Today we kick off Season 6 of The 21st Century Creative, the podcast that helps you thrive as a creative professional amid the demands, distractions and opportunities of the 21st Century.
The theme for this season is CREATIVE DISRUPTION. Every episode will feature an interview with a creator whose work was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and who rose to the challenge by doing something new and different in response.
Our first guest is Steven Kunis, a theatre director whose new production was put on hold when the Coronavirus hit London, and who hated the idea of putting the stage show on Zoom. So instead he created a brand new show, blending elements of cinema and live theatre.
In the first part of today’s show I introduce the CREATIVE DISRUPTION theme.
This is the first season to have a theme, and the reason is, that in the last two and a half years, we’ve all been massively disrupted by the Covid 19 pandemic. Not only the human tragedy of millions of lives lost, but also the social and economic damage caused by the virus and our attempts to control it.
In particular, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on many sectors of the arts and creative industries, and on the lives and livelihoods of creative professionals like you and me.
So I am using this season as a way to pause and gather our breath and see what we can learn from what we’ve been through – and to give you some inspiration and ideas for not just surviving but also thriving in the new landscape that we find ourselves in.
So I have assembled a lineup of guests whose work was severely disrupted by the pandemic, but who responded by doing something new and creative.
I have deliberately focused on the arts and creative industries that have been most disrupted – including theatre, music, TV and film production, in-person live events and experiences.
I also did my best to get a global perspective on the crisis. I’m aware that the pandemic played out in different ways in different parts of the world.
So I cast my net wide and I’m pleased to say that I have stories from creatives in seven different countries spread across five continents.
My guests include:
- A music manager who had to cancel an artist’s big tour, and then figure out what she could do for her artists in a world without gigs
- A street photographer who was confined to his apartment block and found himself making a new type of art
- A group of TV and film producers who watched the lights go out on productions all over the world, and suddenly realised the solution was staring them in the face
- An agency owner who had to let go of most of her staff, but created a new business based on an idea she’d been incubating for years
- A parenting and homeschooling expert who suddenly found her knowledge was in great demand
- An actor who used the cancellation of her next film as the incentive to create a project she’d never quite got round to starting
- An tattoo artist who took his art into the digital realm when his studio was closed
It took a lot longer than usual to put this season together, but I’m pleased with the results and I hope the extra time and effort will be worth it, in terms of helping us all to glean some learnings from the experience we have all been through.
Steven Kunis is a Greek-American theater and opera director, currently based in London. He is the founding artistic director of Panorama Productions, a company committed to international collaboration in the fields of theatre and music.
In 2021, his UK Premiere production of Young Jean Lee’s STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at Southwark Playhouse was nominated for Best New Play at the Off West End Theatre Awards, and Steven himself picked up a nomination for Best Director along the way. It was also named by Sam Marlowe at The i newspaper as one of the top ten theatre events of 2021 and garnered four-star reviews in The Evening Standard, The Guardian, The Times, The Arts Desk and The London Theatre Guide.
Steven was previously nominated for Best Director at the Off West End Theatre Awards in 2019, for his production of Asher Gelman’s play AFTERGLOW at the Waterloo East Theatre.
He is an ongoing member of the Young Vic Genesis Creators Network, and in 2020 was named an Emerging Leader by the Clore Foundation.
Steven says that he aims ‘to make theater that allows us to feel closer to one another, and to collectively imagine better possibilities for how we might all get along’.
His commitment to bringing people together in the theatre meant that when the pandemic first struck, he was sceptical of the idea of moving theatre productions online. So he put the production of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN on hold.
But he has always had a creative approach to constraints – and in response to the closure of theatres he came up with a completely new production, ROCKY ROAD, based on a script by Shaun McKenna and combining theatrical and cinematic techniques.
My wife Mami and I watched the play online and found it gripping, in a way that felt much more like watching live theatre than streaming TV.
And when restrictions were relaxed and theatre returned to the stage, Steven and Panorama were in the vanguard, with the revived production of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.
At Steven’s invitation I went to see the play at Southwark Playhouse, very close to Shakespeare’s old stomping ground. It was my first experience of live theatre since the pandemic, and it was a really intense experience – not only because of the quality of the play and the production, and also, as we say in the interview, because of the cocktail of joy tinged with fear that we all felt as we crowded into the theatre once more.
In this conversation Steven talks about his unusual start in theatre, and describes the (ahem) rocky road through the pandemic for himself and his colleagues.
He unpacks the pros and cons of live performance vs online media. He also talks about the importance of looking for a creative opportunity in a set of constraints, and shares his thoughts on some new possibilities for theatre going forward.
This is a really inspiring interview, and it feels like the perfect place to start our journey through the pandemic in the Creative Disruption Season.
More about Steven on his LinkedIn page.
Steven Kunis Interview Transcript
MARK: Steve, when did you first fall in love with the theatre?
STEVE: Well, I always had just the base attraction to it because it was one of the few things that I had fun doing, as a student, in school. But again, and it was always mainly a social outlet for me to… again, I went to a very sporty school where academics and arts were not as valued as, say, the sports scene. So I actually I didn’t really have my thing until I found that space, I think it was a production of Inherit the Wind, where I think I played a member of the jury and just made funny faces here and there. The drastic reveals that were going on in whatever scene we werae doing.
I don’t think that was when I caught the bug though, just because I felt that was a very fun experience for me. And again, my parents who came from working class immigrant backgrounds, it was not the type of path… you wouldn’t even begin to consider as a career, let alone if it was something that interested you enough to pursue in such a serious way. I actually went to college, for all intents and purposes, to be a scientist.
MARK: Oh, really?
STEVE: I studied neuroscience. I studied neuroscience in my undergrad and found immediately still that there was an enormous theatre scene that I could still pursue in a very fun way. And then, basically, I ended up taking a theatre class where, again, I thought I would just take this as a fun elective class but really changed my approach to art making, in a sense.
But so, basically, by the end of my 4 years of college… again, at this point, I had been ushering for the American Repertory Theatre, I’d seen amazing productions by the Wooster Group, these are experimental theatre companies in New York, like Elevator Repair Service, the team… I remember this one production by Rachel Chavkin called Natasha Pierre in The Great Comet of 1812, which was this electro pop opera adaptation of War and Peace.
Or there was one of the most amazing productions I remember, it was called Woody Says. It was about Woody Guthrie, the American folk singer. And there were hootenannies after every show where basically the audience learned that there was this post-show activity that some audience members themselves had actually started after one of the shows. So, then more audience members kept bringing their own instruments to upcoming shows and then staying in the lobby of the theatre afterwards for an hour or so afterward just to create this communal experience of art making from the audience’s perspective, which I found, wow, so inspiring. You can create creativity for a community.
What I was so amazed at was the level of the idea of community as a theatre subject, which was so exciting to me. Not just the idea that we go to watch a story of a community on stage, to learn about things, but also the fact that those productions created communities of audiences and that really facilitated the creativity of that community to make meaning or camaraderie with the other people in the room with them.
Which just felt so counter culture to me in terms of everything I’d grown up with, especially in academic institutions where you’re very much made to feel like you’re on your own and life is about your own individual advancement and progression, to see something so antithetical and so meaningful, at least to me, in terms of my values, to see an art form whose prime subject was togetherness and how we can find ways to always reinvent how we exist together in a room was really inspiring.
MARK: Because that’s really counter to the myth, isn’t it, of the individual solitary genius.
STEVE: Absolutely. And that’s the main thing I learned as a creator. Because I think, again, I was always a very anxious kid and I always put a lot of pressure on myself to, I don’t know, either deliver on a problem set or a paper or even a theatrical production. And I think even going in as a first-time director you’re always expected to have all the answers.
But actually you don’t have all the answers, you can’t have all the answers, and really you shouldn’t have all the answers to what it is you’re working on. Because you have all these other amazing brains in the room to help tell the story, the story that you’re working on in a really innovative way.
And if you don’t lean on your other collaborators, then actually, I think, you make the place smaller than you. If I decide what this play is before I even do it and don’t use the vast intelligences of the people I’ve chosen to work with me, then what am I here to do except to tell you what I already know?
It was so freeing for me, as an artist, to say, ‘Oh, wait, there’s 20 other people in this room where I can find the best idea,’ but also to find better ideas in terms of anything that I could ever make on my own. Which was just tremendously freeing for someone who was very locked creatively. And I think I just found a space for myself where I got to be the person I wanted to be. Rehearsal became that sacred space where I could let go, trust others, and really learn and really open myself up to experiences that, as a person in the rest of the world, that didn’t really get to happen so much. And so, I’ve learned from my craft as much as I, hopefully, have contributed to it.
MARK: Okay. So, you discovered this sacred space of togetherness and discovery, but how did you end up transitioning that into a career or profession? I don’t know if you think about it in those terms, but that you’re actually putting on professional shows and this is your work?
STEVE: That’s the first thing I’d want to say is that, when I was starting out, I had no idea how I would do that. And someone told me once, and this was only about a couple of months ago, and I think it’s a really great piece of advice, is not think about what you want to do but what you want to be. Because the rest of it you’ll figure out then along the way, as long as you have that goal, the kind of person you want to become. Whether that’s a writer, a storyteller, a director. You can then fumble your way there, as long as you have that end point in mind.
I knew in my heart I really wanted to do that but I didn’t have the confidence or really the resource to go out and be a freelance artist, at that point. Which everyone knows, there’s so many things that have to fall into place really for that to be a sustainable path for you.
