Peter Arnott is a playwright and director, born in Glasgow, Scotland. He has been working professionally since 1985 when The Boxer Benny Lynch and White Rose opened in the same week in Glasgow Arts Centre and the Traverse, Edinburgh respectively. Plays since then have been Muir, Losing Alec, The Wire Garden, and Cyprus. He is currently the resident playwright at ESRC Genomics Forum in conjunction with the Edinburgh Traverse Theatre.
Don’t miss Peter’s next play The Infamous Brothers Davenport on at The Lyceum in Edinburgh, January 2012.
Peter's Blog http://esrcgenomicsforum.blogspot.com/search/label/peterarnott
More on ESRC Genomics Forum and The Traverse Theatre.
More on ESRC Genomics Forum and The Traverse Theatre.
Friday Oct 28th, 2011
What are you working on at the moment?
Yesterday I was doing one of my informal get-togethers at the Traverse Theatre, as part of my research into genomics. I come to the Traverse bar with some videos and discuss with people who are interested in the issues and bounce things off them. I am just over halfway through this particular residency with the Genomics Forum and the Traverse. The first half was very much research, the second half is much more with thinking about what play I’m going to write.
What are some of the topics you are exploring and what are some of the responses?
Medical ethics. Who owns the tissue in the body? Once the tissue leaves the body, it becomes the property of the researcher. Issues with synthetic biology. Is it a useful idea to talk about human dignities in the context of genetic research? Also issues about who owns this technology. What are they going to use it for? Do we trust them? The industry has a misconception that people are luddites, that they are primitive and superstitious. That they distrust the technology, because it is somehow unholy and I think that’s not true at all. What we don’t like and don’t trust, are them. What was interesting, is that it’s almost an immediate consensus, but people have no problem with technology or with the idea of genetic modification. The consensus is they have a problem with authority, with ownership. And in a sense, it merges into a more general malaise of capitalism, which we are currently living through.
What is your earliest theatrical memory?
Being in the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, watching Stanley Baxter doing a pantomime. The great Scottish comic actor and impersonator and impresario.
Who or what inspires you?
I suppose the single most inspirational experience would be going to the Citizen Theatre in Glasgow, in a period of about 15-20 years in the 70’s and 80’s ,where it was a world class European theatre. Which in a sense, didn’t know what it had. I saw a production of Macbeth in that theatre when I was about 14, all male, with another great Scottish actor, David Hayman. He was Lady Macbeth. There was no lighting changes, no set, everything was done with trestle tables, the actors sitting on opposite side of stage reading a newspaper when they weren’t in the scene… and I thought, I have to do this... this is too exciting! I was doomed from then on. Of course many things along the way have been very inspirational. A show called Woza Albert, done by the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, 1980-81. A company called ATC, did a two-part adaptation of Don Quixote (The Life and Death of Don Quixote) that completely blew my mind. I saw it in the Oxford University union, in an audience of 5 and I thought this is just GREAT.
Have you ever directed one of your own plays? Any challenges/disadvantages?
I directed my play, Cyprus, in 2005. The disadvantage is that you don’t get a distance from it. I am quite good at cutting, and saying, I may have loved this when I wrote it, but actually its crap! Because it was a very small scale show, it felt like the right thing to do. We did it in a little theatre in Mull, with 3 actors, all one set, not great technical demands, done like an old-fashioned drawing room drama. Where you have a mysterious stranger and have to find out who he is-- it’s a secret service play about the Gulf War and Iraq. We did it in a converted barn theatre and it was all very organic. We had chickens and frogs coming in during the rehearsals. What was very odd, was that it then transferred to London, to Trafalgar Studios. No chickens.
What is your directing style?
Oh. Blimey. I don’t think I have a style… I think it’s a basic insight or stolen idea. A playwright is an actor with a pencil. Being poetic, philosophical is nice, but not necessary. What matters is the immediacy of the relationship between the audience and the actor. If I have a style, it is allowing little to get in the way of that. Never pretend the audience isn’t there. I worked with some very good directors and some very bad directors. The best ones have a way of being in the room, a way of working with actors, collaborators and designers. Really, it has to do with the way of being a person more than an aesthetic system.
One of my best theatrical experiences, an early, formative one, was a play called White Rose, which was on at the old Traverse Theatre in 1985. Basically I was given a brief, a very strict brief--you’re opening on May the 6th, you’ve got 3 actors, this is the space, this is the set- tiny space and make it big - GO! Working from that brief, I came up with something better, so in a way, if somebody offered me a dream project, I’d probably hide in a hole because I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I think theatre works the other way around, here’s the place you’re doing it, here’s whose coming, now think of something.
Final question. Is the director dead?
No! Of course not. Anyone that brings something into the room isn’t dead. Directors have a way of being in the room, in which they filter, suggest, and cajole. Their essential role is to substitute for the audience. Their job is to make this experience as direct as possible for themselves and through themselves as an audience. The director of course is an innovation. Most of us are here to avoid making an honest living. David Mamet, said in one of his books ‘The moment they stop burying actors at crossroads, were in trouble’. The moment that theatre becomes respectable and part of the academy then it’s in trouble. It should be a disreputable way to make a living. The great directors have been organizers of bad behavior.
Thanks Peter for sharing your thoughts!
“Amazement guides his brush.” Bertolt Brecht