if you tell an audience a good story, they don't really care what form it comes in, like whether you've devised it, or somebody wrote it, whether it's linear or non-linear or whether the form is sort of what people would perceive as experimental. I think audiences are a lot more open than perhaps the theatres think.
I don't think I've got a style you know because the thing that I've always tried to do is listen to what the artists that I'm collaborating with are trying to say and trying to communicate. But also to sort of try and understand the form always comes out of the content. The danger is, if you have a style that's very consistent, I'm always amazed by that. I think it's brilliant and in a way I love the fact there are certain artists who I know what I'm gonna get when I go to see their shows. I know exactly what that artist's show is gonna feel like, or I know there are certain ingredients I'm gonna get. I just can't function like that I don't think, because I think that every subject or theme you look at, every artist you work with needs a different way of that story being told. The dramaturgy has to be different, the aesthetic has to be different, the form has to be different, the structure. Everything has to be different. You never end up making the same show twice. Sometimes they look and feel really different, so I suppose the only thing they've all got in common is that I try to make them each... and this sounds incredibly pretentious... but like as authentically 'that thing' as it possibly can be. I don't know if that makes sense.
R: No, it totally does and it totally comes across. I was just looking back reigniting my memory of the work I've watched that you've done and just really thinking about how each of them really brings us into the world of those characters, of those people really envelopes us into it and how they've been dealing with that particular time in that characters life in this particular environment. So yeah that totally makes sense. They all seem really poignant and specific to those places.
I notice also that you work quite a lot with multi-disciplinary artists, with theatre-makers that incorporate lots of different elements that are often talking about parts of their own life. I'm very curious to know what it's like to work as a director and dramaturg with people that are talking about themselves essentially in theatre.
K: It's so funny isn't it. I'm so used to doing that now in theatre that I find it really strange when that's not the case. Like when you have an actor and they are playing another character, I'm like 'When do I get to see you though?', 'When are you going to talk about yourself on the stage?'! I think that even in non-autobiographical work I'm always interested in the performer on stage as much as I'm interested in the character they are playing. I think it's something to do with wanting to acknowledge the artifice of what you're trying to do without undermining it. I think there's something really magic about theatre in that way. No one really does this with film, or with television, but in the theatre you can completely deconstruct everything that you're doing and point out all of the fiction and totally accept all of the fiction. I'm not really this person but it doesn't break the magic of it. I suppose it's a bit like in the beginning of The Encounter when we say 'This is a technological trick'. All of the tricks we use get unpacked and we explain them all and we explain how they function and we explain the trick that your brain is playing as well when it starts to believe certain things.
So we sort of start by saying 'none of this is real' and then an hour later, that doesn't stop you believing in it. That's sort of magic to me. Do you know what? Chris Goode says a really brilliant thing and I can't remember what the animal is. I think it's a cat. Let's just say a random animal. It's like 'If a random animal walks onto the stage during your show, which it's not supposed to do, if your show can't accommodate that moment, if your show can't look at that moment and go 'Oh look what’s just happened' then it's breakable and your theatre is breakable'. I absolutely loved that. Lots of people make very fragile theatre. We've all seen it happen. The actor drops a really important prop or a cue gets missed. Everyone talks about function and everyone talks about live theatre 'It's so amazing that it's live', but most theatre can't actually let the liveness in without it damaging the theatre.
I think it's something about that to me. I like the baseline reality just being what it is. That we're all sitting in the theatre together. That that's an actor, that this sets not real. That there is something about that acknowledgment that we're all together in this moment in time. I think weirdly I always bring autobiography in even if the show isn't necessarily auto-biographical. Just because you're accepting the reality of that moment, that we're all who we are. There are shows that are automatically autobiographical and then I say there are other shows that are less obviously autobiographical, but maybe if I think about the work that I make with Javaad, he never plays anyone else in those shows. He's always Javaad and he's always talking about the things that he is interested in. So to a degree there's like a real person on stage, not playing a character, talking about research that they've done, worlds they've entered. So I think there's sort of degrees of autobiography in a way aren't there? And then there's very personal autobiography, that's sort of about a certain thing that has happened to you that you want to tell the story of. Then I'd say that's sort of in a category of its own.