So, at the end of college, I ended up getting a fellowship to study in the UK at Oxford. And what I was trying to figure out… because, again, I didn’t have any proper training as a director and I didn’t have really the experience to go to drama school, at that point. But this fellowship, it was called Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, which was a 12-month Master’s. And what it allowed me to do with that money was to basically create my own study investigating the neuroscience of theatre audiences. That program was all about evolution and what evolutionary benefits were conferred upon us through cultural habits like sitting around a campfire and listening to stories.
One of the takeaways from the study I did was basically listening to emotionally arousing stories and sitting in a room with other people while that was happening, it incentivised… or ‘incentivised’ is the wrong word but it cultivated what they called ‘the perceived sense of social bonding with others,’ how close you felt with the people you experienced that with, but then also collective creativity.
Essentially, if you would have someone watch this Benedict Cumberbatch film that was really emotionally arousing and you watched it before other people and then there was someone else who watched something that was just a fact-based documentary by themselves and put them all on these creative tasks together. The people who were under the more emotionally-arousing film watching condition and watched it with other people tended to perform better with their colleagues on this creative test than did the people who weren’t emotionally aroused and watched something by themselves.
It’s the reason that the Greeks basically made their citizens go to the theatre. To wrestle with issues of the state in a communal environment. And I think that was when I found fundamentally what about the art interested me was that collective-creative-enhancing world, that space where we could learn to think better together and exist together. Which I think, again, is so counter to a lot of the cynicism of our world, at the moment.
But anyway, going to answer your question about how I got into the industry… so, I think, at that point, I was doing all this stuff but realizing I was still making my own work in the basement of a pub theatre and really being pulled away from my research so much. I basically realized I was a veterinarian who wanted to be a dog, who was studying this thing for so long and realizing, ‘No, I just need to go out and do the thing,’ and I needed to stay in the country.
I needed to stay in the country and have a visa. Oxford had, and a lot of universities here have, so, for any artists who are not from the UK, think about this, it’s called the Graduate Entrepreneur Visa, I think they now call it the Startup Visa, where basically you can pitch to your sponsoring university an idea for any kind of company or social or economic enterprise that you think will contribute to the UK economy or UK life in some productive good way. I pitched my current company that I run, Panorama Productions, that was based around international collaboration in the theatre in the UK, post-Brexit.
The incentive was to stay in the country, make work necessity, breeding any ideas that I could have because I was, otherwise, quite stuck. I ended up getting sponsored and getting seed funding for my first set of shows. And then it became a really great stick, as opposed to a carrot, saying, ‘Well, you need to keep making your own work to stay in the country.’ And that became really the impetus for my own journey here, making work.
And again, this was all coming in the background of, as a starting out artist, I was trying to get residencies in the major theatres as an assistant director or associate director or any kind of learning capacity, and I just couldn’t get into any of them. Either I didn’t have the experience or it just didn’t work out for me, at that time.
This became a really amazing opportunity for me to basically, instead of getting in the room of someone else, being the room where I made my own work through Panorama. And that was how I started.
MARK: So, you have your own production company, Panorama. And if we could maybe fast forward then to late 2019, give us a snapshot of what you were doing at that point with the company, with your work, and what your plans were looking into 2020.
STEVE: Yeah, absolutely. 2019 was our first flagship project, which was The Refugee Orchestra Project. I had worked before that with a conductor named Lidiya Yankovskaya who was, and still is, I believe, the musical director at Chicago Opera Theatre. She started an ensemble called The Refugee Orchestra Project where basically, in whatever city they were in, Lidiya would gather musicians who were refugees to the United States or the children of refugees.
Lidiya came along and basically, through our various networks, found our new ensemble to create the debut of this orchestra project. We even had several members of the Syrian National Orchestra who had only just moved to the UK within a year of that production happening. And we presented our piece at the London Symphony Orchestra, St Luke’s venue, and that was basically the kickoff for our production. That gave us a really great network of supporters who were really interested and excited by our work.
MARK: And what happened next?
STEVE: Again, that was my first foray into directing professionally. Lidiya picked the repertoire of songs and then found a through-line narrative that would be able to connect that to a cohesive thing. But I thought, ‘I want to direct plays now, at this point.’ So, I directed a production called Afterglow at Waterloo East after, that went on for a couple of weeks. And then what I was most excited by, again, it was a play by an artist, that I so admired in college, named Young Jean Lee called Straight White Men. And it was at this point that I had the track record of a couple of productions that we managed to get that scheduled in at Southwark Playhouse for April of 2020. And that was the thing that I was really gearing up for quite a lot at the beginning of the year before disruption. And that ended up being postponed until very recently, as we know.
MARK: What was the first hint for you that this news story was getting so big that it was going to intrude on your work and this production?
