An interview with Stephen Lowe (part one)

stephen-lowe

Stephen Lowe is currently working with Claque and Jon Oram on a community play for the City of London in celebration of the opening of the new Aldgate Square. I will be tracking Stephen’s journey through the process and met him at his home in December 2016 to find out about his involvement with the project, and his experience and thoughts on writing for community theatre.

Can I start by asking how you would describe yourself?

The way that they laughingly describe me is as a distinguished English playwright. I don’t know if I’m distinguished but I do know that after doing it for forty odd years that I’m a playwright.

When did you realise?

It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, write a play; every time you start you wonder if you can manage it again. I started writing plays when I was 22, 23 and the woman who got me started professionally was Ann Jellicoe. She read a play of mine that the Royal Court considered to be very controversial and had said that the Court wouldn’t do the play, but she employed me as a story reader; 50p a play. You used to go in on Friday afternoons and get what you could. She sent my play to a young director who had just taken over the Nottingham Playhouse called Richard Eyre, and I went to see Richard and he said he wouldn’t dare do it, it was a very problematic play, but he would commission me for a stage play which seemed an amazing offer and I didn’t believe him. So I stayed at Scarborough (where I was working as an actor and assistant stage manager for Alan Ayckbourn), and Richard came to see me and said ‘time is running out would you do a play?’ And I did, and it was called ‘Touched’. I began to think I was a playwright by that point. But I had written twenty seven plays by then.

So Ann was working at the Court at that time?

She was working at the Court and she really took me under her wing, and I used to go down to her house, her photographer husband’s on Sundays. When she moved to Lyme she asked me to do a community play, the first one. And then for about the next ten odd years she’d ask me if I would do a play. And I was just too busy to get round to it.

So can you tell me about the community theatre project that you’re working on? What it is, how it came about and where you are with it at the moment?

Jon Oram, who took over from Ann Jellicoe, asked me over the next ten years to do a play and I think that he finally gave up, until about nine months ago when he phoned me and said this was his last attempt to see if I’d write a play. And I said ‘yes’. He’d been commissioned by the housing department of the City of London, Aldgate, and they were clearing an area next to St. Botolph’s Church to create a major piazza on what was the old route in Aldgate itself to the City of London. And they wanted a community play to open that event, to celebrate it.

I was struck by it; it’s not the normal place to do a community show, particularly because while there’s 8000 people that actually sleep in that area the real weight is the 42000 that arrive every day at 9 o’clock and leave at 6, apart from the weekends; and these 8000 don’t speak to each other. There’s lots of council flats; a large Bangladeshi community; working class Italian, English or whatever; the Barbican people, who certainly don’t speak to the people outside the Barbican, and so on. So from the beginning it was different from a normal community play. When my company Meeting Ground had done one many years ago you knew ninety percent of who you were working with. What their background was and why they were there, and you worked to find their voice and your voice in a public arena.

This (the London play) really was an attempt to create a community. Most of the narratives of this kind of process that come out of the Ann Jellicoe / Colway model, the stories are often very similar. There’s a community, a community of fishermen or steelworkers that then becomes endangered; the fishes all dry up, they close the mines. And so in the first act there’s community, in the second act it’s being smashed apart and in the third act, hopefully, there’s some kind of positive new identity, or survival beyond, or adaptation. That’s the kind of matrix I think.  When the people who are involved in this play have never spoken to each other and can’t afford to go in the same restaurants and don’t necessarily speak the same language it’s an interesting situation; tricky to find the kind of narrative you’re going to operate with.

It’s advantage in this case is that the City of London is universally known and has its mythology around it, a man and a cat and all that kind of stuff; and you think there’s bound to be stories there that are meaningful. The problem is that if you do a play about the plague in Derbyshire there’s one specific time that you’ll pick, which is when the plague came; it’s not too difficult to make these decisions. But there are more stories drawn into the world of the city of London then probably anywhere else on the planet. You can work your way through the Romans and the lions and the tigers that they brought over and which they’re still finding bones from; you’ve got the great plague, you’ve got the great fire of London, you’ve got the Blitz. If you want to set it around certain individuals you’ve got everybody: Pepys, fictional characters like the Wife of Bath; Blake, they all lived there at one point. Chaucer lived at Aldgate, the gate above the gate. So in one sense you’re completely swamped  for choice. And against that there is the ambiguity of not really having a community. I kept saying to Jon ‘well I’ll do the best I can to get stories that will draw people together’. The advantage of writing for an organisation like that (Claque) is that whereas everybody else is now asking you to do a play with two people this is the offer where somebody says you’ve got 130 in the cast.

