Director Matthew Xia: ‘The moment you lose an audience member, you’ve failed’
With his Frankenstein freshly brought to life at the Royal Exchange, the director and DJ tells Catherine Love why he’s dug into the story’s psychology and how theatre has the power to dismantle society’s structural prejudices
Matthew Xia is driven, he says, by an interest in “other people’s stories”. His CV may seem eclectic at first glance – from composing hip-hop scores and presenting a Radio 1Xtra show, under the name DJ Excalibah, to directing – but he insists it is all connected by the desire to share stories.
“The stories I was really interested in were the stories of the other,” says Xia. He draws a direct line from his championing of independent, underground hip-hop as Excalibah to the production of Frankenstein he’s currently directing at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.
On his radio show, he was promoting “marginalised stories”, and he sees Frankenstein as another tale of being marginalised and “made ‘other’ by society”.
“I was never the author of the stories,” Xia says, but rather “the bridge between the storytellers and the audiences”. He sees theatre as a way of presenting people with stories and viewpoints they might not otherwise encounter.
This is evident in Xia’s directing projects, from exposing the hidden experiences of zero-hours workers in Katherine Soper’s Wish List to probing the links between mental health and ethnicity in his acclaimed revival of Blue/Orange. “I think by putting people’s lived experience in front of others, you close the gap between them, or you at least reduce the gap between them,” he says.
There’s also an intimate link between Xia’s DJ-ing and his approach to directing. “I’m very aware of rhythm,” he says, comparing shifts in pace and tempo on stage to the ebb and flow of the crowd as one record follows another. “It’s about keeping that energy and deciding when to release, when to excite, when to delay, when to enthuse and push forward. I think that is the skill of an adept director.”
He had not considered directing before British theatremaker Ultz brought him on board for a production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2007. That venue has featured in crucial moments throughout Xia’s story.
It was there, in the youth theatre, that he first became hooked on drama. “I just remember feeling incredibly welcome,” he recalls, “and seeing people who looked like me on stage pretending to be people who definitely weren’t us.”
Looking back on those early years at the Theatre Royal, Xia talks about the revelation of encountering plays such as Tunde Ikoli’s Scrape Off the Black (“I went: ‘Oh, this is my life on stage.’ ”) and the importance of representation. Later, it was the same theatre that gave him his first experiences of the professional rehearsal room.
Right from the start, Xia had his eye on artistic leadership. “Before I was a director I wanted to be an artistic director,” he says. With that ambition in mind, he set about working closely with artistic directors he admired, from assisting David Lan at the Young Vic – where Xia went on to win the Genesis Future Directors Award with his production of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead – to working under Gemma Bodinetz at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.
But that move away from Stratford East also opened his eyes to just how white and middle-class most British theatre still is. “I was suddenly very aware of my class in a way that I hadn’t been,” he says. “I was aware of my colour in a way that I wasn’t at Stratford East. I think I went through quite a large period of transformation, of trying to assimilate quite a lot.”
Q&A: Matthew Xia
What was your first non-theatre job? Being a delivery driver’s mate, so map-reading and carrying heavy shit upstairs.
What was your first professional theatre job? As an actor in an Armando Iannucci short film. But I started performing and making work while in the Theatre Royal Stratford East youth theatre.
What’s your next job? After Frankenstein I’m going to go and make a play called Shebeen by the Alfred Fagon Award-winning playwright Mufaro Makubika, which is going to be produced by Nottingham Playhouse in association with Theatre Royal Stratford East.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You can do anything you want to do.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Ultz, the designer and director. When I was 16 he asked me to write a musical for him, and I did. When I was 25 he asked me to co-direct a play with him and I’d never done that before. So in terms of establishing me as a theatrical composer and a director, it’s absolutely him, his teachings and his encouragement.
