For several years, I have attended productions at a small fringe theatre at the back of a pub in South-East London called the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre. They have hosted a number of notable theatre companies and I have seen some amazing adaptations of novels and new plays etc. In 2016, I encountered Arrows & Traps for the first time with their production of an original play called ‘The Gospel According To Philip’. Essentially, a very funny play focused on the life of Jesus and the disciples. Since then, I have seen the majority of the company’s output (I sadly missed all of the adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays). For me, the company are one of the most innovative and vibrant purveyors of theatre at this moment in time. They are one of a handful of theatre companies who deserve attention and greater coverage. Having seen eight of the company’s plays, I finally felt motivated to try to interview at least one member of Arrows & Traps and graciously, I have been granted my wish to interview two of the company. Today, it’s the turn of Ross McGregor, Artistic Director, writer and founder of Arrows & Traps.
Please can you tell me a little bit about your career prior to Arrows & Traps? Were you connected to any other theatre companies and if so, in what capacity?
I have just turned 35, and have professionally directed over 45 theatre productions. I studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Warwick University, before doing an MA in Theatre Direction at UEA. I started a touring theatre collective in East Anglia that specialised in classic revivals and adaptations, and ran that as director and dramaturg for about five years, before taking a four-year break from theatre, going to work in graphic design and CAD drawing. In 2014, I was asked by Simon James Collier to produce a series of modern Shakespeare productions for the Lion & Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town, and thus Arrows & Traps was born.
When did you devise Arrows & Traps and what has it meant to you?
Arrows & Traps came about through first directing a series of five Shakespeare shows both at the Lion & Unicorn and the New Wimbledon Studio. To begin with, our remit was to tell Shakespeare in a new and interesting way, but after the first two years, we moved beyond that and started to produce literary adaptations and historical new writing. The company has also always been run in a repertory manner, and that has ever been my goal, to build a team both onstage and off that works together beyond the remit of a single production. It has been something of a full-time job, at times an obsession, at others a life sentence, but building the company has meant everything to me, and it's something I'm incredibly proud of creating.
As a playwright and Artistic Director of Arrows & Traps, is it important for you to work with the same creative team i.e. actors and lighting technicians etc.?
Yes, immensely. When you work with the same people across numerous shows, it allows you to build up a shorthand with the actors, and challenge them with roles outside of their usual casting, and the creatives learn to decipher your style and work more effectively to support that. The actors that have been with us the longest now are familiar with my style and what I want from them, as are the designers, and it just saves time in rehearsal as I don't have to explain myself as much as I used to. Which is nice - as contrary to some other directors out there - I don't enjoy speaking at length.
'Gentleman Jack' uses the framing device of two gentlemen decoding the language used in the journals of Anne Lister. Having seen your more recent work and its focus on actual historical figures, would you say that this serves as an accurate metaphor for the act of constructing a character based on a real person i.e. it's an act of interpretation and speculation? How much research do you conduct when you are writing plays based on actual people?
Yes, I suppose I wanted to include the characters of John and Arthur in Gentleman Jack to both emulate that process that I myself had gone through when writing the show, but also show that Anne Lister had achieved what she always wanted - a legacy that transcended her own time. I research all the real people that I write about thoroughly, almost to the point of boredom, because in order to write in their voice, you have to know how they thought, how they would react in the situations you want to put them in, and you have to make your voice sound like theirs. But of course, ultimately, we are making a play, not a historical documentary, so there has to be some leeway in order to serve the story. Some characters are embellishments, others are an amalgam of multiple real people. First and foremost, you're there to tell a good story, so sometimes dates, details and the order of things have to be streamlined a little to make the play work. The best example I can think of about this was in the White Rose, the play I wrote last summer about Sophie Scholl, and her band of friends that took on the Third Reich. In real life, the character profiles of the driven and serious Hans Scholl, Sophie's brother, and the ever-wry and jesting Alexander Schmorell, Sophie's potential love interest, were in fact the other way round in history. The real Hans was always laughing and joking about, and Alex was the dark-eyed pessimist one that wanted to blow up factories, but for my play - it worked better if the characters were the other way round. Her brother had to be the one on the dark path to terrorism, so that she had someone to save; and it made it easier for the audience to fall in love with Alex if he was funny. The changes I made were always to serve the story, and always made with the greatest respect. I'm not trying to recount history, just perhaps hold a mirror up to it and say - this happened - you should find out more about this amazing person that perhaps you hadn't heard of before - because they were brave, and beautiful, and wanted to change their world.
Related to the above questions, how long does it tend to take you to write a play and are your plays complete, prior to the rehearsal process? If not, do the actors and production team influence their final form with their contributions?
They're usually completed before the rehearsals start but with TARO I did struggle to get it finished on time, so the cast had to wait for the last fifteen pages for a few weeks. Which was strange for us all, working on a show when you don't know how it ends. My writing style is quite quick and pressurised, because it has to be. When producing, writing and directing 4-5 shows a year, there isn't really space to breathe, and I haven't really stopped since I began writing the shows back in 2017 with Frankenstein. Usually once the current show has opened (got to Press Night) it is then usually time for me to begin writing the next one. On average, it takes about six weeks from the first page to the final edit, but that is more due to necessity and time pressure than personal choice - I don't think anyone would choose to write a show in six weeks if they were allowed to do it in eight or ten. The Rep Season was particularly testing as I had the same six week period to write not one but two shows - it was certainly a challenge, and probably why they're a little shorter than our usual fare. The actors usually help me in the form of a read-through after the second draft, which allows me to hear what works, what doesn't, and it's from there that I can then make my final edit - we usually lose about 25 pages on average at that point. I'm an over-writer, I think, as I tend to take a while to work out which way the story is going, and usually burn up words working that out.
