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?
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.
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 Sherlock
which 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.
got the Transform
season – 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.
also responsible, of course, for developing newer writers and also for working
with slightly more experienced people on creating plays that we will hopefully
On the new 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.
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.
take a moment to properly appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch]
are extremely good updates of them. They are steeped in a deep love of Conan
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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?
obviously there are high points for me that involve work that I’ve actually
done. There was a piece called Dust
which was created by a writer called Kenneth Yates.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
get told on the quiet – if you live in Armley, don’t convert your attic.
Because it could be lethal.
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
Would you say that
theatre is a reflection of the social world to you?
probably am one of those people who got into theatre who thought that I could
made a difference in the world.
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.
have been lots of things that I’ve really enjoyed doing here.
As to the future?
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.
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.
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
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.
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 echoes
the 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
On changing things up
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.
remember when Kneehighdid 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
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’.
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?
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.
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.
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.