saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Honest to God With... Matthew Parker
20th February 2015
If there was an Olivier Award for Best One Of Bloody Hard Working, Matthew Parker would win hands-down. He clearly decided being an associate director at the Jack Studio Theatre, artistic director of DogOrange, founder of First Draft and general freelance director wasn't enough. So late last year he took on The Hope Theatre in Islington as artistic director, recreating it from the ground-up, and - you guessed it - directed their debut in-house play Lovesong of the Electric Bear.
Here, we talk to Matthew about the legacy of Alan Turing, how he intends to support emerging talent and not lose companies money and just how he hasn't collapsed from exhaustion yet - all the while being interrupted by crashing cups and saucers.
Photography provided by MatthewParker.net
VFTG: You've got a full-time job as artistic director and you're directing your first show, and you've had DogOrange and things at the Jack... where do you find the time?
MP: It is a real challenge. I graduated from Drama school when I retrained as a director six years ago and one of my tutors there - the late, great Sonia Fraser - told me: "Just do as much as you can. 'Cause it takes a long time for a director to make their name and make a living from this." So I have spent five years doing as much work as I can.
I set up two theatre companies, a new writing company called First Draft and DogOrange, specialising in retellings of classics. And we've had great success with both of those. In addition, I've been doing my own freelance directing work and teaching and directing within a drama school. so I've been really lucky. I've had loads of work. I'm also one of those people who can generate their own work which I thoroughly enjoy doing.
When I took over The Hope - I got the call last May - I went through a period of handover then hit the ground full time from about August. That has been seven days a week, day and night. It's starting a business up from scratch. The Hope existed, but it was managed by the lovely people at the King's Head and they handed it over to me lock, stock and barrel. It was about me setting up a new company, a new board of trustees, contracts, bin collection, insurance, all that stuff I didn't know that much about. It all takes time. We're now in this wonderful position where I've been there just over five months and we're about to do our first show. Managing running The Hope and directing this show is a challenge, but it's just so great to work in a space I've worked so hard on.
VFTG: You feel a real sense of ownership over it now, and it's your baby...
MP: Yes, it's very much like that. You do feel like you've given birth. And maybe there's a period of post-natal depression where it was very hard. It was all the shock of the new. But I'm not averse to hard work, I love it. I'm just a bit long in the tooth sometimes. When it gets to about 9pm, my brain won't go quite as quick as it used to in my 20s. But I am thoroughly enjoying it and feel so, so lucky to be an AD of a space in under six years.
VFTG: Well, that's incredible. The fact you've managed to turn it around in five months is staggering. So applause for that.
MP: Thank you. It was in a great position and I was so lucky that the final thing that was in there before I took over the programming was the premiere of Joe Orton's Fred and Madge which did incredibly well and helped put The Hope on the map.
VFTG:So you mentioned you retrained. What did you do in your previous life?
MP: I trained as a dancer originally as a child, then did some acting work. We'll just let the crashing of the cups end...
What seems like 35 minutes pass...
MP: ... then went to uni for an acting degree. That was at Bretton Hall, sadly no more.
VFTG: Oh yes, where the League of Gentlemen went.
MP: Yes, absolutely. Kate Bush studied there a bit. And... Moira Stewart! And John Godber is one of its biggest exports as well.
Photography © Scott Rylander
Now, in the free spirit of disclosure, dear reader, there was a little bit of a chat later on between us and Matthew which wasn't recorded. During it, he said that the League were "very much part of my vocabulary" and, if you didn't know, mentioned that in Lovesong of the Electric Bear, the role of Alan Turing is played by Ian Hallard, one husband of Mr Mark Gatiss. Not only that, but the role of Porgy is being played by Matthew's husband Bryan Pilkington. So that's all rather exciting.
He also mentioned his hatred for most of the grim up north writers but stressed he was very careful to make his shows theatrical but not grotesque. His characters, he said, needed a core of truth to them. Thought you may enjoy that aside and this interviewer's admission of an utter cock-up. Now back to your regularly scheduled show...
MP: I moved down to London when I graduated, which was the late 90s. I've been down here more than 15 years. Worked as an actor for a little bit. Learned quite quickly I have too many ideas and not all directors are going to want actors with too many ideas. I was very lucky, I was in the revival of Howard Brenton's Romans in Britain in 2000, the first time it'd been done since it was banned by The National in 1981. The director of that was very welcoming to my ideas as I'm obsessed with Brenton and the first play I ever directed was one of his, so that was great to be involved and have my ideas staged. But that was the end of acting, really.
I thought not everyone's going to want to have this cocky Northerner telling them what to do or chuck ideas in, so I stopped acting for a long time. Had a normal job working for a housing association - I worked for them on and off for the last 14 years - a wonderful place and they've been very supportive of me. I missed theatre so joined a very good amateur group who brought Shakespeare to the south of France, met some brilliant friends, one of whom is on the board of trustees at The Hope, and met my husband at that time as well. He and my lovely friend Jane pushed me - I started directing youth theatre and they said I should do it professionally.
I studied at Drama Studio London, and they have a brilliant course where they only take one or two people a year so I applied, got in, did that, life changed. I was 33, which is a bit late for an entirely new career but I've always been directing. I directed my first show - the Wizard of Oz with my friend Helen aged six.
VFTG: Well it sounds like you've always had one eye on that ball as well, even when you were acting.
MP: And choreography, I have a choreography background too, which is where I met my husband. He's in a cabaret group called Scales of the Unexpected and I'm their choreographer.
VFTG: So do all of the different aspects of what you do represent different facets of your personality, or do you have one overarching viewpoint you filter into them all?
MP: I think that theatre should be entertaining...
VFTG: Always a good start...
MP: But you'd be surprised how many people don't have that as their first benchmark. Also, this is what I've wanted to do since I was tiny and I feel very lucky, so no matter how dark the material, it is imbued with a sense of theatrical joy. I want people to come to my shows and engage with what is happening. I want to engage their solar plexus, affect their breath, make them laugh, make them cry. I love audiences questioning what's happening. That's great, tragi-comedy is somewhere I sit comfortably and Absurdism is my strong background, so most of the work I look at tends to deal with the human condition. Lots of stuff touches on mental health issues, on gay issues, but I wouldn't say I was a director of gay or mental health theatre.
I like very theatrical theatre - I don't do a lot of kitchen sink drama or naturalism. I like theatre that blows the roof off and goes from reality into fantasy. So it's great I get to work on Lovesong of the Electric Bear because although this is Alan Turing's life, it's seen through the eyes of his walking, talking, 6ft teddy bear. And four people play everyone in his life, so it's lots of people running about, putting a coat on, lights change, they're a different person. That sort of theatre I love.
With First Draft, that shows I'm very hard-working and want to do everything. When I graduated a lot of my background was in 20th-Century Classics, a bit of Absurdism, a bit of physical theatre and I'd never worked on new writing. So being me, rather than get a job and do directing, I set up a company with my wonderful friend Laura Harling. We've run this for four years now. We'd work for three days and present that performance for three nights so the writer can see it up and running. And we're able to take a couple of shows forward for fuller runs.
With DogOrange - imaginative retellings of classic stories and flights of fancy - I should have that on my tombstone really. That's what I like to do, take a piece of writing and explore every single moment and think about the best way to tell that story to connect with the audience. I'm a big fan of Kneehigh (a Cornwall-based touring company) and I love what they do with theatrical joy and how they explode moments. I must say, though, I don't like piddling around with text. I did The Cherry Orchard last year and didn't change a word.
VFTG: Do you have, in the back of your mind with things like The Cherry Orchard that's been done over and over again, a weight of expectation to do something different?
