An Encounter with Kirsty Housley

Kirsty Housley — looking like Tilda Swinton at the back right — with her collaborators on Grimm Tales

Part one: in which we talk about collaboration, the romantic notion of individual genius that gives theatre its sulphurous smell, how masculine that is, and how easy it is to be overlooked because you’re female

I thought my first encounter with theatre-maker Kirsty Housley was in Leeds in 2012 when I was writing about Chris Goode’s participatory work 9, which she co-directed. But it turned out to be more than a decade earlier: “You came to see the first show I ever made,” she reminds me, and because she’d had lots of technical difficulties on the night and I was reviewing she apologised to me at the end. I’m relieved that said review, published in the Guardian in August 2011, is relatively complimentary, noting that Kirsty directed her multimedia adaptation of sketches from the Chris Morris show Blue Jam with “a sure hand”, although I also said “seeing them in the theatre adds nothing”, which feels a bit cutting in retrospect.

Multimedia has become Kirsty’s specialism since then, whether as co-director of Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, a binaural show that the audience hear through hi-spec headphones, or co-director of Bryony Kimmings’ I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, in which film and audio recording equipment allow Byrony to perform multiple versions of herself, or co-director of Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers, which tells a layer of its story through WhatsApp. That supportive, collaborative relationship with solo performers is so much a part of her practice that the times when she directs what is considered to be her “own” work “feel quite pressurised”, as though some inner value were being scrutinised. Not that she doesn’t think this is absurd. “I remember someone saying to me once, let me know when you make something on your own, and I wanted to say: do you work in theatre? Do you have any idea how theatre is made? What do you mean? When I write and direct and do the lights and perform it myself? It’s so strange, and really unhealthy, the value that is placed on a process, and the thing of the singular individual. Let you know when I make something on my own? That will never happen! I don’t make anything by myself.”

We’re having this conversation snuggled on the sofa at the Unicorn, where she’s directing one of those “own” shows: a collection of Grimm fairy tales, from the Philip Pullman versions adapted by Philip Wilson. “Even this I didn’t make it by myself: loads of days I went in to the actors saying, I think this is who this character is or what this situation is, and then we incrementally build something up from nothing.” Being the first show she’s made for children, she counts all the young people who came into the rehearsal room and saw preview performances among her collaborators too. “On our first preview I was feeling really smug at the interval: it was messy, it had lots of air in it, but the kids were really enjoying it. And then in the first story after the interval, I’d created what I thought was this stunning theatrical moment where the character comes on stage with a surreal bird’s head on and sings about how his mother chopped his head off, and the kids were absolutely pissing themselves. I sat in the theatre thinking this is the worst thing I’ve ever made.” The scene got cut and Kirsty remains grateful to the short memories of children: “They’re so non-judgemental, they laughed their socks off then clapped and at the end said that was brilliant. They totally forgive you for the bit of the show that was terrible.”

Her sense of how poorly the collaborative nature of theatre is understood, even by those who make it and write about it, was sharpened by her experience working with Javaad Alipoor, or rather, by his experience of how their collaboration was overlooked in public discussion. “I thought we were just really bad at talking about collaboration: I didn’t think it was about gender until Believers. But then so many people talked about Chris Thorpe being the dramaturg and I thought, OK, we are good at talking about collaboration in particular ways. Javaad was furious, which was interesting seeing it through his eyes, I thought: maybe this is something I should be angrier about. I told him it always happens, don’t worry about it — but if you do want to take responsibility, you should write about it, and he did.” That piece, for the Stage, ties Kirsty’s work on Believers directly to her work on The Encounter in a way that rarely happens for her.

Even as she tells this story she brushes off the idea that her use of technology is anything particularly special. “Believers is talking about the way different modes of communication may or may not lead to a kind of extremism and it just made sense to have different modes of communication. It’s really simple — and really intesting what theatre thinks of as innovation. WhatsApp is not innovative, it’s literally what your aunt uses to organise a family party.” She struggles to praise herself, and thinks this is gendered too: “As women I think we’re taught to be small and to enable other people. I also feel really uncomfortable doing it, like it’s not cool and other people should be doing it for you. You definitely shouldn’t be saying that your contribution to something was important, that feels a bit gross — and if other people haven’t noticed it then it probably wasn’t. That’s why I got an agent: I palmed those conversations about how you get credited on to someone else, to make them easier.”

Part two: in which we talk about time, and moving slowly, and compromise, and how hard all this can be on the ego

It’s funny to think that Kirsty studied drama at University of Warwick, given the extraordinary emergence of talent from there over the past few years (the companies Barrel Organ, Breach, Emergency Chorus, director Anna Himali Howard, and more and more and more): while most of them are in their early 20s, she turned 40 last year. Her route into theatre has been slower than theirs, more circuitous — the kind that can make a person think they’re never going to break into the industry at all, the kind not much forgiven these days. After graduating she moved back home to Southampton, “worked in a newsagent, worked in a call centre, worked in another call centre”, eventually was asked by a university friend to help with running a comedy venue, and a few months later started running the Etcetera, a pub theatre in London, which she did for three years. That’s where she staged Blue Jam, which did so well, transferring to Battersea Arts Centre, that “everyone was asking what are you going to do next and I panicked. I knew exactly what I wanted to make, but I was looking at theatre thinking, ‘where does what I want to do fit into this model?’, and seeing that it didn’t. So I went on a really long and painful and quite difficult journey to try and fit my square pegness into a round hole, and that went on for ages and I was really miserable.”

That period wasn’t all bad: she won the Samuel Beckett Theatre Award in 2003 with writer Dan Hine, and “did some stuff that I’m really proud. But I was trying to find a way of applying what I wanted to do to plays that already existed and not quite succeeding. Plus I was always technically ambitious and didn’t have the skill or the money or the technology around me to really accomplish that, so my shows were never quite as good as they were in my head because I was always trying to get to something that I couldn’t do. I kept being told by older, more experienced people — who were definitely trying to help me — that I should choose whether I wanted to work in new writing or devised theatre, because they were totally different things and I just looked like I couldn’t make my mind up. If you already feel like an imposter, you feel like you’ve got to listen when people say things like that to you. It took me a while to articulate a response to it, and that was only through practice, when I started being asked to work with devising companies to help them get something that felt cohesive. I was only able to do that because I’d spent loads of time in new writing departments reading plays.”

Two things made it possible for Kirsty to persevere. The first was making “a really important decision, which felt terrible at the time but was so brilliant, to separate income and theatre. I was making mistakes because if someone had asked me to do something and had money I would do it, and that was tiring and I wasn’t happy with what I was doing.” From the age of 25 until just past her 30th birthday she worked for a company who “gave me a job whenever I was unemployed. It was amazing. And it was horrible, hard on your ego, because there’d be months going past where you’re just working in an office, looking up what all your contemporaries are doing, and feeling really inadequate, thinkinng, I don’t make theatre, I’m not an artist. There’s loads of really unhealthy things around being a maker and identity and what success looks like. Success doesn’t look like spending half your year temping when you’re pushing 30 — it’s definitely not the narrative of the wonder artist — but for me that’s what it took to manage it.”

The second thing, more in the way of luck, was working with Emma Rice as staff director on A Matter of Life and Death. It was the first time Kirsty felt a sense of connection, that she “fitted in”. It helped that Emma “was the first person who ever said to me: I love your CV, it’s all over the place, who are you and what do you do? For her it was a positive thing that I hadn’t followed a career path that made sense.” It also helped that Kirsty was “old enough — in my late-20s” to look at Emma’s technique, “take it away and figure out how that worked for me”.

If she hadn’t worked with Emma, she says, “I don’t think I’d have worked with Simon McBurney.” She came in at the beginning of Shun-Kin and worked on that show for eight years, before moving on to work with Simon on The Encounter. The way Complicite builds work is renowned for its extended, painful periods of not-knowing, and Kirsty admits: “There are loads of things that are really hard about those processes. But Simon is one of the only people in the UK, maybe anywhere, who doesn’t just make the same show: every single new idea is ‘how do you tell that story?’, not ‘this is how I tell stories, this is the story i’m going to tell’.”

The more work she makes — in whatever collaborative configuration — the more aware she’s become that “the divisions of what’s experimental and what’s not are really not helpful for audiences. There’s an idea that experimental theatre is intellectual, or not particularly entertaining. People think working with form is intellectual, but it’s the opposite: it’s the sort of thing you feel in your bones.” She points to Myth, a work she made in collaboration with writer Matt Hartley at the Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2017: “The RSC wanted to call it a theatrical experiment, but it was a play. All the words are on the page, the characters are people having a dinner then having an argument. It’s just formally different from what you normally see: things start going wrong with the structure.” Myth was essentially a staging of the climate change debate: the scenario was played several times, each time becoming more fraught. “First of all it’s just props are in the wrong place, but then the ice in the freezer is melted, water starts dripping from the lightbulb, there’s an oil spill in the middle of the dinner table, the oven starts emitting huge amounts of smoke and the building alarm goes off. One actor wants to stop, but no one else on stage listens to her. On opening night there was this really long queue of pensioners, and they fucking loved it. About five per cent came out saying, I’ve got no idea what that was about but it was wild, but most people said: I understand on a deep level what this is about and I’m disturbed.” Reviews of Myth tell a mixed story; in terms of audience, however, it was a popular hit — one that demonstrated to Kirsty how “the line that theatre draws between experimental work and non-experimental is so unhelpful, because audiences don’t care. They don’t care! And they do understand meaning through form, really instinctively. If you’re clear what you’re doing, and if they’re entertained and brought with you, they understand and really enjoy it.”

