“Shut up, listen, and just do the work!” Kathryn Fray and 23rd Productions (Interview 1)

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It’s late morning, and I’m interviewing Kathryn Fray via Skype. The artistic director of the Brisbane-based independent theatre company 23rd Productions looks and sounds … well … almost too perky for someone who is in the middle of producing a brand new play.  She’s clearly busy; for a start her Facebook status has been showing ‘Living in the land of Pinter’ for a while now. The Pinter in question is, of course, the one and only, late and great Harold Pinter, British playwright and Nobel Prize winner. The play in question My Night With Harold is a new work, a team-written “massive challenge and wild experiment” she says, “which we were unsure we could pull off.  It was a great idea, but there was nothing really for a producer to hang anything on.”  That initial idea has already gone through a creative development process, and is now in the middle of rehearsals for its first full production.  Whether or not Kathryn and 23rd Productions pull it off will be known at the end of this week when My Night With Harold opens as part of the Under the Radar independent theatre festival within the wider orbit of the Brisbane Festival.  On opening night 19 September 23rd Productions will be very much front and centre on the city’s theatre radar.

Kathryn is candid about her own role as artistic director of an unfunded company, and why she continues when she’s “buggered most of the time … and poor.”  It’s the same for the other independent artists in the city, of course, where juggling a series of day jobs with after-hours creativity is par for the course.  But she is also passionate about why she does it.  “I wasn’t being stimulated artistically when I first arrived here in Brisbane (from the UK), so I decided to make my own way.”  It’s obvious too that she relishes her independent status, and isn’t in a hurry to give it up.  So, what’s independent theatre mean to her, I ask.

She laughs, pauses a bit, and goes on. “I’ve taken my understanding from the British independent theatre model … it’s what I know and it’s a style of production where I am free to do whatever, whenever, and not bend to fit whatever funding bodies require.  I want to create work with high artistic values, be free to do what I wish, and not be accountable to anyone.”  That’s it – artistic freedom then, with no one breathing down her neck?  She goes on, “I’m constantly looking for what’s not being said on stage. I like work that’s challenging, risky and that looks at taboo and the progress of humanity. Usually it’s only in the independent theatre that these conversations can be had.”

Risky, intelligent work is something she and 23rd Productions have done spectacularly well since their beginnings and first gig, the British play Closer by Patrick Marber back in 2007.  That season sold out, and the buzz around the city at that time was that independent theatre led by 23rd had taken a big step up.  They followed with a miscellany of short British plays Cool Britannia 1 and Cool Britannia II, Motortown by Simon Stephens, followed in early 2009 by Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowmanagain to excellent reviews and box-office.

Kathryn’s unapologetic about the initial focus on new British theatre: “It’s excellent contemporary work, it’s what I know, what I love, and it wasn’t being done anywhere else.”  Fair enough.  She mentions on the run a company she’s inspired by.  It’s the Belarus Free Theatre Company whose Being Harold Pinter provided 23rd Productions’ Associate Artistic Director Christopher Sommers with that initial idea.  It turned into a jumping off point in a new direction, and resulted in My Night With Harold which is written by a team of young Australian writers Marcel Dorney, Elise Hearst, Richard Jordan, and Maxine Mellor.

Kathryn Fray speaks enthusiastically about the opportunities Under the Radar has opened up to theatre makers in Brisbane. “It’s being managed and curated by the independent theatre sector itself through !Metro Arts, and importantly, we speak the same language.  They know about working on restricted budgets and our not being full time for a start.” !Metro Arts in Brisbane is a creative development centre, and it’s been seminal to 23rd Productions’ success where, during 2008 and until March this year, they were the company in residence.  Kathryn goes on, “At Metro, an absolutely core organisation to the independent sector in town, you can start from zero as an artist.  It’s a place where you are given business advice, and where you are free to experiment – the amazing bunch of people there empower you.” She narrows her eyes, “And they need more funding … OK!” She looks almost fierce for a bit, and I’m suddenly aware of another requisite skill in the toolkit of the independent producer about town.

I’m also aware I’m taking up precious time here, so I ask about the main challenges the independent theatre faces here in Queensland.  I quote from a flyer announcing the On the Centre of the Edge conference to be held in Brisbane in October: “Risk and failure, models of change, artistic integrity, independent to mainstage transition, regional interaction and exchange.” It’s quite a list, although I’m surprised that “quality control” doesn’t feature … still.   Kathryn Fray shoots back with “definitely … risk and failure.”  She goes on, “I’ve risked reputation and finances, but I want to keep raising the bar, and there’s the risk.” And then there is the issue of the development of the sector. Rather than being a collection of disparate units, she’s keen to encourage “our community” (her words) to support each other. “I know we’re all tired and broke, but we need to keep going to the theatre. I have great pangs if I miss a show.  I know how important it is to keep backing each other up, just going along, supporting and giving feedback.”  And this leads on neatly to the issue of criticism and the importance of quality support.  “When I graduated from drama school I was horribly obnoxious,” she says, “and you can quote me!”  I thought I knew everything. I actually knew bugger-all, and I’ve learned the importance of shutting up, listening, and just doing the work.” As far as the quality control issue goes, Kathryn is quite clear on what should happen.

“If you’re an up and coming theatre collective then you need to get a review panel organised. Don’t pick yes men. Ask people you respect and who are making waves to consult with you, and give you answers to the three or four issues you need responses to.”

As for the general standard and scope of writing on theatre that appears in the local media, it’s quite clear she’s not a fan:  “An opinion piece is not a review,” she notes, and leaves it at that.  She is committed to the idea of mentoring.  “I remember after a performance of  Closer, I was half-naked in the dressing-room when Andrea Moor appeared.  She congratulated us all; I was overawed.  Andrea is a highly-respected professional actor and director, and the fact that she took time to come back and congratulate us …”  She trails off, still clearly thrilled by the memory.  Andrea Moor, she tells me has gone on to provide mentoring to 23rd Productions and others, and it’s Andrea who is directing the current production of  My Night With Harold.  Clearly the mentoring relationship that developed from the first meeting backstage on opening night of Closer is bearing fruit.

The mobile pings again. She checks the screen … “It’s Andrea – yep, and another note!” She laughs. “Man, she is so sharp!”  It’s clear the artistic director of 23rd Productions is a busy woman, and has miles to go before she sleeps.

Break a leg!

Rehearsal Photo: Sam Gardiner

Kathryn Fray: Morgan Roberts

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