STEVE: I first really realized that at the auditions for that play. We were auditioning in the week before the forced lockdown. When, basically, A, we lost so many people that were scheduled to audition because they had got Covid and they were very very sick, so, that we were thinking, ‘Wow, this is a lot of people. This is quite serious.’ And then also people coming into the room and not shaking hands, that was the first time I had gotten an elbow from somebody.
And again, in an art form, that is so contingent on collectivity, community, camaraderie. I mean we call ourselves ‘lovies,’ even if you’ve just met someone for the first time and you know they work in the theatre, you hug them. That’s just sort of the way, our weird subculture of humanity is that we’re very loving. Loving lovies, basically.
MARK: Poets don’t do that so much!
STEVE: Yeah, right. Too verbal. We’re expressed with our words. But no, we’re very much expressed with our… to see such an initial but very significant breakdown in the essential ways that we communicate in the theatre, that was the first time I’ve really felt in my body, ‘Oh, something is different.’
MARK: Right. And then what happened?
STEVE: And then… well, we carried on, that was what everyone was telling us to do. Just like as in 2021, carry on as normal because we don’t know… because this was before Boris Johnson had said, ‘Oh, don’t go to the theatre,’ or, ‘we’re going to shut down theatres.’ So, we still had our vested interest in making sure that this project could go off as safely as possible. And then we went into our recalls, I think in America we call them ‘callbacks,’ and our choreographer was ill with Covid. Or at least what she believed was Covid, at the time, because we couldn’t get testing. And again, I think only maybe five people showed up to that audition. But we still tried to carry on. And then, by the next day, the official lockdown had happened. And then I did not enter a rehearsal room in person again for 13 months after that.
MARK: Wow. We can all hear in your voice the warmth, when you talk about the togetherness, the connection, the community that you’ve experienced in theatre and that is the art form, that you’re so passionate about. And it really depends on presence, in a way, that a lot of art forms don’t.
What was it like to be suddenly cut off from all of that?
STEVE: At first, it was actually quite a relief. I’m a classic introvert. I found that, for me at least, as a director, I thrive on preparation. And I felt that, again, because at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, I had a series of projects going on that I think I let past my fingertips in terms of how much preparation time I could give to those rehearsals. And I think I was just quite relieved to actually say, ‘Oh, I can get this right now. I can get it right, I can conceptualize my work in a more rigorous way. I can really think about the characters whose skin I’m trying to get into.’
So, actually, it was quite a lovely first 3.5 months really, even 4 months really, where… beautiful weather, I could go for walks. And yes, the world was burning outside but I had my craft with me. Which is, again, a huge fortune, as a director, because usually your only craft is working in a rehearsal room with actors. But I had that thing to look forward to on the other side of this.
And remember, at this point, we thought this was only going to go on 3-4 weeks, max 3 months. And so, then it really started to get quite difficult when, I think around September hit, and we thought, ‘Oh wait, this could be very long time before we can seriously consider safely making our work again together, as an ensemble or just even considering anything new.’ And again, this was also at a point where the industry was really falling apart at the seams. It was a disaster for freelancers. Again, I mean I was very fortunate, I had my partner and we lived in a house share where our landlords gave us half the rent off, at that point. But again, streams of income were extremely minimal. And it became an issue of just, ‘What do we do from day to day, let alone thinking about projects going on in the future?’
At this point, the Culture Recovery Funding had come out. But again, everyone in the industry was after this very small pot of funding really. It felt very much, at that point, like you were all applying for the same set of grants that everyone drastically needed, theatre support fund, Culture Recovery Project grants that, again, in the end, only very few people were able to properly benefit from.
And so, while the rest of us all had to stay in our house a lot of the time, I remember, at that time, lots of people were exploding their work online, taking shows and putting them on Zoom or on camera. And there was enough of an appetite that people would go to see the shows but there was always this sense of bleakness about it where it just wasn’t the same as the in-person experience. Someone said to me, ‘It’s a form of mourning.’ Because this idea that like, yes, we’re so passionate to get our work out but really… I mean because a lot of these things were shows that were taken from in-person to just straight directly online that weren’t built for that space. We’d lost so much, as creatives, in terms of our work but also our identity and our sense of community with one another that we were just finding whatever we could to get the work out there. At least that’s what I was seeing, in a period where I was just mostly sitting at home.
MARK: Yeah. And so, at what point did you start to think about pivoting or doing something different with your work? Because I mean you couldn’t do the production that you had planned for, prepared for. You were looking at all the online stuff and thinking, ‘Yes, but… ’ you have reservations about that.
What was your thought process around what you were going to do next?
STEVE: At that point, we were just trying to do what we could with what we already had, which was this play. Because there was a lot of talk about, ‘Oh, we can adapt new live streaming and finding new ways of doing all of that.’ And so, basically, with the theatre, we were programmed at, they had a set of three cameras that they were using and actually beginning to create some really cool stuff with their work. And we said, ‘Oh, maybe we can adapt our piece to fit this camera work.’ And again, we were very lucky that we had this foresight from the writer basically saying, ‘The play we’re doing, it’s a comedy.’ Because this was back at a point we still couldn’t have audiences in the theatre, saying, ‘I just don’t think having a comedy under the camera lens is really a good idea at all.’
