We here at culturised caught up with playwright Vanessa Oakes to discuss her latest project All is Well and her journey into becoming a professional playwright. All is Well examines the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and tells the story of Aleks, Stefan, and Nina as they try to reconnect in the aftermath and lingering fear of radiation. Vanessa has been a full-time playwright since 2007 and her works have been performed in theatres, art galleries and museums, community spaces, coal vaults, beneath a ring road, and in an award-winning bungalow and at Latitude Festival.
How did you find yourself as a professional playwright?
I always loved art. Originally I thought I was going to be a sculptor and trained at North Warwickshire College in Art and Design; following that I went to Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham and studied Theatre Design. That course was run by Malcolm Griffiths, who was a theatre director, and he very much believed that to design for theatre you should have experienced all the different elements including writing, performing etc. and immersed yourself in as much of it as possible. So by the end of that three year degree course I had co-written a play with a friend of mine Thrity Vakil. Now this is back in 1988, and we co-wrote a play about the decline of the NHS (which we might have to revive, you never know); that was the first time I had written anything significant, although I had always been interested. But I got offered a job at my degree show and three days later I was working full-time at Plymouth Theatre Royal in their scenic department . And so while I had enjoyed the writing and directing, and had been thinking about maybe setting up a company, because I was a working class girl from a council estate I needed to make a living. That’s how I accidentally became a scenic artist.
Eventually I found myself teaching prop making and scene painting one day a week in Coventry, which is where I met my husband Mark, and we set up a community theatre company based in Coventry called STORM. So for a few years we were making theatre both with people who were trained in theatre and also with people who weren’t, mixing up the cast. Because this was quite an unusual mix of people it was quite hard to find scripts, and that was when I stepped in to write them and got myself back into writing. My work with STORM led me to do a masters at the University of Warwick in European Cultural Policy and also to an arts development job with a local authority . At the end of this period and after completing my masters I realised that I really missed writing and so left my job and wrote a play, like you do. At the end of that process I was headhunted by Warwick District Council who suggested that I apply for a position with them as secondment cover for a few months, which then turned into five years as their arts development officer. As a part time post this allowed me the freedom to be actively writing again, but eventually I realised that I needed to focus on one thing and decided to take up playwriting full-time.
Could you talk us through your latest project and the inspirations behind the play?
I wasn’t entirely sure when I had first starting writing All is Well but upon digging through some paperwork I discovered a first draft from 2008. So it has been brewing for a long time. Then last year, on the thirtieth anniversary of Chernobyl, I dug the play out of the drawer, and thought “I think I know what I need to do with this now”, and re-wrote it. Last April a slot became available at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to show an excerpt ( I am a member of BOLDtext Playwright’s Collective) . Thankfully it was really well received and I fell in love with the play again, and withthis really important subject. So I applied to the Arts Council for some funding to stage some preview performances which is the stage we are at currently.
Directing the Show is Mark Evans, a Professor of Theatre at Coventry University.. He studied at the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris many years ago and has written countless books on training for actors and the importance of movement more widely. The play is designed by Nancy Surman, whose recent work includes Muswell Hill and African Gothic (Park Theatre), and My Children, My Africa! (Trafalgar Studios). We have a very experienced cast: Mark Carey who has been in Rep up and down the country, in the West End and at the National, for nearly thirty years; Janet McKenzie who likewise has performed extensively in many theatres in Britain (although she is better known as a former regular on Emmerdale); Amy Powell who is also a really talented West Midlands based actress, and has done lots of work with Midlands companies, including The Rep; and Jack Richardson, another talented Midlands based young actor who recently worked with Trevor Nunn at The Rose Theatre in Kingston. Finally, and not to be overlooked, is Beauty our puppet Blackbird, designed and made by Joff Chafer.
Why is All is Well particularly resonant at the current time, and specifically in Coventry?
My anxieties about nuclear power started when I was a young teenager. I couldn’t sleep because of the Cold War, and the conviction that there was a nuclear bomb that could go off at any second. I wrote a letter to Margaret Thatcher, who perhaps predictably didn’t respond; since then nuclear power has always been in the back of my mind. While the Cold War might have thawed nuclear power is still at the forefront of debate and it is still seen as the answer to our energy prayers. And of course with what’s happening in America and Korea, it seems more relevant than ever to be thinking about these issues.
Coventry is a witness to what can happen to a city and how destructive conflict can be for generations. I was always interested in the people of Chernobyl and their subsequent displacement, the break-up of communities and how they continue to live with the ongoing fear of radiation. One of my big concerns now is how Chernobyl is becoming a real tourist Mecca with over ten thousand visitors each year. How do you live with the effects that you can’t see, because for Coventry the damage was very visible and there was the ability to reconstruct and carry on.
Many of your team have direct connections to Coventry University, thinking about universities more generally how important is the role they play in regional theatre?
While they are already important, I think they are going to become increasingly more so as more and more local authorities have to cut their subsidies to the arts. It is a worry that lots of arts subjects are disappearing from schools, because those young people that are studying the arts at schools are going to be the ones coming through to study at university; so if it is being cut at school level, it could have a knock on effect leading to courses being closed at universities. In terms of sharing resources, spaces and support for artists, universities play a crucial role. Because of the financial climate it is becoming harder and harder to produce any work at all, to be frank. Like I said before, the local authorities’ budgets are disappearing, and the Arts Council can’t make up for all of those lost hundreds of thousands of pounds.
For somewhere like Coventry, currently making a bid to be the National City of Culture, how significant are the regional arts to a smaller city?
The arts are incredibly significant because every city has a unique sense of place and history, and it is important for any place to create its own work rather than have the arts parachuted in from outside. Touring work is important but there is a different relationship between the audience and the makers when you are all living and working in the same place. There is a very different experience as a member of the audience when the people that are making, writing, designing, producing, directing, and performing in front of you are from the same place that you’re from.
Find out more about the production and Vanessa’s ongoing work on her website. All is Well will be showing at the Shop Front Theatre in Coventry from 4-6th May at 7:30pm (with Sat Matinee at 2:30pm) tickets can be purchased here, and at the mac Theatre in Birmingham on 12-13th May at 7:20pm with tickets available here.