Interview with Alexander Knott, New Artistic Director at Old Red Lion Theatre
Towards the end of last year, it was announced that Alexander Knott would be taking over from London Pub Theatre Award Winner Katy Danbury in 2020. This is our first opportunity to find out more about his tenureship and what it holds in store for the future of the Islington venue.
What does the Old Red Lion Theatre mean to you?
The first shows I saw here were The Moor and Plastic, and I was blown away by both of them. Both intense, psychological thrillers with an angle of social exploration. After that I became familiar with the stellar history of the ORL, its platform being used to launch leading lights of our theatrical culture time and again. After bringing Bag of Beard’s Renaissance Men here in 2018, my relationship with the place was cemented. This is a theatre for experimentation and a proving ground for the future; a palpable mandate and a stellar history rolled into one.
Sum up your new direction for the theatre in three words?
Thoughtful. Experimental. Dynamic.Or,Dynamic. Flexible. Programming.
Sell your upcoming Nuclear War triptych to someone who says they never go to theatre.
The Triptych is an ideal opportunity to sample a bit of everything! A family war drama, a dark comedy and an experimental dance-poetry fusion from one of Europe’s leading and most prolific playwrights. If you never go to the theatre, put a bit of everything on your plate, in one night.
What’s the major thing that you want to change through theatre?
There are so many things – the price point to entry for companies and artists is a big one. But the one I have the most immediate control over, and the one I’m very up front about, is that I have zero interest in making people jump through hoops. As a company, tell me what you want, when you want it, and if the idea and the gesture behind it is good, and has a home at the ORL, I’ll do everything I can to find you a slot. That’s what the shorter run programming in curated festivals has been about, opening us up to more emerging artists, and giving them a voice on our stage. While I’m constantly spinning one too many plates, when we sit down for a meeting, I’ll be totally open to hearing any ideas.
Which theatre company, show or venue has had a major impact on you?The Drowned Man by Punchdrunk turned my world on its axis. Not just an exceptional, poetic piece of theatre, but one whose world you could inhabit, walk through, talk to. A level of immediacy I had never come across with a proscenium arch. And it had a banging jig at the end of it. I think we’ve taken that level of intense, immediate audience connection, and a playful spirit, and tried to infuse the work of both Bag of Beard and BoxLess with it.
Who or what drove you to get into theatre?
I started in community pantomime when I was 7 or 8. Apparently before that I was fairly shy. Beyond that, I had a couple of English teachers (one of whom is a playwright we’ve since worked with on A Christmas Tale with Jack Maple Productions), both of them introduced me not just to plays, but poetry and performance in a way that was formative. Making Yeats something far better than just having to be sat through, and then chucking Raymond Carver in there as a chaser. I guess if you combine the playful spirit of pantomime and those influences, you might start to see the style of theatre that interests me.
Has it been an easy passage?
Making theatre isn’t easy, but it isn’t the insurmountable task it first seems. And making your own work is the only way to take control over your own artistry and not having to wait for the phone to ring. If you’re in a position where you have job offers flying in, great, lovely, you’ve won the lottery. But to the overwhelming number of other artists out there – start making the theatre you would want to see. Do it collaboratively. Make a show.I’ve been immensely lucky to have been surrounded with like-minded artists, and so we’ve gone on the journey and made the hard decisions together. And that’s what’s vital – finding the collaborators that get you excited about making it in your flat, about working with a shoestring budget, and still creating something you believe in, are proud of, and that expresses what you wanted it to express.
What will keep you on your toes most of all?
There really is never a dull moment so I seem to feel constantly on my toes! Certainly during the intensive rehearsal period recently, it’s been a constant dance between my laptop, rehearsals and liaising with the current companies, and the upcoming ones. Katy Danbury said to me that the days go fast here as there will always be something to deal with. She wasn’t wrong. The day to day life of the ORL is non-stop.
What’s the single most important part of your work?
Giving a platform to voices that are not my own. There’s so much of a risk that theatre-makers can constantly hear their own thoughts and opinions echoed back to them. The Where Are We Now Emerging Artist Festival was all about that, trying to showcase new voices, and taking stock of where we are as a society. I’m hoping to do more festival-style programming.
Who or what can’t you live without in your daily work?
Coffee for one; at the ORL I’m never without a black coffee. And my collaborators – I couldn’t do anything without Zöe Grain, nothing would happen in my creative life without her. And James Demaine, Ryan Hutton and Samuel Heron are a crucible of ideas that is constantly exciting me. One thing we never feel short of are ideas.
Who would be your dream theatre team to work with (dead or alive)?
A new play by Harold Pinter & Annie BakerWith dramaturgy by David Spencer (writer of Buried)Directed by Jamie Lloyd and Emma Rice.I don’t know where I fit in in this dream.
Coming back to that Triptych, why this play now?
These three plays all tell stories about human beings facing the unimaginable, the insurmountable. A soldier, buried alive, relives his fractured memories, trying to hold on. A teacher reaches breaking point in a very public way. And a woman, on the anniversary of her husband’s death, leaves her house, searching for something more. Personal stories on a universal human scale. Stylistically, something for everyone. And thematically, I hope, three plays about what it is to be alive, and how do we make it through. I think we need stories like that more than ever.
Are you planning to stay for a long term at Old Red Lion Theatre?
For as long as I can give a platform to the new and most exciting voices in ways that encourage experimentation, I will do. There’s always more work to be done, and I’m a big believer in “playing the hand you’re dealt” in this industry; that’s how you take risks and opportunities – but I’m certainly hoping to get my feet under the table at the ORL.
What do you hope to have achieved in one year’s time?
An even greater breadth and diversity of voices using our stage in exceptionally imaginative ways, playing to fuller houses. I’m looking at new programming models to be able to better support emerging artists, and that’s something I’m getting my teeth stuck into now.
What are the top three things you are looking for when curating shows for Old Red Lion?
A fusion of Imagination InnovationProvoking conversation (didn’t mean to do a little rhyme there, but it’s true)
Why do you think you’re the man for the job?
I think, to return to what I’ve said above, it might be because I started as a performer, then a collaborative theatre-maker, then director, creative producer, dramaturg. There are not many things in terms of making a show that I haven’t tried or dipped a toe into. So once we get a meeting in the books, tell me what you want, when you want it and why you want it, and we’ll try and make it happen. I’m as forthright as I can be, I hope.
Finally, what’s different about the upcoming shows that we won’t see at other theatres?
With the ORL, you can never be sure if you’re sitting down to watch the new Nina Raine, the first version of something that will be as big as The Play That Goes Wrong. We’ve housed Exceptional Theatre since 1979, and every time you book a show at the ORL, you might be watching the first work of the defining theatre-maker of tomorrow. We’re giving a platform to exceptional artists, and that’s got to be worth checking out.
The NUCLEAR WAR TRIPTYCH is at Old Red Lion Theatre 3 – 31 March 7.30pm/3pm matinees
Presented by boxless theatre, bag of beard, grindstone & take two theatricals, in association with the old red lion theatre
Details and Box Office
View the original interview here: https://www.londonpubtheatres.com/interview-alexander-knott-ad-old-red-lion-theatre