On Thursday 8th February, we welcomed playwright James Graham (Drama, 2003) back to the place it all started for a fascinating conversation about theatre, writing, politics and the value of an arts education. Standing in the Gulbenkian Centre where he honed his craft, playwright James Graham spoke passionately about the education that he had received as a University of Hull student, and about his experiences whilst studying.
“The theatre making in this department and its practices are no different from those in the professional world. You quite rightly leave this place with a well-earned sense of confidence in your knowledge, in your voice, in your right to enter into the art community and begin contributing to it.”
The value of that education was not wasted on James, who put forward a radical and determined argument for the value of arts in society, for a theatre that engaged and challenged a broad, popular audience, and for government funding for state arts education.
“It can’t be a coincidence that theatre and democracy were invented at the same time, nearly thirty years apart. And in fact it was theatre that came first, in Athens, and created the conditions, the impetus for democracy to start. Whenever anyone questions why the government should fund the arts, I remind them that the only reason we have a government in the first place is because of the arts.”
James spoke for almost thirty minutes before opening up to almost an hour of question and answer with a diverse audience. In spite of the length of the performance, though, he was never anything less than witty, intelligent, thoughtful and thought provoking, and in the end it felt that the time had gone too quickly and that there was still much to learn from Britain’s most important playwright, and one of the most influential people working in theatre today.
At the heart of James’ artistic mission is a desire to start a conversation and to broaden the reach of that conversation as much as possible. Not content with merely talking to the same audiences with every show, he talks about his attempts to reach a “popular audience, a non-traditional theatre going audience, with work that is still formally inventive, politically provocative, and fundamentally theatrical.”
“I hope I have not lost my belief in what theatre can do, why it exists, in this age of entertainment saturation,” he said. “Playwriting is a collaborative, physical, organic craft, shared with a company of artists and, most importantly a live audience. I know where that perspective came from, it was here and I’m very grateful.”
His artistic values feel very much like a response to the political context in which he is writing. Everyone knows about fake news and the polarised political debates on social media. James doesn’t just react against that, though, he sees the role of artistic production as being a solution to the social disintegration that is reflected in our political debate.
“We all know that we live in fractious times. Politics is tribal. Our national discourse is very often angry, unreasonable and toxic. Call me very naïve, but I believe that theatre is one of the last remaining places where we have to physically assemble, together, as a collective, in order for it to exist. It can provide a template for a return to an age of reason, tolerance and open-minded conversation.”
As well as politics, James also had advice for the students in the audience who were seeking to follow in his footsteps. He discussed the feelings of doubt that he had experienced after graduating and making his first steps on the road to success.
“There were many moments when I felt silly and stupid for wanting to be a writer,” he said. “Surround yourself, where possible, with people as silly and stupid as you.”
There were surprises in the Question and Answer session that also revealed the reach and the appeal of James’ work. In one quite moving moment, a member of the audience thanked James on behalf of her fellow City of Culture volunteers for his portrayal of the volunteers in his recent play ‘The Culture’, showing at Hull Truck. Another audience member talked about how a picture taken of her during a protest in London had appeared in the programme for one of his other plays. James kindly agreed to sign the programme after the talk.
James moved effortlessly from amusing anecdotes about his own life to passionate arguments for more compassion, understanding and acceptance in public discourse. His memories from his life and career were perhaps best summed up by his reflections on his early plays: “Sometimes they led to acclaim, sometimes to public humiliation, and none of them I really regret.”
Finally, though, we were left with an impression of an intelligent man fiercely passionate about his work and about the power of his chosen art form, theatre, to transform lives and to mend and enliven society.
“The work we produce is only fit for purpose, only truly mainstream, and yet conversely only truly radical if it is being created by a diverse range of artists. Who gets to hold the microphone? And with cuts to arts education, particularly in the state sector, it does depress me that the brackets will narrow even further, but it also galvanises me to fight to make sure that doesn’t happen. I wouldn’t have made it to Hull were it not for the investment in Drama at my comprehensive school.”
You can watch a full recording of James’ “Inspired in Hull” talk here.