R: Yeah just on that note, so in terms of the work with Javaad, do you mean that it's auto-biographical on various levels because he is himself on stage, or is it though the type of story that he's telling?
K: Yeah basically. We've made two shows together so it's not like a huge body of work or anything but I think those shows pretty much start with him saying 'Hi, I'm Javaad'. And then telling you about something that he's been interested in. I also think for me it's sometimes about who has written the words. For example it was a really interesting thing that we had to discover on the last show because it had another performer in it. So actually to work with Peyvand, so that she owned the words that were hers on the page but had been written by someone else was really interesting actually. There was such a difference in tone between someone saying the thoughts that they have had and someone having to sort of.. you know working with Peyvand on that piece was much more like working with an actor to sort of get to that point of owning that language and it sounding completely like it's your own. Whereas working with Javaad it's different, we tend to be making and rehearsing at the same time. And then of course it is his passion, he's talking about things that he's really fascinated by and it's research that he's done. So in a way all of that process has been done during the making, but it's not personal and it's not necessarily about a personal experience that he's had. It's more often than not, 'let's look over here at this thing that I've become really fascinated by, here's what I've been trying to figure out, let's all look at it'. Not, 'Here's what's happened to me, I'm going to tell you about it.' Which for like two different forms of autobiography, one is inward looking and one's outward looking. Which feel very different in the way that those things need to be made and approached.
R: I have so many thoughts about that, but I think let's take them one at a time. I think I wanna go back to looking specifically at shows like Misty, or I'm a Phoenix, Bitch. I think they are interesting because I myself, I have been very excited by directing and dramaturgy but also of the practice that is creating theatre that is also semi-biographical that does incorporate a lot of different elements.
One of the most recent things that I am currently trying to develop is a semi-biographical piece about the experience of conflict in Lebanon in 2006, and exploring memory. The thing about that, I've spoken with many people within my generation, and looking at retrospect but with all of that I now have this material but I haven't figured out how to approach the form of it. I think, one of the lies or myths that I've told myself is that, if it's going to be theatre it has to be a facade, I have to bring them to 2006, or I have to bring them into today without acknowledging that we are making theatre in a sense. I think what's interesting about Misty and I am a Phoenix, Bitch, it’s that when they are talking about the worlds they are in, Arinze's talking about this experience that he's been interrogating. As a story itself and as a theatre-maker. And Bryony kind of does that as well. I'm interested in the dramaturgy of that. How do these decisions come about? How does this structure arise?
K: That's such a good question. As I remember it, Arinze was writing about, not necessarily one specific experience that he's had. But I remember really clearly, him describing looking at a blank page as a writer and not having the luxury to just start typing or writing. That there were sort of expectations and he described them as filling up the page, of like big blotches of ink landing on the page of like. This is the expectation that the Artistic Director of the building will have about the kind of work that I will write as a Black male artist. OK, so that's now taken up a quarter of the page so suddenly I feel really limited by that. Here's the expectation that might come to me from something that some people are calling 'my community' but I don't even really know what that means. So that's now taken up half of the page. So he said, by the time I've got through all of this stuff, trying to second guess what people, all of these expectations, there's no space on the page for me to just be the artist that I want to. So rather than it feeling like it had come from a specific experience it had come from a lived experience of sort of over a long amount of time of being an artist. There's definitely a lot of fiction in Misty. The sister is a fictional character, the girlfriend is a fictional character. The play isn't really a play that's being written. So there's lots and lots of fiction used to I think unpack what that means and what those expectations are. I remember us trying to figure out the different modes in Misty actually, and that's quite a big thing for me when I'm working, so we realised that there was, we called it just 'Misty' that was the play that was being written about the young man who gets into a fight on the night bus. So that story from beginning to end was just called 'Misty' and it had its particular way of being told, had its particular form, which felt like spoken word, which had the projections, which had the music and a particular lighting state. And then you had 'Misty squared' which was Arinze's stage version of Arinze trying to second guess, figure out, grapple with whether telling this story of Misty is the right thing to do. So I guess that's like a meta-layer. What I was always really interested in was how we were gonna get this third layer, which is exactly what we've just been talking about, it's the reality, it's like when do we get to see non-fictional Arinze? When does he talk to us? Because actually your complicite as the audience in that expectation of what you've come to see is really important as well. I would say that that was sort of the final moment of that show. I mean finding form is a tricky thing. British theatre always focuses on story, what's the story? What's the narrative? This happened, and then this happened... What's the cause and effect? What's the build in tension? Now, obviously, that's really important but I don't think that helps you understand the meaning of your show.
