From theatre critic, to Artistic Director, to Bush Theatre’s Associate Dramaturg, to award-winning playwright – Daniel Perks speaks to Stewart Pringle about his inspirational journey:
I put my old school dictaphone on the table to interview Stewart Pringle, Associate Dramaturg of the Bush Theatre. The announcements for that afternoon’s matinee performance cut through the recording, reminding me that I need to think of a more technologically advanced way to conduct interviews:
Daniel: Using the old Olympus dictaphone today – Olympus was the make of my first camera too.
Stewart: Mine was a Sneaky Snapper from Boots – it was pink with a green dragon on it. I thought it was the absolute shit.
Daniel: Nice! I used to wear green and orange striped glasses – that was the best I ever did.
Stewart: I always wanted glasses like a mad professor, or Harry Potter. I used to play GameBoy in the dark to deaden my eyes – it didn’t work.
It’s such a wonderfully relaxed way to start an interview with an individual whose career I have excitedly followed for the last few years. Horror festival curator; founder of theatre company, Theatre Of The Damned; Artistic Director of the Old Red Lion Theatre; theatre critic and journalist for The Stage and Time Out… It’s a wonderfully varied, if unexpected, career path:
7 years ago, I moved to London without any financial support, doing my first shows as a director. My entire ambition was to get a play on in London. I didn’t know about the different theatres and how you’d approach them – it all felt quite inaccessible to me.
Doing theatre was very much an exercise in enjoying myself, producing something and putting it out there – there was no industry focus whatsoever.
It was only really when I started reviewing for A Younger Theatre that I started thinking about what the industry looked like, increasing my awareness and my contacts. At first, I naively thought that if I did a good enough show at the Etcetera Theatre, it would probably just go to the West End and that would be it. The idea of there being a subsidised vs. a commercial sector, none of that was clear.
A Younger Theatre is where I first met Stewart – he was my mentor for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, when I was one of the recipients of an AYT Young Critics Award. At that time, Stewart was programming work at the Old Red Lion Theatre, as well as a whole host of other duties that come with being Artistic Director for a small, fringe theatre above a pub. Nowadays, he can focus on the work without also thinking about taking out the bins:
My tastes haven’t changed hugely in terms of the kind of work that I like and the kind of voices that I’m excited by. The Bush Theatre has always been a fan of untold stories – I think about how that might also refer to unheard genres, or unheard locales around the UK. It’s important for us to look at bits of the UK that aren’t traditionally represented.
We’re not going to do a high sci-fi play just yet, but soon!
I’m not colossally interested in the well-made play, I’m more interested in writers who are pushing the envelope of what’s possible in the theatre. There’s no point of working in a new writing theatre if your eye isn’t on what a play might look like in 5 years’ time, or what is different about a play written now from a play that was written 5 years ago.
It’s important to remember that while we’re now in a beautiful library building, we began above a pub. So, we should have the same ethos – backing writers; backing originality; backing the new and the dangerous and the risky.
My ethos has always been don’t bore me, don’t make boring work
The concept of being boring is an alien one when I think about Stewart – he has never been afraid to try something new, to take a risk and champion an underdog. I still put him on a pedestal of sorts, an individual who inspired me to make the leap and put myself out there. But that can be very difficult to do when you don’t fit into the classically considered mould of a theatre creative:
Theatre is still largely the providence of upper middle-class kids, those with the financial backing to do the unpaid work that you have to do before anybody puts any money into your bank account.
There will never be enough routes in
To get your first few steps in the industry, you have to start making work yourself in some way. Places like the Bush have schemes to bring people on who have not yet produced anything, but for the majority of people that we engage with, we’ll have already had an opportunity to see their work. That comes with a prohibitively high price tag – the fringe runs on very exploitative models that lock people out. Failure is a luxury, but also a necessity.
A necessary luxury in any artform is when people get pushed out
Stewart is now in a well-earned position, one where he can help influence the future theatrical landscape. It’s a role that he’s worked hard for and thoroughly deserves, just as much as he deserves his latest accolade.
This year, Stewart won the 2017 Papatango New Writing Prize for his play Trestle, which recently closed at the Southwark Playhouse and received three Off West End nominations (including Most Promising New Playwright for Stewart himself). From Artistic Director to Associate Dramaturg to fully fledged playwright:
I think I’m much greener than most of the playwrights I work with here. Out of everything I’ve done, there’s probably only two hour-long plays that I feel are standalone. I’ve been tinkering for five or six years, it’s only recently starting to feel like this is something I am focussing on.
It’s entirely an internal state of mind. But it’s also in part about how you support yourself. When we talk about mid-career writers, we often talk about people who have got into the situation where they can just write. You’re an emerging writer until you can start to look at a reasonable return. But I’ve never spoken to people who would label themselves as mid-career, or established – it happens to you naturally.
It’s important to remember that all those plays you half-start and never finish, all those plays you stage at university, they all count. They’re all part of your practice and your learning process.
He may have only been tinkering with playwriting, but Stewart has been a dramaturg in one way or another for a large portion of his career. This position at the Bush Theatre only seems to galvanise the strengths and qualities that I noted in Stewart, since he mentored me as a young critic.
But what does the job of Associate Dramaturg involve?
I run the literary department here, managing relationships with all the writers and their agents. I run the emerging writers group, which is our talent development programme. I present the rest of the creative team with options regarding the kind of work that we might want to stage next year.
I create the buffet from which the seasons are picked
The dramaturgy is about being there throughout the creative process to get to the truth of what that play is about. Eve Leigh’s definition of a dramaturg is my favourite,
“A dramaturg makes a play more like what it is”.
I think of it very much as remaining in my old job as a theatre critic, watching from the outside but before the show has opened.