Interview: Paul Stebbings of TNT Theatre

Britain’s TNT Theatre returns to Beijing this month with Romeo and Juliet

As Britain’s TNT Theatre returns to Beijing with Romeo and Juliet, founder, director and newly-minted MBE (for his work in China, which includes this month’s Mandarin-language Taming of the Shrew) Paul Stebbings talks about his life, his company, and China of old.

Can you tell me how you first got interested in theatre? What were some of your early theatre experiences?
I was cast as Toad of Toad Hall in the Wind in the Willows at ten years old and enjoyed myself far more than being in class. Once bitten by the bug I never looked back. But I was also lucky because I became a child actor at the Nottingham Playhouse when it was in its prime; we had Jonathan Price as the lead actor and Richard Eyre, later director of Britain’s National Theatre and a successful film director. We also had many famous writers such as Howard Brenton and David Hare, a big success in Hollywood now as well. I thought it was normal, but it was an extraordinary art world to be dropped into at 15 years old. Later, taking university drama courses opened my eyes to international theatre and non-naturalistic styles. I suppose you could say that I fell on my feet and found they were on the stage.

How about directing? When did you start? What do you like about it?
As soon as I found myself having ideas about how theatre should be made, it was clear I had to direct. At university I directed a British premier of a forgotten Strindberg masterpiece called To Damascus and that set me off on a new route. After I gained my degree, I set up a company called Bristol Gate, which soon collapsed due to over-ambition. But the experience made me get a professional directing job doing community theatre in industrial Sheffield. When funding dried up, I applied to join Triple Action Theatre as an actor, as they trained in Grotowski-style physical theatre. Two years later, I left them with three actors to form TNT. I had to act to make that theatre work, and it was only in 1994 that I worked as an outside-eye director. Gradually I stopped acting and stood outside my own productions to be a full-time director and writer. In some ways I am not so much a director as an auteur – because I direct and create text, or edit classic text.

When and why did you start TNT? What was your vision for the company?
The TNT name means ‘The New Theatre’, and also [the idea was] that TNT evoked explosive theatre. We wanted to make popular modern theatre so we made serious theatre with broad comic forms, [as well as using] theatre’s secret weapons: live comedy, audience participation and live music. Turning those skills and experience on to the classics and modern literature is how we survived and – I suppose – thrive. Besides, it’s useless to wait around for a job in theatre, far better to make your own work! So TNT was also practical: don’t sell yourself as an actor or director, sell theatre.

What was the first show you did abroad? What was that like?
TNT’s first international show was Harlequin – international work was part of our identity from the start. Harlequin was in our repertoire for 12 years; it is the imagined biography of the great Russian director Meyerhold, told by clowns in his wonderful grotesque style. It deals with the Russian Revolution in art and politics, as well as Stalin’s murder of Meyerhold, the original Bolshevik. I played the bad guys… it was an entertaining yet tragic piece with lots of grotesque comedy and Italian commedia dell’arte. We were invited [to Russia] in 1991 and it was a big hit. I think I was the first Western actor to play Stalin in Russia – in fact it was still the USSR then!

When was the first time you came to China? What was that like?
I have always loved travel but especially travel to Asia. I suggest that civilisation has two poles – East and West; Europe and Asia. Other cultures grow from there. I was one of the first backpackers in China when it opened up in 1983. Things were different then – there were no taxis in Beijing! And the few restaurants had names like Peking Duck Restaurant Number One. I got a good meal there by playing ping-pong with the staff. We first went to Shanghai in 2005, then in 2007 we performed Oliver Twist in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. It was like being The Beatles in the 1960s, suddenly everyone was interested in our style – the right place at the right time.

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How have you seen things change in China?
Audiences are getting better and sometimes bigger, [because] theatre is growing in China. It's impossible to generalize because an audience at Peking University is actually more like a European audience than an audience in a People’s Hall in Changsha or even Hunan. In other words, China is so huge that any serious analysis is about the internal contrast rather than the international one. Yes, the Chinese are loud and love to laugh – that is great for our style of serious comedy. Yes, the Chinese everywhere seem to love Shakespeare. That has been a key for us. But we do other plays too. We know we need a known name to attract a big audience. That is fine.

How about your most interesting China stories?
One fascinating thing about performing in China is that the classics are fresh – or refreshed! When we toured Hamlet I could feel the audience getting upset because many thought that Hamlet was going to win and not die. I felt guilty for disappointing them.

Sometimes challenges [include] going to an expensive new theatre and being told that the lights cannot be changed for our performance. I said they were pointing above our heads and the staff said that was because a very tall Canadian designed the theatre.

In Shanghai, I was surprised to find that the Porsche that blocked the theatre door each day belonged to the actress I was directing. I made a joke about poor actors to another cast member and the translator said she was not laughing because she owned a chain of dress boutiques. I am sure that many actors have little money in China but this was a shock, because in Europe and the USA, theatre acting is a financially fragile career.

You must have some interesting stories from the road.
Well the worst thing that almost happened was the cast of Macbeth being swept away by rip tides whilst [swimming] in South America. We had been warned about the bad guys in the nearby village, but when we asked them for help they swam out to sea and rescued the actors one by one. It was a lesson in humility.

Another time when we were performing in a small Russian town, the mayor invited us to a post-show banquet. But a group of thugs broke up the performance; we carried on with a few audience members at the front, but the staff had run away. At the end of the show we went to the banquet room and found it deserted. We grabbed some bread and vodka and ran to the bus, running out of town like in some movie.

In the north of Scotland, we performed for an isolated community that sent boats to pick us up. That night a storm blew up. They said we were stuck there, but we had an[other] audience 100 miles away so we said: 'We go!' So they put life jackets on us, covered the instruments with fishing tarpaulins and took us out into the storm in small wooden boats.

Finally I would contrast two performances of Hamlet within three weeks: For our performances in Tehran, I/we received an Iranian Oscar at a ceremony that imitated Hollywood under the gaze of a stern portrait of the Ayatollah. The audience was fantastic; when the thousand-plus seats were filled they brought hundreds of people in to stand for three hours of Shakespeare. After travelling in Iran we went to the Gulf at the height of the Iraq War. It was considered too dangerous to perform in Kuwait’s only public theater so we transferred to the big US/Allied army base and gave Hamlet to the GI’s about to go into battle. Soldiers came up to us and said how important it was to them to see Hamlet – their “To be or not to be” was very real. But what amazed me was that the two audiences in Iran and the US base, although opposite and surely hostile to each other, were unified in their respect and admiration for Shakespeare. It was a humbling experience.

Tell me about the MBE, you said it was about the work you did in China?
The actual citation was: 'to Paul Stebbings for his work promoting British culture and theatre in Asia, with special regard to China.' At the Buckingham Palace ceremony, which was very grand, I had a few minutes to talk to Prince Charles and he asked several questions, all about China. He was keenly interested in [the Chinese] response to Shakespeare and whether we used subtitles. This reflects the importance Britain places on relations with China. Let’s face it – our greatest export is culture. The Germans may have Volkswagen and Mercedes but the Brits have Shakespeare and the Beatles.

Tell me more about the ceremony.
When I received the letter it said 'On Her Majesty’s Service – only to be opened by Paul Stebbings.' I was worried because they use the same formula for court orders and I wondered if I had made an error in my tax! So I found it hard to believe that I was put forward. I do not want to sound too patriotic since I am an internationalist, but I have to say that the British do state theatre better than anyone else. The whole event was magnificent – we had to dress formally, and I went for the most formal wear possible – complete with top hat! Afterwards, I went for champagne at a traditional hotel nearby and then had a good party with old friends and actors. And finally I ate fish and chips at a café in Waterloo. Very British.

You've been doing plays in Mandarin as well. What are some of the differences between theatre in the West and theatre in China?
It would be easy to say there are lots of differences, but there are similarities too because we live in a global culture. The actors at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre are not Chinese Opera stars. They are (overly) influenced by realistic Western theatre, television, Hollywood and Hong Kong films. If there are differences, it is that Chinese actors are probably better at physical stylisation than Western actors, but worse at singing and music. We also have had problems getting older actors to take risks – surprising, given the large body of actors available in Shanghai. But overall, TNT's style pushes [even] European-trained actors and the main difference is perhaps that some actors in China are more concerned with loss of 'face' than English actors are.

What are some of the difficulties of directing in China? The rewards?
It’s hard to direct when you do not understand the language but then theatre [itself] is a language. I throw myself around the rehearsal room a lot – I knocked a tooth out during Taming of the Shrew. The reward is seeing that theatre can work across the barrier of different cultures – it's incredible when I realise I am in a room with twenty theatre artists all day in Shanghai and every one of them is Chinese. It is a rare immersion for a foreigner – not as a businessman or a tourist but with a group of artists who share the same aim. When I first set foot in China in 1983 it was a truly strange and recently [opened] land – how could I ever have guessed I would be in that room in Shanghai in 2013?

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