Interview with Alexander Knott
New Artistic Director at Old Red Lion Theatre
This article was originally published by London Pub Theatres - https://www.londonpubtheatres.com/interview-alexander-knott-ad-old-red-lion-theatre
What does the Old Red Lion Theatre mean to you?
The first shows I saw here were The Moor and Plastic, and I was blown away by both of them. Both intense, psychological thrillers with an angle of social exploration. After that I became familiar with the stellar history of the ORL, its platform being used to launch leading lights of our theatrical culture time and again. After bringing Bag of Beard’s Renaissance Men here in 2018, my relationship with the place was cemented. This is a theatre for experimentation and a proving ground for the future; a palpable mandate and a stellar history rolled into one.
Sum up your new direction for the theatre in three words?
Thoughtful. Experimental. Dynamic.
Dynamic. Flexible. Programming.
Sell your upcoming Nuclear War triptych to someone who says they never go to theatre.
The Triptych is an ideal opportunity to sample a bit of everything! A family war drama, a dark comedy and an experimental dance-poetry fusion from one of Europe’s leading and most prolific playwrights. If you never go to the theatre, put a bit of everything on your plate, in one night.
What’s the major thing that you want to change through theatre?
There are so many things – the price point to entry for companies and artists is a big one. But the one I have the most immediate control over, and the one I’m very up front about, is that I have zero interest in making people jump through hoops. As a company, tell me what you want, when you want it, and if the idea and the gesture behind it is good, and has a home at the ORL, I’ll do everything I can to find you a slot. That’s what the shorter run programming in curated festivals has been about, opening us up to more emerging artists, and giving them a voice on our stage. While I’m constantly spinning one too many plates, when we sit down for a meeting, I’ll be totally open to hearing any ideas.
Which theatre company, show or venue has had a major impact on you?
The Drowned Man by Punchdrunk turned my world on its axis. Not just an exceptional, poetic piece of theatre, but one whose world you could inhabit, walk through, talk to. A level of immediacy I had never come across with a proscenium arch. And it had a banging jig at the end of it. I think we’ve taken that level of intense, immediate audience connection, and a playful spirit, and tried to infuse the work of both Bag of Beard and BoxLess with it.
Who or what drove you to get into theatre?
I started in community pantomime when I was 7 or 8. Apparently before that I was fairly shy. Beyond that, I had a couple of English teachers (one of whom is a playwright we’ve since worked with on A Christmas Tale with Jack Maple Productions), both of them introduced me not just to plays, but poetry and performance in a way that was formative. Making Yeats something far better than just having to be sat through, and then chucking Raymond Carver in there as a chaser. I guess if you combine the playful spirit of pantomime and those influences, you might start to see the style of theatre that interests me.
Has it been an easy passage?
Making theatre isn’t easy, but it isn’t the insurmountable task it first seems. And making your own work is the only way to take control over your own artistry and not having to wait for the phone to ring. If you’re in a position where you have job offers flying in, great, lovely, you’ve won the lottery. But to the overwhelming number of other artists out there – start making the theatre you would want to see. Do it collaboratively. Make a show.
I’ve been immensely lucky to have been surrounded with like-minded artists, and so we’ve gone on the journey and made the hard decisions together. And that’s what’s vital – finding the collaborators that get you excited about making it in your flat, about working with a shoestring budget, and still creating something you believe in, are proud of, and that expresses what you wanted it to express.
What will keep you on your toes most of all?
There really is never a dull moment so I seem to feel constantly on my toes! Certainly during the intensive rehearsal period recently, it's been a constant dance between my laptop, rehearsals and liaising with the current companies, and the upcoming ones. Katy Danbury said to me that the days go fast here as there will always be something to deal with. She wasn’t wrong. The day to day life of the ORL is non-stop.
What’s the single most important part of your work?
Giving a platform to voices that are not my own. There’s so much of a risk that theatre-makers can constantly hear their own thoughts and opinions echoed back to them. The Where Are We Now Emerging Artist Festival was all about that, trying to showcase new voices, and taking stock of where we are as a society. I’m hoping to do more festival-style programming.
