Andrew Keates is a multi-award winning director of productions such as Bent, Just So, The Hired Man, The Thing About Men, A Winter’s Tale and As Is. He co-ran the Landor Theatre for over three years until 2012, when he set up his own company, Arion Productions.
His acclaimed production of Martin Sherman’s Passing By will be revived for the Tristan Bates Theatre, starting 5th November, starring James Cartwright and Rik Makarem.
We recently caught up with him for an exclusive in-depth interview. Along the way we found out how he became a director and what drives him to succeed, about his collaborations with Martin Sherman and Howard Goodall, and about his ambitions for the future and how they’re affected by his past.
Andrew, thanks for talking to us. When did you start directing theatre?
I started directing during my time at Brockenhurst College. Brockenhust or ‘Brock’ as it was affectionately known; was a vibrant place set in the heart of the New Forest. You’d find yourself reading Pinter in a field, surrounded by highland cows and serene countryside. It brought together a collection of oddballs – you’d spend every day with philosophy students, actors, poets and artists: I loved it. We felt thrown together because we were artistic and weird. One moment you’d be reading Shakespeare, the next, you’d be arguing about Wittgenstein, the next you’d be sleeping together. We all felt like we could change the world. I think some of us will.
Whilst doing my A-levels (English Literature, Theatre Studies, Philosophy and Religious Studies) I’d take advantage of my own enrichment activities. I was what, seventeen, eighteen? I’d go to the Head of arts and say “I want the theatre. I want to do some Beckett!” And they’d actually give it to me. Before I knew it, I’d be going to the art department and assembling a studio of artists to paint the set or rehearse in the local pub. At Brock, I learnt that anything was possible with vision and determination. But… and this is a big but: I felt safe to play and make some terrible mistakes. In many ways it was my playground as a director. One I feel very lucky to have been allowed to play in.
Were you interested in theatre from childhood?
As a boy I constantly had my head in books and subsequently developed a wild imagination and desire to play. I was the kid who after reading about Narnia, sought out my nan’s wardrobe; ventured in with a stuffed animal and pretended to chat to Mr. Tumnus. No: pretend isn’t right. I just believed in it. There was no questioning my imagination.
As a family we didn’t really go to the theatre. To be honest with you, we couldn’t afford it. Sometimes we’d go to see a pantomime. I still remember the smell of a popped pyrotechnic as the lights came down. It excited me and fascinated me that any magical world could exist within four walls of a building. Anything was possible in a theatre. I think panto is so important. We’re the only country in the world with a ‘theatre tradition’. I think so many of the children who will go to panto will be the same ones who end up going to the National or The Globe twenty years down the line. The best thing about theatre and my childhood was my liberty to discover it myself. It wasn’t forced upon me. It wasn’t something that my parents did or something that I felt obliged to do. It was my thing and I was fascinated with every element of it. I still am.
Did you see theatre perhaps as a licence to not grow up?
It’s not that I never want to grow up. But I do miss the simple pleasures of my childhood. If you take a ragdoll and play peek-a-boo – a toddler will be entertained for hours. Audiences are similar. My favourite kind of theatre is that which boils down to the simplest, most effective way to tell the story. Theatre matters to me more than any other performance art, such as film or television, because theatre is where it all comes from. It goes back to the beginning of mankind – human beings trying to communicate with other human beings in the same location. There’s no editing, no tricks. Theatre is storytelling in its rawest form. There’s nothing better. It’s experiential and alive. It comes from our very nature. It matters.
Did you ever fancy being on the other side of the stage?
Acting was how I was introduced to theatre. However, my career advice at school stretched to, “you might want to consider being an English teacher…”, which wasn’t particularly helpful; or inspiring come to think of it. But as I grew older I found that I didn’t have a burning passion to be on the stage. My passion was to tell stories. Not to be in them. I’m never happier than when I am in the rehearsal room or during the process of creating a show. So, after Brockenhurst I was deciding which University I wanted to study at, when my mentor effusively told me to truly appreciate actors and to be a great director, I should go to a drama-school instead. I should do ballet classes to plays, animal studies to voice work. After all, regardless of my love of all the various creative departments, it’s actors that are the most sophisticated tools that a director has to work with. You must develop a language to enable them. Everything else can be learnt on the journey.
You are very open about being gay and are known as a prominent director of gay plays. Did you come out early on?
I came out when I was thirteen, to everybody, because I wanted to be true to myself. ‘Know Thyself’ rang in my ears as loudly as a bell tower. I liked guys. I wanted to be with guys. It was as simple as that. I didn’t want to deny my nature and the only option, regardless of my fears, was to come out to be happy.
Did being out extend to school? It was the era of Section 28.
