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Playwright Katherine Chandler: ‘Welsh work can be brutal – but it reflects what’s happening here’

Playwright Katherine Chandler

When she left school at 18, Katherine Chandler had never been to the theatre. Today she is one of the most vital voices in Welsh theatre. She tells Rosemary Waugh about her latest work Lose Yourself

By the time she left school at 18, Katherine Chandler had never been to the theatre. Yet a controversial government scheme changed all that and set her on to the path of becoming one of the most vital voices in Welsh theatre.

After leaving school with no qualifications, Chandler signed on to the dole and by chance was placed at the Sherman Theatre for work experience as part of the Thatcher government’s Youth Training Scheme.

“A kid would get placed to do work experience and get an extra tenner or something,” she says. “I was put in the Sherman Theatre. I was 18 and loved it. I’d never been to a theatre before, I didn’t know what theatre was like.”

It ignited a serious passion for the theatre. The placement became a job that in time led to the belief she could create her own plays. “When I was about 23 or 24, I used to hang around all the shows and the stage management, things like that. I just thought: ‘I could do this.’”

After studying stage management at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Chandler started writing plays. “I had my kids and I thought, I’m gonna try writing. So that’s what I did.”

A few years later, her play Before it Rains [1] was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and won a Writers’ Guild Playwright Award. It was programmed by the Sherman in a co-production with the Bristol Old Vic.

Since then, she’s worked on two family shows for the Sherman – The Ugly Duckling and Princess and the Pea – and in 2016 her play Bird [2], winner of the 2013 Bruntwood Judges Prize, made its world premiere at the Sherman. Most recently, the theatre co-produced Buddy, performed at the RWCMD and Notting Hill Gate Theatre. She has worked with Clean Break, Theatr Clwyd, National Theatre Wales and Cardiff pub theatre the Other Room.

Her latest play at the Sherman is Lose Yourself. Presented as three interconnected monologues, it follows two footballers and one young woman who meet on a boozy night out. The play is set in a nightclub and directed by Patricia Logue, who Chandler saw as just right for the material. “I wanted someone who wasn’t going to be scared to go to quite dark places… and I knew Patricia would be up for that.”

Going to ‘dark places’ is something of a Chandler hallmark. Bird, her play about two friends coming to the end of their time in the care system, was devastating to watch – and she describes Lose Yourself as being similar to her previous works in having “heavy themes”. What draws her to dealing with such tough subject matter?

Bird review at Sherman Cymru, Cardiff – ‘uncompromising in its fury’ [2]

“I ask myself this all the time,” she laughs. “Because I had the best childhood. And I have lovely men in my life. But I think it’s because of that. Because I had such a lovely childhood the thought of not having that childhood really bothers me.”

Yet while Lose Yourself tackles unpleasant behaviour, Chandler is determined for it not to pass judgement or dictate which characters the audience view as good or bad. Exploring drinking culture, male and female relationships and celebrity status, the work and its programming seem notably timely, though Chandler started writing it in 2015 “prior to the Ulster rugby case, prior to #MeToo, prior to Harvey Weinstein”.

The inspiration did come from real events. “There seemed to be things happening in the news all the time and it tended to be around sports people, and it tended to be around young people going out and drinking.”

Q&A Katherine Chandler

What was your first non-theatre job?
Working the markets with my friend’s dad. We used to sell Christmas paper.

What was your first professional theatre job?
Chaperoning on Sherman Christmas shows.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s not all amazing as soon as you’ve had your first play put on. You have to work hard for every gig and you have to work hard on every play.

Who or what is your biggest influence?
I always do things for my family. You have one life, so just do the thing you need to do.

What advice would you give to someone auditioning to be in one of your plays?
Just be truthful. I like to see the person, whoever they are.

If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been?
I would loved to have been a midwife.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Wherever my play is on, I like to sit in the empty theatre and look at the empty set.

With the media often focused on the subsequent court cases, Chandler wondered about the ‘before’ part. Specifically: “Why are blokes, working in groups, in sport, ending up in rooms like that? And why are the girls ending up in those rooms too?”

She believes a lack of opportunities is a big part of the problem. For the character of rising star Josh, football is the only way out of his current life. “For a lot of young working-class, poor guys, that’s the case,” Chandler says. For the fading star Nate, the issue perhaps lies in “learned behaviour”. For the young woman Yaz, it’s a similar story to Josh, the absence of options. Chandler says she wanted to look at “the failure of feminism for the working-class woman”.

She continues: “When I think of my family and friends they’re a bit like: ‘I don’t know who Caitlin Moran is. Who’s that?’ It’s maybe the issues. I think sexual equality is a really big deal for working-class women and I don’t know if that’s been addressed in that way.”

Chandler’s own success has been deliberately centred in Wales. After winning the inaugural Wales Drama Award in 2012, she felt it was important the winning play was produced by and premiered at a Welsh theatre, despite interest from English producing houses. “I really feel that the work we do in Wales is different to anywhere else. I think our voices are working class, strong, and in-yer-face. A lot of our work can be brutal and that’s because it reflects what’s happening in our country.”

Lose Yourself director Patricia Logue
Lose Yourself director Patricia Logue

She describes the start of her career as coinciding with a “buzz” around Wales and its theatrical scene. Latterly, things have been more troubled. In 2018, Chandler was a signatory on an open letter to National Theatre Wales [3] criticising its dearth of investment in Welsh creatives and what Chandler calls: “the lack of output and the lack of ambition from the company”.

So far, the organisation’s response feels “really positive” to the playwright, although she cautions that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. Her beloved Sherman Theatre also finds itself at an important juncture, with Rachel O’Riordan leaving for the Lyric Hammersmith [4] and Joe Murphy replacing her as artistic director [5].

“Rachel was hugely ambitious for the Sherman and knew what to do when something really great landed in her lap. When she joined it was in a dire place and we weren’t sure if it was going to close.”

What does she hope Murphy’s era has in store? “I’d like see Joe build on what Rachel has done. I’d love for Wales to have a literary department because at the moment we operate without that. I would love to see Joe taking a bit of a risk on somebody, and I’d love to see him producing more women playwrights. I’d like to see him bring through voices we haven’t heard. Gary Owen and me are now the old farts. We need some new ones coming through.”

CV Katherine Chandler 

Born: St David’s Hospital, Cardiff
Training: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Landmark productions: Before it Rains, Parallel Lines, Bird, Thick as Thieves
Awards: 2013 Bruntwood Judges Prize, Wales Drama Award, Theatre Critics of Wales, Writers Guild Playwright Award, finalist for Susan Smith Blackburn Prize
Agent: Curtis Brown

For more go to: shermantheatre.co.uk/performance/theatre/lose-yourself [6]

Sherman Theatre appoints Joe Murphy as artistic director [5]