After the Ball: An interview with playwright Ian Grant
Poet, publisher and creative consultant Ian Grant presents his new theatre piece After the Ball at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. Focusing on the broken relationships and the individual sentiments of its protagonists, the play arrives on the stage for two big historical anniversaries. Grant wants to direct the attention of the public towards the human stories of memories, independence and betrayal across the world conflicts of the 20th century. Coming from a long career in publishing, he gives to the script a refined depth, together with an engaging development of the characters.
With Niall Bishop, Ian Grant is also co-founder of Time Productions, aiming to promote and collaborate with new talents. We caught up with the playwright to find out his thoughts on women’s equality, what theatre and poetry have in common, and what it’s like to work on the corporate side of the creative industry.
Thank you very much for talking with us. First of all, how did the idea for After the Ball come to you?
The play was prompted by a puzzle in my family’s history. My grandfather served in the First World War but didn’t return home until the end of 1919, more than a year after the war had ended – I never knew what he did during that time. Out of that puzzle I spun a new story, not the story of my family, which developed into an exploration of the traumatic effects of war on family life. In the story an act of betrayal reverberates down the generations.
Despite the drama of the public life in which the play is set, your piece focuses more on the private life of its protagonists, on their feelings. Why is it important to zoom in on the personal tragedies and family stories of the time?
The play emphasises the role of the individual within a social and political context – we see women and men campaigning for the right to vote, for equality in society and for their ability to choose a way of life. We see women and men falling in love, making good and bad decisions, working as best they can to survive in a society pummelled twice in 30 years by world war. Within that framework is the key theme: that we are all individually responsible for our own actions.
The cast counts an equal number of men and women. What do you think of the current debate on women’s equality, especially in the creative industry? Is there parity of the sexes, in your opinion?
It’s a debate that shouldn’t be necessary, but the statistics show that it clearly is. The events of the last year leading to the #MeToo campaign have brought what was always known into a harsh light. I believe the creative industries are no different from any other sector – we’re talking about human behaviour. However, the creative industries, because they are an expression of what people feel and have multiple platforms for that expression, are a very substantial sector through which to drive wider change. Joan Iyiola, currently starring in the RSC’s Duchess of Malfi, trained in law and recently said she feels she can make a more significant social intervention as an actor than as a barrister. It’s up to all of us.
The play arrives on the stage in the centenary year of the end of the First World War and on the 100th anniversary of the votes for women in the UK. How does the show take on these two milestones?
The milestones you mention are moments around which to discuss the themes of the play, rather than the play being a response to those moments. In After the Ball we follow a south London family from 1914 to 1971. A similar tale could be told about any European city family who suffered and persevered through the catastrophic wars of the 20th century.
It’s a story of resilience in the face of personal trauma. It’s a story of political and social bonds that get stretched beyond breaking point. It’s the story of the halting progress of female liberation and political emancipation and the triumphs and challenges that process continues to bring.
Is there a character with whom you most relate?
No. I knew bits of most of them before I began to write the play, but one is a complete stranger. I was writing a scene in a pub, when suddenly Margery turned up in the scene. I have no idea who she is or where she came from, but she decided she wanted to come into the pub and into the play – and she becomes an important agent for change in the story.
Why did you choose an emotional order rather than a chronological one for the scenes in the play?
I believe that over time our understanding of ourselves changes, although the core remains the same (obviously a very broad generalisation). But the change is not smooth or even sequential. In our memories we can ping back and forward in seconds and we grow as people through the accumulation of these reflections. I try to express that changing sense by watching the characters live, or re-live, moments in their lives as they are prompted by their emotional states.
The script is very well crafted. How long did it take to do the actual writing? How does this compare with poetry?
Thank you. I started it in 2013, left and returned to it a number of times, perhaps in the way that the characters in the play are always accumulating experiences and expressing themselves slightly differently as they respond to circumstances. There are similarities with writing poetry – sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it’s very slow and nothing happens, then a Margery may turn up unexpectedly. Poetry tends to be the expression of a single voice, most often in short form. Playwriting is the expression of a single voice trying to imagine itself into a number of interlocking voices, allowing those voices to make their own way through conflicting circumstances – sometimes in overlong form.
How is it working with director Nadia Papachronopoulou?
It is a privilege. Nadia has a fine sense of rhythm and emphasis in drawing living experiences on the stage from text on the page. I also like her tremendous sense of formal physical economy on the stage. If people have something to say Nadia asks them to say it without waving their arms or carrying on a lot of business, which brings great clarity to her direction. I am an English writer with a number of decades of stuff in my head; Nadia is Greek and at an earlier chronological moment in her life. I feel we bring a complementary sense of what it is to be European in the troubled early 21st century.
What makes Upstairs at the Gatehouse the perfect space for this play?
For a small theatre it’s spacious, it gives the work room to breathe. The acoustics are good and it can take both subtle and big language and soundscape. The dressing room is clean and has been painted within recent memory, and there is relaxation space for the actors.
Your career in theatre is rather new, although coming from an old passion. What made you decide to make the change?
My wife Alison got fed up with hearing jolly stories of my acting with university friends before I met her. She wanted to know whether I was any good or not, and booted me into action when I came to a natural conclusion in my full-time executive career as a publisher. I trained at East 15 Acting School under an inspiring teacher, Andrea Brooks, who spoke passionately about the “why” of theatre, as much as the “what” and the “how”. The acting virus is difficult to eradicate, and Andrea caused it to take hold once more – now mostly in the form of writing.
What does theatre share with the world of poetry?
A huge question – what is art? It’s all to do with the fact that at every moment of our lives we are expressing who we are in some way – all life is art. “Artists” try to make shapes out of that continuous expression in order to emphasise something, to say (sing, dance, paint) something more specific that arises in the subconscious and is turned through the application of skill into a form. Writing and acting in the theatre shares this with poetry, and is mostly a more obviously collaborative art form than the individually crystalline work that is poetry.
This is the second play by Time Productions, which you founded with Niall Bishop. Can you tell us a bit more about the company?
Niall and I set up Time Productions partly to make our own work and partly to develop our own practices as actor and writer by collaborating with very experienced theatre-makers as well as offering opportunities to new young talent. We met as actors in a production of Vaclav Havel’s Largo Desolato some years ago, got on well, and share an ambition to make high-quality work that gets noticed. We’ve put on two shows this spring, are working on developing short-from online content, and planning our next shows for late 2018 and beyond.
From words to numbers: you are also partner at Creative Structure Ltd. How is it to work on the financial and corporate side of the creative industry?
There is music in the numbers of a profit and loss account and balance sheet. At Creative Structure and in my work as Chair of Inpress, an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation in the literature sector, I try to help practitioners to hear and play that music. It’s also essential for survival as an artist – everyone has to eat, so imagining (forecasting) where the next mouthful is coming from can reduce financial anxiety.
What shall we look for next coming up by Ian Grant?
I have a new play driven by my rage at the way our politicians have abused the extraordinary achievement that is the European Union. In After the Ball I tried to imagine some of the effects on family life of two world wars. We have had 70 years of peace since then – and I want to bring this play to the stage with people who share that rage and want to find a way to channel it into crying the joy of our freedom and responsibility to preserve that peace.
Finally, any advice for aspiring writers, poets, and playwrights?
Do it, over and over again. Try to do it within a daily structure, so that we create a regular reflective state (despite the rage) in order to allow the imagination to do its mysterious and extraordinary work.
Photo: Mitzi de Margary
Watch the trailer for After the Ball here: