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Adam Spreadbury-MaherThe White Bear challenge

Australian-born director Adam Spreadbury-Maher conveys the thrill of working at the White Bear theatre in Kennington, just as his latest play, Studies for a Portrait, opens. In conversation with Corinna Lotz

For Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the theatre is an “an incredibly significant venue” and shouldn’t be overlooked just because it’s at the back of a rowdy Irish pub in Kennington.

During its 20-year existence, the White Bear has functioned on a shoe-string, championing new writing.

Adam says: “Michael Kingsbury has been artistic director here for 18 years and he has a passion and a nose for new writing. He finds it and puts it on. It has absolutely no funding whatsoever – not from Arts Council or anywhere – just from ticket sales … and love … and very very low costs. We are all producing our own work and it’s probably the most exciting time of our career. With financial freedom comes complete artistic freedom.

“I’ve often said to myself, it’s actually better that we have no money because we can do so much more! It meant we could put on The Ides of March. You wouldn’t see it anywhere else. Duncan Ley, Australia’s most promising young writer, could not get this show produced in Australia. It’s shocking. They haven’t got the balls to put on something like this. God forbid that the audience should think!”

Like The Ides of March – a dystopian view of what might happen after terrorists wipe out a major city Studies for a Portrait by Daniel Reitz will have its world premiere at the White Bear. Reitz has done many plays in New York but this is his first in the UK.  “It’s had two development projects in New York,” Adam says, “A lot of love, time and energy, a lot of talented people have worked on this piece.  We’re very lucky to have it at The White Bear.” Studies is about a dying gay artist and the conflicts between his lovers. Set in the Hamptons, it is based loosely on the lives of Francis Bacon and Robert Rauschenberg.

“It’s a play about the human condition, how we deal with dying, how to wrap things up, what you want to do for people before you die, seeing how people cope with it, how they respond, about opportunities. It’s a very funny and moving play.” Adam has previously directed gay works such as Beautiful Thing and Boom Bang-a-Bang by Jonathan Harvey, and Loot by Joe Orton.

“With a new piece of writing,” he explains, “there is always the extra responsibility of making the transition from page to stage. The artistry is to make use of the rehearsal process to bring out the human side and add the drama. I see theatre directing as a metaphor, parallel with painting, I am the artist; the canvas is my venue, my space; the paint is the text.

“The brushes and colours are my actors and I use them to bring life to the space. Sometimes you leave a few colours out, you can vary the hue of a colour. That’s what you do with a new piece of writing – you can chop it up and pepper it through the script. But naturally there’s a rub - the writer is the rub! The play has come from them and we approach it with a different reverence than they do.”

Adam has lived in London for three and a half years, having completed his undergraduate honours degree in opera singing and theatre directing. He studied at a conservatoire and then moved into theatre directing at the Central School of Speech and Drama. “I still sing, I’m still in voice, but I was told a long time ago that I could not be an opera singer and be something else. It’s just an instrument I play, but my musical training is very useful – all subjects are – psychology, wine tasting, whisky tasting. They are all useful for a director. Everything is beautiful and useful. You need to use everything in life to make your art.”

Is London daunting? “Um … yeah! Coming from Canberra – which has 300,000 people to a city of 10-12 million in greater London, that is definitely starting from scratch. It’s a challenge. But the moment you accept that everything is meant to be difficult it becomes a lot easier. Unfortunately it is the case that young Australian artists are having to leave Australia to further their careers, because there is nothing to be done at home!”

Whilst things are tough in London, Adam is scathing about the commercialism of Aussie theatre: “They have got their heads so far up their arses in Australia that they don’t know how to recognise good native writing. They would rather buy into large internationally-touring West End productions.”

Of The Ides of March, he comments: “It’s often easier to swallow a story about another country that is similar to yours. You could produce a play like The Ides in Australia if it was set in Britain or America. But there is something about it being in your own back yard. In fact I was surprised that Ides didn’t get a West End transfer. I think people were actually scared of so many new ideas. Perhaps people who came to see the show felt guilty and that’s probably why it didn’t get transferred. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t a commercial proposition.” 

“It is criminal when you look at things like The Phantom of the Opera – it was great in its day but it’s a bit tired now. Then you’ve got something like this, [The Ides] where there is actually communion between the audience and the play. Where people can think and talk about the future of England, talk about the government, about apathy.

“I think anything that motivates people to care about the society they live in is a good thing. Civil unrest is fantastic. I feel sick at the apathy that English people have in relation to the way they live, the way they are watched, the way that decisions are made for them on a domestic and international scale, the way their leaders represent them. Just how much they don’t know about where they live, what they are losing every day, what they are trading every day.

“I’m talking specifically about their own personal liberties, like national identity cards, retina scanning at Gatwick Airport, the ratio of CCTVs to the population. What’s done with this information? Do we care? Issues like 42 or 45 days detention, these should be election platforms. In a few decades time people will be asking ‘What the fuck were we doing? Why did we let these things go?’

“It’s hard to fathom what the next turn is going to be. I was reading today about banks closing down people’s mortgages  for no reason whatsoever. They can use a clause saying a bank can withdraw credit with two or three months notice even if their payments are up to date. Someone living in a home with negative equity cannot get a loan elsewhere and therefore become homeless. That is unprecedented and scary. And the government will take advantage of that. They will say ‘we’ll protect you’ and then they will introduce some compulsory work scheme.

“Perhaps there is something just around the corner that would be nice for us to embrace. I know ‘communism’ is like a dirty word for many people and many generations – but I’m wondering if that is what we are moving towards. It might well be a good thing!”

Studies for a Portrait opens 6 January 2009 at the White Bear Theatre
138 Kennington Park Rd, SE11 4RB  020 7793 9193  

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