Who or what can’t you live without in your daily work?
Coffee for one; at the ORL I’m never without a black coffee. And my collaborators – I couldn’t do anything without Zoe Grain, nothing would happen in my creative life without her. And James Demaine, Ryan Hutton and Samuel Heron are a crucible of ideas that is constantly exciting me. One thing we never feel short of are ideas.
Who would be your dream theatre team to work with (dead or alive)?
A new play by Harold Pinter & Annie Baker
With dramaturgy by David Spencer (writer of Buried)
Directed by Jamie Lloyd and Emma Rice.
I don’t know where I fit in in this dream.
Coming back to that Triptych, why this play now?
These three plays all tell stories about human beings facing the unimaginable, the insurmountable. A soldier, buried alive, relives his fractured memories, trying to hold on. A teacher reaches breaking point in a very public way. And a woman, on the anniversary of her husband's death, leaves her house, searching for something more. Personal stories on a universal human scale. Stylistically, something for everyone. And thematically, I hope, three plays about what it is to be alive, and how do we make it through. I think we need stories like that more than ever.
Are you planning to stay for a long term at Old Red Lion Theatre?
For as long as I can give a platform to the new and most exciting voices in ways that encourage experimentation, I will do. There's always more work to be done, and I'm a big believer in "playing the hand you're dealt" in this industry; that's how you take risks and opportunities - but I'm certainly hoping to get my feet under the table at the ORL.
What do you hope to have achieved in one year’s time?
An even greater breadth and diversity of voices using our stage in exceptionally imaginative ways, playing to fuller houses. I'm looking at new programming models to be able to better support emerging artists, and that's something I'm getting my teeth stuck into now.
What are the top three things you are looking for when curating shows for Old Red Lion?
A fusion of
(didn't mean to do a little rhyme there, but it's true)
Why do you think you’re the man for the job?
I think, to return to what I've said above, it might be because I started as a performer, then a collaborative theatre-maker, then director, creative producer, dramaturg. There are not many things in terms of making a show that I haven't tried or dipped a toe into. So once we get a meeting in the books, tell me what you want, when you want it and why you want it, and we'll try and make it happen. I'm as forthright as I can be, I hope.
Finally, what’s different about the upcoming shows that we won’t see at other theatres?
With the ORL, you can never be sure if you're sitting down to watch the new Nina Raine, the first version of something that will be as big as The Play That Goes Wrong. We've housed Exceptional Theatre since 1979, and every time you book a show at the ORL, you might be watching the first work of the defining theatre-maker of tomorrow. We're giving a platform to exceptional artists, and that's got to be worth checking out.
The NUCLEAR WAR TRIPTYCH is at Old Red Lion Theatre 3 – 31 March 7.30pm/3pm matinees
Presented by boxless theatre, bag of beard, grindstone & take two theatricals, in association with the old red lion theatre
Details and Box Office
The full programme of shows at Old Red Lion Theatre can be found of our What’s On page
A Conversation with David Spencer
What is your working day like? Do you have a routine, specific place to write, do you write to music?
Like most writers, I don’t earn my living from it so I have to work around paid labour. So, the evenings, the weekends, three to six hours when possible. Sometimes it’s snatching a half hour with a biro and a piece of paper. I was reading Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand Files. Him saying inspiration comes from being ready, sitting down ready to receive it. I think he’s right. You have to put yourself in a place where writing can happen.
For me that’s a room, a desk, quiet, avoid the internet; sometimes there’s music, one play was written over three days playing the same David Toop ambient track again and again. I used to be a big cassette fan, put one in to get the mood and then realise it has been at the end for ages. Meaning you are in the zone, concentrated, flowing. To develop creative concentration you need time. You might wait hours to get fifteen minutes but what is seeded in that short period is what matters. A few words, a drawing, something scrawled – creative concentration is like dancing, at first it feels stupid, forced, and then suddenly you forget yourself and become part of the movement.
What do you think BURIED has to say to a modern audience? Particularly a younger audience, with no direct and immediate link to the war the play is talking about?
Are we that modern? Sociologists go on about changes - globalisation and mass communication. That said, we still have Neolithic minds and bodies, our endocrine systems pretty much run our emotion and cognitive thought. We shop for things we can’t make or grow, for most people the technology they use each day might as well be magic.
So collectively we are as intelligent as we are stupid, individually we are pretty much cave people living in a time of magic and ideology. We see photos of Earth, of ourselves before we are born but we don’t really experience this.
What I hope BURIED offers an audience is not the instruction for an experience but an experience itself. It really isn’t that long ago, in WW2, in just six years around seventy million combatants and civilians were killed. If you think you have no direct connection to that you’re simply not looking hard enough.
War is still being fought, perhaps not so directly between the richer countries but still with global death rates that amount to tens and tens of millions. This is the story of one man, but he stands for many. As a friend, George, who fought in the Korean War, as a marine, said: “combat’s combat.”
Which writers inspire your work and life?
That’s a hard question to answer. Because there are just so many. Currently, I like Nick Cave’s writing, before that I liked Bob Dylan. After Bob got the Nobel prize, I think you can say that now and not get laughed at.
I loved Mark Twain as a kid but it wasn’t until The Woman Destroyed, Simone de Beauvoir, that I really understood literature. The main character was a middle class middle aged Parisian woman – she reminded me so completely of my mother, who sociologically speaking was, at first glance, very different. That’s literature, that’s what it does, it reaches across divides and presents humans in their environment.
I always liked Edward Bond, David Storey… These day I read what I read when and where I find it. Economics for The Many, Pattern Recognition, Ambit Magazine, Mark Rothko’s Paintings… they’re what I have open next to my bed.
Finally, in your opinion, what should Theatre strive to be? Who is it for?
Who is it for is easier. I think the majority of it is part of the entertainment industry. As a media, it pretty much fits into the Chomsky model from Manufacturing Consent. It makes or loses money. It serves the class it feeds off. It is something to do before or after dinner.
Occasionally something breaks through or endures, like Ms Churchill. Without the Arts Council I think the infrastructure would be bleak, particularly for challenging work. Sirez, in his book, Re Writing the Nation presented the figure for the noughties, about £25 million to new writing over ten years, so two million a year. Apparently 300 new writers were discovered. So if the money is divided equally, that’s a staggering £7000 a year, so don’t live in London.
The chances are most of that cash went to buildings and people in them with the largest share being carved up between a few writers, so let’s say about fifty people make £40,000 if every penny goes directly to writers, it doesn’t. More likely, around twenty get twenty grand for a few years, then media Wonderland or day job.
So whilst people struggle to change things let us look at the reasons for living. Theatre is a gift. It is about being human now in the lived in moment. It is sacred, a space, a community, a congregation. As long as individuals are willing to sacrifice their time to be the very best they can be and others pay nominal compensation to come and see it, the show will go on. In a time where humans interact increasingly via remote communication, the live event, even poorly executed, remains radical…
And when it’s well executed, wow. I mean, think about those five million women holding hands, a six hundred and twenty kilometre chain, 01 Jan 2019, for the right to enter a Hindu temple… That is an amazing live event. If we can have a little piece of that, a Grandson, a Son, a Man, connected by mortal coil to those seventy million WW2 dead, that’s not a bad start for a “gritty piece of working class theatre” eh?
A Conversation with David Spencer
In the first of a two part interview, the twice Verity Bargate award winning writer of BURIED talks to us about his past, how he came to write the play, and how you go about teaching writing.
David. You’re an international writer, teacher and theatre facilitator, among a variety of other things. Where are you writing from right now?
