ZM: When did you set up Théâtre Volière?
MW: 2012, or thereabouts. It grew out of a youth theatre association my wife and I established in Strasbourg in the noughties, where she was working as a human rights lawyer and I was a house husband. We started out in theatre together - we were both founder members of Leeds’ Interference Theatre Co-operative in the 1990s - and were looking for a way back into it. So we initially set up a series of projects to help young people learn English through theatre. We’d get the participants together during the holidays, work out how good their English was and then we’d write a play and assign them a role depending on their ability. After three or four weeks of rehearsal, they’d get to give a public performance of the show, in a proper theatre, with high production values. It went pretty well and we started to get asked to do workshops in schools with older and older participants, eventually working with students from Strasbourg Conservatoire and running an exchange project between Central St. Martins and Strasbourg’s Centre Choreographique. Inevitably, perhaps, we started to get the urge to work with professional performers again. We had become fascinated with the history of our adopted region, and so we formed Théâtre Volière and produced a triptych of shows, over four years, exploring Alsatian and Anglo-French culture - Poilu and Tommy, Consolation and Arnika - playing small-scale venues in Alsace and London.
In 2018, we staged the Marchland festival in London, inviting and commissioning artists, musicians, poets and singers from European border regions to perform at a purpose-built cabaret space we made at the Bridewell Theatre. The festival went really well, but we spent way too much money, so we couldn’t do the same the next year as planned. Funnily enough, it proved to be a blessing because, for a 2019 Marchland, we took over a tiny atmospheric pub called Ye Olde Mitre in Hatton Garden, renamed it The Marchland Arms for the duration, and put on intimate, folk-based performances in each of the three rooms. I think it was the best thing I’ve ever done.
ZM: How would you describe your approach to theatre?
MW: The kind of theatre that I’m drawn to is very physical. I had an acting teacher in Leeds years ago, who’d known Laurence Oliver, and he talked about how much Olivier used to work out - actually went to the gym, I think. He was really physical with his stage performances, apparently, chucking himself about all over the place, using his body to add dynamism to the scene. That teacher encouraged me to take the same approach, and it made a lasting impression on me. Although I enjoy great design and making stage pictures, I think essentially of theatre as coming from the performer’s body. I like artifice (some might say ‘ham’!), bits of unexpected ‘business’ with props and interactions, acting bordering on mime, all those things that keep it fresh - Complicité and Pina Bausch-type stuff, of course, given that I started out in the late eighties/early nineties.
The work of companies like DV8 and Volcano made a massive impression on me in the nineties - though I do think some of that ‘physical theatre’ stuff has become a bit of a cliché. Things get codified, don’t they. It’s all too easy for what was once fresh to become a dead metaphor. When I was younger, I used to do a lot of athletics, I was a very good triple jumper, so I’ve always been a very physical performer. In the Interference days, when I was performing a lot, we chucked ourselves about a bit and did things we weren’t actually trained to properly do - with nowhere near, I hasten to add, the technical ability of DV8’s performers. Maybe that’s all contributed to my dodgy knees and bad back!
ZM: When during this time did you start writing?
MW: I used to write short stories in the nineties. I was really dedicated. With Interference we could only pay ourselves when we were performing and rehearsing, which was about four months of the year, so I used to temp in between and I’d get up in the morning and write for two hours before going to work. I did quite well, got some published and won a few competitions but I stopped after about five years as I got put off. I’d won an award in a writing competition run by a small press and I got a phone call from one of the editors. They wanted to know if I had a novel. I’d only been writing short stories up to that point but I told them if they gave me a couple of months I could write a treatment and some sample chapters. I had this grand idea of a weird magic realist novel set in Constantinople. I knew nothing about the history of the place so it was like a crash course in everything, but I worked like a dog and was really pleased with it in the end. Anyway, I sent it off and there was this embarrassed silence, and they finally got back to me and said it wasn’t the kind of thing they wanted. I was incredibly thin-skinned back then and it put me off writing fiction. I occasionally drag out the aborted manuscript and wonder whether I can salvage anything from it - but I have to admit they were probably right, it was a bit of a mess.
ZM: Do you write poetry?
MW: I do. I’ve read poetry since I was very young, a few pages every evening before bed for many years, but I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in my forties. I can’t remember why I started. Probably because it was in that period when I was having a break from theatre and I felt the need to stay creative. I don’t write quite as much new stuff now, but I do spend quite a lot of time re-visiting old stuff, trying to put it into some kind of order. I’ve won a few competitions and had a fair amount published, so if I keep plugging away maybe I’ll get that collection published one day - I’ve got a much thicker skin these days.
ZM: What gave you the idea to set up the Poetry Plays Festival?
MW: I’ve always been interested in the interface between poetry and theatre, the lateral way of thinking you need to be a poet and how that can be applied to theatre and performance. I often think of poetry as dreams brought into the daylight for everyone to see. Let’s be honest, it can often be quite dull when people recount their dreams. I think of poets as people with a gift for retelling their dreams or daydreams with a universality that can speak to and fascinate the common humanity in each of us.
I feel the best theatre pieces I’ve ever seen, the ones that speak to me the most, are the ones that have this dream-like quality - that is, they communicate through metaphor, allusion and imagery as much as narrative. They’re somehow empowering the audience to participate in the creation of meaning. It’s the very thing that happens in the theatre that you can’t get through film or TV or anything else - it’s a ritual, in a way, that everyone present is participating in, and that wouldn’t exist if the audience wasn’t there to contribute meaning to it. I realise there’s nothing new in all this - Shakespeare, Beckett, and countless contemporary dramatists and songwriters have also been great poets.
You could argue, of course, that I’m just talking about poetics here, rather than poetry in a literary sense. You could, you might say, have a wordless piece of mime or dance that is poetic but doesn’t feature poetry per se. It’s a fair point, that I wrestle with myself. I just think it’s interesting to explore, to bring poets into the performance space and work with them in order to see how theatrical poetics and the written or spoken word can work off each other to heighten that unique, inter-connected experience you get from live performance.
Copyright © 2023 The Pomegranate London - All Rights Reserved.