For me the deep dive work, that I always try and do at the beginning of every process is just to thematically brainstorm what the piece is. So just write down all of the themes on a really big piece of paper. I think when you're looking at themes, the meaning of those, it somehow becomes easier to then think about form. So for example if you did this for The Encounter you would find 'listening, communication and consciousness'. If you wrote down the story, you might also discover some of those things but the story would probably be misleading because it can sort of have that superficially it's a kind of 'white man goes on an adventure' story. And that was 100% that we, that any of us wanted to make. But looking at it thematically you get into its guts a bit more and you go 'Hang on, so much of this about listening, so much of this is about communication, so much of this is about language and different language and different ways of communicating, listening, consciousness'. Different ways of understanding how someone else perceives the world. That as soon as the binaural sound came in, I mean firstly to start playing with that stuff. How do I get to hear what Simon's hearing? How do I get to understand where he is? So I think that all of those thematic brainstorms always give you clues as to what the form could be. Same with Shopping Malls in Tehran, the last show I made with Javaad, you start talking about, if we'd just described the story of that show, the narrative within that show is about two rich kids who crashed a Porche. It's not going to give you any clues about how to tell that story or what the meaning of that story might be, or what you're trying to get at by telling that story. So whereas if you start thinking about, we did a lot of research so we knew what we were interested in. But we didn't know how it all fitted together, so we started talking about Instagram as a story, about grids, about scrolling. Scrolling down. Actually no, that came later. We started talking about geology and time. And then you start finding out interesting things like, that the geologists describe the rock below our feet as the earth's hard drive. It contains every single story. Suddenly there was this weird sort of Instagram / Geology parallel. The way you scroll down on Instagram and you dig down into the rock to go back in time. I mean, formally it then becomes quite easy because rather than looking at the story of the two characters, you go, well how did the world actually receive that story? How did the world start to understand this particular group of very privileged young people? It's Instagram. And then for me I think, I think you'd be a fool to think about Instagram rather than get people to go on it, so then that becomes your form. That I think about a third of the show happens on Instagram, so you just, you're sort of always looking for the form but you find it thematically I think, rather than just focusing on the narrative.
R: That makes a lot of sense and once again brings a bunch, a sort of network, a web of things I want to ask again.
K: Ask away!
R: I think we'll start off just going back a little to the layers of meaning. You were just talking about how they arise, how they start to show themselves and especially I'm interested in the line between dramaturg and director. Especially when a lot of the creation happens in the room, in the physical space, rather than as a script-first which some people might traditionally think as dramaturgy. So yeah, how would you describe directing and dramaturgy. A lot of people if I tell them I'm interested in dramaturgy they'll be like 'What is that?' and that's a very common question!
