Listen and learn

Listen and learn

25 March 2018

Festival judge Kerry Kyriacos Michael talks to Louisa Doyle about the importance of open debate, diversity and political theatre

Kerry Kyriacos Michael is on a break, but he hardly has his feet up. The former artistic director had a marathon 13 years calling the shots at Stratford East, but he plans to use his time as one of the judges at this year’s festival to get in touch with what the students today are saying. “When you run somewhere like Stratford East, it’s hard to find that much time to give to someone else. At the festival, I’m going to be in listening mode, to be able to absorb from everybody. The beauty is going to be in existing amidst all these different kinds of people and hearing all these different voices.” The sheer number of shows at the festival is enough to raise his enthusiasm. “If it was only a couple of days, I’d be less interested to honest! But because there is so much of it, I get to do a complete boxset.”

The bigger the crowd at NSDF, the less likely there will be a concurrence of opinion about the work and for Michael, this kind of difference is key. “I want to spend more time with people who I don’t agree with than people I do agree with. You’ve got to search out things that aren’t part of your norm, which don’t look like you, have different opinions to you.” He believes disagreement isn’t just a healthy part of living in the world to be tolerated and got along with, but something to be celebrated and fostered. “That’s exciting – that tension in your opinions compared to other people’s, what you do like and don’t like.”

It’s also a way to combat what Michael identifies as a tendency to insulate ourselves with limited information, one that comes in part from tailoring our social media intake. “We all curate opinions which are safe, which are part of our status quo. We will curate all the things we want to hear with our Twitter feeds, Instagram feeds, Facebook feeds and they will be versions of what we currently think and that can be quite problematic”. Discourse brings progress and development, something that he hopes will permeate the festival.

When he was a student, theatre for Michael was a safe space for this kind of exploration and experimentation. “I was allowed to go to the four corners of how to express myself. That was the most exciting thing about working with it. You have a parallel journey as a young person doing theatre, where you are discovering who you are as an adult. You’re letting the art fast-track opinions and tastes and desires.”

As relatable as that might sound, Michael’s transition from school plays to the paying public’s stage is unorthodox by today’s standards. “I didn’t get a degree, I didn’t go to drama school, and I ended up being a director for 13 years and that was absolutely the right thing for me to do – working on the job and having these apprenticeships of life was what I was about. I’m not sure you could do that anymore because people are looking for a slightly more formal education”.

Instead of painting this difference as a daunting restriction, one that might limit who can enter the industry, Michael focuses on how curricula are expanding to train artists in a variety of disciplines.  “Now there are so many different nuanced pathways and different kinds of courses you can be doing. And a lot more different kinds of people doing them.”

More kinds of people, but not enough yet. Insufficient diversity in the entertainment industry is an issue that Michael has worked hard to keep in the public consciousness. “The biggest problem we have in British theatre sometimes is when people think they are being diverse when of course they are being deluded.”

Recent partnerships such as those between the Diversity School Initiative and leading drama schools suggest that the people in high places are making changes, but Michael has long been an example that show-don’t-tell is the way to go. He consistently provided platforms for work by minority groups at Stratford East, most recently collaborating with Ramps on the Moon to produce the pinball-wizard musical of Tommy with an inclusive cast of disabled and non-disabled actors.

As participants of a festival that still does not reflect the UK population in its entirety (the shortlist is predominantly white and university-educated), Michael’s advice is imperative for NSDF. “It isn’t necessarily a problem if the people making the work don’t ignore that themselves,” he says, referring to the lack of diversity. “Everyone is allowed to be in the room and to do their work and everyone should be. No one should say you are not allowed to do your theatre because you might be perceived as being privileged or whatever that might be. But everyone should acknowledge who they are and what they are about. And everyone should have that conversation.”

For all the fun and games that are crucial to the creative process, Michael reminds us of a more serious responsibility that comes with being granted a space for expression. “Putting on a nice show – no one’s got time to watch anything nice anymore. Theatre for theatre’s sake, actually, I think is a bit of a luxury. All theatre is absolutely political. You have to find the politics of it, otherwise don’t do it.” 

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