So again, we were amongst the masses trying to take what we had done and put that under camera and saying, ‘Oh, actually I don’t think this is the right call. We just need to wait until some unknown day in the future where audiences can assemble again.’ And at this point, this is not from the business standpoint, but we basically promised the theatre that we would put a show. We thought we basically promised the theatre we would put a play into their slot. And obviously, theatres need to still be running in some capacity, at that point, just to keep their bases engaged. And so, we needed to find something very quickly that we could put in its place.
I was thinking, ‘Okay, what could work with no audience and just cameras?’ And that was where I got really interested in this, just film-noir kind of idea of something that’s more of a thriller, something more inherently dramatic that doesn’t rely on the audience energy so explicitly to work, what really hugs the screen format so well. And we’d asked around. I wasn’t reading and finding anything that really worked and we couldn’t really find any new plays that had come out that was really interesting to us. I asked my one friend, Shaun McKenna, ‘Do you have anything?’ and he said, ‘Well, no, I don’t. But I wrote this screenplay, about 15 years ago, that I didn’t do anything with, just never really worked out. What do you think?’
I read it and I was very captured. It was called Bodily Harm, at that point. I read this and I got so excited by it because it was basically I thought, ‘Oh, we can just cut the whole entire first half of this play and take that first half and integrate it into memory-based monologues throughout the entirety of this second half.’ And I thought, ‘This would be a great thriller in a single room that will make our heads explode and work great on a film-noir thriller-style stage.’
Then, through a series of edits, it became this piece called Rocky Road. A lot of things started to fit together then. We managed to get the theatre, we managed to get working with this actor named Tyger Drew-Honey, another brilliant actor named Kirsten Foster. And the team all fell into place with everyone who was just so hungry after so long to make the best work we could. It was the first time we were back into rehearsal, in March. And it was just like touchpaper, a really extraordinary process. I mean because, again, like this was about what, maybe a 2-hour-and-15-minute show. We rehearsed the whole thing in 12 days, which would normally really panic some prospective collaborators. Even in tech, I mean we had about 253 cues, which is quite a few in a tech process, in 9 hours of tech.
But again, the engine was revved up and ready to go for so many people. And it was just an amazing process and a great show that I was very proud of to have made by the end of the lockdowns basically.
MARK: I’ve seen the show, but for the benefit of listeners, tell us about the show that you put on and also the format that you put it on and how you felt that the show and the format worked together in a way that wasn’t just taking something designed for in a live theatre and then sticking that with a two-dimensional screen. Because you created quite a different experience, didn’t you?
STEVE: Yeah. It’s called Rocky Road. And basically, it’s a story about a woman named Zoe who shows up on this man’s doorstep, Danny, who’s the building manager of a building that she is now moving into. You quickly learn that, as in any good thriller, she is not who she says she is. And you find that, for some unexplained reason, this man has ruined her life 10 years ago and the ripples of crime and punishment have really affected both of them quite significantly over the last 10 years. She’s here to find out answers as to why he’s done what he’s done.
And when, at a certain point, she does not get the answer that really satisfies her… and, in fact, the answer she gets quite disturbs her, about the randomness of the world and how bad things can happen to others. She feels like she has to destroy what he represents, this unnerving world where being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have such catastrophic outcomes for you.
I felt we were in a place in the world that just felt very much like that, at the time. This idea of, ‘Why is this happening to us? How can we explain the Covid thing? Is it a lab thing? Is it poor government planning? We’re all locked in our houses.’ So many people’s life plans were just quite literally derailed. Some people wanted children and didn’t know when to work with that. Some people had creative careers they wanted to work towards. Some people had relatives that they wanted more time with. Or some people lost their own health as a result of these lockdowns.
I think the play really keyed into a character who was really struggling with so many things being so randomly thrown in her direction and really struggling to come to terms of existing with that. It felt very much of an emotional place that we were all in. And I just felt the intimacy of the camera. Because again, what’s happening is she’s going through the story, as you see in a typical play format, that’s where the camera is further away from you but then, as you start to get into these more monologue in between scene moments, the camera starts to be her friend and follow her as if it’s a diary of some sort. That you, as the audience, get to be in her private thoughts as a way for her to confide and express herself, find some sort of outlet for really what she just has as a deep deep rage at what’s happened to her. And then you feel for her, you cry for her, and you go on this journey as she… what’s the word for it? Spirals into what, ultimately, becomes a very devastating revenge story.
