Fin Kennedy: ‘Few writers make a living from it. The rest of us have to do something else’
“I have yet to meet a playwright who doesn’t have a fantastic time working with teenagers, especially with the right support,” Fin Kennedy says, fixing me with a stare that feels slightly defiant. “I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s a huge untapped potential in bringing the theatre and education sectors together in a much more sustained and in-depth way.” Something in his forcefulness tells me it won’t be just an opinion for much longer.
Kennedy is determined. With a career that comprehensively spans work in both schools and theatres, he is determined to challenge perceptions of the quality of drama in education and is currently trialling a scheme that will do just that. From June, he will become Tamasha Theatre Company’s sole artistic director (he has been co-artistic director, alongside the company’s co-founder Sudha Bhuchar, since 2013) and is setting out to challenge ideas around the form and shape of 21st-century theatrical diversity, broadening the company’s original British Asian focus to include a wider breadth of minority voices.
Oh, and he’s challenged party political propaganda with a dynamic campaign, In Battalions, that became a parliamentary talking point and highlighted the negative effects arts cuts have had on playwriting in the UK. This is not someone who sits nervously waiting for the phone to ring.
His proactive attitude was born of necessity. After studying drama at Manchester University, he came to London to make a go of it as a playwright. A series of jobs followed to support his writing, including working for Half Moon Theatre Company, doing everything from “administration, front of house, backstage tech and, most importantly, fundraising”.
But after his first play, Protection, was put on at Soho Theatre in 2003, he found it impossible to get his second one staged.
“I was signing on the dole, but it wasn’t enough so I began to do a postgraduate certificate in education. But I wasn’t a very good teacher,” he says with a wry smile. “I’m a great workshop facilitator, but curriculum teaching is hard,” he says, clearly impressed with anyone who can manage this career. “Whenever we work with teachers, I make sure there’s parity of esteem between all the contributors, whether they’re from the schools or the industry.”
Halfway through his training, in 2007, he won the 38th Arts Council England John Whiting award for his second play How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, which allowed him to focus on his writing again. The play was subsequently commissioned by Samuel West at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. After a triumphant first staging, it has been successfully produced in London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Melbourne, Auckland, and Portland, Oregon. He’s particularly happy that it has proven to be a firm favourite with students.
“Drama societies do it all the time, which is really exciting as they’re the next generation of makers and they bring something new to it each time. I’m not really precious about what people do to the plays once I’ve written them.”
Really? I probe. “Well, I mean production wise. I don’t like it when they cut it,” he admits, grinning. “I’ve had emails saying, ‘Can we cut it from 50 minutes each side to 45 minutes overall to fit an Edinburgh Fringe slot?’ and I always respond with a resounding ‘No’. I worked really hard for years to hone that play into a tightly constructed form. So no, you can’t cut it by over half!”
Kennedy is a softly spoken chap, but this flash of steel speaks volumes. A bloody-minded determination and no-nonsense mentality runs beneath his affable exterior. It’s a pragmatism that marks what has become an archetypal portfolio career spanning teaching, dramaturgy, journalism, writing, producing and campaigning – this is one playwright with his quill in many ink pots.
“Only one or two writers can completely make a living from writing. The rest of us have to do something else too,” he says. For more than 10 years, Kennedy has cradled his professional theatre work with workshops in schools and facilitating a career as a producer/writer. “Working with schools can really put you in the driving seat as the artist and bring you into contact with communities. It can develop you in a way you wouldn’t be able to access if you were just to stick within the traditional new-writing sector,” he explains.
It’s an ethos born from a long association with Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets. In 2007, despite the success of How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, money was still an issue. So with typical resourcefulness he began working with Mulberry as its writer-in-residence. “I was working with teenage Bangladeshi girls, devising and writing with them to get their stories up on stage,” he says. “There’s a real need in schools for plays about diverse voices with large casts.”
I wonder if it was tough for a white man to position himself comfortably in the world of a Bangladeshi teenage girl? He says the warm atmosphere of the school and superb levels of support he received meant it was never an issue.
The project was extraordinarily successful, with the school’s then newly launched Mulberry Theatre Company taking a show up to Edinburgh each year. “The first year it was just enough to get 10 Bangladeshi girls up there,” Kennedy says earnestly. “But the next year we had backstage crew to enable those girls who were shy or came from more conservative families and whose parents might not be happy for them to be up on stage to be involved. The following year, we had wardrobe, sound, lighting: more than 30 of us. And we won a Fringe First, which was the first time a school had done that.”
This was in 2010, the year of the last general election. When the coalition came in, the funding for the project was pulled. Undeterred, Kennedy looked to continue the initiative, albeit in a slightly different format. In 2011 he approached Tamasha to see if it would be interested in partnering with the school to continue the collaboration. Tamasha agreed, and Kennedy became an associate artist with the company to lead on the project, beginning the courtship stages of his long-term aim to marry education and theatre.
It’s a relationship that has ended up with Schoolwrights, the UK’s first playwrights-in-schools training scheme and a project that connects Kennedy’s two professional strands.
“It’s the evolution of my own decade of experience working in schools, but it was also my first contact with Tamasha. I got it off the ground for them in 2011, and they supported me to develop it into the UK’s first annual, year-long schools programme of rolling playwriting training,” he explains. “The programme recruits playwrights to train with me as workshop leaders in order to co-create plays with young people that the writers write, the young people perform and the teachers direct. It pulls together several local schools into a network of host organisations for playwright residencies. We did it in London last year with Mulberry, Soho Theatre and Rich Mix studios, and we’re looking to take it out nationwide.”
It’s a scheme that also ties into the Tamasha Playwrights initiative. “Tamasha Playwrights is an unfunded pilot at present, which uses our offices after work for a group of eight playwrights,” he explains. “It uses the skills I have on salary to do craft-based sessions on writing as an art form as well as sessions that try to invest in their skills as artists and producers; fundraising sessions meeting other producers in the industry. I’m delegating to them as individual artists to lead on certain strands of our work.”
In typically savvy fashion, Kennedy has big plans for this pilot. “We’re looking into setting them up as an agency of diverse playwrights for hire for schools and young people’s workshops or commissions for young people.” He sounds more like an entrepreneur than an artist. “I think there’s a real demand in schools for role models of diverse artists with whom the kids don’t always come into contact in normal activities – there’s a real benefit in both directions there. So, ultimately we want to set that up as an agency where we would invest in the training, and market the services of these playwrights in exchange for a managing fee like any other agency.”
It’s a testament to Kennedy’s resilience that funding cuts introduced since the last general election did nothing to slow down the momentum of his work at Mulberry School for Girls. This tenacity is also apparent in In Battalions, a comprehensive report he created in response to comments made by culture minister Ed Vaizey that ACE cuts made since April 2012 were having “no effect” on the industry’s cultural output.
With assistance from Oxford PhD student Helen Campbell Pickford, Kennedy went about collecting, researching and collating statistical information and industry interviews in a bid to prove the negative effect that cuts were having on theatres’ capacity to develop new plays and playwrights.
In Battalions (taken from a quote from Hamlet: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”) was sent to Ed Vaizey in 2013. After a frustrating period of no response from the culture minister followed by nudging from industry leaders including Helen Mirren, Michael Frayn, Richard Eyre, Mike Leigh and Tom Stoppard, Vaizey acknowledged the report. In early 2014, he made a speech that credited the In Battalions campaign as having had an influence on the chancellor’s decision to offer tax breaks to new plays and regional touring.
“I think there’s a certain amount of politicking in that,” Kennedy says, his eyes twinkling. “In all honesty, I think the conversation about tax breaks had been rumbling on for a while. But I do think the report has had an effect too.” To coincide with the run-up to May’s general election, Kennedy has put into motion Operation Mobilise, in which people are being asked to print off a copy of the report and send it to their local MP. “No one writes letters to their MP anymore,” Kennedy says. “This is an easy way to keep the report at the top of the agenda, at a time when politicians may actually listen.”
He claims he’s not a party political person, although he always votes. But having grown up with a social worker – his mother – he believes theatre has a social obligation. He started out in the tradition of David Hare, as a social-realist commentator writing straightforward naturalism, but he soon found the limitations of that form and was in turn influenced by another David: Greig.
“I first came across his play Europe at university, which was an intellectually ambitious play ahead of its time in terms of observations on how Europe was changing,” he says admiringly. “It was also slightly heightened and stylised in a subtle way – it wasn’t a naturalistic slice of an institution. It was searingly intellectual in terms of originality of thought but also formally playful and inventive. He’s a constant source of inspiration to me.”
Kennedy continues: “Hare was an influence in the early days, but when I wanted to get into more philosophical territory with How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found I had to break some rules of time and space and take a few stylistic risks. Greig helped me with that. I came of age in the 1990s with the plays of Sarah Kane, Martin Crimp and Anthony Neilson, and so there was already a great set of inspirations to look to. I’m driven by the sense of how to make theatre theatrical and that’s something I try to encourage in the writers I work with now.”
He believes that the most creative dramaturgical relationships come when both parties are playwrights in their own right. “I think it can become a real creative crucible with both legitimised to offer creative ideas,” he explains. “Of course, the writer who is going to do the actual writing is free to cherry-pick from any of it or ignore all of it. But I think writers dramaturging one another is a good match and can take ideas into more emboldened creative territory.”
He’s currently relishing working with Ishy Din on Taxi Tales, a series of three monologues created in collaboration with minicab drivers in Stockton-on-Tees and designed to be performed by them to an audience sat in the back of their cars.
“We came up with this idea one night in the pub,” says Kennedy. “Ishy was still driving his own cab at the time so it seemed a perfect fit. Years later, when I got the artistic director job at Tamasha, I asked him about it again. He led on applying for some research and development money, and we supported him by offering my time in kind as a dramaturg, which was successful,” he says smiling. “Ishy’s brief is to write 10-minute monologues, one for each driver. We’ve got two amazing directors involved: Evie Manning, who runs Common Wealth, and radio producer Boz Temple Morris. The audience will get in and out of three different cars during the night, and the cab drivers will be performing it. So it’s a site-specific community project.”
He explains how this is a good example of Tamasha’s focus on wrapping each of their main shows within a community and educational ethos.
“We’ve got a play with Ishy in development set in a minicab company, and we’re trialling Taxi Tales because I’d like to see if it could become the outreach project for his new play, Approaching Empty,” he says, getting into his stride.
“I’d like to see if we could get a Taxi Tales team to go on the tour circuit ahead of the show and work with local cab firms to generate stories that will then inform the show when it comes to town. Ishy also had the rather lovely idea – he’s already thinking like an artist producer – that you might pay a little more for your ticket and get a taxi to come and take you there with the driver performing a monologue to you. So watch this space,” he says, smiling before looking around him, “because I really want to do an East London version.”
If Kennedy wants to do it, I thoroughly expect to be hearing more than the usual chit-chat from my local cabbie very soon.