“If history has taught us anything, it’s that we learn f**k all from history”: Director of Dark Sublime Andrew Keates discusses the importance of shaping a future full of diversity and acceptance
Andrew Keates is an established director and producer; former theatre manager of the Landor Theatre; founder and artistic director of Arion Productions; and host of the Show People Podcast. His latest directorial project is Dark Sublime, by new playwright Michael Dennis, starring Marina Sirtis and Mark Gatiss, which runs at Trafalgar Studios from June 2019.
We interrupted Andrew while he was restoring antique furniture to speak about this upcoming production.
So, what can you tell us about Dark Sublime?
God, that’s a big question. I’m pretty established now as a theatre director and a lot of the work I’m very passionate about makes sure that the people and stories that are onstage are not mainstream.
My discovery of ethics, morality and considering other people’s differences comes from being a young, fat, gay teenager; growing up in Bournemouth under Section 28 and a Tory government; and watching science fiction. I have an enormous love of sci-fi as a kid who did not feel like he fit in, particularly being bullied and hospitalised for being gay. My escapism was, firstly, the plays of Oscar Wilde and desperately trying to find gay role models, and then trying to find a story of a future where we would all be accepted. That led to the likes of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Quantum Leap and various other great science fiction stories.
Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who, The League of Gentlemen) recommended that I read a play by a friend of his, Michael Dennis, called Dark Sublime. It’s the story of a young gay teen who befriends a veteran sci-fi actor. And well, that sounds like my life.
So I read this play and as much as it was a love letter to the 1970s and great TV shows like Blake 7 and Doctor Who and The Tomorrow people, it’s this really beautiful story about intergenerational divide and it’s about strong older women who are not two-dimensional. It’s also asking whether stars can really be friends with a fan and how, in many ways, these actors can need the fans as much as the fans need the actors, who are heroes, as it were.
As Sci-fi continues to gain mainstream respectability, there are still detractors who would say it’s for kids. Do you think it has the ability to influence and impact social change?
Well, it’s very difficult for EastEnders to ask questions about genocide or holocaust, whereas in Dr Who they’ll do that every other week. Science fiction gives us ideas and in reality, we find ways to make these ideas manifest.
These 35-45-minute episodes were essentially mini-morality plays, asking big questions about genocide etc., but they also ask questions about difference. If a child can fall in love with a three-headed green alien by watching an episode of Dr Who then perhaps they can find kindness towards a black person, a gay person or a Jewish person. It’s asking questions about difference and inspiration and diversity and accepting cultures.
The idea of Marina Sirtis (Star Trek: The Next Generation) playing the lead, Marianne, is sort of serendipitous meta-casting. Was there ever anybody else in the running?
I met Marina Sirtis at a Sci-fi convention, and she was on a show called Star Trek: The Next Generation, and played the iconic character Counselor Deanna Troi. Dark Sublime is about an aging sci-fi actor who smokes, swears and is very funny and very direct – I immediately thought of Marina. I sent it to her to read, and she phoned me and she said, “It’s my f**king life, did you write this for me? I have to play this role, nobody else can play it!”
It wasn’t actually written for her, but it should be and every time I’ve read it since, I just hear her voice. What is rather lovely about this story about an older actor and a young, gay sci-fi fan is that, in many ways, as actor and director, there is a similarity between Marina and I working on this project and bringing a huge amount of ourselves to it. It’s beautifully funny, very touching and it really explores older gay women. There aren’t very many stories out there for older lesbians and it’s not that when you turn 40, you stop being a lesbian – my friend Miriam Margolyes would attest to that.
There is one difference with Marina though, which is that she appeared in an American sci-fi show. It’s very important that British sci-fi is very different. Look at The Tomorrow People or Red Dwarf. British sci-fi was very often written by very great theatre writers or indeed, academic writers. The performance style of that time, acting to camera wasn’t a new thing, a lot of people were coming straight from theatre and doing telly and there was no minimalist, naturalistic approach to television, they were just doing stage work and there happened to be cameras in front of them. But what they did have was extraordinary conviction and a beautiful understanding of the issues they were addressing.
The play is ultimately about idols and relationships. In a world where we have greater access to our idols than ever via social media and conventions, do you think it’s possible for genuine relationships between fans and stars to develop?
Marina is superb at this; she really gets to know her fans and they travel from all over the world to see her. We have people from America, Germany, the Netherlands all flying here to support this show, to support her dream. And she always finds time for her fans.
Ultimately, I would say yes, it is possible, because I have those relationships. Through sci-fi and conventions, I am friends with some of the most famous people in the world and I treasure my friendships with them. There’ll be moments where I’m having dinner with them and I’ll catch myself reverting to the fat, gay 13-year-old and there is still is an element of hero worship there. But they are no longer just my heroes, they are better than heroes; they are my friends.
Reflecting upon your previous work, is telling LGBT stories a deliberate part of the directing choices you make and stories you choose to tell?
People in the industry rib me a bit but I am a proud gay director, and I like telling gay stories and would like to see better representation in all art forms. I will continue to tell them until I don’t think there is a need to do it anymore.
Plays can change people’s lives. As Is was very important to me, as at the time HIV numbers were going through the roof and around the time it transferred to the West End, I then discovered that I was HIV-positive. Subsequently, that led to me giving a speech about it onstage, in a video that has been viewed by millions of people. Now every World Aids Day, I get calls to come out and speak about my experience of living with HIV.
What is equally important to me is that we bring a diverse cast. That I, as a privileged white male, provide as many opportunities as I can for people from minority backgrounds or those who have not had the same opportunities to have the same experience and the same sort of career that I have had. I have given so many creatives their first job, and rediscovered talent that has been forgotten, and brought them back to stage and I’m immeasurably proud of that. The black community has been carving with blood, sweat and tears en masse for many years for representation, and I will continue to stand with them in any way I can, but also, there are other ethnic and minority groups, including LGBT groups, that perhaps do not have the same numbers to cause as big a commotion.
It is vitally important to remember the histories that have brought us to this stage and this is reflected in the pieces you choose to direct, but it is also important to look ahead. How can theatre guide the way in that?
If history has taught us anything, it’s that we learn f**k all from history! As a liberal, young guy, I have never experienced my country as I have now, with the hatred and the xenophobia that we do now – children are being stabbed in my city! As we have recently seen, 52 people were gunned down while being live-streamed on Facebook.
As a creature of empathy, after the Christchurch shootings I didn’t do any work on that day; I sat in front of the television and despaired and imagined and dedicated a whole day, quite rightly, to these people. I hope that I can be responsible not just for addressing the issues that are coming in through the news, but that I can show productions that show hope, optimism and goodness. We are multifaceted beings and I hope seeing something like Dark Sublime, that draws laughter and thoughtfulness but hopefully also makes us think that we have all lost and loved and regardless of age, ethnicity or gender, whether an alien or not, what fundamentally matters is just coming together and being kind.
So, what’s next for Andrew Keates?
I’m just gearing up to do the third season of my podcast, the Show People Podcast, which showcases people of various backgrounds in the theatre community: actors, directors, producers, casting directors. There is a musical that me and the producer of Dark Sublime, Jamie Chapman Dixon, are in discussion about doing. My production company Arion Productions will be bringing back more affordable masterclasses, to keep actors at the top of their game whilst at the same time not breaking the bank. And I’m just getting ready as a producer to launch a new quarterly industry night, which will be an opportunity to host loads of artists in a lovely club and get to know each other. I find that when you throw a load of creative people together with a load of alcohol, shows tend to happen a few months later. All that in between buying a new home, breaking up with my fiancé and feeding my cat!
So never a dull moment for you?
No, not with my cat!
Final question: Why should we see Dark Sublime?
Whilst the play frames the relationship of a fictitious show, and you may think, “well I’m not really into Sci-fi”, that is just the framing device. What it’s really about is a beautiful exploration about love and loss and difference. I would implore not just members of the LGBT+ community to come, but anyone who has ever enjoyed or has had a love of a cult TV show, because actually, it’s a really thoughtful, funny night out. It’s a brand new play by a brand new playwright which will showcase an exceptional cast starring older women and the producers have made sure the cost of tickets is so low that anybody can afford to go see this wonderful new play about time and space.
Can’t wait to see it. Thanks for chatting with us!
Photo: Scott Rylander
Dark Sublime is at Trafalgar Studios Theatre from 25th June until 3rd August 2019. For more information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.