K: Yeah! Yeah I have that question too and it's really interesting because it means something completely different to everyone you talk to and I think there's a more European model of dramaturgy. It's really interesting, I was really lucky to go to Hungary a few years ago on an Arts Council bursary. I was really interested in a Hungarian novelists and wanted to adapt one of his novels which I eventually did for Complicite. I went out to do loads of research and see lots of shows. I met a really brilliant dramaturg in Hungary and she was saying 'I work with the designer or director', so in most of Europe you're looking at the concept and the meaning, whereas in the UK quite often dramaturg is interchangeable with a literary manager, or literary assistant or somebody who digs down into the script and works with the writer on that. I discovered a couple of years ago, when I was doing Avalanche at the Barbican, there were two of us so myself and Penny were dramaturgs. We informally gave each other different titles in the room, so she was the Script Dramaturg and I was the Production Dramaturg. So she was much more looking at script changes with the writer, as I was much more 'Why does that design element kick in at that particular point because I think that's telling us the wrong story'. I was much more looking and working with Annie-Louise who was the director on the production on the whole I guess. So that's the first thing, when people ask 'Well what does that mean?' in a way you can just tell them what you do because no one really knows what a dramaturg does. And there are just different approaches, in the ways that you wouldn't expect any two directors to work in the same way or expect their process to be the same. For me, core stories are a massive part of it, but it's also about meaning. I'm trying to listen. If I'm not also the director or the writer, trying to listen to what those two artists want. The story that they are trying to tell. Because you're not as quite immersed in it as they are. Often that's just a practical thing. Your job in the room doesn't also involve that output of working with the company, so you can sit back and you've got all of the extra brain space to be able to sort of look at these things and sort of say 'Why does that happen at that point?' 'What's the intention? What do we want people to feel? What is the underlying meaning that we're trying to express?
R: So would you say that, that the dramaturgy is looking at the thing as a whole and the directing is more about taking those different elements to those places for this meaning as a whole?
K: I mean, in fairness I feel like I know less about directing without dramaturgy. I feel like I'm always doing both at the same time. So when I'm directing there's often quite a large element of dramaturgy happening as well. For me there's a massive overlap because I think when I'm directing and I don't have a dramaturg I'm still trying to look at all those different strata, all those different layers. Sometimes I have to fight the other stuff out of my brain so I can focus on an actor, or a moment and get that clear, without thinking 'Oh great, this is going to kick in at that time'. Because you're always thinking about the whole picture so to dial that other stuff in your head down so you can just focus on an actor is quite a rare experience for me. One that I really love but rarely get to do. I think most directors are dramaturgs as well. Whether they would know it or think about themselves that way or not. I think they are, because you're always doing that work with your design team. So much for me is about concept, so you're always looking for that concept that's going to really elevate that piece that you're making.
R: Mmmm that makes a lot of sense.
R: I want to ask a little bit about the intersections between digital work and theatre. I think a lot of people can hold theatre precious as being live and staying live, but I think what has been interesting, which I noticed in The Encounter, Rich Kids and Shopping Malls in Tehran was the Instagram Live element, the digital element. I didn't actually watch The Encounter in person, I watched it when it was live-streamed during the first lockdown. I think that was one of the closest things that brought me close to live theatre in a moment when we were isolated from it because it was that immersion. I was inspired by that to work with a group of people, we are now called 'Side Dish Theatre'. We were thinking about how we could bring the live experience to the audience. We commissioned a bunch of writers to write a bunch of one minute pieces in different languages and asked the audience to do something to carry out a domestic task while they are listening to it. Someone will listen to this writer's experience of going to Tesco at Elephant & Castle while they are asked to clean their house and basically what's the intersection between live and digital work? Especially in a time when we seem to be moving more towards it and what does that look like for the future of theatre?
K: I really want to answer that question, but I also want you to tell anyone who's listening where they can find those plays because they sound brilliant.
R: Sure! Currently people can find them at Side Dish Theatre on Instagram. That's where all of the audio work will be housed.
