This is a review from March 2013.
Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this interview off!!
WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR (LITERARY)
Leeds Book Club caught up with Alex Chisholm a few weeks ago, for a quick chat between putting the final touches on Refugee Boy and collaborating on Sherlock and Doctor Faustus.
Refugee Boy will open on the 9th of March and run until the 30th. Copies of the play and book will be available from the Playhouse.
The interview will be posted in two parts. The first section shall focus on Refugee Boy while this part will look at the inner workings of the Playhouse.
Let’s jump straight in. What is a literary director?
I am responsible for everything to do with writers and writing. That is everything from running schemes for very very new writers through to things like managing the commission and writing of a production like Refugee Boy. Pretty much anything to do with the writing of plays falls within my remit.
That can be incredibly varying. Some people think that it’s only to do with new writers who are not very well known and creating completely original work, but that’s not the case. For instance this season we’ve got Refugee Boy – an adaptation of a novel; Doctor Faustus– with two completely rewritten acts within the construct of the pre-existing play – that’s Colin Teevan. We’ve also have Sherlockwhich is a completely original storyline employing the characters of Arthur Conan Doyle. That’s by a writer that I’ve worked with a lot in the last few years – Mark Catley.
We’ve got the Transformseason – where we work alongside a lot of writers. In fact there’s a particular project that I’m very involved in that which is 3 writers creating a piece on being at Leeds Markets – At the Market – and that’s what we’ve most recently being doing interviews for. I’m involved in all of these things to different levels and extents.
I’m also responsible, of course, for developing newer writers and also for working with slightly more experienced people on creating plays that we will hopefully eventually do.
On the new Sherlock
Sherlock is a lot of work because it’s a completely original script. And in fact coming up with a completely original Sherlock plotline is actually quite a challenge. It’s a very enjoyable challenge at that. I’m really enjoying it.
I can’t say that I’ve read a great deal of the Sherlock books. I’ve read Scandal in Bohemia and Hound of the Baskervilles – I know the classic series and films and the recent series which I’ve enjoyed very very much.
[We each take a moment to properly appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch]
They are extremely good updates of them. They are steeped in a deep love of Conan Doyle.
This is something else. The decision was made to keep it Victorian so it’s not up against the show. And also, it is not an adaptation of an existing story. It’s completely original and still orientates around a mystery.
We did some years ago, a comedic version with the Peepolykus (People Like Us)theatre group of Hound of the Baskervilles. Essentially there are two performers that set it up. One was Basque – he played Sherlock and there was something very amusing about Sherlock having a very pronounced accent. It was fantastic and hugely enjoyable and well managed the combination between comedy and a genuine love of mystery. It’s Hound so everyone knows ‘who dun it’ but that wasn’t the point. It was a fun-ride type of scary.
The Peepolykus production had people becoming groupies of this particular show. But you can only do that with a certain type of production. We have to come up with something that manages to negotiate these different genera’s. It is based in London. Still working on that – it’s a work in progress but I think it’s looking really exciting and I’m looking forward to that too.
So that was very enjoyable but this is something totally new. It’s a periodic version that can use the clichés around Sherlock and use them to great effect.
Do you write yourself?
I have done a bit. I have written a children’s play, which was performed here a little while ago. It was called The Magic Paintbrush – an adaptation of a Chinese folk tale. It was lovely and I really enjoyed doing that.
I’ve also done a couple of translations. Which is writing of a different sort! And there’s been quite a lot of putting together of shows from different materials.
I also direct. Though not this season. Actually I suppose I am in a way. I am co-directing ‘At the Market’, part of the Transform project, I’m one of the directors of that.
Which of those titles do you use to describe yourself – Writer or Director?
I suppose I’d say Director. Because that’s where I started. That’s predominantly how I see myself and I see all the other skills as falling under that category. I think one of the major functions that I play is managing the dramaturgy of the scripts – working directly with the writer myself or with the director or managing a team.
An awful lot of project management goes on within a building of this size. I do enjoy that side of it too. You get a lot of satisfaction seeing things coming to fruition. So; like with Refugee Boy; I’m one of the people that’s making that happen. It’s one of the great aspects of this particular theatre is that it pays as much attention to the whole round experience, not just the way that it feels on the stage but also in the many different ways that people will relate to that to how we make our connections within the community.
It’s important to give people a good experience across the project. Good admin is about making sure that you do things well. And take care of people in the process. It’s not that easy but in the end that’s what it comes down too.
At the West Yorkshire Playhouse
[I’ve been] eleven years (at the WY Playhouse). It is home. Leeds feels like home – it’s the longest I’ve been anywhere since I left home at the age of 18. I was at university then going around the country for 7 or 8 years, ostensibly based in London but not necessarily there. Then I came to Leeds for this job.
What has been of particular interest to you?
Well, obviously there are high points for me that involve work that I’ve actually done. There was a piece called Dustwhich was created by a writer called Kenneth Yates.
Again it was a verbatim piece, based in an asbestos factory about a woman called June Hancock. Having nursed her mother through pleural mesothelioma which is a cancer based on asbestos; she was then diagnosed with it herself. She subsequently sued the company responsible – or an American parent company of the people who owned the factory for compensation.
It’s an amazing David versus Goliath story. We told that with a community company and opened it in an old warehouse just literally a stone’s throw from the factory in Armley. Then we took it to the Courtyard for a week. That was an amazing experience.