Jon’s timing was good, because I’d just worked in South Africa with a company from the townships in Capetown and I’d had the joy of 36 people on stage so I thought ‘yeah 130, that will be fun’. But you’re writing unknown for these 130 people; it could be 130 women, that end up wanting to be in it, no men; or 130 who come from one site and none from any other. Normally you would know what the postman was like and who the bank manager was so you could cunningly write the script to draw out the headmasters. So you’ve got one hand tied behind your back with this process; and at the same time it was a curiously interesting opportunity to bring diversity together.

So the key for me was to look at the way in which theatre worked and to see if there was a way of finding a context which could be paralleled by what we did. I went through various periods including tigers and things with the Romans and realised I can’t write anything where people wear togas, it would just make me laugh. And I have a particular fascination with the Victorian period and its ambiguities; it’s oppressiveness but also its kind of revolutionaryness. So I set it in the 1880’s which is the apex of steam and industrialisation and building and drew in Irish workers who were oppressed and being thrown out of their homeland; the Jewish community is coming over from the pogroms and the English working class is believing that its being put out of jobs and onto the street and into the workhouse by the foreigners. It’s a melting pot.

There is a Japanese philosophy which defines very simply the different kinds of societies that you can have. The key one, and I won’t bother you with the others, is what’s called Many in Body, One in Mind. Many in Body where they’re all different colours, races, types, whatever, celebrating that; but they have one aim in mind that works in the creation of a society; it brings them together and the discovery of that one aim informs that society. So the vision and the diversity can kind of go together. Theatre is that. You’ve got actors, lighting people, all very, very different; and if they can come together and see the aim of what they want to build they can become as one and you get ensemble, you get all these words that are used in the theatre; the troupe etc. And that in itself, celebrating that is important for the producers. So you want a tale that in a funny sense mirrors that process. So therefore I am looking for the most diverse kind of situation across class, across creed, across sexuality; and then you begin to get excited because you do need 130 characters and you can look at things with that twist that history gives us.

It was a very, very difficult time (the 1880’s). They were building the great things and Catholic churches all over the place, and tunnelling away and building the underground; the Irish navvies were blowing themselves up in the tunnels; women’s positions were thrown up in the air; and everybody has a sense of a loss of identity and a potential gaining of identity, but it’s fragile. So that’s what I’m looking for; it’s that kind of edge.

I remember talking to Ann way back, at the beginning of it (community theatre); she was going to bring in Royal Court writers, in inverted commas left wing writers, and they might take a storyline that the community itself wasn’t too excited by, it was exposing; and what was built into it was a tension between them (the community) and the individual voice of the playwright, which is in some sense sacrosanct, because otherwise they just become the amanuensis of the community. At the same time you’re trying to find something that they would still want to do. And they may have a range of diversities that are insoluble in finding one solution to it.

So you can come to a meeting as we did last week; there’s twenty people in the room and they’re all saying what they want it to be. And some want it to be about this and some want it to be the other side of that coin; they’re not immediately homogenous so there’s an endless series of dynamics which can be to a certain extent bewildering because … for example take the Jewish question, a group that became the heart of what we call the East End. When they came over from the pogroms they spoke Yiddish, hardly any Hebrew and most of them no English. When I went to talk to the rabbi of the oldest Jewish synagogue in the country and the curator there, they were saying that when these Jews came to the synagogue, they found Jews who had been there for 200 years, who’d established themselves with great care from Spain and Portugal. And these poor people that had just arrived didn’t even speak the same language. So there was considerable tension within their own societies. Now I don’t know anything about that, I can only research that. And you’re going to end up putting words in the mouth of someone, so it’s very tricky. If you alienate your groups, your people, then you will probably end up without a show. But if you lose what it is you are saying and concede it to one group over another then the thing starts falling apart. So there’s a tension which ultimately has to become a creative tension.

And is one of the ways of resolving that to allow the creative tension of the process to somehow become a part of the script?

Yes.

It becomes an implicit storyline?

You are trying to create something that comes out of a dynamic, out of a tension that most people will not see, they will just see what happens in 1885 or whatever; and gradually I found that tempted me. You see I’m one of those playwrights who does not write autobiographical plays that much; I like writing plays about what I don’t know rather than what I do know. So I’ll plough into the Jewish situation, or the Irish situation, throw books at me and I’ll eat them; but the journey is imagining people that are very different. So in a funny sense the more I see the problem as almost impossible the more I’m tempted to find some narrative that goes there which will still have an edge to it.

It’s about work and the lack of work; it’s about what happens on the street in the 1880’s; it’s about the women and how they’re forced into prostitution; it’s about the Salvation Army trying to save souls and what that means; it’s about the chaos of energies and its theatricality is for me centred around work or idleness, despair and alcoholism. So I wanted to find an image from the politics of the time that looked at work from another perspective and that brings the characters to understand, if only fleetingly, a different way of looking at their life.

In 1888 two remarkable things happened in relationship to the city; the first was that the Match Girls went on strike, the first strike by women ever recorded, and incredibly won. And they were part of the biggest march for the poor and unemployed, which was attacked in Trafalgar Square by the police and the army; women and children beaten to the ground, it was called the first Bloody Sunday. I was trying to find something that would be visually exciting, that would show the actors working, and when their characters discovered a new way of looking at work. And of course it was there because the key figures running the march and talking about radical left wing politics were Annie Besant, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and the whole of that movement. And I discovered that Morris and Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite artist were doing stained glass windows. And I began to go around the churches in the city looking at them, most of them had been bombed out during the war and had been replaced; in particular the wonderful ones that Burne-Jones did at Marylebone. And I knew that I wanted an image of coming together with bits.

(And my idea was) that the workers on these windows don’t know what the picture’s going to be; they make the glass and Burne-Jones is sketching but they don’t know what it is they’ve actually made. And they take sanctuary after the beating they get on the day of Bloody Sunday in the church where their window is covered up, waiting to be revealed to the rich, and they demand to see it. What has their work done? William Morris and Marx are saying the same thing at this time. That we find identity through true work, and they mean creative work.

And so the image started to form that would become the piece. So you begin to find yourself … you begin to start thinking in a different language. You’ve read the books, you can make the arguments, you can sketch the characters, you can find the music and so on. But then you have to start seeing it. And you have to go back to the characters, to the heart of the characters, you have to get with your people (the participants). And then – and only recently – I began to think it might be possible.

So I did something I’ve not done before; which was the way of presenting the text. There’s a steering committee keeping an eye on us, and I thought if I present it to them written out as dialogue and parts for 130 we will all be lost; it’s just not the way to communicate it, it will take two and a half hours. So I thought I’ll do a ten page treatment to say what happens, a narrative treatment. And I gave it to the director, to Jon, and I said ‘you read it’, it will take 25-30 minutes then we can have the talk. And it was one of the most intelligent things I’ve done in a long time. Because it did mean that for the next forty five minutes or an hour they (the participants and the committee) talked about it, and as something that was so obviously unfinished they genuinely felt they could ask a question about it.

One of the things the Jewish lads did when they came over, because of the prejudice against them on the streets, they took up boxing and they set up boxing youth clubs. And I had a scene, a crucial scene, in the boxing ring.  And one of the guys (at the meeting) said ‘doesn’t it go somewhere; is that it? Isn’t there a tournament scene?’ And I just went ‘yeah’. It turned out to be much more useful than other occasions where … I don’t like readings anyway.

So how long have you been working on it? When did it start and where are you now and when does the play happen?

We started over a year ago, easily over a year ago, with just me and Jon wandering around the place. Then we started having a meeting with the Whitechapel art gallery, with the city organisations and libraries. The day of that treatment was officially the day I would have presented the first draft and I’ve asked that to be the first draft. We should have then had three months to polish that and have all the subsidiary groups coming together to do it, with the next step for me to give the final rehearsal draft in before Easter. And then for them to be doing it in the Summer. It is put back because of building.

I’ve been talking to some writers who have had experiences of handing work in to committees where there are certain things they don’t want to be touched; certain nerves they don’t want to be touched. Is there an overseer of this? Is there a panel that will eventually look through it and go ‘you know what we really like it but we can’t mention that’? Is it that kind of process?

I think there probably will be.

And if that was the case and they came back to you and they said those things presumably your choice would be either to go ‘yes OK I’ll do what you say’ or ‘no I’m not going to’. Or to use the creative tension of that. Because it sounded a bit like what you were saying is that the experience of writing the play and the tensions within that inform what the story is, the narrative. The context of writing the play is in the play?

Yes it does, yes.

The notion of the stained glass window is fascinating because it is absolutely connected to the location and the idea of the disparate communities coming together to create .. was it one kind or one mind?

One mind. Itai doshin. It’s the perfect society. It’s dynamic of course because you start with the diversity and the diversity has to find its central core value; its dynamic creation. Once it finds it together – that we all decide that we’ll make a play that will mean something, that we’ll feel something – then we come to what will change the world.

It also feels that the stained glass window idea is partly your struggle to tie together these disparate elements.

Yes that’s exactly what it is. And it’s interesting, because one of the things that was running through my mind before I came to the stained glass window was Banksy, was images on the street. And in a funny sense the church stained glass fuses all that. You can have heaven and hell and whatever but it’s dependent on the light. And the characters defend the window like the Alamo at the end of the treatment. Whilst everybody’s running riot they try to save their own work.

Can I ask about the audience? One of the things when you write a community play is that you know who the audience will be. You know the audience will be from this community; you are presenting the community in which they live back to them. With this it must be trickier because I presume that there is a notion that the audience could be from outside that community.

Mathematically of course it’s ridiculous. If you’ve got eight thousand – that’s children, that’s old people, that’s large numbers who don’t speak English – even if you could extrapolate 130 of them, and all the people you need backstage, there’s practically no audience left. It’s not like in a place where you start with forty or fifty thousand people and they’ve all got aunts and uncles; you haven’t got an audience. And even more you haven’t got an audience who can afford to come anyway. So the notion of community itself, in the sense that are talking about there being a community here, is like drawing the map of Poland. You know if you take the map of Poland during the last three or four hundred years sometimes it’s not there at all, sometimes its half of Europe.

We’re imagining a community structure. I think it’s almost a uniquely difficult route. We have to open up, widen that notion of community. You can either move across, outside the city to the working class area of the East End with all of its gentrification and so on; or, which is what you’re briefed to do, you can look centrally at the city.

Having spoken for over an hour by this point we decided to arrange to meet again in the New Year. I explained to Stephen the intentions of my work, and how little investigation into this field of work there seems to be …   

And so we’re in danger of constantly remaking the proverbial wheel.

Yes.

The responsibility as a writer in these plays is that whatever you do your job is to inspire those who are taking part, and through their work to inspire an audience. And that’s key. You have to keep re-stimulating so they can get hold of the image, so they can get hold of the smoke and the people coming out of the tunnel; and they’re your way to the audience. It’s not that you’re separated off satisfying them; it’s getting them to imagine and be excited that will carry it.

So they have to make a journey of discovery themselves?

Totally.

It’s not giving them something they already know?

No good.

It’s just outside of their reach?

Yes. So Jon is interested in getting them to look at family histories; and he’ll also put real names on characters of ours. The prostitutes for example, that are in the play, are down in the census of 1838 as prostitutes, and they’re down in the 1890s in the workhouse where they both died, still listed as prostitutes. And those things kind of – if they’re (the participants) finding their own individual connection with the project in some way or another – you are giving them little charges of energy and meaning. And we gradually grow to exist together. It doesn’t mean you give up every difference or shade, far from it. You’re making a society. And in a time when societies are literally being blown up on the street and countries are divided amongst themselves and slaughter their own, door by door, we have to see something which is … how do we create society? It’s never been asked before because societies have just evolved or been manipulated in various ways to false images; but how do we do that? Well you do that by becoming increasingly creative and giving respect for each individual in that process. And putting the creative arts first; our creative imaginations. For me the story that you’re telling over and over again in some way is about the struggle to go through change in a healthy way.

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