I love working in theatre and I feel very privileged to be able to work in an industry that I love. I love the act of storytelling in any form, the ability to either take someone away from their life to somewhere magical and new, or to make someone see their life or their world in a new way. Occasionally, though, I feel proud too. Last year when Greenwich Theatre won the Wharf Newspaper's Best Small Business Award I was proud of our commercial achievements. Whenever we open a pantomime I feel proud to be part of so many thousands of people's Christmas celebrations. However, this week I feel proud of theatre itself, of its ability to take on the major issues of our, or of any, time. Like any artform theatre can represent any side of an argument, it can brim with integrity or wallow in smugness, it can present a political message or an escapist fantasy, but this week at Greenwich Theatre the act of putting on a show is all about confronting difficult stories, the stories that appear on the evening news for a day or a week and then fade away without resolution, the stories that we often want to avoid rather than investigate because they are just too challenging.
Earlier this month at Greenwich Theatre we unveiled the new Greenwich Theatre Studio. We had piloted the space as a pop-up venue over the past couple of years with a few projects, but with investment from Royal Greenwich and from a private donor, and with the investment of hours of time for painting, building, wiring and lighting from our own staff, we now have a second performance space. In that space, we are currently presenting the world premiere production of Gazing At A Distant Star by new writer Sian Rowland. The play tells the stories of three people who have each gone missing, but more importantly, of the people left behind.
Victoria Porter in Sian Rowland's Gazing At A Distant Star, Greenwich Theatre
So often, whether in the news or in popular entertainment, the story of someone going missing is all about the search to find them. The stories are active, exciting, the unpicking of a mystery. In reality, when someone disappears, whether by choice or by tragic circumstance, it is often the case that their family, friends and loved ones are not only left not knowing what happened, but are utterly disempowered in their confusion and grief. While the authorities may embark on a search, the people left at home have to simply wait, replaying over and over the moments in life that they shared with the person who has disappeared, desperately trying to understand what happened. Sian's play follows three such people - Arun, who works in a call centre on a zero hours contract, desperately trying to save for university, and whose best friend at work disappears; Anna, whose teaching assistant sister Jane apparently goes on a school trip one day and doesn't come back; and Karen, whose nineteen year old son goes on his first ever lads' holiday and disappears.
Serin Ibrahim and Harpal Hayer in Sian Rowland's Gazing At A Distant Star, Greenwich Theatre
The play doesn't, and indeed can't, offer answers to any of the real stories of disappearance that happen every day, but what it does is remind us of what it means to be the one left, and in some cases of how hard it can be to come back if you are the person who has vanished. Tonight's performance of Gazing At A Distant Star is presented in aid of Missing People, the national charity dedicated to supporting those on both sides.
Meanwhile, in the main house, Kathryn Barker Productions presents an exclusive one week revival of Henry Naylor's Iraq-based drama The Collector. Naylor has written for satirical tv shows from Spitting Image to Alistair McGowan, but during a trip to an air force base in Afghanistan he started to formulate the idea for this serious play. In a recent interview Naylor said,
"I went out and spent 10 days in Afghanistan. It completely changed my life. Up until that point I had been a satirical writer sat at my desk at home sneering about events on the news. Actually living in a news event first hand transformed my writing. We went round refugee camps, saw landmine victims and got a real idea of the damage the war had done."
Returning home, the idea for The Collector started to come together.
"The Collector is a story about a group of guards who are running a prison out in post-war Iraq. They begin with very high-minded principles, hoping to bring liberalism to Iraq. Gradually, by responding to the insurgency, they become more and more like the people they came to replace. It's heavily researched and based on the experiences of many real prison guards including, but certainly not limited to, some of the people who worked at Abu Ghraib."
Ritu Arya, Lesley Harcourt and William Reay in Henry Naylor's The Collector, Greenwich Theatre
As with the subject matter of Gazing At A Distant Star, war and incarceration narratives are common in popular entertainment but they're often just that - easy entertainment with a classic resolution, not the kind of moving, detailed, human stories that are being told at Greenwich Theatre this week, that are not resolved but that call upon the audience to interrogate what they've seen, to go away with a new understanding or a new set of ideas.
This is a proud week for Greenwich Theatre, a week in which we celebrate theatre for its ability to confront, to challenge and to inspire - and this is not unusual for us here. Next week, when The Collector moves on, we welcome Pipeline Theatre with the moving Spillikin (A Love Story) about the possible overlap between robotics and the quality of life of Alzheimer's sufferers. For as long as I work in theatre, and am privileged enough to be able to bring stories to the stage, this is the kind of work that I will champion - new voices, using theatre in new ways, and always telling stories that matter.