Her children were there. Obviously June Hancock had passed away several years before. Pleural mesothelioma either kills you quickly, at a medium rate or slowly. The second longest survivor was just over three years. It’s terminal, there is no remission from it and it’s particularly nasty. It’s the cancer of the pleural lining. You can’t do chemotherapy and the tumour grows around your lungs so you can’t breathe. It’s also got an incubation period. You can get it from exposure to just one fibre. But it can take 40 or 50 years to manifest and by then…
The factory is still there. It’s concreted up, but it’s still there. It’s right within a residential area and was at the time. The local school’s playground is just over the road from the factory and the children used to play in the dust from this factory. Alan Bennet went there. And Barbara Taylor Bradford. Neither of whom have mesothelioma. It’s random chance basically.
But June Hancock did. There’s a …there’s one of those maps that has the entire borough’s of Leeds on it. Its colour coded according to incidences of Mesothelioma. White is normal – 1:10 000 or whatever. Black is a certain density. Basically the entirety, the whole area around Armley is black.
So in fact – one of the shocking things – you don’t live in Armley do you? Because the stuff is still there. It’s in the attics, it’s in the terrace. Not just of the factory but all the houses around it. The company paid to clean up the area – they sealed off large areas and attics and so on. And in some sort of deal for the clean up; they had this taken off the land registry. As though it never existed. So if you buy a property in Armley now; it won’t show up on the surveys.
You get told on the quiet – if you live in Armley, don’t convert your attic. Because it could be lethal.
You can see why this is a piece that I’m so proud of doing. We worked very closely with Russell and Kimberley – June’s children. We also raised over a thousand pounds for a related charity. As well as, I think, doing a genuinely good piece of theatre.
Would you say that theatre is a reflection of the social world to you?
I probably am one of those people who got into theatre who thought that I could made a difference in the world.
Other things that I’m particularly proud of include – oh, I did a play with (Leeds born) Mark Catley – writer of Sherlock called Scuffer – which we described as a Beeston Rom Com, which I really really enjoyed. It was lovely – very funny, very touching and very enjoyable and did very well.
There have been lots of things that I’ve really enjoyed doing here.
As to the future?
There are some very exciting ideas which I can’t necessarily say at the moment. I think that yes, there is a gravitational pull to social stories. Not to say that these can’t be entertaining and fun.
That was one of the things I enjoyed most about Scuffer. It had a point to it. It was also incredibly entertaining. I don’t think that it was written with the Rom Com genera in mind. Yet, it did live within that genus to an extent as there was a character that was useless that came good in the end. There was such a huge amount of pleasure derived from that, seeing that happen, seeing someone overcome their … uselessness! Actually, make something more of themselves. Rise to the occasion.
We’ve certainly got quite a literary season this year. May be of interested to those who are literary minded.
Colin Teevan puts it very well. He says that the whole play straddles very well the tradition between two different sorts of styles – it’s modern in terms of manipulations, motivations and the psychology of the characters and then is also a medieval mystery play.
The central section is all medieval mystery play. It can be quite heavy going actually. There’s not much else going on. It’s almost relentless. There are just a few big set pieces. And for comedy it just wasn’t…. A lot of renaissance humour is word play and references and puns and we don’t get it. It doesn’t mean anything any more. The third and Forth acts are not good and there’s a theory that they weren’t actually written by him – Kit Marlowe – but perhaps by a student.
So, I think it’s going to be really interesting seeing people’s reactions to it. I think that it really does go renaissance, renaissance, MODERN. It’s quite a stark change, an attempt to make it knit together. I like what Colin has done. It echoesthe words that Marlowe used. It’s not trying to blank verse or … its set in the modern world, following some of the incidents in the Marlowe or the original Doctor Faustus but with a narrative line following through that. It’s not something we do so often in this country. Here we prefer our plays to be slightly homogenous. We tend to get a bit nervy when people start mixing up their genera’s.
On changing things up
There is the gang that turn up to Shakespeare and laugh at all the jokes because they understand it. Because they have studied it. And sometimes, [they are so busy getting it] they don’t seem to always get to enjoy it.
I remember when Kneehigh did Cymbeline – they largely rewrote it; almost entirely rewrote it and performed it at Stratford , they were invited as part of the RAC festival of Shakespeare when they did the full works.
It was a very strange experience for them. Normally the Kneehigh audience shows up knowing who Kneehigh are and what to expect from them. But a lot of people came to the play because it was Stratfrod. And they wanted to watch Cymbeline. Not because it was Kneehigh. And Cymbeline got a lot of shit in it too to be perfectly honest. As beautiful as some parts of it are…a lot of the humour is missed – there’s a lot of it that I think is supposed to be funnier than people actually react to it. But Act 5 was hysterical. It just becomes plain exposition ‘I did this, and I did that, and you need to know for the plot that I also did this’.
I did speak with one of the people from Kneehigh and they said that it was very odd. They had people in the audience with the script, with a copy of the play – their penguin copy – on their laps. They were trying to read it as the play was going on and of course not being able too because they had completely rewritten it. And then one person who was doing that – and it being Knee High they had somebody in the audience – turned around and snarled ‘this is a disgrace’. Oh dear. So that person didn’t have a good time.
On bringing plays and scripts into the theatre – does it put a company off?
Oh god yes, I was at a production at the Old Bush, not the new one, a tiny tiny space. And it was the press night, no it was the night afterwards. The press night had clashed with another press night so a lot of the reviewers actually came that night.
There can only have been about 30 of us, friends, press and others in the whole audience. At least 3 of the press were sitting on the front row had the script to the play in their hands. And they bought it and were reading along to it. I mean it was a new play, a new production and surely watching it should have been the point.
It’s the critics. They are essentially kind of signalling that the production is neither here nor there. All they are really interested in is what the text says, so they are reviewing almost as a piece of literature rather than the play itself. They see the production as merely a transmission mechanism rather than anything that has its own independent, artistic and creative life. If you are going to look at it like that then you really are better off just getting a copy of the text. Because there’s no choice then.
Right – we’d better let you get back to it. Thanks so much for chatting with us.