Friday, 26 May 2017
Fin Kennedy
Written by Simon Piening   
Sunday, 18 May 2008 00:52
Fin KennedyYour first big break as a writer was in the “bogs” at the Royal Court Theatre in London. What was the play and what did it feel like to see your work performed for the first time?
It was a ten minute section of a terrible early play called Mercury which has (quite rightly) never been produced!  It was a sort of runners-up runner-up prize in the Royal Court Young Writer’s competition that year, where they did readings all over the building of extracts of all the plays that didn’t win, or come runner-up, but which I suppose they felt sorry for. Mine opened with a scene in a toilet cubicle, so that was where they put it. Still, it was a great experience as I got to sit in on rehearsals for that and many other plays that were being rehearsed that weekend, and I suppose it was then that I really got the bug for writing. 

‘How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found,’ only your second full length play, was famously turned down by almost every major theatre company in London before surprising everyone and winning the prestigious John Whiting Award in 2005 – the first play to do so without actually having been produced.
Can you tell us a bit about the play and what inspired it…

The central theme of How To Disappear is identity, particularly identity in the 21st century, and the sense of alienation from one another and from ourselves which many people seem to experience as a by-product of modern life. The play follows an advertising executive who suffers a breakdown of sorts and tries to change his identity and become someone else, in an effort to escape from himself. Needless to say, it doesn’t work, but the journey he goes on takes him to some very dark places of the human soul.  It’s a philosophical, existential play at heart - which isn’t to say it’s at all dry or inaccessible.  It’s an everyman story about the search for meaning in a world which fetishises the fake – which is why the theme of advertising is so important at the start of the play. Charlie, the lead character, is a Brand Manager - a job which was inconceivable 20 years ago. In the western world we no longer produce actual real goods any more (that’s subcontracted out to the developing world) and instead we produce and manage ‘ideas’ of things - brands. A whole industry has sprung up to manage something that doesn’t actually exist. This seemed to me to be such an absurd state of affairs that I wanted to see what happened if someone tried to apply it to their own life, and re-brand themselves. The play itself is a rollercoaster journey through the seedy underworld of London and Essex, but also a bit of an experiment with form - quite early on we discover Charlie is actually dead, and reality splits into two as we then follow the final 48 hours of his life, plus some strange experiences he has after he has died.  I had to play with form to explore a theme like this, and to look at the thin line between life and death, between existing and not existing.  

Why do you think theatre companies had been so reluctant to produce the work?
I guess you’d have to ask them about that for a definitive answer. My own view is that it took a few risks with form and didn’t stand up to the logical analysis which a naturalistic approach demands. One director said: ‘Is he dead or is he alive? Make your mind up.’ That isn’t the point. It’s about the illusory nature of existence and the thin line we all walk between here and the hereafter. The other thing is that theatres are very nervous about box office these days – new plays are risky enough, let alone one which is a bit strange. That’s why awards are so important, they don’t have to worry about box office and can take a risk in pushing theatre in new directions by recognising risky plays.  Then once you’ve got the award you suddenly have an award-winning product to sell, which lessens the risk for theatres.

What do you think the judges saw in the play, that the theatre companies did not?
The brief they were working to was as follows: “The Award is given to a new play which demonstrates a new and distinctive development in dramatic writing with particular relevance to contemporary society.” As for why they went for it and theatres didn’t, I’ve speculated a bit about that above. But to be honest, your guess is as good as mine!

Were you (indeed ARE you) ever tempted to rewrite/change your work to make it more appealing to potential producers?
I’d never change something after it was written unless there was a very good dramaturgical (and not just commercial) reason for doing so. But there’s an important difference between writing to commission, when obviously you have to pay some attention to who is commissioning you, and writing under your own steam. I’ve done a lot of writing to commission in the past 18 months and it does make you quite ‘reactive’ as a playwright and less proactive. For example, the BBC might come to you and ask if you want to do an afternoon play for Radio 4, so you think ‘Ok, what could I do that might fit that slot?’ You do have to be slightly business-minded about it if you want to survive, because contrary to popular belief playwrights make precious little money as it is, so the last thing you want is for a commission to fall through. 

The opposite approach is developing something in your own time without a commission for it and without a theatre company in mind. I’ve been saving up so I can take three months off unpaid this autumn to do just that. It’s a question of finding a balance between the two. If you manage your time and money well then one play commission can pay for your time off to write the next play. That was why having How To Disappear turned down was so disastrous – I literally ran out of money and had to go and re-train as a teacher, mostly just for the training bursary if I’m honest. Then when the award came through it came with a cash prize so I was able to quit teaching and go back to writing full-time. I still do a lot of teaching and community work, but as a specialised teacher of playwriting rather than teaching GCSE or A-level Drama to a syllabus. I love the teaching I do now, but I make sure that I factor in good chunks of time to work on new play ideas too.

