Interview: Oli Forsyth and Smoke & Oakum Theatre

Interview: Oli Forsyth and Smoke & Oakum Theatre

Vault Festival always produces exciting, innovative and though-provoking work and 2017 was no exception. Top of my list this year was Kings, a witty, insightful show that throws a spotlight on a group of individuals we are all too happy to forget about in society. As with other Smoke & Oakum productions, the creative mastermind behind this show about homelessness is writer and Artistic Director, Oli Forsyth. Kings stays true to Forsyth’s successful writing style and builds on the successes of past shows such as Cornermen and Happy Dave – real people having real conversations about real life. Emotive; empathetic; exceptionally talented in the nuances his script conjures forth.

I first saw Cornermen as part of the Incoming Festival 2016 at the New Diorama Theatre and have eagerly had my ear to the ground for any hint at the next production from Smoke & Oakum Theatre. After a well-earned break to reflect on the success of Kings at the Vault Festival, including winning one of the ‘Show Of The Week’ Vault awards, I caught up with Forsyth to get his thoughts:

 

Where did the idea for Kings come from?

I used to work at a bar and I would often finish at about 3am. I left one night  and walked past this homeless guy but couldn’t give him any spare change because we hadn’t got any tips that night. I started thinking what would have happened if he had insisted, had been threatening. If someone else had got robbed by him and the police asked me for a description, I couldn’t tell you what his face was like, if he had a dog, anything.

These people are so unprotected by the rules of society, so why on earth should they play by them?

The actual script was a year in the making, starting after Cornermen finished. Originally it was quite twee, set in the past and a bit happier. Then Vault Festival applications came along [for the 2017 season] – they were going to take Happy Dave, but instead I pitched Kings, which at that point I didn’t quite know how to finish.

Once that happened, it kicked into gear and I started collating the research I’d done. Everyday you’d be exposed to a new issue and it became insane that it could ever be a twee show – none of the stories are twee. It very quickly became women and it very quickly became nasty.

That’s my comfortable ground – I don’t think happy endings really exist. Spoken word artist Luke Wright once said,

“Anything that finishes making you feel happy is a lie and anything with a sting in a tail in it, that is art”.

 

After the successes at Vault Festival 2017, What’s the plan for Kings now?

We’re currently in talks with a venue to give it a three or four week run later in the year. The question then is:

What do you do with it?

We were still learning so much in the final Vaults show, no budget, everybody pitching in. If we get the run and can secure funding, we have the opportunity to make it a proper piece of work and with that comes questions. Is it acceptable to have an hour-long show that ends on a cliff-hanger? Do you do a second act, which begins with a man flying down the stairs? So, we as a company need to think about what does this play become. Simple things done well tends to be my mantra, so if that means making that hour really clean that might be the way. But, I’d love to make it two halves and see where that story goes.

 

Forsyth isn’t one to rest on his laurels – despite the early success of Kings, he is continuing to think about the next stages for his already successful show, Cornermen. Before Incoming Festival 2016, Cornermen had already gone to Edinburgh Fringe Festival, transferred to New Diorama as part of the Emerging Artists Programme and played Vault Festival 2016. The plan now is to tour Cornermen as a collaboration with New Diorama Theatre and Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2018. Forsyth has a huge amount of respect and gratitude for those at New Diorama that have helped shape his journey to date:

They are integral to the industry. These people are so generous, not just with their resources, but their time. When Jake Orr and Eleanor Turney are trying to programme Incoming Festival, it must be like planning the hardest meal of your life – everybody comes in at different times and says they’re vegan, lactose intolerant etc. I don’t think Jake or Eleanor get half as much out of it as we do. I sincerely hope that when I get to the level of theatre they are at, I have that level of generosity.

Another example is David Byrne [artistic director, New Diorama Theatre]. He singlehandedly, in the space of a year, got me an agent, a theatre space, put me on the Emerging Artists programme, comes to see our shows in other spaces and is on the phone whenever I need… I don’t give him anything – he would say you bring the work to the venue but others, like Rhum and Clay or Kandinsky Theatre Company are there too. I don’t know where that generosity comes from. A Younger Theatre is another fine example that gives more than it gets.

 

How important now are these in the face of more funding cuts and reduced fringe coverage in mainstream journalism?

It’s troubling when people like Lyn Gardner get affected – I thought it was funny how many people on Twitter were saying what a travesty it was, even off the back of a one star review from Lyn. She’s an integral part of the scene and it will be tough to see.

I was queuing years ago, outside The Royal Court for day tickets for The River [Jez Butterworth] and started talking with a guy behind me. He was the former financial director of the Hampstead Theatre and said to me:

“We’ve been through these cuts before. It’s when our backs are against the wall, that’s when we start making stuff that really matters. We stop making dramas about middle class families and start trying to push the form.”

I’ve always held that as true – this just paves the way for the next person. But it is getting increasingly hard to maintain that optimism.

 

With all the successes Smoke & Oakum have had over recent years, it appears Forsyth was destined to be a writer and has always enjoyed this level of success. But like all great artists, his first shows were less than perfect:

I originally trained at East 15 to be an actor. Within two weeks of graduating I already knew I didn’t want to pursue it – I was good at being proactive at getting an agent, but the stuff I was getting put up for, I just didn’t want to do it. I was fortunate that a wonderful writer called Ed Harris had come to teach a one day session at East 15 on what it’s like to be a writer, as a clever way of getting actors to think about the words in front of them.

While there, he got chatting to a girl to Holly [Campbell] and gave her The Cow Play for free to do something with. Holly called me that night and asked if I wanted to play one of the characters. So, with all the naivety of being 22, just out of drama school and thinking ‘How hard can it be?’, I saw a Machiavellian way of setting up the company around that – we spent a year constantly on the backfoot.

Ed was endlessly generous. In the first incarnation in Brighton we ran 45 minutes over, performed it in a 130-seat theatre, it was mad. Looking back, if that had been me I would have pulled the script. But Ed had faith.

With Happy Dave, I was trying to do everything and it started becoming unfair on the other actors – they want someone who’s going to be present in the room. With one of the actors I was working with, we had a number of scenes between just the two of us. At the end of a scene, instead of sitting down and talking through it, I would be running off to box office to put comp tickets aside or something. It’s detrimental to the work, going back to the quality control aspect – if you’re the weak link, get out of the play. I’m a quality freak – I really hate saying ‘that’ll do’, it can just ruin the whole concept. The plan over the last twelve months was to phase myself out of shows so that I can spend more time overseeing – Kings was a step on the road to that.

 

He has pushed through shows that didn’t work and found his niche – under Forsyth’s leadership, Smoke & Oakum is a Theatre Company with a bright future. With a natural gift for language, his shows are real and relatable, written with a natural flow and metre.

Simon McBurney often says:

“You can go to any of the West End shows that night, ask the audience afterwards for one of the lines and they won’t be able to tell you. But ask them how they felt and they will talk to you for half an hour.”

That’s true for quite a lot of theatregoers – not so with me, I can remember the lines more. I started out as a spoken word artist, so as a result I allow myself to be one of those people that is affected by language. I hear lyrics in a song, or lines in a poem, and it can feel like someone has hit you in the stomach. To quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“Poetry – the best words in the best order”.

 

For more details about future Smoke & Oakum productions, see the website.

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