K: Brilliant. I think everyone's learning aren't they? It's a new way of doing things. I feel like two things have made me feel really lucky and maybe make me find it a bit easier. I think the first thing is what we talked about at the beginning. Always acknowledging the reality of the situation. When I think about creating work digitally I don't have to create a fictional frame for that, like 'Oh this play is set in a Zoom meeting'. Like I don't have to create a layer of artifice because actually 'Hi, I'm Javaad' or 'Hi, I'm Peyvand' works equally well on screen as it does in a room. The changes that we made to Rich Kids were really quite minimal actually. We had to rewrite some stuff just practically in terms of the instructions we were giving the audience in terms of how they access the Instagram live stuff. So we rewrote some of that and we also rewrote a new introduction. I think that's really similar to The Encounter. It's about how you meet your audience and being really clear about the asks you're making of them. Where you do this literally or not, it's a way of saying hello to them and meeting them where they really are. Telling them what the rules of the game are. What the parameters are. And starting to tell your story really. I find that meeting people in that way and acknowledging the reality of somebody, then you can ask them to be imaginative. Maybe more imaginative. 'I'm going to ask you to pretend this is real, because that's the rules of theatre'. So rather than just sort of unthinkingly asking people to engage in a fiction because that's the form that you think theatre is. Theatre that's active in the way that asks you to engage your imagination, for me works better in this digital form. The sad truth of the matter is that we don't have Netflix budgets, so for me, putting a play on the screen, I mean it can be extraordinary in terms of access. If you can't get to the theatre to see that show, if you can't afford the train to London. I think those things are amazing and so I think putting that stuff online is a brilliant, brilliant thing. But there's so much content online that you do sort of put yourself into the arena where you're sort of competing with those other forms of fiction which are out there. In film and television you show so much more. In theatre we're used to different ways of making things clear. Different ways of asking people to imagine. So I think that, that's made life a little bit easier for me. So much of the work seems to transfer quite naturally. A lot of it uses tech, so that makes it easier. The thing that makes you feel so immersed in The Encounter. Obviously the storytelling, but Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin's absolutely extraordinary sound design. So wherever your headphones are plugged in, in the Barbican or your living room, you don't get the same experience but it's very close. With Rich Kids, putting it online, most of the content existed already so in terms of the visuals and the Instagram content it was an edit job rather than a making job if that makes sense. Just to transfer it across. I think everyone is trying to figure out what works. I think it's exciting seeing people step outside of their comfort zone as artists and try something different. That's always interesting. I think I'm more excited by that and some of that stuff maybe not working, than I am about 'Let's film this play'. I think that's what it does for me. It's like a gateway drug. You might watch a show online that you wouldn't have got to see and then be like 'I really like this, I really like theatre!'. I think it's really going to make you want to go to the theatre if it's good. Rather than make you want to watch more stuff online.
R: Yeah, we start finding these hybrid forms of live performance. Performance that happens I guess in real-time which also feels very important. We all know that theatre is about gathering and connection. I think even then still there's something nice about knowing, there's other people watching at the same time as me, reacting at the same time as me in my living room. Especially with theatre fostering empathy, I feel like that's one of the main reasons I'm drawn to new writing and devised work. These are real people that are telling me about their lives in a way that's vulnerable and true. Really fostering that empathy in an increasingly polarised society is an important thing.
K: Definitely! That's really interesting, the thing about transferring to a more digital way of working because empathy doesn't work in the same way when you're watching a screen. I mean physically the chemicals and physical process that kicks off in your brain with your neuro neurons when you're watching someone and you're in the same space as them is a completely different process. It's just not as powerful. We talk about it in The Encounter. Physical proximity has a really strong relationship with empathy, so we are losing something by not sitting in a space together. And that amazing study they did about people's heart rate syncing up? Did you know about this?
R: It's incredible!
K: I can't remember how many people it was, I think a couple of hundred. They put them all in the same place, watching the same thing and their heart rates completely synced up so their hearts were all beating at the same time.
R: That's beautiful
K: Yeah it's amazing. I don't know, it would be really interesting to know if that happens when everyone is watching the same thing on a screen.