In the western world we no longer produce actual real goods any more (that’s subcontracted out to the developing world) and instead we produce and manage ‘ideas’ of things - brands. A whole industry has sprung up to manage something that doesn’t actually exist.


You hold a Masters in Writing for Performance and have taught playwriting at university level. Yet you’ve openly questioned whether you can in all conscience recommend playwriting as a career.
What are your concerns/reservations?

That comment was in the context of a Guardian newspaper interview about my community work, which includes working as writer-in-residence at a secondary state school in east London. I teach playwriting to the kids there, and some of them get very excited about the idea of making a living as a writer, and ask my advice. My advice is always ‘Get qualified in something else first.’ That’s simply because it’s almost impossible to make a living as a full-time playwright in the current system and with the current low rates of pay. You certainly can’t expect to have a normal life with a regular income where you can make plans and buy a house and arrange a pension and go on holiday and all that stuff most people take for granted. I’ve found it hard enough to make ends meet and I’m a resourceful, white, middle-class graduate with years of experience pitching my ideas and playing the funding system. What chance does a Bengali teenager from a council estate in inner city London stand? Don’t get me wrong, I want more than anything for kids like that to be writing plays, and I’m involved in a number of schemes to try and bridge that gap so that our playwriting community is more representative of the modern multicultural UK. But I can’t recommend playwriting to them as a full-time career until the industry becomes much better funded than it currently is, and starts proactively seeking out and supporting new voices from our minority communities. There are some schemes out there, but they’re still too few and still seen as an experiment, when they should be much more at the heart of what modern theatre companies are about. 

Is it possible to survive as a playwright?
Not exclusively. You have to have a parallel income, some teach, some do journalism, the lucky ones have trust funds. It’s a real diversity issue actually, because it imposes a limit on who gets to write plays. I’m eager to broaden the backgrounds of our playwrights in particular because as storytellers, we hold a unique position. Everything starts with us. We decide which stories are worth putting a frame around. Whose lives are worth putting on stage. If the people who hold this responsibility are from a narrow and broadly similar background then so is their raw material for drama - the life experience on which they draw. This homogeneity of background can’t be good for a theatre industry which seeks to reflect the modern world and the huge variety of people within it.

How have you survived?
Teaching and community work mostly. I teach playwriting to inner city teenagers, and run workshops for theatre education teams. I’m also lucky to have been supported by some smaller theatre companies, like Half Moon Theatre in east London, who have regularly produced my plays for teenagers, which kept me afloat when the mainstream adult work dried up. But I’ve also had to sign on in my time - though at least then you can still write plays. Having a patient and understanding partner helps too.

How can we better equip/support writers? What are the risks for the industry if we don’t?
Whether they’re a single mum from a council estate or a graduate without a wealthy family, there is one main reason why the current system works against beginner writers: it places the onus of responsibility on the writer to invest in their own play. They have to write unpaid, for some considerable amount of time, effectively on a speculative basis, in the hope that their efforts might be rewarded further down the line. Alongside a full-time job and all the other responsibilities of life, this is not a good system for producing great plays. It also means that only certain people get to make theatre: those who can afford to. This isn’t good for theatre because it means we aren’t tapping into the enormous wealth of stories and life experiences which all the new (and even not-so-new) arrivals on our shores bring with them. It also disenfranchises audiences from those communities and runs the risk of making theatre look like a rich boy’s club. For me, theatre in a civilised society is an organ of democracy. In the subsidised sector at least, we all pay for it through our taxes. It’s one of the few areas of collective self-examination which we have left. And like democracy, it isn't good for theatre when access to taking part in it is restricted, however unintentionally.

I’m involved with a pilot scheme here in the UK called Adopt-a-Playwright, run by an extraordinary lady called Sofie Mason who founded website OffWestEnd.com. She has a large network of individual sponsors from the corporate sector, who want to invest in new, culturally diverse work. I’m helping her set up a scheme akin to the patronage system of Elizabethan times, where individual writers have a patron, or group of patrons, who sponsor them directly - their very own ‘Angels’. In this way the writer would have a guaranteed income prior to the completion of the first draft, and the sponsors get an insider’s view up close and personal of an emerging artist at work, and all the credit and satisfaction of having made that happen. It’s a really exciting idea and one which if it succeeds, could be replicated around the UK. Watch this space!

You’re quoted as saying you believe a “dramatic writer’s duty [is] to be investigative” and your own plays are noted for the meticulous level of research that goes into them.
Do you enjoy the research? Why is it so important?

