Andy Smith is a theatre maker who has been writing and performing his own work since 1999, operating under the name ‘a smith’ between 2002 and 2012. Andy completed his Practice-as-Research PhD at Lancaster University in 2014. His thesis, What We Can Do With What We Have Got: A dematerialised theatre and social and political change is an exploration of Andy’s practice and specifically focuses on his plays commonwealth and all that is sold melts into air. This dematerialised theatre is simple in form but complex in content and is achieved through gentle acts of removal, replacement and reduction. He is a long-term collaborator and friend of Tim Crouch, co-directing and supporting productions of An Oak Tree, ENGLAND, The Author and Adler and Gibb. In 2013 he co-wrote and performed what happens to the hope at the end of the evening for the Almeida Theatre alongside Tim. Andy is currently touring The Preston Bill and from Autumn 2018, his new play Summit.
Getting Together and Thinking Together
PC: What is theatre?
AS: Well, for me, theatre is an act of getting together to think together. There needs to be a vehicle for that thinking, though: a play; a story; a dance, but getting together seems to be the crucial thing. I can’t think of a theatre without an audience. I can think of a theatre without everything else: no actors, no lights, no sound, but I can’t think of a theatre that doesn’t have an audience. The possibility of the togetherness and the social quality of that are what I like about theatre. That is why I make it.
PC: How has theatre changed you?
AS: It has allowed, and continues to allow me to have a confidence to explore the world and be in the world. In all that is solid melts into air, I talk about finding the theatre rather romantically.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I ended up here, you know? How I got involved in this… in making this… in making theatre, I suppose. Which I suppose you could say was when I was around fourteen or fifteen years old.
I can still remember the feeling I got from making and seeing and just being in the theatre. You could think and talk about difficult and funny things and meet and talk to other people and feel like you were being met yourself.
Afterwards you might drink beer and smoke cigarettes and you would feel a bit rebellious as well as stupid or clumsy but also a bit more grown up or mature… like you had a sense of responsibility maybe.
It just felt like a good situation… like a situation full of potential. It made me feel quite alive. It felt like a very real thing. And I suppose because of that I had a desire… a desire or instinct to do something, you know? Something good, something real, and maybe to change something.
I think when you’re that age it’s a time – and I’m sure this is no coincidence really – it’s a time that you become aware of how fragile it all is. You think about how the world is a scary and big place but also how good it is, how many things seem possible and good.
And then somewhere along the line some of those feelings probably get a knock, become a bit suppressed. Those good old youthful feelings get suppressed and some of that desire is replaced by something else. That good old cynicism or scepticism starts to creep in.
I still find myself looking for those situations though, and I think that’s mostly why I’m still interested in doing this… is why I still do this… is why I still want to do things like this.
PC: Is that influential teenage phase of life, the rebelliousness, the inquisitiveness, something you try to engender in your audiences?
AS: Yes, possibly, I know that my relationship with an audience and how I speak to an audience can sometimes be romantic and perhaps unrealistic for some people. I often return to ideas of possibility and potential and there is a desire to create a feeling of that within an audience. Maybe how you find the theatre is then what you are constantly trying to recreate or represent. I am often trying to find a sense of possibility, a sense of agency and a sense of capacity that we are able to do things that might change things.
Andy Smith Just Tells Stories
PC: How do you describe your work to people?
AS: I often say that I am a theatre-maker, and if I need to justify what that is, I say I do a bit of everything: I write, I direct, I perform, I teach. But it really depends on the context. I often say I just tell stories and I am interested in the notion of it just being that rather than anything more complex than that. If I was at a conference of theatre academics they would want a little more than, “I just tell stories.” But there is a cheeky desire in me to go, “Well it is just that, it is just me telling stories.” Is that not enough? Or let’s unpack what that means rather than try to add on to it, let’s delve deeper into all the possibilities of just telling stories.
‘Just’: Lightness and Impact
PC: Let’s unpack it! You say you just tell stories. Let’s delve deeper into each word. Why do you use the word ‘just’?