What’s your best advice for auditions? All you can make are the choices you would make. Don’t worry about what other people are doing in that room.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? I’d still be DJ-ing.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always have a glass of wine when I’m watching a show and noting it with an audience, but I think that’s more about quelling my own fear than anything else. I’m not bothered by people whistling or saying Macbeth. I’m not particularly superstitious. I always wear a suit and a bowtie to a press night of my production and I often describe it as my suit of armour. I have to hide under a fog of alcohol and a nicely tailored suit and then everything will be ok
A pivotal experience was Xia’s stint as associate artistic director at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, which he joined in 2014. “Those three years were crucial in my development,” he says, “in that I got to buddy up with one of the best leaders of an arts venue in the country to understand how she thinks.”
Xia is full of praise for its artistic director Sarah Frankcom, who he says pushed him out of his comfort zone and helped to refine how he thinks about theatre. “I love what Sarah says, that theatre helps us understand ourselves and each other a little more. That’s surely what art is for, all art – reflection on the human condition.”
While at the Royal Exchange, Xia worked with the theatre’s young company, sat on the judging panel of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and directed a major production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. But his proudest achievement was establishing Open Exchange, an artist development scheme that now has hundreds of members. “It allowed me to really live and enact the dream of facilitating other people’s dreams,” says Xia.
Now that he’s left the Royal Exchange, Xia suggests that running a building is “the next logical step”. He wants the ability “to empower artists to inspire individuals and communities, and to effect change”. He’s also committed to theatre that’s truly accessible to audiences. “I call it ‘the mum test’,” he says. “At which point would my mum walk out? At which point would my mum go: ‘I don’t quite get it’? The moment you lose an audience member, you’ve failed.”
Xia insists that making popular theatre is not about dumbing down. “It’s about knowing what the job of a storyteller is,” he says. “Being a provocateur, being a stimulator, being a moment of inspiration or clarity or understanding, and offering as many different ways into your piece of art as possible and excluding nobody, ideally.”
This is precisely the approach he’s taking with Frankenstein. He describes his version, written by April De Angelis, as faithful to the novel and to audiences’ expectations. “It has the same framing device as the book. We deliver all the same moments as the book, but we’re also aware of the filmic history,” says Xia.
“You can’t jump into something with a 200-year history and pretend there aren’t a million clichés, a million dodgy tropes of monstrous walks and bolts in the neck and green skin and all of the things that people expect. I think we’ve just tried to hold on to what Mary Shelley first wrote and why she wrote it and how it relates to now.”
And, Xia adds, he wants it to be scary. “I’m really interested in, not just bangs and horror, but a psychological unnerving. What is suspense? What is tension? Why does horror work? Why do we want to see that sort of thing? What does it give us as humans? If I can understand it then I can hope to make sense of the rules of it.”
On top of the frights and the monsters – “this is going to be the best creature anyone has seen on a British stage” – there’s a more serious side to this adaptation. Xia describes Frankenstein as “a play about a man who struggles to face up to the responsibilities of his own actions, who is over-reaching and ambitious in a destructive, masculine way”.
In the year of #MeToo and #TimesUp, Xia is interested in probing toxic masculinity, just as he’s interested in how structural racism conspires to marginalise people. “My issue is with structures, because structures are the obstacles,” Xia says. “I am not anti-white, but I have an issue with whiteness like I have an issue with the patriarchy.”
Dismantling those structures comes back, in the end, to sharing stories. “I think theatre has the power to affect people in ways that other artistic mediums can’t,” suggests Xia. “If it’s done well then it puts real people in front of you. When it’s done sensitively and with a delicate approach, then you can bridge divides.”
CV: Matthew Xia
Born: 1982, Leytonstone
Landmark productions: The Blacks (co-director), Theatre Royal Stratford East (2007), Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, Young Vic (2013), Blue/Orange, Young Vic (2016), Into the Woods, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2016)
Awards: Genesis Future Directors Award, 2013
Agent: Nick Quinn, the Agency
Frankenstein runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until April 14