I love research, it’s one of my favourite parts of the job. I particularly like interviewing people and immersing myself in an unfamiliar world. Just this weekend for example I spent the afternoon with a young Nigerian man who was being held in a high security  detention centre near Heathrow airport awaiting deportation, for a play I’m working on for The Red Room theatre company. It’s through research that I get to access lives and worlds beyond my own. This is why research is important - it’s how to have longevity as a writer. When you’re starting out it’s natural to write what you know, and many young writer’s schemes encourage that. But an unfortunate side effect of that approach is that we get a surfeit of rather self-indulgent plays which are about the writer, or the writer’s mates. But once you’ve exhausted your own life for material, and written about all your love affairs and family traumas, what then? You need to start looking beyond yourself.

I also feel there is a moral obligation on writers working in the subsidised sector to investigate the world around them; after all, your commission fee is made up of a nation’s collective taxes, so what are the population getting for their money? You should be out there discovering things which they don’t have the time to find out - and audiences love being taken to worlds they don’t know. When I go to the theatre I’m looking to see something new about the world around me, to be given some sort of insight, or a unique twist on a familiar subject - otherwise why would I pay my money?  In theatre there is a much more demanding contract with your audience; they pay quite a lot of money, give up their evening and make the trip out to sit in the dark for two hours to listen to what you have to say. It’s not like flicking on the TV at home. You have to make it worth their while. Research is the way to give your play the kind of substance which I think audiences deserve. However, no theatre companies will offer an extra fee to a writer for a research period over and above the commission fee for the writing of the play, and this is a real problem. This is why so many small inward-looking plays get staged - they’re all writers can afford on the current rates of pay. If you’re going to get the same fee for a huge epic as you would for a three-hander about ‘me and my mates’ then many writers understandably take the easy option.

Do you think there is a lack of rigour in current writing for performance?
I’m not sure what you mean by rigour. But I do think there is a lack of risk-taking among theatre managements and artistic directors. This creates the illusion that playwrights are only offering up small plays, but this isn’t the case. Those are just the plays that make it through the commissioning system. Younger writers especially aren’t trusted to write big ambitious plays, but every writer I know is chomping at the bit to be allowed to, and most audiences have an appetite for it as well, we’re just being kept apart at the moment.

Having spent a couple of years researching and writing a play and immersing yourself in the world of the characters, how does it feel when you have to hand over your work to a director/actors?
This is another of my favourite moments. Seeing your work have life breathed into it by skilled performers is one of the moments of true magic in the theatre-making process. You do hear that some writers have trouble letting go, but for me seeing a play become a company’s shared property is a really happy thing. I always discover new things about my play at this stage, and often those discoveries in the rehearsal room mean I make changes as we go along in the light of an actor’s insight. It’s a collaborative art form at the end of the day, so that’s just as it should be. I also love it that once a play is published it goes on to have a life of its own in the wider world - such as How To Disappear having its Australian premiere. I can’t wait to see what another company makes of it. It’s also going on in America next January. The journey of a play is never over, and there’s something quite beautiful about that.

How To Disappear Completely And Never Be FoundThe production of ‘How To Disappear’ in Melbourne later this month, by independent theatre company Hoy Polloy, is the first time it has been produced in Australia. I believe you actually spent a year in Australia when you were younger.
What were you doing in Australia?

I did the backpacker thing when I was 18, I lived in Sydney for 6 months and worked in various theatre bars and box offices. I saved up for a car and bought a knackered old Ford Falcon with a friend of mine, then drove all round the country and across the desert. I had a brilliant time and still have friends in Sydney who I visit every few years.  I was in Sydney this Christmas actually and just fell in love with it all over again. I grew up by the seaside so I really miss it in London. Plus I’m a real foodie so I love all the restaurants - on this trip I discovered Food Safari. Maeve O’Meara rocks!

Can we expect to see more of your plays in Australia any time soon?
No plans beyond this one as yet, but I’m open to offers… I loved Australian theatre when I was out there, STC, Belvoir Street and the Adelaide festival all produce world class work. I thought the whole fringe theatre scene in Sydney was really impressive too - much more consistently high quality than you get over here. I’d love to see more links between our countries and a greater exchange of work. I could happily come back to Australia to live for a couple of years, but I’d need to be sure I could get enough work out there to make ends meet. So if it ever happens it’ll be some time away! I’ve got Food Safari and Summer Heights High on DVD though, so that gives me my Aussie fix for the time being.


How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, presented by Hoy Polloy Theatre, opens this week at the Mechanics Institute - further info»

Fin's website: www.finkennedy.co.uk


Photos -
Top right - Fin Kennedy at work
Bottom Right - David Passmore as Charlie in Hoy Polloy's production
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