In Conversation: Kolton Lee
Regarded as one of Britain’s foremost Black-led theatre company, Talawa Theatre has engaged with new writing and introduced emerging writing talents to the British theatre landscape over the years. With and through playwrights like Michael Bhim, the company explores the subtlety and complexity of the black British experience. 2010 is no different. Back with, Flipping The Script, its regular showcase of play readings, it focuses on families and relationships and the pain and life changing challenges that come with them.
Kolton Lee is one of this year’s three successful writers to have their plays read. A novelist, playwright, screenwriter and film director, he has written for Eastenders and directed short films, among them, A Chance To Dance, Phoenix and American MOD, a cult film, which he wrote and directed. He has directed two feature films: the award winning Cherps and recently completed Freestyle. His debut novel, The Last Card was published by Maia Press in 2007. Lee’s first theatre piece – An Evening with Michael Jordan – performed at the National Black Theatre of Harlem. Brixton Rock is his second theatre piece and is adapted from a book by the same title, which is written by Alex Wheatle. A narrative which explores incestuous love and examines what life in the care system is like for those, who find themselves in it. In his own words, Kolton Lee on Brixton Rock, and why he is comfortable dealing with issues which affect the Black British community and the wider society.
Belinda: Where does your passion for theatre stem from?
Kolton: I don’t come from a literary or especially artsy background so for me, my passion for theatre began in my university days when I studied English Literature and reading the works of the angry young men of British theatre in the 60s and 70s. I’m thinking of writers like John Osbourne, Arnold Wesker, Peter Barnes, etc. These writers excited me because of the ideas, the passion in their writing and the perspective of their ideas. So, this is where it all began and it subsequently grew from there. I don’t know how or why but I had the idea that I too wanted to be a writer and write about and comment on the times that I live in.
Belinda: What compelled you to adapt Brixton Rock for the stage?
Kolton: I was compelled to adapt Brixton Rock for the stage firstly because on reading the book I immediately fell in love with it. It’s not only a very human story but it particularly touched me for a number of other and personal reasons. Not only did I personally know a number of the locations mentioned in the book but like the central character – Brenton Brown – I too grew up in care. And so a lot of the thoughts and feelings expressed in the book I could immediately relate to. And then there was the time the book was set, 1980; this is such an important time in British social history and yet, we never see or hear anything about this time in the context of fictional story telling. If we do, it certainly isn’t from the perspective of someone black and British. So, for all these reasons I wanted to put this story out there in another context, with my own spin and take on it. Of course the process of adaptation is about taking an original work and filtering through your own voice so that it becomes a different piece of work. In doing this the play for me is about ‘dysfunction’ and the many guises in which we see ‘dysfunction’.
Belinda: This is your second piece for theatre and of course, you have directed two feature films, how does writing for the stage differ to writing for the screen for you as a writer/director of both mediums?
Kolton: I would say two things to answer this question: one is that, for me, writing for the theatre is the very real process of the exploration of ideas. That’s not to say that films are devoid of ideas but the truth is that the film industry, in my experience, is inherently more conservative than the world of theatre. In practical terms, what that means is that it is difficult to find the money to tell certain stories or explore certain ideas because films are expensive to make and it would be deemed that certain ideas or stories are not financially viable. However, in the world of theatre it seems there is a broader palette for what is viable as a story that can be explored. There is much more of an onus on ‘entertainment’ in film. Again, that’s not to say that theatre shouldn’t be about ‘entertainment’. ‘Ideas’ and ‘entertainment’ are, clearly, prevalent in both cinema and theatre but for me, I find theatre a more satisfying context to write in if I want to really get into and excavate an idea. The second reason for this approach I guess is that the nature of the story telling is different in theatre. In theatre, drama is almost exclusively carried through dialogue. And this of course lends itself to a certain depth of articulation when exploring ideas.
Belinda: You have worked with Talawa Theatre Company on this production/play readings, how crucial are theatre companies like Talawa Theatre Company in Britain’s theatre landscape today?
Kolton: My work with Talawa on this production is in its infancy so I can’t predict how the working relationship will progress. What I can say is that on reading the play there is a cultural significance to it that they as a company immediately felt. Works of art – be they plays, films, novels, paintings, music, etc – by their very definition are unique. How they are valued therefore largely depends on your perspective. It’s important to me as a writer of colour that theatre companies like Talawa– a company that specialises in telling stories originated by writers of African or Asian descent – exist, companies that to some extent share a similar perspective to me. After all, England has a huge population and there are many perspectives that should rightly be represented. Mine is just one of them and happily, Talawa in this instance seem to share it.
Belinda: Why is it, important for plays which explore, examine and of course, expose the Black British community and experience are presented to audiences across Britain?
Kolton: It’s important that Britain as a whole is exposed to all manner of stories and perspectives about our country because that’s how we learn and grow as a community. For me, that’s the purpose of art; to tell us something about ourselves.
Belinda: Is it important for this community to hold a mirror up to itself and are you comfortable doing that through your work either with your writing, work as a film director or playwright?
Kolton: Yes, I think it’s important for any community to hold a mirror up to itself and yes, I’m comfortable being that person to hold up the mirror. I write and make films and tell stories (I’ve also had a novel published, THE LAST CARD) because I’m passionate about writing and story telling and have been for as long as I can remember. If I wasn’t comfortable writing about the society in which I live – whatever communities I might be talking about, I wouldn’t do it. That’s not to say that everything you write will be well received. Sometimes people just don’t like your work or the truth hurts; but criticism is just part of the territory that one inhabits as a writer and story teller.
Belinda: How would you like this play to evolve after the reading?
Kolton: I’d like the play to be picked up for full production!
Belinda: What kind of emotions about the care system and life for those who have been through the system do you hope this play evokes in those who come a long to see it?
Kolton: I hope this play will leave the audience with some kind of insight, firstly, into how growing up in the care system might effect you, but more importantly, I hope the audience will be provoked into thinking about what is acceptable in the care system, what is acceptable in society, what is acceptable in love…ultimately, what is acceptable in how people choose to live their lives.
Belinda: And of course, what do you want them to take away from it based on the interpretation that you present to them?
Kolton: I want people to take away the thought that perhaps much of what we put up with in life, in terms of how people around us behave, is actually unacceptable and we don’t have to put up with it; it’s dysfunctional.
Brixton Rock is on at the Young Vic on 20 July
For more information, visit: Flipping The Script
Flipping The Script Image: Everton Wright
Kolton Lee: Image supplied by playwright