A grey day, sat on a pavement in Manchester’s city centre. Hardly the most inspirational setting for an epiphany, but for playwright Gareth Farr it’s a place he’ll never forget and a moment that coloured everything to follow. Because this particular stretch of pavement was in St Ann’s Square, opposite the Royal Exchange theatre, where Gareth found himself at 15, drawn to the mystery of what was happening behind the stage door and adamant that one day his words would fill the auditorium.
“When I was a kid, I was really into words; lyrics in songs led me to poetry,” he says, of where the fire to write initially came from. “It wasn’t because everyone was doing it, in fact, no one was. I’m not from an artistic family, I grew up in a small working class, industrial, northern town – writing just wasn’t something you did.” But Gareth did it and did it well, writing poetry in secret then submitting to an anthology and being published as a teenager. “Everyone knew about it then. Writing poetry as a rugby-playing working class northerner was pretty different, but it didn’t bother me. Being different was okay as long as I got to write.”
That sense of being different, of doing something different to those around him was apparent to Gareth at the very start of his career. And not just in his home town. Sat outside the stage door of the Royal Exchange he felt it too. “It wasn’t like I watched people come and go into that building and thought, I’ve found my people,” he explains. “I wasn’t one of them; I could see it straight away. I had a different background, a different sort of education. The epiphany about wanting to work in theatre wasn’t so much about suddenly feeling like I belonged, but more just something I felt compelled to do. Perhaps because they weren’t like me, not because they were.”
A degree in Contemporary Arts and a scholarship to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art followed, then work as an actor at the RSC, Royal Court, Young Vic, and the West End, as well as TV roles. “I won a scholarship to drama school and a financial bursary is not the sort of thing you turn down, so I thought, that’s what I’ll do then, but all the while I was still writing. One day I just found myself feeling like I was wearing someone else’s clothes.” So he stopped. Told his agent, took six weeks out and wrote, every day. He returned to the themes that had driven him when he was younger and had shaped his own journey too. Ideas, about belonging, feeling lost, struggling with change, rose up and played out on the page. “I’m fascinated by the people and realities that are so often underrepresented or not represented at all on stage or screen,” he says. “Lesser told stories of ordinary people forced into extraordinary situations. And the conflict that can come from it.”
“The epiphany wasn’t so much about suddenly feeling like I belonged, but more just something I felt compelled to do. Perhaps because they weren’t like me, not because they were.”
Britannia Waves the Rules was the result. Created around a series of nine poems Gareth wrote about a boy from a working class town who doesn’t fit in, his first play shone a light on the difficult, emotive and controversial issues of care in the armed forces during the Afghanistan war. On its debut in 2014, Britannia… received thumping reviews (‘transfixing performance, scream-of-rage play’, Independent, ‘harrowing, lung-busting’, Guardian), before being toured nationally, produced in Sydney, Australia, and becoming a text for GSCE students in the UK. The play established Gareth as a voice with a visceral point of view that connected with people’s real-life concerns and experiences. And for him, that’s a fundamental purpose of the arts. “I write about things that make me angry, about injustice, about social truth that needs airing,” he continues. “So often it comes down to community and how that’s being taken away. I think coming from a working class background and seeing that happen over decades has given me so much to draw from and write about.”
But getting there was far from easy. Impostor syndrome, financial challenges, the lack of an existing foot in the door all threatened his professional development. “With Britannia… I went to lots of theatres, had meetings with the likes of the Royal Court, the Young Vic. Often they were very interested but wouldn’t do it because I wasn’t produced at the time,” he explains. “I was in the cycle of being told ‘we like it, but you’ve never had a play produced so we can’t do it,’ which is so destructive and browbeating to endure.” Gareth is quick to point out that although the sense of not being allowed in was somewhat self-perceived, it still cut deep. “I can’t say it didn’t affect me. There were days when it was hard to pick myself back up. But more than anything, it spurred me on to try harder. If someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me even more sure I will.”
“There were days when it was hard to pick myself back up. But more than anything, it spurred me on to try harder. If someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me even more sure I will.”
The ultimate manifestation of that attitude came when Gareth took Britannia… to a leading British theatre, which, after initial enthusiasm told him in no uncertain terms that it was one to ‘put in a drawer and forget about.’ “Not good. That’s how that felt,” he says wryly. “It’s not good to ever say something like that to someone who’s put everything into something, worked for free, solidly, when you’re in a salaried position at a publicly-funded institution.” Did he listen to the advice? He did the opposite. Instead of putting the play in a drawer, in 2011 he put it in for the Bruntwood Prize and won. “It gave me fire, that meeting, it made me think, just you wait. I’m coming in.”
The biggest national playwriting competition, as part of the Bruntwood win, Britannia… was developed, produced and staged at the Royal Exchange, realising Gareth’s teenage ambition. It was an undeniably big moment, although the real reward came not so much from the glamour of the accolade, or the critics’ reviews, but from the responses of the audiences his work played to. And still does. “It’s amazing listening to people walking out after, going ‘that’s just like John up the street’, or ‘that’s just like the lad who our lad went to school with’. Hearing those comments and people going, ‘I recognise that, I recognise that situation and that person,’ makes it all worthwhile.”
His latest stage project Shandyland has pushed that still further, not just connecting with the communities it’s about, but challenging them too. “Shandyland came from me being stressed and sad about a community that I grew up in that was hard-line Labour, that would never ever vote Tory suddenly undergoing such a radical shift to vote in a Tory MP. And it wasn’t enough for me to think ‘you’re all wrong and I’m right,’ I wanted to try and understand it, to capture it and to ask questions about how people were driven to that point.” He explains that what he found was rage and frustration fuelling a sense of disempowerment. “They’re bloody angry because their services and resources and infrastructure have gradually been eroded, taken away from them bit by bit over the last 30 years. The high street, the swimming baths, the cinema, the train station, all gone, which means people start to go too. Social movement like that, and the existing anger and tensions behind it, running through it, create a friction I really wanted to explore.”
And Shandyland does. Square on, no holds barred. The play tackles the racial, intergenerational and social issues that can take root in circumstances where people feel disempowered. “It’s not without complexity,” Gareth says. “It’s about characters feeling lost and lonely. We’re not sympathising with or condoning prejudice, but it feels like these are views that need to be voiced if people are going to talk openly and challenge them. There’s a scene that really push this in the play. It’s a small part of the whole, but an important part to include.” Does he feel concerned about putting racism – however fleeting the scenes – on stage, about giving it oxygen? “We’ve worked hard with social academics, researchers, the whole team to make sure we’re handling it right, interrogating the language we use without sanitising it, but yes, there have been a lot of questions we’ve asked ourselves,” he continues. “Knowing that we’re putting it on stage, in front of a predominantly white audience, it’s vital we ask ‘so what are we actually saying? Are we allowing that? Are we saying that because it’s on stage for what we think are the right reasons, it’s okay to use racist language?’ We really wanted to understand all that before moving forward.”
The play was scheduled to premiere in March 2020, then April, then June… As the pandemic took hold it became apparent that Shandyland would be another casualty. But as with everything Gareth remains undeterred. “The delay gives us time to dig deeper, revisit storylines in the light of Covid and the Black Lives Matter wake-up call to make sure they still resonate,” he says. “We want to be confident that we have carefully considered every detail through the lens of a world that has so radically shifted in the last year.”
For Gareth the greater challenge comes not in the relevance of the storylines but in the obliteration of the arts that three lockdowns have caused and what theatres are going to have to do to rise from the ashes. “There was a big drive, pre-Covid, in terms of diversity and inclusivity, making sure that work and audiences better reflected the world we live in. It was a slow change, but it was happening,” he says. “That sort of approach takes time and is a risk, albeit worthwhile. It doesn’t get bums on seats straight away and many theatres, when they do eventually get to open up again, will be primarily concerned with survival. Populist stuff that plays to traditional theatre audiences and fills up auditoriums may well be the order of the day, just to make ends meet.” That means musicals, Shakespeare, the sorts of things that please the crowds who already feel comfortable in the theatre, who already see it as a place for them. Are we at risk of digging away the ground gained prior to the pandemic, ending up further back than we were before all this happened? “Absolutely it is a worry,” Gareth continues. “Work that asks difficult questions, that tells lesser told stories and that encourages people to think is far more likely to be parked in favour of entertainment that guarantees an audience.”
“If I could talk to programming teams right now I’d say be brave and trust your instinct. There is work that entertains and challenges and reflects the world around us and there are audiences that want it.”
But it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. “If I could talk to the programming teams at theatres right now, I’d say be brave and trust your instinct,” he says. “There is work that entertains and challenges and reflects the world around us at the same time. And there are audiences that want it. Because more than anything, when all of this is over, people will want things to be different.”
Whether it’s the arts sector, social justice, systemic racism, or simply fair access to health and social care, the pandemic has shown us once and for all that there’s a lot of work to do to build the society we want. So how do we do it? “I don’t have the answer to that!” Gareth laughs. “But I do know that writing helps me. And seeing stories being made that have the power to make a difference helps too. I think we just need to keep voicing our dissatisfaction and keep using the arts to capture and share it. We need to show decision-makers that we are not happy with the way things are, that they need to do better, to live up to our expectations of them. It’s rich territory for storytelling and a huge opportunity for change, that’s for sure.”
Shandyland is currently being rescheduled for production. To keep the idea of the play alive through lockdown 3, the team behind the play has come together to make a short film to celebrate Shandyland and give us a taster of what’s to come. Shandyland – Pint Size A love poem to the pub, live to watch from 12 February.
Gareth Farr’s projects in the pipeline: A Child of Science (working title) commission for The Old Vic Theatre, Biscuits for Breakfast, commission for Just Add Milk. He is also about to start a one-year attachment to the BBC where he’ll be working on their Continuing Drama programme
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