I split my time between West Yorkshire and Berlin. These are the places I, a) grew up and b) for a large portion of my adult in life, lived in. My parents were Irish, as kids we frequently visited my Mum’s folks. Going for our summer holidays to Belfast and Derry in the sixties, seventies and eighties, it was strange. It was very much a war zone (that phrase the Troubles makes it seem just unsettling, it was much worse than that.) Of course it wasn’t Bosnia, Rwanda, or the Middle East, but despite the pleasant people just trying to get on with regular life there was some mechanised and highly organised violence going on. Seeing that as a child teaches you something, those experiences are very much where I was writing from. How in war life can end, instantly, that it’s not just the being killed that maters but the being forced to kill. Because of my time in Germany my children now have a past that is linked to the Nazi time but so too post Empire Britain.
At a time where many in the UK are seeking to disconnect with Europe as a close socioeconomic partner, I found this personal unity compelling and it lead me to stop thinking and start knowing, it wasn’t a realisation, I just knew it. I was walking to a supermarket in a part of Berlin that had been liberated and then occupied by the Soviet Red Army. I just knew, it was only a historical moment ago that our continent was war torn. It’s an odd epiphany to have whilst shopping for Haribo.
Can you tell us what Buried is about, and how you came to write it?
About? I am impatient with those topic plays, those theme plays – I’m not even a big fan of verbatim (though I understand its strengths and what it offers.) So I try not to write plays that are “about” things. I hope that this is a play that examines the human condition, what happens to it in one of the most inhumane of human activities, war. I hope that it features courage, determination, the realisation that we live for others through ourselves and that this is seen as noble, not sentimental. I hope it is a play that draws the audience into Max’s experience as he faces the fact that he will die, that eventually we all die. Just how that happens, how we face it, that’s what makes the difference.
I’ve always wanted to write about this event in my Dad’s life but I didn’t feel ready. Now I’m a father of a son who’s older than my Dad was when he went to war. Interestingly, I always considered James for the part, his Grandson, my nephew. It goes without saying that James can act the role, what interests me is those undeclared energies that go on. As a writer I am aware of where some words come from (who said what gossip) and how close I know others are to their origins (writer’s often borrow what others say) so it doesn’t faze me that someone acts a figure from their own life.
I think the whole thing of family, group, class, they make you forget yourself (as an individual) and start to think of yourself as link in a chain. Less important for who you are and more important for who you come from and who you are going to. This is why I prefer class based thinking rather than the self-driven all-out sanctity of the individual. To my mind we are more common than we are different, which I believe to be the hope in the human condition; that we can reflect, we have empathy, we can change and we can act for the good of others.
Paradoxically, war is still very much with us, particularly in the UK – we seem to join them far too often, far too easily. Those notions of Empire are returning, rather than in dissipation. There was a time when slavery was common, we abolished it, perhaps we can do the same for war.
It is, at least in part, a true story, or a dramatized account. What were the difficulties separating fact, research and imagination?
I think when people say true story they mean in a documentary sense, as in did it factually happen. I like what Padgett Powell, Canadian short story writer, said about this: The Molecular Theory of Fiction. There are these atoms of reality, for example a day spent with Grandma, the fall of light on a purple mattress, crossing a river via a bridge… We always return to them but in order to create new and coherent fictions, molecules that are stable, we need to bond the atoms. It’s this linking that is the imaginative work, I think that research serves to stimulate or confirm the fictions, occasional contradict something. The thing about fiction is that it must be plausible (documentary must be factually true) and so research lends authenticity to a piece.
In many ways all I had to do was listen to my Dad, it’s essentially his story, which in any real sense makes it mine too and so it follows there can be no separation of fact, research and imagination, hopefully they all flow into each other as a compelling, seamless and moving drama. Once the basic shape was there, the non-linear narrative of a man trapped underground, slipping in and out of consciousness, with his memory and imagination free to wander, the writing became a pragmatic exercise in organising a suitable plot. The actual hard part was I realised just what my Dad had been through, it was emotional.
What inspires you to write, or teach others how to do so?
In terms of BURIED, much of what inspired me I’ve already gone into, above. So, teaching.
I believe you can teach writing, you can foster, mentor, Sensei a writer. That said it’s not packet soup, you don’t just provide a few ingredients and pour hot water on it. Of course that goes on and a lot of writing is just that, weak, formulaic entertainments. However, we live in a neo-classical economy and if people are prepared to pay for distraction that’s their choice. Me, I want to interact with writers who aim to dissect themselves and their exact global moment. To interact with writers that are prepared to expose themselves as weak, ugly, ungracious but also as noble, fearless and quite singular. There’s always something very beautiful about a developing writer who can suddenly open themselves out and make you see yourself in them, your time in theirs, or something wildly different – if you like, the extraordinary in their ordinary and vice versa, their ordinary in the extraordinary.
Once class is in agreement that we are talking about absolute commitment to literature, to the exploration of what it is to be human in our time, then the fun of title, budget, theme, character, plotting, they can start. Often, in a classroom, the most important lessons are seeded but learnt later as you attempt to put them into practise. I’ve had both good teachers and good students; it feels like something important is being gifted on.
A Conversation with .... The Composer
Sam Heron plays erotic novelist Irvine in 'Renaissance Men'. But he is also the composer of the original music for the show, alongside James Patrick. In this interview, we discuss Sam's inspirations for the music of the play, and what theatre means to him.
In your own words, what is Renaissance Men about?
On it’s surface, the play is about friendship and whether loyalty can be considered a virtue until tested. When we meet Irvine, Winston and Quentin we immediately see their dynamic is based on competition, yet the level on which they bicker is something more akin to siblings, arguing on the surface but with a love and trust underneath that takes a long time to forge. With the very real prospect of their lives changing forever, questions start to be asked whether they are true to their bond. Beneath all that, the play is a satire on a generation who is misunderstood by the media, the general public and most of all themselves: how does the quest to change the world and be important fare when faced with the idea of it ACTUALLY happening? I think that’s what excited me the most.
What inspired the music of the play?
I began by looking at music from the renaissance period, which is important to note in music happened a hundred years or so earlier than in art. The composer Purcell was one that gripped me immediately, his pieces such as “Funeral for Queen Mary”, “Oh Solitude” and “Lost Is My Quiet” seemed to evoke a looming danger and despair, which screamed of Irvine for me. I also like the elegance in there, which I thought was something to keep, remembering these characters are romantics and that the world in their heads is quite different from the life they are living. I then moved on to lute musicians such as Jozef Van Wissem, his combination of classical and the experimental a great help for me. Other notable influences include Beirut and Alexandre Desplat.
What's the writing process like for you? How do you go from idea to recorded media?
When scoring theatre, it always helps me to start from the character. I imagine it like a film in my head, perhaps the opening credits, the character walking down a street say. What is they’re general mood? What’s the feeling surrounding them? This often helps me to imagine what music would be playing in the background. Sometimes I have new ideas, and sometimes it’s a song that already exists. I take it from there and usually start on acoustic guitar to play with ideas however, with this particular piece I started on keyboard, with different voice settings, various types of organ and harpsichord. It’s a process which I imagine annoyed my neighbours but I kept playing chords again and again until I settled on something I liked. From the beginning I knew I wanted the music to be period. It takes us out of reality and into the characters world so easily. I then sat down with James Patrick, an 8 track digital recorder and various instruments and off we went, building layer upon layer. I wanted the process to be free within the limits of the tune, picking up new instruments whenever one of us had an idea.
What are your major inspirations?
As a theatre composer I adore the work Benji Bower has created for Sally Cookson. The sheer range alone is to be marvelled at but most of all it’s they way he creates an almost magic-realist world for the stories to be told in. Having worked with him briefly it was great to note his collaborative process, having ides on the spot and using workshops to get to the final piece.
What’s the best piece of theatre you’ve seen recently?
The Jungle. It’s beautiful, but talking about it will only make me angry.