AS: That contains multitudes of things. It could be read as a throw-away comment, but I suppose that it is to do with focus. If you can give a softer focus around it by saying it is just a story then it will potentially be heard much more acutely. Or to use the word that Chris Goode used in his interview with you: there might be a ‘lightness’ around it. Lightness is great. If a tactic of lightness is taken there is potentially more of an impact to be had upon both myself as well as the audience who are involved in the act of theatre. Rather than if I go to you, “Listen to this, I am really dealing with something heavy here.” That will immediately stick some gravity into the room, which I don’t know is always helpful. So maybe the ‘just’ feels like a throw-away thing but perhaps the reason that I am doing that is to take it more seriously in a way, to put some soft focus on it so that it is potentially heard more clearly.
PC: Do you want your audience to be made up of people who come with expectations of a more traditional theatre? Will the lightness of your work have more impact with that kind of audience?
AS: I would like to feel like lots of people can access the work that I make. I think that very often the barriers are placed there by the necessity or the capacity or the desire to be able to sell it to a particular audience or to be able to say what it is. The Preston Bill is an interesting example to look to there because I tried it out in lots of different contexts in order to stress test it to work in different ways. I did it in a corner of a pub once, we just sat in the corner and the pub was there just going about its pub business and I just turned a table into a little stage and I had a little dolls house chair. There were people there that had come to see it but there were also people there that weren’t there to see it and I just told the story. I have also done it in bigger venues, two hundred seat venues and for me it works just as well there. Of course it is sold differently depending on what context it is in. Sometimes it can be a clearer channel to tell the story if people encounter it without any knowledge of what it might be. I was invited to a community centre, where I played it for a coffee morning of ladies who were between the ages of 75 and 89, so a similar age to the character in that show when he dies. I was pretty worried, I didn’t know how it was going to play out at all, but it was absolutely beautiful. There is a moment in that show when I sing a hymn when there is a funeral and they all joined in and it was an extraordinary thing. They hadn’t been told anything about me, they had been told that somebody was going to come and do a bit of theatre but I just walked in, said hello, put a chair out and just did it. There was no explanation, there was no necessity of a biography, there was no need for them to have an interest in experimental theatre practice of the twenty-first century, they were just some people who wanted to hear a story and we had an amazing time, then we had a cup of tea and I left.
‘Tells’: Togetherness and Interdependency
PC: Those examples lead us nicely into the ‘tell’ of ‘Andy Smith just tells stories.’
AS: “Any work of art,” says Richard Southern, “is an address, in some form, from one person to another group of people.” So telling is that. At the heart of any theatre there needs to be a frame in which somebody is – or some people are – trying to say something to another group of people. That can be read and discussed as a hierarchical bad thing but the ‘telling’ still needs to happen. It is about the expectation of who is more important: is it the listener or is it the teller? I have already said there isn’t a theatre without an audience so there should be some equity or parity between the person or the people who are saying things and the person or the people who are listening and processing them.
PC: How do you make sure there is parity or equity between teller and listener in your work?
AS: I think you make it shared by enhancing the act of gathering.
PC: Is it your story that you’re telling?
AS: I hope that there is a capacity for us to tell the story of us all there rather than just me or just a character that I have created. I would hope that the theatre tells the story of us there. In commonwealth and all that is solid melts into air, that is explicit because it is me, ostensibly being somebody like me or a version of Andy Smith on the stage telling a story about a group of people gathered in a room, so that is the story we are sharing.
I always want to know: why am I being told this story now? I want to know that because I think it should be a story of us, of who we are; both us in the theatre and us on a wider social level.
PC: Your description of the merging of the action of telling and the action of the story seems similar to more larger-scale immersive theatre practice? What distinguishes your theatre from that theatre?
AS: It is probably all connected to the financial distinction which, for me, becomes a philosophical distinction. From what I perceive, maybe perhaps wrongly, that immersive style is using a lot of stuff in order to activate the situation. I don’t want to be dismissive of that kind of work or any kind of work, but there are levels at play in the ‘us’ of that kind of work that I don’t always admire or feel good about. That is to do with the fact that there is a hierarchy at play which suggests – sometimes subconsciously, I think – that one group of people are better than another group of people. While I admit that I have to be the vehicle, I have written the story, I am on the stage telling the story, I am the frame, I am the author of the experience, but the acts of removal and reduction creates less distance between me and the other people that are in the room. It is an attempt to be a little bit more humble and bring more of a sense of interdependency and parity between the listener/watcher and the teller.
