Q&A with Kwame Kwei-Armah
What was your earliest memory of a staged production?
KKA: The first show I remember seeing was at the Royal Shakespeare Company when I was about 13. My sister was going to a community college, and the lecturer there knew I liked entertainment. He was taking the class to a show at the RSC, and he asked my mother if I would like to come. I wasn’t sure, but my mother insisted I go. In the theatre, I remember the huge curtain, and I remember just being in awe of the scale of it.
Then I heard someone shout, and I turned behind me. About six rows back there was a man shouting and screaming – like he was intoxicated. Two ushers ran towards him, and my heart was beating, and this guy ran away from the ushers. He ran towards the stage. And then he pulled the huge curtain, and behind it was a guy on a motorbike… and the show began! I had no idea theatre could make me feel so much.
When I direct, I go back to making moments when audiences – all audiences, irrespective of age – are thrilled. The feeling of total joy. How to make this kind of magic? Nothing will beat the liveness of theatre.
“...I suppose my vision for theatre is that it recognises and steps up to the very important role it has in healing this nation, and in connecting us.”
There’s a quote about theatre as the 21st century equivalent of Church. Do you believe this is why theatre IS so important today?
KKA: Absolutely. Faith and Hope are always finding new ways to articulate themselves. And I firmly believe theatre is this for the 21st century.
The Young Vic has a great record for connecting locally, Neighbourhood Theatre Company being just one example. Tell us about any others.
KKA: There are so many! Our Taking Part, or ‘TP’ department, are so embedded in our local community, and they work with over 15,000 people each year. We give 10% of our tickets free to schools and neighbours – and this figure is not affected by box office demand. The team also do so much work within the community, helping local groups to take centre stage and tell their stories. TWENTY TWENTY was a year-long project made with members of our community last year, which continued despite the pandemic and was such a brilliant way of keeping groups connected during such an isolating time.
We are about to tour our third season of YV Unpacked, where we take a professional production out on tour in the boroughs; to schools and hospitals, prisons and residential homes. I firmly believe it’s crucial we take work outside our doors and into our community, as much as we invite them into the YV.
There are too few Black and Global Majority theatre-makers working behind the scenes in films, TV and theatre. Has the Young Vic found a way of introducing kids to the idea that there might be behind the scenes work that would interest them – set and costume, lighting and sound design for example?
KKA: Yes, it’s something we think about often. Our work in schools varies – from inviting them in to do response projects to our shows or finding out more about backstage roles, but also taking artists and theatre-makers into classrooms.
A large part of my vision at the YV is about demystification. So much of theatre making – and that includes the roles you list above – is so opaque. And so how are we going to inspire someone to think ‘I could do that!’ if they don’t know anything about it, don’t understand how to get there, or what you need to succeed? So much of what the team at the YV do is work on this demystification – making transparent as possible the things which seem least easy to grasp.
YV Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah joins Director of Taking Part Shereen Jasmin Phillips, to chat about the department that is “buried deep in the DNA of this organisation”: Taking Part. Learn about the fantastic workshops, productions, writing and acting programmes, and masterclasses
INNOVATE is a fascinating new concept. Is this a new approach?
KKA: It’s not new as such – we are standing on the shoulders of great educational thinkers, and also artists and institutions who have worked in the education sector for a long time and made incredible strides.
What I would say is, again, it’s about meeting people where they are at. How do we take brilliant artists, and brilliant processes we have within the theatre sector, into our local schools? How do we use art to unlock potential? How do we respond to our civic duty to enrich young people’s lives with art, as support for arts subjects continues to dwindle? INNOVATE is a two-year project and I am really intrigued to see where it may take us.
Is it true that there is no stage door at the Young Vic?
KKA: The lack of stage door means you can’t sneak out, the stage companies and actors can’t sneak out. And that leads to an essential thing: you have to face, quite literally, your audience.
The positive of that is that you know you can’t hide behind anything that you do. Everything is public-facing. Your constituents are inherently at the heart of every decision that you make as a result, because you have to face them at the end of each day.
Thankfully, the building is beautifully designed for its use, and so although there may not be a stage door, there are no issues with getting props and scenery in and out!
Frank Dunlop described the Young Vic as a paperback to the Old Vic’s hardback. How would you describe the theatre?
KKA: Put simply, the Young Vic is a civic centre for those who love art and community.
We are going to need accelerated healing across our country, and indeed the world. And I think theatre can play a huge part in this. The art will play its part in healing and being a balm for mental health. And so I suppose my vision for theatre is that it recognises and steps up to the very important role it has in healing this nation, and in connecting us.
As our 90-year project is about 90 buildings that reflect the best of the built environment, do you have a favourite building?
KKA: That’s a great question! I would pick the Tate Modern. It feels both grand and intimate. Its location is historic and contemporary. And the spaces are just curated so well. The building, and its content, always make me feel so refreshed when I visit. The architecture is brutal. But I am ever-drawn to the juxtaposition of that- it’s relatively cold exterior, and it’s extremely open, airy and welcoming interior.
Every time we stage a new production, I feel like the luckiest Artistic Director in the country. There is no theatre that changes its configurations as vigorously as we do, as we construct our auditorium anew for every single production. It feels like an utterly new space every time, and that’s a great, great honour.