This week, we were lucky enough to catch writer and performer Kristen Smyth during rehearsals for the world premiere of her new work, no ball games allowed, to talk about her inspirations and what the piece means to her.
Q: Can you briefly tell us how you got into writing for the stage?
A: I was mates with Tom Hardy back in London and I used to go to the Shotgun 503 sessions he was running above the Latchmere pub in Battersea. I’m sat at the back watching them doing rehearsing and devising new works and Tom asks if I fancy putting something up. Next thing I’ve got Kelly Reilly and Tom doing a scene I wrote based on an aid agency trip I’d recently taken to Tajikistan and Kelly says ‘that’s beautiful,’ with us all crying. I realised I might have something to say for the stage.
Q: What inspired ‘No Ball Games Allowed’ and where does the title come from?
A: The inspiration was a series of nostalgia moments I think many of us took during the pandemic lockdowns. I think the inability to make plans for the future encouraged quite a bit of retrospection and I was diving into family photos and inspirations – music and memories in particular – and I started thinking about the family trauma that echoes through the generation. My aunt had died rather suddenly the previous year and we spent a great deal of time talking about family and unpicking some mysteries and I think that might have been ticking away in the background. The title comes from a blue plaque that until recently adorned many a council estate back in London. My family were all south east Londoners and this sign – which I took as a public pronouncement on the notion of youth exploration and looking for joy – would be a perfect image for the idea of shutting down emotional connection.
Q: The show is described as post-dramatic and poetic, can you tell us a bit more about this form of theatre?
A: I think we are familiar with the idea of theatre as a moment where the audience witnesses something magical, created by the performance but what I’m interested in is the alchemy between the performance and the audience each bringing something to the moment. I think there’s an emotional connection that occurs, an affecting if you like that is unique to the theatrical setting. It’s different to a spoken word, music or public oration not least because of the hope and expectation that this show, this performance might be something unique, something special. That for me, is post-dramatic. Poetic is simply the form that best suits my work, the way I world-build. It’s like I’m creating a physical landscape and connection for the audience, swirling around and among you. That’s quite earie and also quite magical.
Q: Many people will remember your mesmerising performance as Queen Jesus in ‘The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven’ by Jo Clifford in last year’s Midsumma Festival. What do you most enjoy about performing?
A: Hah! Well, that was my first ever performance so I’m feeling incredibly humbled by these opportunities to do something I never imagined myself doing. I think having some say in the way the audience get to experience each moment is quite special. My father was one of those extraordinary Irish story-tellers and there’s something of the performance in me that echoes my excitement as dad would wind up yet another of those stories of his. I like to think I’m speaking to him up there in the heavens when I go onstage.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the creative team and dramaturgical use of live music and film in ‘No Ball Games Allowed’?
A: We are incredibly lucky to have such an amazing team for this show and Kitan Petkovski leads us all as director. I’ve been blessed to work with Kitan on three shows now and he has such an ear for musicality and world building and understands the power of stillness. Kitan always thinks about the audience and how they will navigate their way through the work – so when he suggested bringing Rachel Lewindon and Robert Downie on board together I knew this was going to be special. They have created something truly memorable together with Pat Coyle’s videography and we are incredibly lucky to have Bethany Fellows and Katie Sfetkidis doing their magic with design and lighting – I think they are two of the best at what they do in this country so it's glorious working with them again. Our directing intern Cohan has been an amazing sounding board alongside Kitan in considering dramaturgical choices and they bring an energy and emotional intelligence to the rehearsal space that has helped us find our way. Tamsin and Tom hold the thing together – literally with taps and timing! - alongside our producer Lauren and then finally there’s Mia. Mia Tuco brings a power and stillness to her performance that I just feel unbelievably privileged to be a part of. I’ve worked with Mia since we were both at VCA together and she has this ability to blow our worlds wide open and then hold us while we pick up the pieces. She has compassion and fire and stillness and fury but more than anything I trust her. I’ve trusted her since the first time she read something of mine in a rehearsal room. I think trusting your team and knowing we can be there for each other is what makes this whole thing so special.
Q: If you could invite anyone to see ‘No Ball Games Allowed’, who would it be?
A: My mum. I’d like her to watch and I’d like her to understand.