The line from the start of Tim Crouch’s England where the character of English says to the audience “Thanks very much, if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here.” That is a big line for the narrative of the play but it is also a really simple opening statement of theatre and audience. I hope an audience feels that they are necessary. I am sure that the audiences in large-scale immersive work feel that too but my technique to try and achieve that is to try and make myself more human. I am interested in that.
PC: Your work is not improvised or devised but it is scripted theatre. You write about your practice having an architecture, so how do you foreground the ‘us’ in that architecture?
AS: Lightness is an important quality there, to come in and say hello to an audience or to be with an audience or to acknowledge them at the beginning is a distinct feature of anything that I have written for myself or other people to perform. Tim Crouch often puts in how long a show is going to last. Telling an audience what is going to happen so they can sit back and let us get on with it is important in the architecture of both our practice.
But the us-ness is not an us-ness of we’re all going to be able to do whatever we want. There was a lot of discussion around the idea of participation during Tim’s play The Author, which we made in 2009. People who were dissatisfied with that production and were really frustrated that there wasn’t a moment where the audience couldn’t just join in and do their own thing. But that wasn’t what that was, it’s a play with a beginning, a middle and an end, and we wanted to tell the story. It is not a happening.
But we’re not doing that because we want to hold on to it and keep possession of it, we’re doing it because that is the job of the writer, the director and the performer and hopefully the audience can be the audience in it. As I have kept saying, the audience’s job is really important: it is to process and listen to the telling and to bring themselves to the story and to bring their pre-occupations and their needs and relationships and their thoughts and their ideas to what is going on. Hopefully the space in and of the play allows them to do that, it doesn’t always but that is the hope.
PC: Are there other recurring architectural devices that you use in your practice?
AS: Space and silence are important, I think. An example of silence and how I frame it is in a piece that I first performed in 2011 called all that is solid melts into air:
The performer enters.
So one of the first things that I wrote in my notebook when I started to work on this piece was; ‘it begins with a silence’.
I thought that would be a good thing.
I thought that it would be good if, to begin with, we all sat in silence for a moment.
The performer sits.
OK. So this… this is about how we change the world.
AS: The whole play exists in that sequence. It is the beginning of the play, but also a kind of prologue or overture. In that zone that is the entire piece, the entire piece exists in that act.
PC: You do then return to silence in your work.
AS: Yes, at the end of that play there is a huge silence, I think about four or five minutes was the longest that I ever managed it. That’s the conclusion that I come to in that play. It is not me being tricksy, when the big silence in that work comes it’s been foreshadowed enough for me to just sit there at the beginning and it is okay for them to just sit there all through it. I also hope the us-ness is there in the act of imagination that is often requested of the audience in my work because of a lack of things that are there for them to see. When I start to talk about some event in 1970 in the middle of The Preston Bill, for example, I hope by this time we are engaging our imaginations in that work whether we remember it or not.
PC: Is there something about your body, as the teller, that supports the idea of us-ness?
AS: This is an interesting territory, and it is a bit depressing actually, I am a big, six foot, white man. I am privilege personified or I am patriarchy personified, if you look at me one way. I hope that I am not that, though. I work quite hard in my life to try and engage with notions of equality and politics and feminism but if you saw me walking down the street I am just a big white guy with a beard.
PC: There is the word ‘just’ again. Why does just a big white guy with a beard fit the us-ness of your work?
AS: I don’t know that it does do that, but I can’t alter the accidents of my being. That is what I am. Maybe there is a hetero-normativity to me that might indicate an idea of us-ness to some people. I see that as both potentially a positive thing in terms of my engagement with an audience but also a negative thing in terms of who is being represented on the stage. I have consciously made moves away from that in my operations lately. In 2015/16 this idea floated into my head which then became the play summit, which I hope will tour in the autumn. I wanted to explore notions of diversity and difference and so I realised very quickly that what I was writing was something that I wasn’t going to perform in. One of the performers was a deaf and signing actor, Stephen Collins and the other performers were a black woman, Aleasha Chaunté, and a man called Nima Taleghani who spoke Farsi. I wanted somebody who could speak another language in that play, preferably a non-English, non-European language.
Of course it is still coming from me, I am still the author of the piece but it couldn’t have me in it because it wouldn’t have successfully explored what I wanted it to explore. I thought it would be interesting to try and not do the white, male solo show thing for a bit, or if I did, to try and do something that I am not supposed to do or I am allowed to do.
I did a weeks development at The Place theatre in London last September. I wanted to explore the idea of making a piece called Andy Smith Song and Dance, where I danced and sang, where I used that form, rather than telling a story. I wanted to try and do contemporary dance partly because that is not the sort of thing that I am nominally allowed to do because I am not super-trained or super-fit. But I had a rather amazing week at The Place with a choreographer, a friend of mine, Simone Kenyon, and we created a ten minute scratch performance which I hope we’re going to develop next year. I could only sing and dance, that was my restriction; my limitation was that I was not allowed to do what I usually do.
PC: But you are still challenging ideas of representation. Why is playing with representation so important to your work?
AS: There are millions of different ways to represent something, there are abstract ways, there are symbolic ways, there are naturalistic ways to do it but it is about finding the way that best suits the need of what is being told. The Preston Bill is called The Preston Bill because it was commissioned by a theatre in Preston. I wanted to set it in Preston to pay some respect to the place that it was coming from but I was challenged a lot by people who said to me, ” You shouldn’t call it that, it is a bit specific isn’t it?” And I said, “No, no, it is fine, it could be played anywhere.” And it has played in loads of different places. It doesn’t have to just be in Preston.
Early on I had the idea there would be different characters at each point through the ages – different ‘Bills’ from Preston – but in the end it became just one character. It was very conscious that that character was a white, working class, northern, heterosexual guy. I hope that there is a subversion of expectations in that play in that people sit down and think they’re listening to a nice old story about a chirpy guy who follows lots of clichés about northernness but the life becomes much bigger than just the caricature.
Those ideas are strengthened by the fact he doesn’t exist on stage, he is just a chair and hopefully lives in our imaginations. So I think he is a person in the imagination but I hope he is also a symbol of what politics has become. It doesn’t matter if the audience see this or not, if they see it great, if they don’t that is also fine but through him what I was trying to explore was an understanding of where we are with politics. The piece ends in 2015 on the day David Cameron was re-elected into government, but as I continue to perform it and as the context of the play shifts, the content of the play also shifts, which is what I love about it. There is a reference, for example, to the beginning of the EEC which became the EU and in the subsequent years that has continued to resonate. There are references to George W. Bush and Barack Obama being elected but there isn’t any reference to Trump, but when I talk about Barack Obama that is what a lot of people are thinking about now, including myself. The words are the vehicle and they tell the story but that resonates out with our imagination. There we are at story…
‘Stories’: Form and Content Collide in the Everyday
PC: Why do you choose the stories that you do? What makes a story fit in with your form of theatre?
AS: I have a love of the everyday and a lot of it comes from George Perec, who wrote an amazing book called Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. In that book is an essay that I have often used and I often give it to students to read now called Approaches to What. In it he talks about the importance of the everyday, he asks why don’t we talk about it more, and why don’t we ask questions of it. The phrase that he uses that always gets picked up is, “question your teaspoons.”
I love small everyday stories; often if you pick the right story and if you craft it in a certain way, an everyday story can become about something much bigger than itself, that it is the hope. An example it can be found in Commonwealth, which contains a story about buying cheese in the supermarket – where someone is asked by their partner to buy a particular brand of cheese but it isn’t there and the space where that cheese should be is surrounded by all sorts of cheeses from all around the world. The hope is that a story like that, within the context of that play, can potentially become a commentary on capitalism in a much more effective way than just saying, “Oh Capitalism is doing this, and its bad.” Because we all go, “We know that.” The hope is that there is an engagement and a lightness to be had; an entertaining nature, a quality that hopefully engages an audience in a act of thinking together, that offers a thought process. I love the everyday story because they are just little things that indicate our involvement in the bigger picture and that is a really important thing to me.
PC: Why is that connection with the wider context so important for you?
