BWW Interview: Kristine Landon-Smith Talks Tamasha Theatre and THE ORCHESTRA
Kristine Landon-Smith co-founded Tamasha Theatre in 1989 and, as Co-Artistic Director, directed all but one of the company's shows. Her 1996 production, East is East, was nominated for an Olivier Award and her original production of Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and A Funeral won the Barclays Theatre Award for Best New Musical.
She is currently directing Jean Anouilh's The Orchestra, which runs at the Omnibus Theatre from 29 January to 17 February.
How did you get here?
I was born here, but brought up in Sydney, Australia. My mother had been to the Slade School of Art and my father had been here as a doctor in the Fifties, so I'd always had the idea that I would go back to England to study.
When I was 20, I went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow - had the most extraordinary time, loved it! And then, basically, never went back. I started working as an actor, ten years as an actress, touring: Theatre in Education, Hull Truck - Up'n'Under, that sort of stuff.
Then, in about 1986 or so, because I was travelling to Australia a lot to see my Australian family, I would go through India (mainly Mumbai, but also Delhi and Calcutta) to see my Indian cousins. I knew India well, but didn't quite feel part of the family, but didn't feel like a tourist either.
One of my cousins suggested that I get a job there. So I met the Director of the National School of Drama in Delhi en route back to London and he said, "Come to teach for three months" and the British Council agreed to fund it.
I taught there and directed a show called Untouchable (about street kids in 1950s India). I showed the video of the show to my best friend Sudha Bhuchar and she and I set up a company, Tamasha Theatre, in 1989, to produce that one work. From there, I directed and ran Tamasha, a project-funded company.
Was the rapid economic growth and increasing confidence in India at that time evident in the Arts?
Bollywood has always been enormous, but most people have found it very difficult to make a living from theatre in India. Yet there are a lot of people who want to be actors - not only for Bollywood, but for more art house work.
There were more and more interesting practitioners, India-based as well as British Asians. Tamasha were part of the movement that brought together a community and audience for that work, giving a start to lots of British Asians, because there were so few places to go.
What kind of work does Tamasha do?
We set up to address the lack of stories on the British stage of the Asian diaspora, telling them through contemporary theatre practice. The company found a momentum of its own, as lots of houses were looking to develop new audiences and we had a largely Asian one. They couldn't understand how we did it, so they came to us.
We were invited to Theatre Royal Stratford East to develop their audience with a product (Tamasha's second production) and the company just went from strength to strength, attracting new audiences and creating new work.
Theatre Royal Stratford East was a wonderful place back then (early Nineties), and it nurtured a lot of artists - it gave us a start.
Recently, the RSC's Miss Littlewood portrayed being in a theatre company as living in a hotbed of politics and sex, but was it just hard work?
Joan Littlewood was a community arts activist and her work was political - using theatre to speak about things that really matter. She changed the shape and feel of the theatrical offer.
As for Tamasha? Yes, because we were addressing a lack of product, stories, opportunity, and artists. We were fighting a fight. We had to carve out a position for ourselves - that took a long time and was hard work.
Where is Tamasha today?
It's still there and thriving. They're doing a show at the Kiln called Approaching Empty, part of a trilogy that Sudha and I commissioned. I was with Tamasha for 23 years, Sudha 26 years - once we left, they advertised for a new artistic director and so they go on.
We were co-founders and, often, when founders go, they close the door on the company and that's the end. We didn't do that, because building up the funding and infrastructure for a BAME company took a very long time and we knew that it might not come again if it folded when we left. We felt that there was a responsibility and legacy - it's still a place where people can go and train and gain experience.
The Orchestra is one of the little gems that you hardly ever see. Many years ago, I saw it at the King's Head, and it's this lovely delicate piece - six women and one man in an orchestra after the war just outside Paris. They're a tired group in a tired bar playing their instruments and, in between the numbers, they gossip and talk, but they also quietly try to find out which one collaborated during the war.
It's got a clown element to it too. But not obtuse clowning, as I have clowning in my background. It's a clown winking at the audience and saying "We're miming of course, but it's funny and I can see that you like it." A gentle thing.
The music is composed, but the actors don't actually play it - the closer they get to reality, the funnier it gets. It's a gorgeous mix of comedy and clowning, with a dark undertone running all the way through.
I did it about ten years ago at Southwark Playhouse and I was talking to some colleagues who read it and said that they'd love to do it again - and so we are! Same translation (Jeremy Sands) because it's the best out there.
I see so few comedies, so is it brave, is it foolish, is it even required to take on the tough gig?
A good question. I did East Is East, which is a comedy, and that's where Tamasha made its name - I think I'm good at situation comedy. Because I've been in the BAME sector, people might think of me otherwise, but I like situation comedy and I know how to direct it. So why not do a comedy?
Sometimes you can feel that you're repeating yourself a bit, telling meaningful stories with lots of poetry in them, but sometimes I think - oh well, let's do a comedy! I think it'll be great for the audience in Clapham in January and February.
The actors who approached me are really keen to do it - the parts are great and it's unusual. We'll see. It's a small company, so it can be difficult to find an audience - that's going to be a big job.
Local theatres are wonderful places: you can meet people, have a drink, you can talk, they're beautiful places for communities. We've done some work there before, so we've formed a good relationship with the Omnibus and we're already talking about what we might do next. You go back two or three times and the locals get to know you, and that's of enormous value.
Maybe an unfair question, but can actors ever be "better" than the script? You have a strong focus on actors - so how does the dynamic work between a director, a script and an actor?
What's very important is the relationship between the actor and the director, and sometimes that falls down. The director needs a real interest in the actor as a person, because you can't divorce the person from the practitioner. You have to allow them to bring everything they have to the stage.
There are many directors who do not know how to work with actors, nor do they have the curiosity required to learn that - they don't think it's part of the job. You need to develop a practice and understanding of how actors work - it doesn't mean that you have to do The Method or Meisner or Stanislavsky, you can do your own.
If you have a good text and a good actor, you're halfway there. It's hard when you get a text that is not so good, but some careful editing can make a text marginally better if you have that good actor and good director.
How much license is there to modify a text?
To be honest, not much. When the text is in copyright and you're paying for that, and if the writer is alive, you have to refer back to them of course. But the writer has not written "You must do it like this", because you can't ignore the eight personalities that you have to bring into the work.
That's why the role of a director is very complex and very nuanced. Some writers think they can direct, but very few can actually do that - they're different jobs.
In The Orchestra, it's acutely written and there are some beautiful comedic lines and very good timing which I'm not going to mess about with.
What are the one or two things that would make someone venture out on a dark winter night to the Clapham Omnibus to see The Orchestra?
There's so much in it to enjoy: a beautiful text, a multicultural, multi-linguistic, multitalented cast, the music in the interludes - and it's funny. And it's only 70 minutes, so you'll be in the bar by quarter to nine!
Watch a trailer below!
Photo: Robert Day