MP: I can only ever do my version of something. I read a play and start to visualise it, then it's my version of it. It's not a conscious decision where I start talking in the third person like an Apprentice candidate: "Ooh, what would Matthew Parker do with this?" I just come to it with my ideas of what it looks and feels like and with the actors bring that about. There was obviously pressure with The Cherry Orchard - and it also opened two months before the one at the Young Vic - but we had wonderful reviews. In fact, one of the reviews for the Old Vic's our production is mentioned as this wonderful production on a shoestring. I think it would be dangerous if I start to think "What can I do to make this different from X?" because then I'm not staying true to the text.
Photography provided by The Hope Theatre
VFTG: One thing I wanted to touch on, reading the synopsis of Lovesong of the Electric Bear, it's obviously quite different but... you know what I'm going to say, don't you?
VFTG: Obviously the Imitation Game. And again, were you worried about that?
MP: Worried about it? I loved the fact we're doing it at the same time as that! We announced doing it on the day that The Imitation Game was released in cinemas, we're not daft! The story of Alan Turing is the story everyone should know about.
MP: And the thing I love about him, and people's attitude to him, and the raising consciousness about him in the past year is that everyone is angry about what happened to him. Whether you are gay or not. And you see that in that wonderful petition that's flying around backed by people like Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch to pardon all of the other men convicted of gross indecency within our parents' or grandparents' generation. I love that more people know about him as it helps us sell tickets, raise awareness and get the story out.
But I will say that Snoo Wilson's play came first. And if you're wanting to come and see the Imitation Game on stage, that's not what you're going to get. For a kick-off, it starts at the age of 12. I haven't seen the Imitation Game as I didn't want to be unduly influenced but from what I've heard it focuses mostly on the Bletchley period and ours includes Bletchley but doesn't make that more important than anything else.
VFTG: So it's more about his life than what he did? I think that's more worthy as it doesn't define him by his deeds, it talks about him as a man.
MP: And obviously the Imitation Game is a naturalist biopic which happens in chronological order, I assume. Snoo Wilson's Lovesong has one person play Alan, one play Porgy, his bear, and as I've said, four people playing everyone from Winston Churchill to his mother, to his lovers, to a machine, to a drag queen, to part of a button, to a marathon runner, to everything.
VFTG:I think I know the answer to this as well, but that's what attracted you to it in the first place? The sheer theatricality of it?
MP: Absolutely. It's theatrical. Snoo Wilson... it's a gorgeous but quite sad story... Our producer Cas Hodges worked on a Snoo Wilson play in 2010 and he was very supportive of that, she got to know him quite well. In the summer of 2013 they'd been in touch via email and she said: "Do you have any plays I can look at with Matthew, you're absolutely our sort of thing." And he sent her this play. Then two weeks later he passed away very unexpectedly. So we feel incredibly honoured and lucky to be able to be the company to bring this to Europe. It's been done once on Broadway and a student company by Snoo's son Patrick in Edinburgh. His family and estate have been incredibly supportive, so that in itself felt like a wonderful thing to do.
When I read it, it was full of the things I love. It's got dance scenes in it... oops, more crashing...
Another 35 minutes pass as we bitch about how inconsiderate they are to be doing this while we record.
Photography © Scott Rylander
MP: It's got music, it's got movement, it comes in and out of two types of reality. It goes back in time a little like It's a Wonderful Life with this bear over his shoulder like Clarence the angel reminding him of everything he's done. It sits in and out of memories - a whole big swathe of stuff about Pagan gods gets brought in! It's Snoo Wilson and he's wonderful - his imagination was huge. There's a bit in a drag bar with a drag routine. It's very funny, very fast paced and very, very funny. It's full of multi-roling and that's something that interests me. As a kid, I was watching Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar where people rock up in a desert in a bus and get a load of trunks out, start throwing fabric around, then they start the show. That very simple Brechtian device has stayed with me since I was a kid.
VFTG: To be honest, if someone has just read what I've written of your description and doesn't want to come to see the show, then I frankly don't want them on our website.
MP: It's a huge amount of fun. My actors are incredibly good but they're just exhausted. This is two hours plus interval so they just don't stop.
VFTG: But if the atmosphere you have is one of fun and bonhomie, it helps in the rehearsal stages as people are willing to go the extra mile but it obviously shows on stage.
MP: This is a hard enough job as it is - being an actor, being a director - to survive on shoestring budgets, a lot of people are fitting it around other work, so gosh, let's enjoy ourselves while we're doing it, please! Let's celebrate one another - that's really important and runs through everything I do.
VFTG: That's true. Do you think that with your history as an actor it helps you to see it from all sides, because a lot of directors can be very single-minded and bloody-minded.
MP: Well I'm both of those things, don't get me wrong! But I also like to see things from everyone's perspective. That's what being a team leader is about, as the director you're the captain of the ship and everybody works together and collaborates. And I love to be influenced and get ideas from everyone and be as supportive as I can. Ultimately the buck stops with me, but collaboration is incredibly important.
And that's in the way we run The Hope as well as every company coming in, it's on the basis of collaboration - we don't do hire contracts, everything is based on a box-office split, so that The Hope Theatre, and me, are behind every piece of theatre that comes in as much as I possibly can be.
VFTG: I think that one thing that shows that more than anything is the Equity deal you struck. Just for people that don't know, you can probably explain it more eloquently than I...
Photography provided by The Hope Theatre
MP: We're really lucky to have a house agreement with Equity, the UK's largest performing arts union, whereby we guarantee that every person that performs on the stage at The Hope, and stage managers, and runs box office, will be paid a legal wage.
How do we do that, because we've only got 50 seats? We don't charge a hire fee. We do everything on a box-office split. I work with every company coming in to see what their funding situation is, what their budget looks like, and we push the budget in their favour as much as we can. As long as our very low overheads are covered, then we're fine. It is risky and it can be scary, but what is wonderful is that we are able to give companies and producers, young companies, the opportunity to pay their actors a legal wage. I think if one can do that, it is incredibly important and a brilliant thing to do.
Word is really getting out there at the moment - there's a big push from Equity on this. But I'm not saying this is something everyone must do. Who the Dickens am I to tell anyone what they must or must not do? It's right for The Hope and it's right for me so I do everything I can to make that happen.
It is not easy and we desperately need as much help as we can. We have a lovely page on our website called Support Us where people can become a Hope's Anchor or help the Hope float or lots of other Hope-related puns, band of Hope, etc etc, to help us do that. And without ticket sales we can't do this in the way we'd want to. So it is scary, but it is exhilarating and it means you just need to think outside the box a lot.
I am not interested in being the sort of AD that says: "Hello, what is it you'd like to do? Right that's this much a week, please, it's up there, off you go. " I want to work with you to ensure you don't end this run having lost your shirt. I can't sleep with the thought of that happening.
VFTG: I think that's very admirable and sets you apart, making it a savvy business move even if you don't agree. There seems to be a push for that, becoming a bit more socially aware of the actor, even things like the Free Fringe at Edinburgh that don't charge for venue hire and you just shake a bucket at the end of it, where people are losing less money than charging for tickets. Although I am a bit disappointed you have taken the "starving" out of the "starving artist". I know it's early days yet but have you ideas for any more groundbreaking ideas like this?
MP: What I really want to do is... I'm saying we have actors and stage managers paid a fair wage, but where does this leave freelance directors, or stage designers, or lighting, sound, costume, casting directors? All of the other people that go towards making a production.
Because we're freelancers, it's hard to define what a legal wage is. So my board and I are really keen to work with Equity as much as we can to try towards some sort of fair pay for those roles as well. And that's really important to me. It's very interesting, as soon as you stick your head above the parapet and say: "Hello, we're a 50-seat theatre and paying actors the legal wage," there are a number of people that go: "Yeah? Well what about me?" "And what about me?"
I totally understand that, and we're driving towards that, but we will get there. We'll need help, but we will get there because I want to be the first fringe venue that has fair pay for all.
VFTG: The revolution starts here!
MP: The revolution starts here. It might take me a couple of years, but I will try my darndest to make it happen.
VFTG: You say that, but in the last five months, you've managed to entirely take over the running of a theatre and put on a show. So we might be in here next week saying: "Oh, I've done it."
