Interview: Rachel Heyburn

We chat to Rachel Heyburn, founder of East of West Theatre Company, who, amongst others, previously directed Pussy Riot at the closing night of Banksy’s Dismaland and now directs the upcoming revival of The Slave by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) at the Tristan Bates Theatre during Black History Month this October.

The Slave was first performed in 1964 and is set in the era of the USA civil rights movement. What drove East of West Company and the Alchemist to stage a revival of this play in London in 2016?

The play focuses on Walker (an African-American man) who uses a fictitious race-war to break into the family home of Grace (his white ex-wife) and Easley (her white husband), to take the children he shares with Grace.

Firstly, and most importantly, the play is brilliantly written. Its three protagonists are all complicated, flawed individuals attempting to get what they individually want from a situation with little regard as to how they get it.

My company (East of West Theatre Company) focuses on socio-political theatre and this point in history (1960’s USA) is fascinating. It was written in the same year that the Civil Rights Act was passed but three years before Loving vs. Virginia (the legalization of inter-racial marriages across the whole of the USA) so we are at a real state of socio-political flux in the play. It is also a very interesting time for women and it’s particularly interesting to see a divorced woman with two mixed-race children in the 1960’s. There is also another layer of masculinity and what it means to be a man in the 1960’s at this time of huge social change, both for Walker and for Easley.

What makes The Slave particularly relevant? How may we perceive the play differently in 2016 compared to the 1960s when it premiered?

In the 1960’s there was a strong element of the unknown. Yes, the laws were beginning to positively change but there were also regular race riots across the country. There’s optimism but tension.

In 2016, there are still some very scary realities. You are nine times more likely to die at the hands of the police if you are a young black male in the USA than if you are a young white male. The Black Lives Matter and I Can’t Breath campaigns have gathered huge momentum and it feels like another historical moment of change or the call for change.

 In a nutshell, what was your own journey to being a theatre director and what triggered your interest in the play The Slave?

I was quite an energetic child so my parents signed me up to drama classes every Saturday which I loved. I studied Film and Theatre at the University of Reading and continued to gain a MA degree in Theatre Studies by Research there too. Before University, I wanted to act but my course was quite heavily weighted towards directing and I loved the whole process. When I graduated, I wrote a lot of letters and began working as an Assistant Director. I have been really fortunate and worked for some brilliant Directors and have learnt a huge amount from watching their approach and process. I interspersed this with my own work: short runs, scratch nights and rehearsed readings. In September, I was invited to direct Pussy Riot in their performance of Refugees for the closing night of Banksy’s Dismaland. I’d read The Slave two years earlier and knew I felt strongly about the script and wanted to direct it.  It really feels that now is exactly the right time for the voices of these characters to be heard again.

What is your take on the play? What is different in your revival from previous takes on it?

I haven’t seen previous productions of The Slave although I have read the reviews. It’s a little tricky as I wouldn’t want to make a comment on someone else’s work without seeing the production and understanding how they came to make the decisions that they made.

It is very important me to find the balance between the politics and the play. Obviously, the historical context is hugely important and we have to respect it but it is a play. For me, it’s about understanding all that we know retrospectively, but also acknowledging that for our characters, it is a strong time of change. It’s also a play about three people who are battling with themselves and each other, who bring their own, personal histories to the stage, and who have their own agenda in a very fractured environment. We need to make sure we keep the immediacy of all of this information.

Your production of The Slave will premiere at the Tristan Bates Theatre during Black History month this October and is accompanied by a varied programme. What sort of events and people can we expect at this?

There will be two Q&A/discussion evenings with members of the cast and creative team where we will talk about the rehearsal process, how we reached the decisions made and the challenges we faced – ask us anything! It will also include events with guest speakers and we want the festival to be a celebration of black artists; playwrights, poets, artists, musicians and political speakers. We have approached individuals from a variety of creative backgrounds and are excited to officially announce the programme!

Where in the production process are you currently at and what’s next?

There are quite a few things happening. We are finalizing the final stages of some funding and currently have a live crowd funding campaign. Sophie Thomas (Designer) is currently model-boxing the set from our regular design meetings, research and her drawings, Anthony (The Alchemist – Co-Producer) is finalizing the details of the festival amongst many other things, and I am considering casting ideas and researching. It’s very busy but it’s all in a really good place and we are moving forward at a great pace.

What are the biggest challenges still ahead?

There are always challenges but I think that’s part of the excitement! As I said, we currently have a live fundraising campaign and budget is always a challenge – you want the highest production values and the money is always a push but we will get there and have had some wonderful support. We are also playing with some really exciting design ideas and have to find a balance between exactly what we want and what works in the space. I have a brilliant team of creative people so the challenges we are facing are all moving us forward and building a trajectory for the next step (maybe get back to me during the ‘get-in’ and see if I feel the same – joking!)

You are also planning a spring tour of The Slave for 2017, can you tell us more about that?

We are currently applying to a variety of theatres about the possibility of a spring tour. It is early days but has received a positive response and are optimistic about this next step.

Thanks for taking the time to chat to us and keep us posted on the progress of your production!

A rare, intimate revival of a seminal play set in the era of the USA Civil Rights movement which explores issues that remain as relevant and important today as when it was first published.

© Rachel Heyburn / Tessa Hart, 2016

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