You got started with Theatre Anon doing an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal back in 2013. Since then, not only have you built a loyal following here in Shanghai, but some of the success you’ve had has even helped you take productions such as The Snow Queen abroad to places like the Edinburgh Festival last summer. What is it that has kept you going through all of this?
AH (Arran Hawkins): I think I’d be trying to produce theatre wherever I was in the world. It just so happens that I’m here and have been for a while. [Theatre co-founder] Natasha Portwood and I keep the ball rolling—with occasional help from Phil Knight—but essentially it’s the enthusiasm from our fans that has motivated us to keep making theatre here.
Your latest production is an original play called The Absence of Reason: Extracts from the Heart. What’s it all about?
AH: It’s an experimental pop-up show about our foolish hearts ruling over our brains. It’s about how love and lust and desire and loss often make us think and act irrationally. The show has no real narrative, but there’s a thru-line that links a series of vignettes—some that are very, very funny and some that will break your heart.
Where did the idea for the show come from?
AH: It came from a scene I’d written about a couple on a first date and a piece by Anthony Minghella that I’d been trying to figure out how to adapt into a show for a while. I felt the two balanced each other somewhat—a new blooming romance and a romance that’s basically coming to an end. The idea of placing them together in a show came to me about six weeks ago and has been taking shape with devised pieces and new scenes being added until we now have a full hour-long show.
I’ve also worked with the actors to devise scenes from scratch—with no script of any kind, just an idea.
How does this show compare with some of the previous work you’ve done with Theatre Anon?
AH: Well, it’s the first show that isn’t fully formed as a “story” with a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s also the first time I’ve worked on a devised piece with Anon. It’s usually either us writing or acquiring already written shows. This show has both of those elements, but I’ve also worked with the actors to devise scenes from scratch—with no script of any kind, just an idea.
How did you bring the current cast together to work on the show?
AH: Dominique [Siqueira Koo] was in the last show I directed and we’d been talking about working together on something for a while. I found a scene which was perfect and Crystal [Chu] jumped at the chance to play another role, so it was already coming together before the whole show was even fully formed. The rest of the cast came on board shortly after that.
How are preparations for the show coming along?
AH: It’s been a really quick process. We’ve been working on it for the last three or four weeks with rehearsals getting more intense in the last two weeks. It’s come together very quickly thanks to the very passionate, talented people I’ve been working with. They’re all so very enthusiastic about the show—it makes the whole thing much easier.
Is there anything you’ve learned from any of the previous productions you’ve done that you’ve been able to apply to your preparations for this show?
AH: Keep it simple. After taking on huge challenges last year—with a massive show like Dangerous Liaisons and taking The Snow Queen to Edinburgh—I really wanted to keep this show as simple as possible. It’s raw theatre. There’s no glitz and glamour to it. It’s just some very talented people doing some great work on a pop-up stage.
Are you able to pick a favorite scene or moment in the play?
AH: I go through phases of liking different scenes. Currently, it’s the birdwatching scene—mainly because I only wrote it last week and I had no idea if it would work or not. Will [Potter] and Alisa [Kamarova] really get their teeth into it and it just makes me laugh out loud every time they run it. We also close with a song which Alisa sings so beautifully it makes your heart ache. But, they all hold something special for me and move me in different ways.
The show runs June 16th, 17th and 18th at the Theatre in the Tianzifang. For those who haven’t been there before, what makes it a special venue to come out to and see the show?
AH: It’s a nice, unconventional space. It’s a kung-fu studio by day. We’re very used to doing shows in unconventional spaces like the roof of an office building or a small stage in a cooking school or a furniture warehouse. So, this is nothing new for us. But, it’s very central and very easy to get to—which is always a bonus for getting people to come see your show.
I’m hoping too that people will see a different side to theatre in Shanghai.
What are you looking forward to the most about opening night?
AH: Seeing the audience’s reaction for the first time. It’s hard to know if the show actually works when you’re so involved in it until you get an outside eye. So I’m looking forward to the reaction and feedback from the audience.
What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing the show?
AH: I’m hoping they will be moved, to laughter, to tears. I’m hoping too that people will see a different side to theatre in Shanghai. That it’s not all about doing cover versions. That experimental theatre and new work is just as important for a vibrant theatre scene to flourish.
Lastly, are there any plans for the show beyond this initial run?
AH: It’s brand new and it’s an experiment, so who knows what may become of it. It could die a death after the performance. Or it could be the next thing we take to Edinburgh.
The Absence of Reason: Extracts from the Heart runs for just three nights on June 16th, 17th, and 18th at the Theatre in the Tianzifang (Taikang Rd., Lane #200, Building 3, #311). Curtains at 8PM. Tickets are only 100RMB, so get yours early! Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or scan the QR code in the poster below to purchase.
The Absence of Reason: Extracts from the Heart is directed by Arran Hawkins and features Alex Gomar, Alina Levytska, Alisa Kamarova, Crystal Chu, Dominique Siqueira Koo, Mimi Beaufort-Spontin and Will Potter.