Yes, but my school was dreadful. I remember telling a couple of friends that I was gay before I told my family. They seemed to take it well, then whilst on holiday I got a phone call from a large group of school friends who shouted terms like ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’ down the phone. My secret was out and there was nothing I could do about it. I was terrified.
Were your family always supportive?
Yes they were. When I got back from the worst holiday ever (Butlins – for two weeks – now that is a living nightmare), I knew I had to come out. I had been reading a lot of gay plays and one of them hit me so hard on the night that I read it that I crept into my mother’s bedroom with a cigarette (I thought I should tell her I smoked too and kill two birds with one stone) and a long overdue coming-out letter. We went downstairs; she read the letter, hugged me and told me she loved me no matter what. Then she asked if she could go back to bed, as she had to be up early for work.
The play I had been reading was Bent by Martin Sherman. I didn’t know then who on earth Martin Sherman was, but I knew that he understood love. I knew he understood what it meant to be true to oneself. How important it was to be true to your heart and your nature. Most teenage boys hide a certain kind of publication under their bed; under mine were plays by Sherman, Hoffman, Williams, Kramer and Wilde. Since that time I’ve always thought it was important to appreciate our history. It’s one of the big reasons I’ve directed plays such as Bent, Passing By and As Is.
Did you find any support at school?
In short: no. I went to a place called Ferndown Upper School. It was a typical comprehensive school in Dorset. After coming out that I was gay, I would find vile things written on my locker between classes. I’d regularly receive graphic notes during lessons and be physically and verbally assaulted on a daily basis. Then one day I was severely beaten and kicked repeatedly in the head until I was unconscious. My glasses were smashed into my face causing it to bleed. I remember hearing someone say, “Be careful, don’t touch him, he’s gay, he’s got AIDS!” That should give you an insight into the miserable, ignorant, foolish, education system I was growing up in thanks to Section 28. Thanks Thatcher.
My mother came in to school and asked the Head why I was being treated so cruelly and how the school was going to keep her son safe. He told her, “We’ve had students like Andrew before. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s one in sixth form at the moment. It could be a phase. He just needs to be more normal.” He was a stupid, bigoted, ignorant little man. The thought of him still makes my skin crawl.
Eventually we found a lifeline in Dr Michael Halls, who ran an extraordinary organisation called The Intercom Trust. He travelled all the way to Bournemouth to challenge my school and to ensure that I was being kept safe. He challenged them on what support networks were being put in place for young gays at my school. When he asked for the schools equal opportunities policy, it was mysteriously unavailable and he even threatened police involvement. They soon started to make changes. Dr Halls made sure we knew our rights as a family and in my eyes, he was my saviour. The difference between him and my school was that he knew what he was talking about. He was interested in young gay people’s interests. My school didn’t know what to do. Eventually, when it came to going up to sixth form, I decided to travel 45 minutes every morning to Brockenhurst in the New Forest, rather then to Ferndown, which was only ten minutes from the council estate I was living on. I wanted somewhere safe to learn.
Did you encounter homophobia at Brockenhurst?
Sadly yes. My first year at college was a year of liberty. I was popular for being unique rather than despised for it. I felt loved and invested in by all my tutors and friends. Then one morning in my second year, a new student got on the bus and launched into a tirade of homophobic abuse. The guy started to become violent and thankfully my friends got between the two of us. How the driver didn’t have an accident I’ll never know. It could have been a great tragedy. We managed to get to college and report the incident, where he was suspended and put on probation. But, of course it only made things worse, as when he returned he became violent to the point of threatening to kill my family and me. It was then that the police had to be involved along with our friends at The Intercom Trust (again!). He would turn up at the bookshop that I worked in, my home and somehow find a way onto the college campus. He even threated my teaching staff. He was arrested, a restraining order was issued, police warning given and I was provided with a safe-phone for my protection. Thankfully, Brock decided to expel him and college returned to normal. But it still didn’t make me feel any safer when I’d be out in Bournemouth or walking home alone.
After all these struggles, the BBC asked to make a documentary about my life called Britain’s Secret Shame with Sally Magnusson. It focused on the homophobia in our schools and after it was aired, my mother and I were inundated with bags and bags of letters from students and parents going through the same kind of turmoil. We responded to every single letter. It felt like a duty we had to fulfil.
In Part Two of our interview Andrew talks about his time in drama school, his work in musical theatre and his collaboration with Howard Goodall.
You can see Andrew Keates’ transfer production of Passing By at the Tristan Bates Theatre near Covent Garden from 5th to 30th November. You can book tickets by visiting the Tristan Bates Theatre website.
For more details about the work of Andrew Keates, see his website.