An Interview with Knaive Theatre

An Interview with Knaive Theatre

Towards the end of the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Maddie Andrews sat down with Sam Redway and Tyrell Jones of Knaive Theatre. With just a few performances left of their five-star Bin Laden: The One Man Show, the director and performer discuss politics, education and the future for their up-and-coming company. 

What is the best way to describe your show without massive spoilers?

SR: So, one of the things we say if we open up a conversation with someone on The Mile is ‘Osama bin Laden sits you down, makes you a cup of tea, tells you his life story and blows your mind.’ If people want to go even more in depth than that, it’s the life story of Osama bin Laden told in the way that he might tell it.

TJ: I often say that we’ve had everyone from former advisers to US presidents, to the CIA, to people who knew bin Laden personally all come and say the show is pretty amazing. So yeah, that kind of indicates the range of responses and perspectives.

So, what prompted you to actually make and create the show?

SR: It’s kind of a long story, but the short version is that the day he was shot I read an article that basically explained parts about him that I didn’t know. It humanised him to me, and I was like ‘huh that’s weird. I feel quite conflicted about this man they just shot and dumped in the sea’. And shortly after that, I saw a seven-year-old child punching pictures of Osama bin Laden and shouting ‘you’re dead, you’re dead, you’re dead’, while his parents laughed. And then they held up a picture for him to punch through. Then I was even more conflicted because I couldn’t believe I was kind of experiencing – in the same day – such demonization and such kind of empathy at the same time. And that sat with me for a long time. And then we moved to London at the same time, we met in Plymouth but happened to move to London at the same time. We were getting nowhere with our careers, we were living in awful flats. Tyrell was living underneath a hairdresser in West London that kept flooding with faeces.

TJ: Yeah, the poo flat as it was so affectionately known as.

SR: And we decided we’d had enough of not getting anywhere and being dumped by girlfriends and living in shitty flats so decided to make a show – and with no money or collaborators we thought well let’s just do it with us two. It will be just us because we have no money to pay other people and can’t ethically ask other people to work for us for free. So, it would probably be a one man show. Tyrell would direct, I would act and we would write it together. We then started shouting ideas to each other and getting quite drunk on some sympathy rum that Tyrell’s dad had sent him from Cuba and we got quite drunk and I started telling this story. Tyrell, being the political antagonist that he is, said ‘oh why don’t we make a show that does that to other people and makes it impossible for people to punch pictures of bin Laden and celebrate?’

TJ: At some point during the night, we don’t know who actually had the idea, one of us said, we should actually make a story where bin Laden tells his life story and persuades – or attempts to persuade – a western audience that he’s a hero.

“we’ve had everyone from former advisers to US presidents, to the CIA, to people who knew bin Laden personally”

So, you kind of addressed it, but a one man show, was that a necessity or did you come to the idea that this was a one man show?

SR: Well, there’s a wonderful story about Brecht that in his rehearsal studio he had a bit of graffiti up that just said ‘the proof is in the pudding’. It was basically saying you can have all the ideals you want about theatre but if it isn’t good then don’t bother. And so, it began as this idea of going ‘well we don’t have money to pay anyone else so we should do a one man show’. But as we started making it we realised that actually one of the strengths of this show with the content is that we are locking an audience in a room with one person who never particularly explained himself. It puts people in an environment that you can’t really get with ensemble theatre. You can build empathetic performances, but you kind of end up empathising with the other people on stage. But what we found, one of the strengths of this show, is that it forces empathy with the person on stage. And this person, for an hour is going to tell you everything they think and as time has gone on we’ve learnt more and more about this show and our accidental choices have become things we are very proud of.  Like the fact I’m a white guy turns out to be one of the strongest parts of the show, which is that if this was told by someone who wasn’t white/male/straight would it be the same story? Would you be affected in the same way? That’s one of the questions we leave the audiences with. And what we are proudest of at the moment.

TJ: It’s what I think is the most confronting moments is when even the fairly liberal white western audience, well I mean not even white, a liberal audience. Not even the most liberal are confronted with the fact that they are listening to Sam differently than they would of someone who looked like bin Laden with a beard and a turban. And most people at some point during the show have this experience of feeling like ‘yeah actually we do judge people’, we might say ‘oh no, that’s racist, no way are we racist’ but we all have these little cultural biases indoctrinated in us that are woven into our cultural fabric and cloth of our society. And I think to shine a mirror on to that, for even a little audience… well, I mean it’s not even always a little audience, we have a range… but it feels shocking even to a liberal audience who are very used to feeling okay with everything. It feels like it challenges everyone. I don’t think we’ve ever had an audience member in a post-show discussion not be challenged by some element of the show.

Do you guys get a lot of backlash or have any fallout from your message and what your play says?

TJ: A bit, not much

SR: Considering we’ve done this show one hundred times, we can count on one hand the amount of times we’ve had some bad backlash.

TJ: We’ve had quite a lot of backlash from people who haven’t seen the show, so walking around with that big sign that says bin Laden, it does draw attention. I’ve started carrying it upside-down if I walk back with it late at night. There’s been a few times where… well there was one night where someone started screaming something in German to me and then started shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ as I walked past. Which is really intimidating because it was outside quite a busy bar, there were a bunch of other guys who were all like ‘Heil Hitler’ but I don’t know why exactly, maybe bin Laden, Hitler, maybe there’s some link and I think that’s because of the bin Laden thing, not because he thought I was German. Yeah, so that happens sometimes. Pissed people sometimes come up and sometimes people have come up to me at the festival going ‘Why do you have a sign with bin Laden, why are you doing a show about bin Laden? Are you sympathetic to him?’ and I’m like ‘no…’ ‘so you hate him then?’ ‘no…’ ‘well why are you here?’ and I usually say that it’s just about provoking debate.

“we all have these little cultural biases indoctrinated in us that are woven into our cultural fabric and cloth of our society”

So, after your show you do a post-show debate/discussion, do you do that after every show?

SR: Yep.

Why do you guys do that?

TJ: Well, this show is a polemic. We take that set of arguments to its logical conclusion. We don’t necessarily identify with every single one of bin Laden’s decisions and I think for a lot of people it’s important to come and understand why we made it and what we are doing.

SR: It’s also that we made a show to provoke a discussion that we want to be a part of. It’s not that – pardon the expression – we want to let a bomb off and run away from it. We want to stand and kind of have that conversation with you because we feel it’s an important conversation to have with people and there is always a danger that people will take the show away with them and completely misunderstand it and take it the wrong way. And the post-show discussion gives us a way of having this conversation with people, and being able to say that this is a deliberately polemic thing, to deliberately provoke the debate. There’s also that I feel that it would be disrespectful to the story and disrespectful to people’s personal relationships to his story if we did just run away from it. It’s an acceptance that what we are doing is inflammatory and we stand by it so we can hear the echo of what we’ve said to people, and be sensitive to it.

TJ: And it is also really interesting, you know we’ve learned so much about the show from talking to people.

SR: And about the world.

TJ: Yeah

SR: Often we get taught an awful lot about things we didn’t know about.

TJ: People come with lots of interesting things about stuff, we often meet some really interesting people that we wouldn’t otherwise meet. There have been some very interesting people turn up at the debates, including you know former advisors to Bill Clinton. We had a guy who was an academic who was given, by the CIA, bin Laden’s collection of Dictaphone tapes which involves thousands of hours of himself, but also all of the people he was working with talking about their ideas about religion and politics. So, we’ve met some really interesting people and heard some really interesting stories. And we are still learning about the show. One of the things I’ve learnt recently in the last four discussions, is that people have repeatedly asked why bin Laden felt like it was okay to move from destroying military targets to destroying civilian targets. And when I’ve explained that, people have been very interested and said they’d really like to hear that in the show. And I’m now wondering whether that’s a stepping stone we have missing just before 9/11 which is about the guilt of those, or his perceived guilt of those, people who were being paid with money that was being partially creamed off from the Middle East. Also, they were complicit in a democratic system, they had a vote, they didn’t make a fuss when these things were done in the first place.

SR: It’s because this show is based a lot out of verbatim text from bin Laden, it’s actually the potential I think of at some point in the show just quoting bin Laden’s phrase where he said – in response to 9/11 – he actually said ‘when you ask us why we attacked the UK and the US, do not ask us why we attacked the US and the UK, ask us why we do not attack Sweden’.

TJ: Shit, we should put that, that’s a good quote.

SR: It’s that justification that’s going on ‘your government are responsible for this, and you’re responsible for your government’, that’s how he drew the line and that’s his justification for 9/11.

TJ: That’s a better one than I’ve been saying in the discussion, it’s much more succinct. I forgot about that one.

So you guys have been doing this for years, you first came up in 2013 with it?

SR+TJ: Yeah

So, why did you come back with it now, is there a particular reason?

TJ: There’s a story…

SR: I mean there’s a huge story but the succinct version is that people keep asking. The conversations are becoming more and more relevant and the decisions that are being made on a global level are still influenced by what Osama bin Laden did. The presidential election has been won, partly in no small part, because of his islamophobia. And that is driven by Islamic terrorism inspired by Osama bin Laden. Jeremy Corbyn is also being vilified this year for saying that we should maybe think about how our actions may be complicit in creating environments where this can happen. And he was destroyed for it. And now with ISIS, though ISIS is now on the decline, but with the rise of ISIS in 2016 and 2017, it became a conversation that more and more people wanted to have. When we had it in Sheffield in May or June we were doing it four days after the Manchester bombing. So, we were going ‘this is clearly the debate that we need to be having right now’ people want to have it because they can’t heal without understanding it. They can only know it’s a bad thing that’s happened and we think it’s more complex than that.

TJ: Terrorism actually goes to the heart of something very profound and knotty and uncomfortable for most of us in Western democracy because it’s not a new thing. And yet still Jeremy Corbyn had backlash around the fact that he was prepared to go talk to the IRA. And still people are like ‘how did he go speak to the IRA’, and the fact is that the only reason we don’t have continued major IRA terrorism in the UK is because there were talks on both side. But we still have this idea that there was something demonic or subhuman, so other or so beyond the pale, bit like the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings they’re just something that has to be defeated. I think that is the prevailing attitude that many of us have and is cultivated by a lot of our political leaders. And it’s a real problem with democracy that it’s quite hard to justify going to war for oil in a democracy. So the powerful are pushed into quite a difficult position making our enemies out to be so inhuman, so evil, but that also means we can’t have a conversation with them. And that is really problematic. Once upon a time we didn’t have conflicts like that, you know? If we lost a war with France we would just host a meeting and would redraw the border and maybe give them some money and say sorry and it would be over. But if you’ve just painted that your opponent is being the most evil person on the planet, you can’t go back from that. I think that’s really problematic, and is really serious and I think that’s kind of why the interest in this. It’s not just about bin Laden, it’s about every other political other or alien that we have.

“Once upon a time we didn’t have conflicts like that, you know?”

So, you guys mentioned that you want to go around schools with it? Is that something you’re going to do or want to do?

SR: So, we have met people recently in Edinburgh who have asked us if we want to for various reasons. So we are talking for the moment with a Norwegian producer who wants to do a Norwegian language version of this in Norwegian schools. And the other notable things are that we met with a group of Muslim women, one of whom works for the council and one of them is the head of year at a secondary school in London that is predominantly Muslim, said that they wanted to work with us to do a schools tour. We basically would do it and lock the doors afterwards in these schools and use it as a way of tackling the radicalisation of young men in this country by provoking a debate which helps the understanding of it on all sides. Once you understand the ugly side of it and the good side of it you can go ‘maybe it isn’t all about sticking two fingers up, maybe there isn’t a glamour to this, maybe I don’t want to join ISIS’.

Do do you think using schools would be a good way to reshape the narrative?

TJ: The reason for doing it with schools is a way to really have this discussion being like ‘look people do terrible things, but there may be a cause that is legitimate which motivates them’. Like everyone learns in history lessons that it was a terrible mistake to cripple the German economy before the Second World War, we all know that. Pretty much every teenager is taught that. But we don’t have any of the same response with propping up a corrupt dictatorship in Egypt or any of the other grievances – legitimate grievances – that people have. I’m based in Leeds, which isn’t far from Bradford, and I have a few colleagues in Bradford who are connected with Bradford University. And at Bradford University the Prevent structure is such that every single person at that university is obliged to have Prevent training which is from the person who empties the vending machine to the person teaching lectures. They all take Prevent training, and after this they have a legal obligation to report any suspicious signs of someone being radicalised. Understandably, most of the students at Bradford University – which is predominantly Muslim – feel like they’re being spied on. The fact that not every university has that training is another difficult point, and if people express concern for Western imperialism and the Middle East, that might be reasonable grounds to feel like you need to flag that. So what a student is writing in an essay could be enough to get them on a list. It really makes those conversations difficult, because those legitimate conversations about what we might be doing to make it worse is kind of pushed underground. And if you’re brown and you start having those conversations, there’s a real suspicion and it’s potentially dangerous. So, yeah, it’s quite serious I think. So it’s really important to be having these conversations.

You guys have so many different things in the pipeline, like completely different pieces, how do you even begin to choose what projects you do next? Like you have dance stuff…

SR: Yeah, we are working with a dance company.

TJ: I mean this company, we kind of grew up with it. Sam and I made this show we weren’t long out of university, we hadn’t trained either of us. But after the success of bin Laden we went and trained. Then when we formed the company we decided that the one thing that united us, was that we wanted to create work that was questioning and enquiring about big questions. Political (with both the small and big ‘p’), and that actually we were quite interested in playing with content. We are both quite big fans of Bertolt Brecht, or at least the mission that Brecht had, so we felt we needed to continue experimenting. We had an idea of the content we wanted to explore, but not what medium. And we are discovering ourselves through all of that, and in another world we could just specialise in one man shows about politics. And I’m sure that would probably be easier, but that would be boring, and I’m sure we wouldn’t grow as people or artists. What we are doing at the moment is very challenging, like what we are doing at the moment is an interactive game piece which, well we haven’t completely nailed it yet. It is very experimental it’s just people running all around buildings solving problems. And you might wonder what on earth that has to do with politics, we are trying to get, we haven’t got there yet, but we are searching for is to give people a sense of agency and a sense that their choices matter and have an impact on the world. And what they decide has a complete different ending to the game. Yes, in a world where Brexit actually did happen and did have an impact, the importance of that message is actually kind of profound. Even if this is just some kind of crazy, fantasy narrative living in the basement, the idea that your choices matter I think is as political as bin Laden.