RAW a surreal French coming-of-age/horror/cannibal flick. It felt like nothing I’ve seen for a long time, but very gripping. And the score by Jim Williams is magnificent.
I’m rereading Year Of The King by Antony Sher for the 1000th time. I just love his process and the sketches are the icing on the cake
Song/piece of music?
Burma Shave by Tom Waits and Reflets Dans l’eau by Debussy. They are the darker skies and dancing leaves of autumn respectively.
In three words, what should theatre be?
Brave, beautiful, AFFORDABLE
'THE LANGUAGE OF VIOLENCE"
An Analysis of Bag of Beard's 'Bath"
There is an impeding sense of violence from the opening scene of this play when Sharkey (James Demaine) holds a razor to his own throat. What makes the story so engaging and so clever is that there is no single act of physical violence. The violence of this piece is in the words, and that is the brilliance of this piece – you are mesmerized by the writing; what is spoken, not what is done. Thus is playwriting in its purest form, and everything about this production is beautifully minimalist: the words, the setting, the direction, and the acting is beautifully underplayed, too.
It would be so tempting to overplay these deliciously seedy roles, and yet this quartet of actors maintain their discipline throughout. This is in thanks to excellent dialogue, but also I suspect, strong direction. Although Pinteresque in its style, there is an exquisitely subtle nod to Withnail & I in the opening scene between Whitmore (Ryan Hutton) and Sharkey. On first encounter with Whitmore, you suspect a stylization that perhaps makes the characterization weaker, until you realize that stylization is deliberate, adding to Whitmore’s presence and dark charm. The repetition of Whitmore’s dialogue highlights his vulnerability and unpredictably. You constantly question what he might do next, and Sharkey emerges at this point as a sort of emotional sounding board, which Demaine plays with deliberate and beautifully observed uncertainty. Your toes curl as you wonder about his safety. Just as the writer Alexander Knott has you safely engaged in the dynamics of this relationship, the landscape shifts completely with the arrival of Mr Skinner (Joshua Nutbrown. As you, the audience are wary of Whitmore, so Whitmore is obviously petrified of Skinner. There s an underlying menace about Skinner the moment he stylishly sachets into the room, and again the direction (also by Knott) is rigid in its discipline.
Nutbrown is as stylish in his physicality as his appearance. He doesn’t walk, he glides, every movement is smooth and engineered to set his prey on edge. A heavy moustache adds to his foreboding air, as does a quizzical eyebrow. Any warmth in his smile is killed by the sheer cold in his eye. Mr Skinner only shouts once – and once is enough. The brevity of this piece demanded that Skinner be introduced rather abruptly, so you do guess his role in this piece before it is revealed, and therein is perhaps the only weakness in this story. It demands expansion, into a full story. There I suspect, we would have a tougher time guessing Skinner’s true motive. There is a bigger story, a continuation to this tale, waiting in the wings, and this reviewer for one, will be very interested to see it should it transpire. The dialogue is incisive, witty and engaging. The character portrayals are intriguing.
This is a truly a four-hander in that no one character dominated. Each was integral to the plot, each playing their part with exquisite restraint which simply made them all the more engaging – and a testament to Knott’s writing and direction as much as the honed, disciplined skills of Demaine, Hutton and Nutbrown. What is truly surprising is that Bag of Beard Theatre Company is the product of graduates from Italia Conti who only graduated last year. If Bath is any indication of what is to come, their future works promise to be exciting. Bag of Beard is certainly one to watch. With this production, they have set their bar high.
Chris Berry - Audio Describer for Theatre
“Wolf in a Shiny Suit”
For Mr Sutcliffe...
We walked amongst the booths,
Lined in red leather,
Like a coffin,
If a coffin was a restaurant.
Drank hot tea,
You asked for sugar,
The waitress thought it was a laugh.
You smiled at my ungainly reminiscences.
I smiled at your cheap tie.
"You’re a bright boy,
But you dance when you walk,
Like a Swan, And eat like a Fox,
When you think no-one’s watching.
A Wolf in cheap clothing."