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Interview: Kay Michael From Empty Deck Theatre
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Interview: Kay Michael From Empty Deck Theatre

Picture of Hayley Ricketson
Updated: 6 December 2016
Empty Deck is an exciting new theatre company whose main aim is to be a cross-cultural platform in theatre, bringing international plays to the United Kingdom. Their upcoming season, ‘Season Scandinavia’, is celebrating the work of two highly talented Scandinavian playwrights who are pushing boundaries in form and content in fascinating ways.
Empty Deck Theatre | Courtesy of Empty Deck
Empty Deck Theatre | Courtesy of Empty Deck

What was the incentive to create an international and/or cross-cultural theatre collective, bringing international plays to the UK?

KM: I suppose it started by accident really, just given the people I was working with at the time. My designer is from Romania and we established a relationship about two years ago now; we both studied at Central Saint Martins, so we met there. Together we realised that we had an interest in work that wasn’t predominantly from the UK, probably because Denisa isn’t from the UK, and I have always been searching for theatre that doesn’t represent the mainstream, and so an easy way to look for that is looking outside of Britain.

A friend of mine who is a French theatre director introduced me to Arne Lygre’s work, and he’s the Norwegian playwright who Denisa and I started working with two years ago. Arne Lygre is huge in France and I was fascinated by his different style of writing, different thematic concerns, something that felt broader, more expansive. Something less politically direct but still incisive in what it was saying. I think it’s natural that theatre’s by definition a thing that spreads, literature spreads globally. So it happened by accident but it’s always fascinated me to look for the lesser represented or the slightly unknown, as well as how different cultures might have an influence on the making of a piece of theatre.

Empty Deck is quite a young company still and you’ve worked predominantly with Scandinavian countries. What other countries do you plan or hope to work with? Are there any countries in particular you’d like to collaborate with?

KM: I’ve already had a little bit of an interest in writing coming out of Spain. There’s a great writer whose work I’ve been introduced to in the last few months called Esteve Soler, specializing in bold satire and dark comedy. So that’s struck me, but I don’t know how long that will take to engage with because it’s always a slow process, working on play development and production development. And Scandinavia is made up of more than one country, so we’re currently just focusing on Norway and Denmark but I’ve also got a host of plays from Sweden and Finland that I’m looking at as well and so maybe, looking at Scandinavian theatre might extend over a period of time, because it’s so rich and as I said, it’s more than one country.

Empty Deck’s aims include challenging the relationship between audience and spectacle and the audience’s complicity in a shared space – what interests you in investigating this? Can you give an example of how Empty Deck have done this in a previous production?

KM: I think that’s probably the ongoing interest of most theatre-makers; the relationship between the performance and the audience, and whether you’re just asking your audience to spectate, whether they take on a passive role in that spectatorship or whether there’s greater interactivity between the audience and what’s happening onstage. And there’s a myriad of ways that you can attack that.

Kay Michael | Courtesy of Empty Deck
Kay Michaels | Courtesy of Empty Deck

Something that we were exploring with a stage of the development of our production of Then Silence by Arne Lygre was we created a devising language; a physical understanding of how the actors can work together onstage without having any movements set in stone. We created a structure of improvising and playing games with each other and with the text, so no one really knew what might happen next, and that created a real thrill onstage and a sense of liveness and genuine immediacy. So that’s one way that we’ve explored: untying the idea that theatre presents something fixed to its audience.

There’s so much more to explore though. We’re working on a play in a few weeks, Cosmic Fear or the Day Brad Pitt Got Paranoia, it’s a great title, but what interests me about that play is actually, not necessarily staging the play text, but using it as a stimulus perhaps as to how we can talk about climate change and how we can ask the audience what they think their responsibility is in the face of it, or what we have to sacrifice as individuals in the face of climate change. So there might be some interesting ways formally to interrogate that question that don’t require a play text that already exists.

For instance, there may be some kind of dialogue between audience and performers to really ask the question, to enable active thinking on that subject: ‘What do we do in the face of climate change?’ I’m interested in reframing a topic in theatre that tends to cause great existential crises.

What challenges do you face in bringing foreign plays over to the UK? Do you ever worry or find parts of the play get lost in translation (figuratively and literally)?

KM: I’ve read a lot of plays now from Scandinavian countries and even in the process of reading them, I could see some where maybe the translation wasn’t spot on, so I could sense what the play was doing and trying to say but simply the words chosen in the process of translation couldn’t quite capture it. And that’s a process that’s different from what we’re doing, the translation is something that I’m not involved with. But we’re asking our audiences to look at something new and that’s always going to be a challenge.

When we put on Then Silence we were confronted with some interesting responses. The language is quite heightened and I think people aren’t used to that on the British stage. I think the more ambiguous the piece of theatre is, the more intriguing. There are so many pieces of work out there that we haven’t yet found that we know will strike home with an audience, we sense that it will. The work that we’re looking at is varied.

Empty Deck Theatre Workshop | Courtesy of Empty Deck
Empty Deck Theatre Workshop | Courtesy of Empty Deck

‘Season Scandinavia’ looks fascinating. Can you tell me what excites you about the plays and/or playwrights you’re working with?

KM: We’re working with Fredrik Brattberg, a Norwegian writer and what really interests me about Frederick’s writing is that he is also a composer. Tou can see a beautiful understanding of rhythm and composition in his writing. And this creates a texture to the play and a world within which the characters live that just feels slightly musical. But there is also a transcendent quality to the play, there’s something magical but he’s also precise with the use of his words.

Christian Lollike, the other playwright we’re looking at, created another play that is such an attack, it’s such an affront about such a big dilemma, about how we deal with climate change. I was quite stunned by it when I first read it, I thought ‘wow, no one’s really said what he’s saying.’ it’s really audacious actually, in an exciting way. We’ll see how audiences respond, I have no idea how they will; that’s what excites me as well, when you just don’t know.