So is that your next project?

TJ: Well we have so many next projects…

SR: The next project is touring this, and probably the next thing is… We are getting the draft sorted for the script for War with the Newts, which is another project. That’s an adaptation. We are working with Tim Foley who has just started writing for Torchwood and we are working with him on adapting this novel that was written in 1936, about an intelligent race of Newts being discovered on a Malaysian island who are taught to be labourers and they’re taught to communicate and they become the next slave race and are shipped across the world because we don’t have to pay them. They work for us and the industry goes under water but they then are intelligent enough to work out that mankind has been enslaving them and they rise against us and everything goes wrong.

TJ: And there’s all this right-wing populist backlash amongst the humans that they’re losing all the jobs blah blah blah, and we get punished for our greed and racism by, essentially, the end of civilisation.

SR: So we are going to do a residency in The Bikeshed in Exeter for a week while touring this, so we will be doing this in the evening and developing the first draft of that text during the day

That’s intense!

SR: Yeah, then we will be doing a read-through of that.

TJ: The reason we are doing all of these things at once is partly to make the most of the fact we can and that these things are happening, but also we realise how long it actually takes to make something really good and bin Laden was really good. Took us three months of intensive work, but it’s a lot better now four years later, after tweaking and thinking about it reflectively. So, I think Complicité is a really good model where they take seven years for a show so yeah, we are almost there.

“[Bin Laden] Took us three months of intensive work”

That sounds excellent, you guys are going to be so busy, how are you guys still functioning right now?

SR: We’re not really… anymore… All I do is I wake up, I do some yoga, I drink Lemsip, I get out, I flyer, I do the show, I get home, I drink Lemsip and I go to sleep.

TJ: I wish I’d drunk Lemsip last night…

Okay so, what advice would you give to people considering bringing their first show to the Fringe?

SR: Don’t!

Some positive advice?

SR: It’s hard, it’s a real slog. Don’t go out getting pissed every night. Treat it as a professional gig, do your work, you get out and do your flyering. This year we were teetotal until we broke even, which really helps because we had the energy to go out and do the flyering. That’s probably a good thing to try. Be nice to every single person you meet. Don’t give up, don’t let the drudgery of Edinburgh get you down. And trust in the work that you’ve done and just keep doing it. And also the flyering technique, make your flyering technique relevant to your show. Unless you’ve got lots of plaudits to shout from the rooftops, your flyering technique needs to come from your show somehow – and be creative with it.

TJ: Don’t just say ‘pick a flyer, any flyer, free flyer’ any of those things are a sure-fire way to make everyone realise your show is shit and you have nothing to say about it.  Also don’t make stuff up. I bumped into one person who was like ‘Cambridge University Royal Court premiere’ and I was like ‘how have you got a Royal Court premiere when you’re from Cambridge University?’ they were like ‘Oh it was a Royal Court premiere, the play was premiered at the Royal Court’ ‘Right, your play?’ ‘No, it was before, we’ve done another production of it’. You can’t do that.

False advertising.

TJ: Yeah, and people don’t believe you. Because nobody believes that a Cambridge University group will have had a premiere at the Royal Court. Unless they’re a complete idiot. So yeah, there’s also that. The other thing is to be really smart with money. The money is really depressing but really important. And there is no substitute for being really savvy with money. Plan it out, budget well in advance, do different models on what income you are going to get, depending on different ticket sales. And work out how hard that’s going to be, and adjust the number of people you’re bringing up, the amount you’re spending and the amount of everything according to that figure. Because there is nothing worse than arriving in Edinburgh and realising there is absolutely no reasonable way you can pay back the money and it’s your first time and you need to be able to sell 100 tickets a night to make it all back and you’re getting an average of five. If it’s your first time, assume that you may well have 15 ticket sales a night and that may be a good one. There are some people who won awards who have nights with four or five people. And location is key. Don’t go to a shit location. Don’t go somewhere far out even if it’s cheaper.

Fabulous, thank you very much!

TJ: Yeah… that was a lot of advice…

Perfect, thank you both very much!

TJ: Pleasure.

Read our review for Bin Laden: The One Man Show here.

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