Now, you’re asking about the form of what we did. Our set was built in mind for all these typical filmic tropes that you could never accomplish in the theatre. So, we basically had four cameras set up into the space and the set itself was one room, for an apartment, but then through standard tricks of light became two different apartments and possibly the hallway between them. But then things like split screens, as one person’s on one side of the door and one person’s on the other side of the door, or tricks of appearances and disappearances that you couldn’t normally achieve on stage because of being able to guide not only where the audience was looking but how close or far away they were looking.
I think the form of that meant the content of the story but also introduced filmic conventions into theatre that weren’t possible before but still in a language that the audience understood. Which was quite exciting and quite new. And again, really, we felt like we were discovering something new that wasn’t just a play. And that was quite exciting. What was your experience?
MARK: Well, that absolutely chimes in with my experience. So, first of all, in terms of the theme and the genre, I think it’s interesting you said comedy is probably not where we’re all at right now. And so, you’ve got this film-noir thriller. Very claustrophobic but I mean it wasn’t a plague piece. Without any spoilers, it was a different theme, a different scenario. But it was certainly close enough to the sense of claustrophobia, being hemmed in and not being able to get out and pent-up emotions that it absolutely resonated for us.
Just for the listeners, Steve told me about the show and he said, ‘We’re doing it online, it’s a bit different.’ And so, Mami and I, my wife, we bought tickets and I remember one thing was it wasn’t streamed. It’s not like Netflix, it wasn’t at your convenience where you can just snack on it, turn it on, turn it off. We had to show up at a certain appointed time because that was when the show was going to start.
STEVE: It was live.
MARK: Yeah. It had a similar effect when you go to the theatre, you’ve got to go to the theatre. And if you’re late, they’re not going to let you in because you’re going to mess up everyone’s experience. So, there’s a sense that the audience has to show up in the right way. And I remember thinking we had to make sure our drinks and snacks were all ready and we could be there at the beginning. It brought a different quality of attention to endless stuff that we’ve been streaming during lockdown evenings.
It’s really interesting when you talk about bringing in filmic elements; I’m not consciously film-literate enough to be able to spot all of those tricks but I certainly had the sense that it felt like a live theatrical production but it was actually much more involving. And I guess that’s the film, the cinematic techniques that you’re talking about that you’d used.
I’ve got loads of DVDs of live theatre productions, and it’s great but they always leave you feeling it would’ve been better if I was there because, obviously, you’re more drawn into it. But this really did draw us in. I think I’ve probably enjoyed the theme more than Mami. It was pretty dark, let’s put it that way.
It was a really intense evening and we really felt that we had been on a journey, not exactly the same as going to the theatre but not a million miles away and it was quite different to sitting at home watching a movie.
STEVE: I think a lot of it was also happy accidents along the way, which I think is as any work of art. What mistakes or fun coincidences happen that make it what it is. Because, really, this play was written by a playwright who had that theatrical bent to his craft but wrote this originally as a film, meant to be made into a film. So, I think it already had, either subconsciously or consciously, embedded into the fabric of that story this natural attachment to a screen medium built into what Sean was… in a way, I think, almost the hybrid format that it was in was even, in a way, more powerful than even just a film experience alone or just a theatre experience alone.
After having gone through it all, I think it’s actually really hard for me to imagine that story existing quite as comfortably in either one of those two mediums on their own. We try and talk about it quite a lot but it’s just an ongoing conversation. And then, in terms of all the other things of like close-ups and split screens and stuff, that was all a matter of discovery in the rehearsal room, thinking… again, because we spent entire 13 months just watching Netflix. So, we all, consciously or subconsciously, had that film vocabulary in our heads, of what works and what doesn’t, that we brought with us into the room.
You always bring that baggage or experience with you. And it finds its way into your instinct that I think really paid off in all the right ways on this show. Which was, I guess, for me at least and my company, a really great send off to what was otherwise a horrible time in the pandemic.
MARK: I’m curious; necessity was the mother of invention. You did what you could, given the circumstances, and you came up with this hybrid theatre film live performance.
Is there anything of this that you want to carry forward into your future work or is it too early to tell?
STEVE: It’s always early. Maybe some other artists are more conscious about their decisions than I am, but again I always find that my decisions are accidents that come from, like you said, I think the only reason I even started my company was because I had to find a way to stay here in the country. I guess what I would say, and maybe as a lesson I would say for myself is just to whatever limitations you have, really lean into them and use those to your advantage. For us, the only reason this Rocky Road play existed was because we were basically told that it was a horrible idea to have our other play put under a live stream format and thinking, ‘Okay, what can we do now?’ We’re picking up the pieces from that. My company exists because I needed to find a way to not have the Home Office knocking on my door. Different people are motivated in different ways by different things.
What I would say to anyone is to actually say, ‘How can I use this to make what I otherwise do even better?’ That’s really hard a lot of the time saying, it’s a great way to say, ‘I can’t do this.’ I am very much a person who can be prone to pessimism and say, ‘Oh, I can’t do something because X, Y, Z,’ but that very thing, what does that allow me to do? What do I get to do because of this limitation? I can really flip a lot of things that I’m working on in myself as well to discover.