AS: I hope that the act of theatre and telling stories can both engender a sense of involvement in the theatre itself but also in the world outside, that is the big hope. Often the world outside can make us feel like we can’t be active participants or our active participation is not enough: it is not enough to just put your recycling out. I think it is wrong but there is a potential that people start going, “Well, it doesn’t make any difference.” or “How can I make a difference?” or “I can’t make a difference.” I still hope that we can. But I also hope that I can challenge those ideas a little too. Create a tension. I think those things are beautifully challenged in what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, for example.
PC: How do you craft those everyday stories so that they become bigger than themselves?
AS: I try to inject a sense of wonder or amazement into them. It’s a kind of feeling of being and aliveness and mortality that I am trying to address in the theatre. The example this makes me think of is in the middle of The Preston Bill:
He looks at Edith as she snoozes on the picnic blanket laid out on the grass, down by his side.
And in this moment, he thinks this:
I think this is just about as great as it gets.
This part of this story tells of one of those moments of intensity in life that are full of everydayness but also full of wonder and difficulty, as well as joy. I am getting very romantic about it but I think that is a technique that I’ll do in order to try and create a sense of that happening in the moment of being together in the theatre as well.
For me, this is also a moment where the play and us in the room collide. The desire is to get the form and content in as close proximity to each other as possible, possibly even indivisible. That is why the device of a new actor turning up each night for Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree works well because the character is exactly what the actor is. Tim wanted to write a play about a character who didn’t know what to do or say next and so the actor who turns up to perform An Oak Tree who doesn’t know what they’re going to do or say next is in a perfect position to play the character. The form and content are in perfect harmony there, there isn’t any separation between those to things.
PC: The intention is as much in the form as it is in the content.
AS: Yes. If we can make that happen then it becomes embodied. In the audience as well as the performers. Then the thinking together can happen.
Thinking together is a much more fruitful place in terms of communicating with an audience and also in my ideas of what education might be. A teacher thinking together with the class is much more fruitful than the teacher who is sending you the information in one direction and saying, “This is what the answer is.” They were my worst experiences of teaching and it is connected to my experiences of theatre. I don’t always find it satisfactory when there is somebody on the stage who I perceive is shouting the answers at me and accusing me of not knowing them, or accusing me of being ignorant of the facts. There is not much theatre that does that but I feel it can move in that direction sometimes. I can see it happening in my own approaches in a way, that if you look to earlier work maybe there was more generosity in it than I am sometimes feeling now. But it remains really important to me to never lose sight of having the audience on the same side thinking with you. There is also a self-criticism in what I am up to. I don’t ever want to feel that I am absolved from any responsibility from what is going on. I am as much involved in the ills of the world as I am involved in the goodness as a member of western society. It’s complex.
The Precariousness of Where We Are
PC: Perhaps you could finish by elaborating on what you think our context is now? You refer to Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity as the context for your thesis.
AS: The word that rattles around my head a lot at the moment is the precariousness of where we are. That is something that came across reading Zygmunt Bauman but I have read further into it now, in particular Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class that examines what he saw as a new emerging social class called the precariat at that time. His definition challenges all our pre-conceived notions of what social class might be, and is mainly about a feeling of insecurity which is created in a broad populace, which is certainly the case across Europe at the moment.
Feeling precarious, either through lack of jobs or through terrible wages or having to pay for education or being in massive amounts of debt, creates insecurities that have an impact upon societies. Societies start to divide on social, religious and class grounds and people start to protect their own territory rather than working together or having solidarity with each other. That seems to be happening on a micro and macro level all over the place at the moment. I think that is why Brexit happened, I think that is why Donald Trump has been elected as the President of the United States. Our precariousness has an impact on how we behave socially, particularly in terms of the circles that we move in and the people that we meet. I feel like that is where we are, and we’re in a precarious place.
For me, the theatre space offers a place for solidarity even though lots of people would argue, quite rightly, that it is mostly occupied by the middle classes. But the theatre is still a place where people can get together and think together about maybe some of the issues of the day, things that are going on. I might be able to say that because of the lack of precariousness in my own life of course, but I think that is okay, because if I have a lack of precariousness then maybe I should be spending my time and energy thinking about how I might contribute to a lack of precariousness in others. Even in my own social spheres, I don’t feel that there is an awful lot of solidarity about and I want to try and create situations where we might create more of it.
Read the interview with Tim Crouch here