Meeting Andy Smith, theatre maker and Dartington College of Arts alumnus

Renowned theatre maker Andy Smith is the creator of Dartington Live shows The Preston Bill and Summit, the latter of which comes to Space Studios on 9-10 November.

Andy is also an alumnus of Dartington College of Arts, and we caught up with him to find out more about his new show, and how his time here continues to shape his work today.

What course did you do at Dartington College of Arts?

AS: I did an MA in performance writing, part time, between 2001 and 2003.

What element of your time here did you get the most out of?

AS: I got so much out of my time at Dartington I don’t know where to begin. It refreshed my thinking and doing. I was encouraged to ask questions, follow and trust my instincts, and also to have the confidence to talk about what I was doing as if it was art making. It allowed me to be a theatre maker.

I think I learnt about rigour and discipline there. About considering and crafting ideas until they became something (hopefully) interesting to others as well as myself. I made projects and performance of a nature that I always thought I had wanted to but never had the courage to do so. I made a leap. I met some brilliant people. Tutors and peers who stood alongside and inspired me, one of whom is my partner and who I now have a family with.

I think it is a great shame that the College moved and that courses like performance writing no longer exist, but I think its legacy lives on. It certainly does in my thinking. I now teach part time at The University of Manchester and I think my approach to it all is totally influenced and informed by the lecturers I met whilst at DCA. People who were not afraid to admit that they didn’t understand something fully so that the room could explore it together, rather than feed information downwards in a hierarchical manner, pretending that someone in the room is cleverer than someone else. They might know more or have more experience, but that is a different matter.

How did you feel about coming back for (previous Dartington Live show) The Preston Bill?

AS: It was emotional. As you might have already worked out, the place means a lot to me, so it felt like a bit of a pilgrimage. It was great to walk around the grounds again. The funny thing is that the estate looks so bucolic and idyllic, but for me it is also full of memories of the most amazing and bold performances. There is a statue of a swan at the top of the tiltyard. When I look at it I remember an amazing work and film that an artist called Cyril Lepetit made where he sat atop it naked. That about sums up the brilliance and contradiction and radical nature of what Dartington was for me. Every corner has a story, and it is not always the one that you might expect.

Can you reveal any more about the new show, Summit?

AS: Of course. The play tells a very simple story. It is the story of a meeting. The ‘summit’ of the title. At the meeting something very simple happens, but it is a moment in which – the story suggests – everything changed. The performance is told in three different ways: as a story from the future; one from the past; and one from the present, which is the summit. The audience are asked to pretend that they are the people at each of these meetings.

There are three performers, and they all speak different languages, including BSL, which is fully integrated into the show. At one point there is a speech delivered in Malay. I wanted to explore ideas of identity, language, nationality and internationality with this piece. This is why this multiple language and approach is happening.

There is a line on the flyer and poster which I think says it all. It says: ‘We need to use our imagination. We need to imagine that change might be possible, however hard or impossible it might sometimes seem’. That just about explains it for me. I think that this relates to where I think we might be in the world at the moment. It is why the fictional summit in the play is called in a way, and also why I think I wrote and made the play.

Will the audience be taking part actively as delegates?

AS: Yes. The audience are asked to be there, and sit and listen to the story. They ‘play’ the audience at each of the tellings, but if you mean interact then they are not required to speak or vote or anything. I still think that they are being pretty active, though. Taking part actively. I hope so. I think that being an audience is a very active thing to do.

I get frustrated when I hear people talk about ‘passive’ audiences just sitting there, doing nothing. They are not doing nothing! They are being an audience, which for me is the most important thing in any piece of theatre or indeed work of art. If it didn’t have anyone to travel up that hill to see it, sit or stand and look at it, respond to it, interpret it, then there would be no reason for its existence. Doing all those things is quite a job. An active one at that.

Would you say there is a connection running through from Dartington College of Arts to this piece?

AS: Absolutely. I think everything that I explored at DCA has informed what I have done since. If you want me to identify what these things might be I would say that they are language, fluidity, simplicity, complexity, narrative and story, poetics, politics and presence. What a very DCA answer that is.

Why BSL and why Malay? Why is art about diversity important right now for you?

AS: As well as English, the other main languages in the play are BSL and Malay. I don’t speak either of these, but my performers do. They present and represent an idea of difference to all of us that I think it is very necessary that we consider. I don’t think our socio-political systems, or at least aspects of them, are good at considering difference, certainly not at the moment. In fact I think many of them want to discourage it. I think we need to make active decisions about these things all through our lives. Not just in our art making, though we need to do that too.

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