MARK: What about the response from audiences and also in terms of your career? Has it helped you by opening any doors there?
STEVE: Absolutely, yeah. It opened up doors in a way that you wouldn’t expect because normally a theatre piece, your audience is very much limited by the people in your geographical area who can see it. And so, for me it built all kinds of relationships with me. I was able to have colleagues in other countries see it. I’ve now developed a relationship with the English Theatre Frankfurt who was quite excited by what they had seen there. I would never have gotten a way for them to know my work, at least at that point, had it not been for something like that.
Even in California, a television producer had seen the play, based on a review we’d gotten in The Guardian, and approached us to talk about other possibilities of other types of screen adaptations using that kind of story, as well as other stories that we’d made in the past before. I never worked in screen or even thought about working in film or television before that. And even that has now been the beginnings of several conversations for us in terms of, not only just, ‘How do we adapt this story to screen work?’ but also, ‘How I can expand my practice into other media that was really necessitated by a pandemic?’
And then on a personal note it was the first professional production my own mother had seen. She lives all the way in New Jersey and she had no idea what I was getting up to it all the time while I was 3,000 miles away. So, I think that was also just quite an exciting experience for my own family who had always been very supportive but had no idea what I was about or was interested in creatively. No, that was something I was very proud of to entertain them, and they got a real thrill out of it and absolutely loved it.
And I think that was probably the most fulfilling outcome on a personal level. It was a great avenue for people to sort of see what I can do, our company can do, but also a way for us to expand our practice into other media.
MARK: Okay. And so, picking up on the Straight White Men Production, this was the one that had been halted when the first lockdown came. At what point did you start to think, ‘Okay, we may be able to think about bringing this back and getting back into the theatre again.’?
STEVE: We always waited. It was really useful to see other productions stumbling their way to finding sustainable models for how we could work in a Covid world. And I think this summer was a really difficult time but a really great triumph for theatre as well, in terms of finding new ways that, through testing, through isolation, and understudies that they could find a good way to make the show go on, so to speak. And it was in the summer then when we…
MARK: This is summer 2021 by this point?
STEVE: Summer 2021, exactly. And it was, at that point, seeing the shows, find their way through, that we gathered as much intel as we could as to how other people were doing, what they could, and ‘Okay, maybe we can do that now too.’ And also wanting to get the show on as as quickly as possible because it had been in the back of my mind now for about 2 years at that point. And then we, basically, announced the show in the September and then rehearsals began October and we performed all through November and December. And then Omicron hit.
MARK: Right. But you managed to finish your run just before Omicron came along?
STEVE: Just, again, I am one of the very lucky ones in this sense. I have not anyone in my company who’s got Covid, we’ve not had any Covid-related cancellations or postponements. There was an actor who was out for 4 days because of flu-like symptoms, and the terror of that was a lot. I think we were talking about this before, the level of background stress on the production, not just from the production team but also for the members of the company, the actors. It was a lot still through the whole year to think, ‘Just one case and it’s over.’
We were all in the theatre at least, again, because, 2021, a lot of us were back to work but it was still quite a difficult year in the sense that we were being told to go back to normal when it wasn’t normal. I am inspired all the time by people who still managed to find ways to make it work as the virus was sort of wreaking havoc on so many shows. It’s a real act of bravery to say, ‘I have the audacity to put a show on and make it happen.’
MARK: What was it like on the first performance with an audience?
STEVE: Well, it was very live! An audience member passed out actually on the very first performance. So, maybe they weren’t as ready to come back to the live experience.
No, the show actually had to stop halfway through and we had to basically take the entire company out of the space, which, again, is just so frightening for an actor being in the middle of a scene and having someone just plop right onto the stage in front of them in a very small theatre. But the entire audience, they came right back in and were just as enthusiastic to make that work happen. It’s not just the actors and the creators, it’s the audience who is so thrilled to come back. People passing out and all. But even audiences I think are quite on edge at the moment, so, you also have to take that into account.
MARK: I can relate to what you’re saying about audiences being a bit on edge. Because I came to see the production… I think was it November or early December?
MARK: This early December, right. And this was I think only my second trip to London in the two years. And the previous one I hadn’t been among any crowd beyond being on the Tube a bit. And I must admit, when I walked in and sat down in the middle of this crowd of people, I hadn’t been in that situation for almost two years. I had a moment of thinking, ‘Is this a good idea? Should we be doing this?’ But also there was so much joy in that room.
And it’s quite in-your-face, even the pre-show, without giving any spoilers. There was a lot of pumping music, let’s just say the visuals from the stage were quite stimulating, there was so much energy and joy. I remember people just applauding and being just thrilled to be there. And feeling that myself, it really brought home to me how much we’ve missed this and how fantastic it is to be in a live production. Something that I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted again.
