An interview with Lee Hall

Lee Hall’s final screenplay, For the End of Time, will be read at Live Theatre on Thursday 19 and Friday 20 June. Thanks to the partnership between Live Theatre and Northumbria University, Journalism student, Rosie Willan, had the opportunity to speak with Lee to find out more about his new script, his long association with Live Theatre and his honorary degree from Northumbria.

Lee Hall resized for website

You’re coming to the end of your most recent stint at Live Theatre but you’ve been working with the theatre since the start of your career and even took up the role as writer in residence for a year. How has it been this time around?

It’s been great – the audiences in Newcastle really seem to understand my work and understand what I’m doing. Having the chance to present work which is still in development and get feedback from the audience is extremely valuable to me as a writer. I go home after each event and re-write the pieces based on the feedback I get and the audience’s reactions. I don’t understand why readings like these aren’t a more integral part of the writing process. Witnessing the audience’s emotional response – be it to humour or to upset – is such a good way to learn.

The final screenplay of the series For the End of Time will be read this week. The work is described as an “extraordinary true story about art, spirituality, war and resistance”. Can you tell me a little more about this particular piece?

It’s based on the story of French composer Messiaen, who in 1941 wrote an exceptional piece of music whilst in a German Prisoner of War camp. The story has a much broader resonance about what we can do. Although it’s not set in the North East, in its heart it is a sequel to The Pitmen Painters. It’s about a group of people coming together to make spectacular art out of such impoverished circumstances.

The five screenplays which make up this series are on a range of different subjects – from Sir Elton John to Queen Victoria to George Orwell – and seem quite different to your previous work. Would you say there’s a theme which runs through all your writing?

My screenplays, although they seem strikingly different, are really about underdogs who are trying to find meaning in their life. Just as you don’t have to know about ballet to enjoy Billy Elliot, you don’t have to know about classical music to enjoy For the End of Time. These things are just a metaphor for the character creating something bigger than themselves. One of the things I think about being an artist or writer of any sort is that you’re challenging the idea of people as passive consumers by creating an alternative. A lot of my work tends to question what art can say about the world. If I’ve managed to move people’s expectations or widened them a little bit – that would be a success for me.

In 1998 a selection of your work for film, television and radio were read exclusively for Live Theatre audiences.  They included Dancer which went on to become the Oscar nominated film Billy Elliot. How important do you think institutions like this are in giving writers and performance artists a platform for their work?

For writers who are just finding their voice, it’s so important to have institutions like Live Theatre who focus on new work, have years of expertise and such excellent actors. There are very few places like it in the country – it’s a really special place. Overnight successes don’t usually happen overnight – it takes care, time and patience. I wouldn’t be the writer I am or have had the success I’ve had without Live Theatre.

A Northumbria graduate who has benefitted from this platform is Paddy Campbell, who’s play Wet House will return to Live Theatre in September before touring to Hull Truck Theatre and Soho Theatre. As you may already know, Northumbria and Live Theatre are cultural partners which has enabled many of our students to work with the theatre in developing their work. What are your thoughts on partnerships like this?

It’s crucially important that places of education, like Northumbria, have connections with artistic institutions. In the arts, especially, there needs to be a connection between studying and doing. You couldn’t ask for a better exemplar than Paddy, who I think is an extremely talented writer. Theatres need to open their arms to the energy, thoughtfulness and commitment of young people who are at the start of their careers in creating. Just as Northumbria can feed from an arts institution, new thinking can reinvigorate a working theatre year on year. The partnership between Northumbria and Live Theatre is very virtuous and one I would encourage.

Last year, some of our Performing Arts students wrote and performed a play based on The Pitmen Painters called Coal Girls, which was a sort of response to the story from a woman’s perspective. How does it feel to be inspiring upcoming work, like this?

It’s exciting that people would take up the issues of my plays and look at them from a different perspective. A lot of my stories do have a lot of men in them, so it’s really interesting to look at it from that angle. I see myself as somebody who makes pieces of culture and I get so much pleasure out of that. It means a great deal to me that I could inspire other people to be creative too.

You were born and bred in Newcastle and have been very vocal with your feelings about the cuts of the Arts budget for the city. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

I have a passion that art belongs to everybody, regardless of who you are, your education or how much money you earn. It’s a right which I believe should not be squandered. Of all the places I’ve been, Newcastle has this connection between ordinary, working class people and expression in the arts which I don’t know exists anywhere else. In cutting the Arts budget, they’re cutting these ties and basically saying art is worthless. It’s a disgrace and I was appalled politically that the Labour party could take that role. The institutions affected are managing to stay afloat at the moment but I don’t know how long that can last. It will be extremely difficult to rebuild that connection once it is lost.

You were awarded an honorary degree from Northumbria in 2012 in recognition of your cultural contributions to the city.  How did it feel to be honoured for your work in your home city?

Personally, it was a great accolade and I was very moved to be asked. It meant a lot to me since I come from a family without anybody who has ever been in higher education. But, more importantly, it could inspire others who think they couldn’t be a writer because of their background. The recognition that I had made such a contribution shows that if you persevere, you can get heard.

And finally, since you’ve once again returned to the place where you started your career, do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights who are just starting out in the industry?

I think two of the most important things I’ve learnt from Live Theatre are, first of all, that you can write about where you are. Write what you know and don’t choose just what’s fashionable in the moment. Paddy Campbell wrote a great play about something that was around him. The second thing is to know who you are trying to address with your work. You’re engaging in a conversation with a group of people so you need to address them very clearly and personally. For the past 20 years, I’ve tried to have a conversation with my audience – to make them laugh, cry, think. The importance of your audience is something I had drummed into me during my time as a pupil at Live Theatre and it’s stayed with me throughout my career. If you can engage your audience, they share in that piece of work in a very important way. That’s what Live Theatre offers to the North East and Newcastle – an ongoing relationship.

To book tickets to see For the End of Time visit the website or call the box office on (0191) 232 1232. Anyone wanting to follow in Rosie’s footsteps can find out more about Northumbria University’s Journalism and Media degrees by signing up to its open days on 27 and 28 June. Visit www.northumbria.ac.uk/openday for further details.

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