R: Yeah I wonder because we're all in different environments, places, rooms, different devices. I think it's the size as well. I think about what production it is, whether it's the most magnificent thing I've ever seen or something that I'm 'eh' about. Whatever it is, there's always that moment afterwards, it doesn't matter what the story was, the fact that there's that roar of applause. That's the tech crew, that's the sound team. There's people behind the scenes and it's all happening here in real time with you. That's the magic of it. Maybe that's why we're in sync with the applause, heart rate and breath.
K: Completely. You know when you're still in an audience trying to sort of. There's always split focus when you open a show. Most of your focus is on the stage, but that thing that also starts to happen when you preview a show is you're also really trying to tune in to the people around you who are going to tell you what's working and what's not. You can sense that by sitting in that space with people. That's another thing I find strange about digital work, and why I was really relieved actually with Rich Kids was that because so much of it was on Instagram, people could comment. So it felt like there was a dialogue running under the performance from the audience. It didn't feel like this thing was just being thrown out into space without knowing what peoples reactions were. I think that's also what people were looking for. How do you try and recreate that sense of a communal experience?
R: The thing about our polarised society, is that we're going far more to far wings in terms of people's connections to each other and it's quite scary, the intake of social media. The way that it's all controlled. I was watching The Social Dilemma last week. It feels like live work, even the theatre that we see sitting on the underground by peering onto whoever is sitting across from us, that counters the swirl that has been curated for us online and digitally. They mention quite a bit about how the algorithms on Instagram and Facebook etc are one of the reasons why people are being drawn to more far-right views or practices. I saw that one of your recent works is Mephisto which is about a far-right takeover in this town. I'd love to know a little bit more, this is I guess this a bit more of a philosophical or political question but how this all intersects and the interaction between all of these experiences.
K: Mephisto was really interesting actually. I'd actually agreed to do it before I read the script as it hadn't been fully translated into English, but it just really met me where I was. So I'd read a singing breakdown and I'd watched the French production online. My French not being good enough to be able to follow the detail of what's being said in terms of the detail of the script. But the thing that really sticks out in my head is, because it's about a theatre company. Yes it's about the rise of the far right, but it's mainly about a theatre company in I guess what people would controversially call 'the regions' it's originally set in France. They are all trying to figure out what the right thing to do is. The central character absolutely has a gaping whole at the centre of him where he just needs to fill that with volition. He needs to be successful. One of the things I found really interesting was that it's based on a novel written by Klaus Mann. It's based on his brother-in-law, who then sued him. The book was then banned in Germany for years so his brother-in-law was an actor and he stayed in Berlin and under Nazi control and took over the running of the theatre. He's performed Faust for the Nazi's. Completely extraordinary. I think he played Mephistopheles, so he literally plays the Devil. Quite superficially there's the story of what you'd do for success. Whether you would sell out all your principles if it got you what you wanted. But also the thing that really jumped out at me when I read the breakdown, was laughing out loud when the artist and the director have an argument about what the fu**ing point of doing Chekov is. Like what is the point of even making theatre when your country is on this absolute fairground ride racing toward extremism. It did something really weird to my insides because I was laughing, but I was also laughing at myself because it's the conversation I have with myself all the time. Theatre feels really important to me. In my heart it feels like, it feels like a give in some way. It feels like you're feeding, not extracting something. It feels like, and we so have this about art in this country which isn't helpful, there's something wholesome about it. Like you'll be a better person if you go and look at a painting or something. Rather than going to look at a painting because it's fucking good. So I think it made me feel so uncomfortable and it was so interesting because there were protests kicking off left right and centre when we were in rehearsals. It was a very live conversation. Are we doing the right thing? Where are we most useful as citizens of this country? Are we most useful sitting in a room trying to make a show that's going to be on at a brilliant but very small theatre, so like how many hundreds of people are going to see that? Or are we more useful, getting out our placards and being of a number? It made me feel squeamish about what I do. I don't think you often see theatre that is sort of pulling the rug from under itself in that way. What you see a lot particularly with theatre that's digging into something political is a very strong viewpoint and a position of knowledge, not questioning. And a sort of division between the knowledge that's held on stage and the knowledge that the audience is perceived to have. So Mephisto to me was something really political, that's sort of opening up the guts of what we all do. I should say that, that sounds really indulgent but it's really funny. I felt that the question that it was asking resonated with me because that's what I do but I feel like that question of 'Am I giving my time and energy to the right thing at this moment in time?'. When we're thinking about climate change, or pandemic, or a seemingly unstoppable rise of the far-right. I remember when we were making Believers and looking at the US far-right conspiracy stuff and thinking 'this is insane!'. Checking in with it now, going it's actually got so much worse. There was something that felt quite universal about that questioning.