STEVE: And you even went to a matinee. And matinees suck usually!
MARK: It was me, it was my energy! [Laughter]
STEVE: No, I just think it’s the general enthusiasm of the public assembling again. We’re built for that.
MARK: So, okay. As one of the first productions back after the big interlude… and I know there’ll be lots of people listening to this who are putting on productions or considering putting on productions, whether theatrical or musical or of other kinds, any advice or guidance for them, things to look out for in this new phase that we’re in?
STEVE: I’m just trying to figure out just as much as everyone else. It’s just what I said before; really be kind to the people in the room with you. Because again, they’ve been through just the same hell, over the last two years, as you have very likely. If not worse. Because I think a lot of people have had a very tough time. And especially for actors it’s so exposing to come back on a stage again. To create an environment that feels as safe and encouraging and nurturing as possible is the best thing you can do I think to make… because I think I always feel like the way the company of actors gets along is very much the energy that the audience experiences.
To create as much of a welcoming and exciting space for the actors will do that, will recreate that same experience for people like you who come to punt, basically. We need people to feel welcome and excited to be back. Especially right now as we’re all struggling to get back on our feet.
MARK: I absolutely felt that the minute I walked into the theatre.
STEVE: Yes. Done. I’m done, I can retire.
MARK: This would be a lovely point, I think, for you to set the listener your Creative Challenge. If you’re listening to this and this is the first time you’ve heard the show, this is the point in the interview where I asked my guest to set you, the listener, a challenge that will stretch you creatively and probably personally as well. It’s something that is on the theme of the interview and that you can complete or at least get started on within seven days of listening to this conversation.
Steve, what’s your Creative Challenge?
STEVE: I would say take 6 minutes and just write a list. A list of basically everything that you feel is a limitation to you, that’s getting in your way, that you feel like is stopping you from doing what you want to do creatively right now.
Write down whatever pops in your head. Don’t worry if it seems random or if it doesn’t make sense, just write whatever comes to you. Because you might be surprised what answers you find are getting in your way. And this could be inside of yourself or outside of yourself, everyone has a different relationship to what they feel is holding them back.
And then, once you’re done with that list, take one or two of those things and say, ‘Okay, how is this an advantage and how can I use that in my next venture?’
MARK: Fantastic. I love it. A really hard-won wisdom, I know this is in relation to the story that you’ve just told.
Steve, thank you. That has been really enlightening and inspiring. I’m so glad that you and your colleagues are back on stage, long may that continue.
Where can people go, first of all, to find you online and to find out about your upcoming projects? And do you have anything in the pipeline that you can tell us to look forward to?
STEVE: I’m part of the creators program at the Young Vic. If you just google me, you’ll find my name, my information, and contact info all there.
MARK: That’s Steven with a V and then Kunis is K-U-N-I-S?
MARK: Right, okay. And what about upcoming projects?
STEVE: Right now I’m workshopping a new play by this writer named Andrew Thompson. He won the Theatre503 International Playwriting Award about 5 years ago. This is his second play now called Cuts, Cuts, Cuts, which is, basically, about a junior doctor, a man appears to her who is in a great deal of pain and she tries to help him and can’t touch him. It’s this magical realism story where actually they realize they have to learn the rules of how they can engage with each other, how she can help him, how he can help himself. And they start to fall in love then in this really at first touching but then very dysfunctional harrowing way.
What you soon realize it’s not just a story about a doctor and a patient or about a toxic romance, it’s about our relationship to the NHS and how in a world where we ourselves feel so oversubscribed or run down, how we could possibly even think to help someone else or give them what they need. Which, again, is another Covid-times thing that feels very pressing to me.
MARK: Very timely.
STEVE: And he wrote the play before Covid.
STEVE: Yeah, that metaphor of these two beings who cannot touch one another for some unexplained magical reason just came through Andrew’s subconscious and found its way and really resonating in the midst of a global pandemic. And again, I found that so exciting and prescient and really something. And we’re hoping to get that on at the Edinburgh Festival later this year.
MARK: Great. Thank you so much, Steve, for sharing, as I said, your very hard-won wisdom and your really inspiring response that you came up with to the constraints that you’re under. And as I say, fingers crossed that, from now on, the show will go on.
STEVE: Thank you very much. Yes, the show must go on, as they say.
MARK: The show must, and indeed it will.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
If you’d like my help applying the ideas from the show to your own situation you are welcome to join us in the 21st Century Member’s Group.
This will give you access to Goal-setting, Accountability and Q&A videos, as well as other exclusive insights and glimpses behind the scenes of the show. Due to the pandemic, membership is currently on a pay-what-you-want basis.
Your membership fee will also support the podcast and help to make it sustainable.
Make sure you receive every episode of The 21st Century Creative by subscribing: