BWW Interview: Heather Williams Talks UP DOWN MAN at Tobacco Factory Theatres
Myrtle Theatre Company is renowned for its ground-breaking work that is influenced and inspired by the voices in society that often go unheard.
In recent times, the company has enjoyed a special relationship with Nathan Bessell - a performer with Down's Syndrome who was the star and inspiration for Up Down Boy (which toured and had a stint at the National Theatre) and the upcoming revival of its sequel Up Down Man.
I sat down with Artistic Director Heather Williams to talk about the company's work and the upcoming production.
How would you describe the work that Myrtle sets out to make?
I firmly believe that theatre is absolutely about exploring the human condition. I also believe that everybody in society deserves to be able to do that. I think it's a basic human function, to act things out, to help us understand the world.
I feel it's really important that everybody has the chance to tell their story and sometimes people who are socially excluded, for whatever reason, don't have the opportunity to write, or to go into a youth theatre and act or be heard in any way. And as theatre is cut from schools, that is going to become more of an issue.
So I think it's really important that people like myself reach out and make theatre with them. I personally feel that makes wonderful, authentic and exciting theatre.
Mat Fraser recently said it was pathetic how few disabled actors are on TV and film - does that ring true for you?
I think if there is a group of people that's generally excluded from society, then that is to some extent the learning and the physically disabled and that's historic. Then it follows that those people are excluded from theatre as well, for all sorts of reasons.
For instance, lots of people when discovering their love of theatre will attend a youth theatre and that involves all sorts of challenges like transport. I know from my own experience, when I was running a youth theatre, that I was able to give an opportunity to someone with a learning disability because I had the staff and extra resources to do so. I thought how wonderful that I'm able to help him, but what I didn't know and only really understood 15 years later, is how much that person would help me and contribute to my working life.
That person of course is Nathan Bessell.
Talking of Nathan, when did that first seed get planted about creating Up Down Boy?
I suppose it goes back to a time when Nathan was attending the youth theatre. I really did not know the full capacity of his talent that this time, and I feel ashamed for not seeing that.
I remember watching him once in rehearsals and I realised that far from being led by others, he was leading and I guess that was the light bulb moment.
The more I watched him, the more I wanted the time and resources to let that grow. We'd got to know his mum, Sue [Shields, who would go on to write Up Down Boy], as she dropped him off and picked him up. She would send us texts about his life and they were fascinating and very witty. It was my colleague Hilary who said, "I think there's the bones of a show here".
Do you think that's where the authenticity comes from?
Yes, I'd say so. It starts off with the writing - there is an authenticity there. With Nathan there is of course an authenticity, because Matty [Bessell's fictional character] is based on himself, even though there are differences. Nathan is at his strongest when he communicates through movement, he's an incredible dancer. Both pieces give him the opportunity to speak through his body and that is incredibly authentic because it absolutely comes from Nathan.
What are rehearsals like with Nathan?
Blissful - he makes everybody laugh all the time! He is also incredibly emotionally intelligent. You might go into rehearsals feeling a bit worried or down and think you're putting a good face on it and then suddenly, you'll feel a hand on your shoulder and it'll be Nathan, asking if you're ok.
Ultimately Nathan has what every actor tries to get achieve: the ability to play. In some respects, this is because the stage of the development he is at means he is much closer to the creativity of a child. The other thing that makes him wonderful to work with is that he is totally in the moment. His learning disability actually gives him an advantage to do that.
So Up Down Man deals with Matty being ten years older and his mother not being there anymore. That must have been difficult to explore?
I think the playwright, Brendan Murray, has been really clever and understood from the interviews he did with families how worried they were about that essential question: What happens when I'm not there?
We also wanted to explore what it is to be an adult and what it might be like not to have the independence you want. Brendan felt maybe the character could only develop if his principle carer wasn't there anymore.
There's a community of people who have written about how these pieces have spoken to them personally. Did you expect that?
You always hope, with a piece like this, that you're getting it right in this way. Those reactions come from the quality of the research and the authenticity of the process. I'm also gratified by the fact that people who have seen the show that haven't come into contact with learning disabled people say that they understood so much more by watching it.
It's important though that we don't set out to make heavy, issue-based pieces. We set out to make theatre of excellence and that involves the right resources and the right creatives. The story and the new writing together with those things, come together. We want people to see a damn good piece of theatre first and foremost.
Photo credit: Richard Davenport