Theatremaker Kirsty Housley: ‘I’ve got this weird niche – the best work is often quite blurry’
Kirsty Housley navigates the fault line between devised work and playwriting. She tells Lyn Gardner about the industry divide, why she doesn’t get the credit she deserves and why she is the go-to woman for ‘weird’ projects
Kirsty Housley doesn’t call herself a director or a writer but prefers the term ‘theatremaker’. “It’s the shortest way to describe what I do,” she says when we meet at the Bush Theatre, west London, where the Edinburgh hit The Believers Are But Brothers, which she co-directed with Javaad Alipoor, is about to open.
“I used to say that I’m a theatre director, but I got to the stage when it didn’t feel as if it reflected what I did. So, I started to say that I was a director and a writer and a dramaturg and you could see people glazing over and losing interest. So now I just say I’m a theatremaker.”
And as a theatremaker, Housley is busy. Alongside Believers, she is the dramaturg on Arinze Kene’s Misty, which opens at the same venue in March. She is also directing a new touring version of Bryony Kimmings’ A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer – which opens in Liverpool at the end of the month – and will again be working as co-director with Simon McBurney on The Encounter when it sets off on tour in the spring.
What makes Housley so interesting is she navigates across the fault lines of British theatre, which too often sets devised work in opposition to playwriting. For her, these are “false distinctions”.
“Of course, there are different processes in making different kinds of work but the best work at the moment is often quite blurry,” she says. “I don’t think the death of the playwright is imminent, but when there has been a dominance in the big institutions for such a long time, anything that is a bit different can feel threatening. But it’s unnecessary to fear other processes.”
There was a time in Housley’s career when people said she would have to choose a strand to focus on, essentially to abandon either devised work or plays. She refused, saying the two feed off each other. “A lot of work I’ve done on scripts is useful when devising and vice versa,” she says before adding: “Why wouldn’t you want to use all the tools available to you?”
Still, most institutions and buildings are geared to produce writers, she says, not least because the financial risk is so much lower for a play.
“There is a will to work differently, those buildings are excited by different processes, but they don’t necessarily know how to support them,” Housley says.
“It is relatively cheap to get someone to write a play. But it’s a gamble to get someone in a room with a group of actors for two weeks before they can show you any material at all… and a difficult one for a theatre, particularly when funding is tight.”
She adds: “I have never experienced venues being presented with a script saying, ‘Oh, no, not a script. Can’t you just get some actors in a room for me?’ It is still the way British theatre is set up.”
For Housley, the way a story is told is as important as the story itself, and she is the go-to person to explore finding new forms in narrative. As part of the new run of The Encounter, she will hold a two-day workshop to “interrogate how form and staple can hold as much meaning as content”.
This, and her ease at shifting from traditional plays to devised work, means Housley is also the go-to person when someone has a great idea – such as Alipoor, who was exploring the connection between everyday technologies and how they facilitate extremism – and translating it into coherent theatre. The number of calls and emails she receives is increasing.
“I’ve got this really weird niche in theatre and it means that lots of weird and interesting things often come along. If it’s men with microphones, I’m your woman,” she jokes, referring to the fact that both Believers and The Encounter use technology rarely experienced in theatre: WhatsApp in the case of Believers and binaural sound in The Encounter.
But getting to this point has not been easy. After finishing a drama degree at the University of Warwick but with no industry connections, she temped for years while trying to break into the theatre industry.
She managed to get a job running every aspect of Etcetera Theatre in London and looked set for early success when she made a piece called Blue Jam, inspired by Brass Eye creator Chris Morris’ radio shows.
“Because I had no expectations I just went, ‘This is the material I want to use and this is the way I want to make it.’ Without knowing the rules I just made what I wanted to make,” she says. But the show’s modest success – including runs at Battersea Arts Centre and Riverside Studios, London – proved inhibiting.
She admits getting scared over her next step. “The months passed and people kept saying, ‘What are you going to do next?’ I didn’t know what I should do. I think I suddenly became aware that a career as a theatre director was within my grasp and I was scared I’d get it wrong.”
Q&A: Kirsty Housley
What was your first non-theatre job? A kitchen porter in a pub kitchen when I was 14. My hair stank of chip fat all the time.
What was your first professional theatre job? I did press and programming for the Canal Cafe Theatre (and worked behind the bar to make up for the terrible pay). It was also where I first directed.
Wha’s your next job (after Believers)? I’m making a new show with Bryony Kimmings in the summer about how traumas change you as a person.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? I found people really generous and I was given so much good advice. But really you’ve got to find out for yourself what works for you and what doesn’t, and be prepared to fail sometimes as a result.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Whoever I’m in a room with at the time, and (cliche though it is) David Lynch.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be honest. And use the meeting to find out if this is a job you actually want.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? A musician, or gardener.
Looking back, Housley identifies a lack of self-confidence that may have arisen as a result of gender politics and a background that did not fill her with the sense of self-entitlement that helps many directors early in their careers.
“In my family, we read books but we didn’t know anyone who wrote them, or made theatre or music. If you haven’t had access to that trajectory in your personal experience, then it is much harder to imagine,” she says.
“In those circumstances – and my parents were really worried about me going into theatre – you feel as if you are always playing catch-up. When you get somewhere you go: ‘I can’t believe they let me in here’ and it’s hard not to think about it as a one-off.
“But if you come from a background in which you feel entitled to go on that road and get to that position, then the knocks on the way are just knocks on the way. But if you’re not totally sure of your right to be in that place, then every rejection can feel like the answer you were expecting anyway.”
That’s not an issue for Housley now, who skips between working on her own projects and offering dramaturgical support or directing other people’s work.
Not that it has always been easy to get the credit she deserves. After The Believers Are But Brothers opened to huge acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe, co-director Alipoor wrote a comment piece for this publication pointing out that Housley was as much responsible for its success as he was, yet hadn’t got the credit, perhaps because she was a woman.
Housley thinks that it is also because the industry is not good at talking about collaboration and doesn’t really understand how it works. She recalls a conversation about The Encounter she had with an artistic director with whom she was having a meeting.
“He said: ‘I suppose you were more like an assistant really. I had to swallow my anger and say, ‘No, the assistant director was the assistant director, I was the co-director.’ But every time you have to assert it, it makes you seem weaker in a way.”
She adds: “I feel that if you have to keep shouting about what you’ve done, it detracts from it. But I also know that there is no one out there who is going to join the dots for me.”
CV: Kirsty Housley
Born: Southampton, 1978
Training: Warwick University, degree in drama. Assisting Emma Rice on A Matter of Life and Death at the National Theatre, London
Landmark productions: The Encounter (2015), A Pacifist’s Guide to the
War on Cancer (2016), The Believers Are But Brothers (2017), Misty (2018)
Agent: Macnaughton Lord
The Believers Are But Brothers runs at the Bush Theatre, London, until February 10
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