MP: It's not that simple, sadly, as there's no such thing as a legal wage. There's a lot of work to be done, but let's have those conversations.
VFTG: So we're not shy of theatres, certainly in Islington. What do you hope that you'll bring to the mix that you've not seen before from a creative standpoint? What's your vision going forward?
MP: Well there was an article in The Stage written by Mark Shenton saying: "Look what's happening in Islington, at its thriving scene." We have the Hen and Chickens, the Rosemary Branch, COGArts isn't too far away, King's Head, Old Red Lion, Sadler's Wells, Almeida, Little Angel and of course, The Hope.
Photography © Laura Harling
What sets us apart? Having new ideas. Everything you see at The Hope is new. The more "new" boxes I can tick with everything I programme the better. New company, new writing, whatever. In the first three shows I programmed, we had a play that had won awards in Scotland - The Wall - but never been done below the border. New, new, tick, tick. After that, we had a new drama about alcoholism taking place above a pub, controversially and excitingly. (Blackout.) Again, the company hadn't staged in London before, and new writing. Following that, we had a new all-female company called Footfall who staged an all-female four-handed version of King Lear, Lear's Daughters. King Lear is not new but what they did with it was new. It's always going to be new.
The audience for fringe theatre is a lovely melting pot of different people, but there's a lot of actors that come to see fringe theatre. As long as I can get the message out to other actors that everyone they can see at The Hope is paid a legal wage, then I'd hope - ahem - they'd choose us over other fringe theatres and give us the support we need.
Another thing that sets us apart is that The Hope is a small space, but it's also intimate. There's lots of rooms above pubs that are a small room and just that. As a director, I work with atmosphere, telling a story and changing an atmosphere in a room, and The Hope allows you to do that. It feels like something. When you watch a show, you feel like you're the only one there and you're close enough to actors to lick them. There is nudity in Lovesong of the Electric Bear and so if anyone does lick one of my actors I will slap them!
We then had a brief chat about how incompetent we are as interviewers, and how Matthew has to slow down his natural rhythm as a director. He also didn't hugely think that coming into directing later than most gave him a unique perspective, more that he is just made up of all the things he has learned about. Coming from a working-class northern background and pursuing a career in the arts was also there, not as a chip on his shoulder, but as a thing that drives him on.
MP: You need to be proud of every little achievement. One thing we have with Lovesong of the Electric Bear is that it's going to be published. Everyone will be able to buy the script, published for the first time, which personally gives me great pleasure that Snoo's script will be out there in bookshops. But as a lad aged 14, reading a play script for the first time and seeing names in the front for the original production, and I'm going to have my name in a book, it means the world to me. I don't take anything like that for granted. If you're asking me for advice for young directors? Don't take anything for granted. Celebrate everything. And ignore all those people round the corner to knock you down. And don't sleep.
Then, we simply asked what was coming up next at The Hope.
MP: The European premiere of Snoo Wilson's Lovesong of the Electric Bear, a psychedelic trip through the life of maths genius, World War II hero and gay icon Alan Turing opens on 24th February and runs for four weeks until 21st March. Performances are Tuesday to Saturday only, tickets are £14/£12 concessions, including Equity concessions, and can be booked online.
Following that, we have a lovely piece of new writing called Found by writer/director Luke Adamson that has toured the UK but not been done in London before. Following that, a piece of new writing by Effie Samara called Baby, which takes a stance on the argument of artificial insemination. It's quite a controversial and exciting play. That takes us through to the beginning of May, and after that, who knows? Send me a script!
Check us out online at www.thehopetheatre.com, follow us on twitter @TheHopeTheatre. And pop in and see me. I'm usually sat in my quote, office, unquote, which is a little table on the side window. And do come and see our work, we need your support. Thank you.
Those details again - Love Song of the Electric Bear runs at The Hope Theatre from Tuesday, February 24th to Saturday, March 21st at The Hope Theatre, Islington. If you would like to support The Hope Theatre further via their pun-filled reward schemes, visit the support us section of their website.