The thing that's even more uncomfortable was questioning, am I just doing this for me? Because it makes me feel good. Because I get some sort of validation from it? There's a very clear line between two of the characters so one of them is super political, who really doesn't care about success or their own name being known anywhere. I think everyone in the company was like 'We want to be that character, but I think we're actually the other one!'.
R: It's a tough line to draw and it's a tough line to have to interrogate with oneself.
K: It's a brilliant, brilliant play I think. It was also translated really brilliantly by Chris Campbell who made it extremely funny. Which made all of our lives easier I think because it's just so much easier to ask those questions if you can do it with humour. That's really important to me. That people feel really entertained by it.
R: It's definitely a thing to have that lightness when we're having a look at that deeper darker stuff. It feels important. It's a question that we're all asking along with other early-career artists going into the industry but also being in the middle of this pandemic. Having to convince others that what we're doing is important, that theatre is important, beyond just economic terms. That this is something that needs to be preserved.
K: Yeah and that loops back to the beginning of our conversation really. For me it's about what's happening outside our industry, what's happening in schools. It's really hard to convince a nation full of people that you're valid on an incredibly deep level in terms of people's lives when you're not part of people's education. I think what has happened in the UK with cutting arts out of schools, labelling them as soft subject and then removing them. That's catastrophic to me. We can all argue our worth in theatre industry terms, but at some point there will be a whole generation of people like you or I who haven't had that drama teacher, or those events that were like a door opening. I think that theatres can be alienating buildings, but I think if you've grown up participating, then you do feel a certain level of ownership over it as an art-form. I think we're going to struggle in a few years time when all of these children become adults who have had no access to art in their education. It makes me incredibly angry.
R: Me too, me too. Definitely because the theatre really becomes like a second home. Some of us find our closest friends and life-changing stories in the theatre. Whoever's listening, I hope this feels like a call to action. We have to keep preserving this - making it go on.
Before I round off I want to ask, what should we be keeping our eye out in 2021 or after. What's coming next?
K: That's such a good question, I wish I knew the answer to that! My diary is a mess of pencil scribbles and rubbing outs and plan A's and plan B's. At some point in 2021, fingers crossed, The Long Goodbye live show which I'm making with Riz Ahmed will also happen. That will be part of MIF (Manchester International Festival) at some point in time. Honestly I sort of don't know yet. I've been collaborating with a few people so there's lots of work that's almost ready to emerge or in development. None of us know when that's going to happen.
R: I guess we'll just keep our eyes peeled. Thank you so much for this chat. It's been a climate of uncertainty but you've given us some brilliant words to hold on to. Thank you so much.
K: Thank you so much, thank you. It has been really lovely talking to you.
R: That was my conversation with director Kirsty Housely for this episode of Inspired on the Barbican Podcast, Nothing Concrete. Next week, fellow Barbican Young Poets alum and spoken word artist Amani Saeed speaks to the British-Iraqi writer and drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi also known as Glamrou, as they discuss gender, drag and faith.
Amrou: "I love to tell stories, but mine has never been told properly"
R: Stay tuned for more inspiring conversations by subscribing to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks for listening.