Adam Spreadbury-Maher has championed LGBTQ theatre at the King’s Head Theatre for years. To kick off this year’s Queen Season 2017, he has chosen Kevin Elyot’s first piece. Daniel Perks talks to him about Coming Clean:
In this 50th anniversary year, it is more important than ever to mark the achivements made in LGBTQ rights – the country has been awash with events of all kinds, from theatre to art to Gay Pride, celebrating the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The King’s Head Theatre, as a lynchpin of the LGBTQ theatre scene, has kicked off its Queer Season 2017 with a play last seen in 1982. Kevin Elyot is back with Coming Clean, one of the first examples of a gay kitchen sink style work. A pivotal playwright to celebrate a pivotal year.
I caught up with Adam Spreadbury-Maher, director of Coming Clean and Artistic Director of the King’s Head Theatre, during the run to chat about the Queer Season‘s place in a landmark year:
Why did King’s Head choose Coming Clean as the flagship piece for the Queer Season 2017?
I had just seen a reading at the Tricycle Theatre and I was getting the ginger line [the Overground for non-Londoners] back with Jenny Topper. I was talking about Kevin Elyot‘s Twilight Song, which is currently closing at the Park Theatre, at how I was looking at lot at Elyot’s work and was interested in doing something. Jenny was the director that first programmed Coming Clean in 1982 when she was director at the Bush Theatre. I read it as soon as I got home and that was it – one Artistic Director talking to another on the way back from the theatre, on the ginger line.
Music is a large part of the storytelling – it’s about the humdrum of domestic rhythms with the complications of anonymity and fidelity.
Was it intentional to put two of Elyot’s plays on in North London simultaneously – yours at the King’s Head Theatre and Twilight Song at the Park Theatre?
David Sloan knew our play was going on – what started off as serendipity turned into something really fantastic. Doing Elyot’s first and last play at the same time, what a wonderful gift to London, what a wonderful way to commemorate the partial decriminalisation. I’m honoured that the King’s Head Theatre can play a part in that.
How has working on Coming Clean influenced your understanding of the decade, the 1980s?
The joy of working on the play is that we can look at the whole period – the pop culture, the aesthetics, the music, the politics, the law and the deregulation of the city because Thatcher’s come in.
We’ve learnt about the heteronormative paradigm – women were expected to go to work and yet also expected to do all the housework. The interior design was very much DIY – stencil your own walls; clashing colours.
Coming Clean is a period piece – we talk about the characters being born in the 1940s, growing up in the 50s and 60s and what it meant to be gay pre-decriminalisation. You’re in the eye of the storm in 1982, now we can look back and talk about the sense of change, such as the free market and the right to buy schemes.
Why hasn’t the play been done in 35 years?
It’s a beautiful play, but I’m not sure that it was relevant. It also might have been seen as insensitive. But now we’re talking about PrEP, undetectable and untransmittable. Putting promiscuity on stage without the complications of passing on HIV is something we can do again in a mainstream way without it being offensive or insensitive to what was a horrendous tragedy.
Tell me about the music choices for this show.
They’re written specifically in by the playwright, but it’s part of the dramaturgy too. Music is a large part of the storytelling – it’s about the humdrum of domestic rhythms with the complications of anonymity and fidelity. Just because we can live together legally without fear of arrest, do I have to stop cottaging?
Elyot was really into music – a lot of his plays have got record players in them. He originally wanted to call the play Cosi (as in Cosi Fan Tutte), but he was told he couldn’t by the literary manager at the Bush Theatre, so he changed it to Coming Clean.
I’ve only recently started to engage with rhetoric about the low pay-no pay on the fringe. I’ve always just done it.
How do you, as an Artistic Director, go about programming a season like the Queer Season?
Theatre is a collaborative art form. The richest programme comes about by empowering as many people as you can in the organisation to feed into that programme, with a coherent vision. We were at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe; we were at this year’s Brighton Fringe; I had an associate at the International Gay Theatre Festival in Dublin and we try to see everything we’re invited to.
It’s a joy getting to know companies on their way up or back from Edinburgh and developing new relationships. You go out prospecting, looking for gold when you see shows – we bring in what we think is interesting and challenging for our audiences. Within that you find something that needs to be cherished and nurtured even more, which I really think is going to happen out of Queer Season 2017 as well.
That’s what makes the King’s Head Theatre special and different – I want to provide an opportunity for every theatre maker at every stage in their career. There’s always a home for you at the King’s Head Theatre, whether it’s a one-off on a Saturday afternoon, or a six-week season. That’s the exciting thing about the King’s Head Theatre, that’s why it exists.
Festival 47, for example, was a really exciting showcase – this year there was a great number of female playwrights, and everyone was paid. I’ve only recently started to engage with rhetoric about the low pay-no pay on the fringe, I’ve always just done it. Opening The Hope Theatre was my answer to people saying, “You can only do it at King’s Head Theatre because you’ve got x number of seats”. The Hope Theatre has 50. Then they said, “You can only do it because you programme this type of work”. So, we did new writing.
I like to think that the King’s Head Theatre is like a stream and that you can get on somewhere along the stream and stay. My vision is to make that stream longer – people can get in earlier and stay longer. Recent news lets us work on that.
Is that reflected in the Queer Seasons?
Last year’s Queer Season companies have gone on and done full seasons. Peter Darney, for example, who I met through doing the Queer Seasons, this year spotted Gypsy Queen in Dublin. It’s a rich tapestry and community or sharing ideas and values. Coming in through the Queer Season is a way to start working together.
That’s the same with the cast of Coming Clean – I’ve never worked with any of these actors before either. We’ve got a great production team – all female except myself and the lighting designer. It’s so empowering to work with such a diverse group of people – the ideas and the results are so much richer.
The richest programme comes about by empowering as many people as you can in the organisation to feed into that programme.
What advice do you give new or emerging directors?
At the start of his book, “So You Want to Be a Theatre Director?”, Stephen Unwin says, “When you wake up in the morning, if there’s anything that you’re even remotely interested in or good at, that isn’t theatre directing, you should do it.” It is a very difficult industry to get into – I’ve been so fortunate to be able to carve out my own career.
I set up a 12-month programme where we take on two directors every six months at the King’s Head Theatre. That’s what I suggest – become an apprentice. But also, be really careful about what you decide to direct. When you’re starting out, it’s your choices that define you – there’s a skill you can learn, but there’s taste that you can’t.