Part three: in which we talk about children, parenting, fairy tales, how almost every living moment reinforces gender stereotyping, and what theatre might do to counteract that

There was one other thing that helped Kirsty stick with theatre: the fact that her partner, Colin, is an actor who earns more in a few days working on an advert, or a TV programme or film, than she does in as many weeks making a full production. They now have two children, aged two and four, and Kirsty can balance parenthood with work because: “Colin’s at home. I feel like a real fraud when people say, ‘you’re doing both things’, because I’m not really. Obviously I bring up my children, but who takes them to school every day, who makes sure their clothes are clean, who manages all of that: that’s Colin.” It’s made her acutely aware of the ways in which fathers are “revered for doing something women just do”, and never asked when working what’s happening with the kids. “Someone once said to me when we were opening a show: ‘where are your children tonight?’ I like to think what they meant is ‘it’s amazing what you’re doing’, but it came out as: ‘Why are you here?’”

She’s wary of being one of those “people complaining about theatre — I get embarrassed by it, because some people have to get up at 6am to drive 10 miles to work in a hospital, or have endless shifts or zero-hours contracts, or work in an Amazon warehouse with no flexibility”, but does think theatre “isn’t set up for flexible working. But we need to sort it out as a society. We should enforce flexible working for both partners: men won’t take voluntary paternity, there’s too much pressure on them not to, and until that becomes normal of course they won’t do it if it’s going to cost them something at work. But if you enforce it for both parents, life would be so much easier — and Colin wouldn’t be one of only three men on the school run.”

Gender roles have, unsurprisingly, been a huge preoccupation while working on Grimm Tales. The six stories she and her collaborators chose to focus on — including Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Hans-My-Hedgehog and Thousandfurs — were picked because they were stories in which “parents let children down. They try to kill them, abandon them, banish them, chop their heads off, try to marry them”. Kirsty admits she “really struggled” with the ways in which the stories present, not terrible mothers but wicked step-mothers, “because mothers can’t be evil. In one of the stories, the step-mother but isn’t fully responsible for her actions because the devil taps her on the shoulder and makes her do it — so it’s like a double whammy of misogyny, you’re evil but not able to have agency for your own actions because you’re a woman.” She’s flipped gender in some of the stories, “just because why not: anything that doesn’t damage the story”, and was surprised by how startled her young audiences were by the marriage between two women. It reminded her of an argument with her eldest daughter, who is “very clear that men can’t wear dresses or skirts. I thought, this is ridiculous, because I’m telling you they can — but when have you seen it? You never have, except once at Margate Pride, but that’s not really enough. Children don’t pick up those rules from what you tell them but what they see, and if it’s not visible to them… It’s the same with heteronormative relationships. Every day kids go into the world and get that message really clearly that these are the rules.”

The tales presented another set of problems in their perpetuation of white supremacist romanticism. “Every reference to whiteness and goodness has gone. There is so much of that in those stories: white as a stand-in for goodness and purity and brilliance. It’s really bad.” Philip Wilson, who originally adapted the Tales for theatre, queried this choice, suggesting “this is important in fairy tales — and I said: it’s not in this one. We’ve got a diverse cast, it just doesn’t make sense — as well as being really dubious.” (To be fair, he immediately saw Kirsty’s point.) Along with whiteness went beauty: “All the references to goodness and being beautiful, all references to ugliness and being evil, I took them all out. Children get enough of that bullshit without coming to the Unicorn and getting it. It doesn’t damage the stories in any way: they’re still totally intact.”

At the heart of the problem of fairy tales, she argues, is that: “Everyone who’s written them down — the Grimms, Charles Perrault, Philip Pullman, and a litany of others — claims to be neutral. But there’s something really dangerous about that idea of neutrality. You are a white straight cis man of a particular time and place: that’s not neutral. I felt funny about changing some of the stories, but then I remembered: that’s how they evolve.”

**Encounters is a series by the Department of Feminist Conversations in conversation with the work that inspires, nourishes, challenges or provokes us. We welcome contributions from interested readers: your encounter can be with a novel, a poem, a political text, a film, a song, a photograph, a cartoon, an exhibition, a performance, a game — the list goes on and on. To register your interest, please email us at: departmentfc[at]gmail[dot]com