An Interview with Lu Kemp & Kieran Hurley
Perth Theatre’s artistic director Lu Kemp and playwright Kieran Hurley have created A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and The Fact it Rains, a lively piece of ceilidh theatre based on conversations with Perthshire land dwellers and owners. It will be starting its rural tour in a few days, & The Mumble was lucky enough to catch a wee blether with Lu & Keiran
Hello Kieran, so what for you makes a good piece of theatre?
KIERAN: Wowzers, I dunno, I feel if I could answer that in one neat answer in a piece of preview press there wouldn’t be much mileage in the artform and I probably wouldn’t be giving my life to it. Theatre’s an incredibly varied thing. I’d say in general I like work that genuinely tries to speak to people, work that values its audience. I don’t like theatre is self-important or self-involved. Theatre’s real advantage over other forms is it’s liveness, and I like to see shows that make a virtue of that – the fact that we’re all here together in the same room.
Hello Lu, so when did you first find yourself getting into the dramatic arts?
LU: By accident largely, but I was interested enough in them to find work at The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, as one of my three student jobs. I worked on box office with a young bloke – now the playwright Robert Alan Evans – and to kill time we started sending bits of writing back and forward between us. And then we decided to make a play together, which was a terrible idea and complete hell, but somehow it did well and we ended up taking it to the National Student Drama Festival, and then someone offered me a job, and I didn’t have a better offer at the time, and so it goes on!
Keiran, are a relative newcomer to the Scottish theatre scene, but have arrived with a bang. How did you find the success of your Fringe First-winning HEADS UP, played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016 and 2017, which also won the Best New Play at the Critics’ Awards 2017 for Theatre in Scotland?
KIERAN: Am I newcomer? Cool. I feel I learn something new about myself every time I answer one of these things. I’ve been doing this professionally for about ten years now, and was just beginning to feel like I couldn’t trade on “newness” any more so I suppose it’s nice to have faith in my relative newness restored. Heads Up was a great experience, though a bit of a whirlwind. We made the show very quickly, and on very little resources. At the time a lot of my work was tied up in commissions or screen work and I really wanted to re-capture the sort of DIY spirit of some of my earlier work and make something that would immediately meet its audience. So we got together the bare minimum of what we needed and just did it, We called it “three chord punk” which was really just a fancy way of saying we’ve got no cash, and to be honest when we opened I had no idea how it was going to be received. I was delighted with the audience and critical response, of course.
You’ve also toured HEADS UP a couple of times, how do you find the experience?
KIERAN: I love touring because I love the chance to take the work to people. As a writer or theatre-maker you really just want the work to be seen widely. When you’re performing you’re own work it can be tricky though. I love performing, but unlike other shows Heads Up toured with just me on the road and that can be a bit of a slog. And I’ve got a family now and that limits how long I can take it out for. So it was very different from any other tour I’ve done in that sense, but no less valuable.
What does Lu Kemp like to do when she’s not being theatrical?
LU: Cycle around.
Lu, you are just about to launch your creation with playwright Kieran Hurley, A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and The Fact it Rains, can you tell us about the play?
LU: We wanted to make a piece that felt relevant to Perthshire now. Last year, before the theatre opened, we drove around Perthshire meeting lots of people and talking to them about what’s changed in Perthshire over the past 20 years and how they feel about Brexit and what they think is going to happen next. Kieran and I had worked on a similar project about the state of education for the Royal Shakespeare Company the year before. We thought it would be dry as a biscuit and were really surprised by how bloody and funny it was.
Can you tell us something of the research process behind A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and The Fact it Rains?
KIERAN: The idea for the show started with Lu wanting to make a piece for and about rural Perthshire. The idea of doing a verbatim play came about because we’d worked together on another verbatim piece, still in development, for a theatre down south and we’d both gotten a lot out of it. Verbatim theatre basically just means a play based on real life materials, usually interviews. So we made this piece about the farming industry, basically by driving around rural Perthshire, following leads and speaking to people. Farmers, mostly. But also food campaigners, journalists, seasonal workers, storytellers… It might sound quite narrow, talking about farming but the amazing thing is becomes a jumping off point for such a broad range of issues. Talking about the food industry means talking about climate change, about Brexit, about how we use and share this land that we all have to live off, how we produce enough food for us all to be able to eat. Really big, fundamental stuff. And because it’s a verbatim play it’s full of this distinctive voices and witty and unique perspectives.
Could you describe your working relationship with Lu in one word?
Could you describe your working relationship with Kieran in one word?
Have you grown as a person after the experience of meeting with & talking to so many members of the agricultural community?
LU: I’ve certainly learnt a lot. And it’s made me think about things in a way I didn’t have reason to before. Mostly about milk. I’ve thought a lot about milk recently.
You have quite an interesting itinerary coming up; Perth, Aberfeldy, Birnam, Crieff, Blair Atholl, Alyth , Blairgowrie & Kinross Who is the brains behind the tour, & will they be managing the affair?
LU: We want to be touring in Perthshire as a theatre. Perth Theatre isn’t, and shouldn’t be, just about the venue in the centre of Perth. And we had a ball last year going to all the different venues with And Then Come The Nightjars by Bea Roberts (also about farming). People behave differently in their local venue to the way they do if they come to a theatre, it feels like a community night out.
What would you say to encourage people to buy a ticket?
KIERAN: It’ll be a really good night out. It’s going to be full of thought-provoking stuff that’ll sure to leave you with lots to discuss and think about afterwards, and all entirely relevant to rural Perthshire. But more than that, it’ll be a braw evening’s entertainment. We’ve two of the finest performers in the country in Melody Grove and Aly Macrae, both incredible musicians as well as being beautiful actors. Spending an hour or so in their company in this intimate setting will be a joy for any audience.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the production?
LU: I hope it will entertain them, and that there are enough contradictory ideas in the piece that it will make people go to the pub and debate over a drink! Hopefully they’ll go home humming the tunes as well.
These rural tours are a great theatrical asset to this part of Scotland. How well do you think they are received?
KIERAN: Every time I’ve toured rurally in Scotland before it’s just been a joy and a privilege, and I wish I had the opportunity to do it more. The last time I did a proper rural tour was with a show called Rantin for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2014. We went all over the place, and audiences were just so appreciative and warm. It’s long been a part of the fabric of Scottish theatre, rural touring, and really needs people committed to making it happen if it’s going to continue to survive and thrive – which is one of the reasons it’s so brilliant that Lu has committed to touring rurally in Perthshire with Perth Theatre.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Lu Kemp?
LU: Sleep. I hope.
For tickets and info for A Six Inch Layer of Topsoil and The Fact it Rains in Perth Theatre visit www.horsecross.co.uk or call Box Office on 01738 621031. Tickets are also available from the venues.
Wed 9 May: 7.30pm
Aberfeldy Town Hall
Thu 10 May: 7.30pm
Birnam Arts Centre
Fri 11 May: 7.30pm
Strathearn Artspace, Crieff
Wed 16 May: 7.30pm
Blair Atholl Village Hall
Thu 17 May: 7.30pm
Alyth Town Hall
Fri 18 May: 7.30pm
Blairgowrie Town Hall
Sat 19 May: 7.30pm
Loch Leven Community Campus, Kinross