Your plays, both the plays based on fictional works and your real-life plays display an interest in physical theatre. Has dance and movement always been an interest of yours? I have been particularly captivated by your command of choreography or by your company's command of choreography when presenting morally corrupt characters such as the Nazis in 'The White Rose' with their gas masks and spider-like movements and the vampires in 'Dracula' with their slow seductive movements.
Why thank you, that's awfully kind of you. Glad you liked them. Dance and movement is something that I've always felt theatre did better than film, and particularly in such an intimate stage as the Jack, it's always been the goal to try and come up with as many versatile and diverse utilisations of the space as possible. Whilst I would never say my background or main skill set is in movement or dance, I have been utterly gifted in the level of inordinate talent in the various movement directors that I have worked with in Arrows & Traps - Will Pinchin, Nancy Kettle, Roman Berry, The Globe's Yarit Dor, and most recently the Hope Theatre's Matthew Parker - I've been ever so lucky to have them in the room with me. They have all made such beautiful stage pictures, and come up with the choreography that has, perhaps, ended up defining us partially as a company.
An element of your work that fascinates me is your use of repetition and mirroring. The juxtaposition of the two leading actors, Cornelia Baumann and Lucy Ioannou playing the same role at different ages in 'Gentleman Jack' and 'TARO' and copying each other's mannerisms add a striking dimension to your work. Also recurrent visual and aural motifs such as 'Little Trout' in 'TARO' that informs both the audiences' perception of the character of Gerda Taro and provides a powerful recurring visual motif of someone fighting to regain the surface during the simulated water sequences. Do you feel that linear narratives are limited at times and that as our lives are quite often more erratic and fragmentary, plays should be more fluid? What playwrights have been influential to your creative output?
I've always enjoyed messing about with narrative chronology. I think it's interesting for an audience to see two seemingly different timelines and know that at some point they're going to intersect. In Frankenstein you have the education and evolution of the Creature, whilst seeing Victor start down the dark path that will end with him creating this same monster. In White Rose, you have the joy and life and humour of the White Rose group, intercut with Sophie's interrogation at the cold hands of Mohr, so you know that at some point she's going to be arrested which adds a layer of tension and futility to the fun the young people are having - you know at some point it's all going to go very, very wrong, and in Gentleman Jack - you have two concurrent timelines - the later one informing the doom of the love in the earlier - whilst also seeing how this optimistic and naive young woman becomes the cold, calculating powerhouse that she is later in her life. I've always found it more interesting to show an audience Point A and Point B right at the beginning, and let them wonder how on earth we're going to get there. Doesn't our past always inform and intersect with our present? Don't we continually spend our lives walking in the echoes of where we have been before? It only takes the slightest scent of perfume in the street and we're transported back to another time, when we were someone else, when we felt differently, and loved differently. The mind is a powerful thing. Memory is one of it's greatest mysteries. In TARO, it is a little different, and perhaps the closest I've come yet to condensing these ideas into a theatrical conceit - as Gerda is dying right from the beginning, she may even already be dead, and she's walking through her mind palace, interacting with her past, picking out the bits that interest her, or perhaps frighten her the most, because she, as a Jew, is going through the Sheoh - the final passage of a soul, where one's actions are weighed and measured, like grains of salt. She must face her past, and make her peace with it, come what may.
My favourite playwrights are: Yasmina Reza, Martin McDonagh, Caryl Churchill and Tennessee Williams.
Do the venues you use help to determine how you write your plays or do you adapt the plays to fully utilise the spaces that you occupy?
We've been at the Jack pretty much without deviation since 2016, so yes, when you come to write these things - you generally know the space that the play is going to play to, and the people that you have to play with in terms of casting - so you can work according to those restrictions. However, sometimes it's quite fun for the writer part of you to set the director part of you a challenge - armies / wolves / fire / throat-slitting / flying / swimming etc. - as the writer it's not down to you to work out how to stage it, and when you're fulfilling both roles yourself, there is sometimes a temptation to go easy on yourself, and not test yourself. Necessity is the mother of invention, and sometimes all you need is imagination and enough time for lots of practice.
You state that Arrows & Traps will be going on 'permanent hiatus' soon. Why have you decided to lay the company to rest at this point? As an audience member who has enjoyed many of your shows, it seems too soon. Also what do you plan to do next?
As I've mentioned, I've written every show we've done since Frankenstein in 2017 and it's been non-stop for almost two years. To be honest, it's been very tiring, and I don't have the energy at the moment to jump into anything new theatrically, so I'm taking some time off - to work on other (non-theatrical) parts of my life, get some rest, do some other things, see some work that is not my own, read books and scripts that are not my own, and generally get some breathing space. I hear rumours that there may be areas of this life that do not involve theatre, and I'd like to spend a year experiencing some. I do plan to return to the Jack later in the year, but it will be in a new form - it may still be as Arrows & Traps, it may not, but the remit and scale will be very different, and the company's goals will be very different, and the vision will be somewhat transformed from what it currently is. This is not to take anything away from what the company has achieved, I'm very proud of what we've accomplished, and change can always be a positive if done for the right reasons. But yes, for now, this is our fond farewell to the current incarnation of Arrows & Traps, as it presently stands. As they say, "All Good Things..."
Many thanks, Ross for allowing me to interview you and good luck with your future plans.
Barry Watt – 2nd February 2019.
Photos (Thanks to Ross McGregor for providing and allowing me to use these images)
Ross McGregor and the very talented Arrows & Traps (the current Female Firsts company).
I would like to thank Ross McGregor for his willingness to answer my questions and also thank him for his continuing commitment to the theatre. I would also like to strongly recommend that you go to see Arrows & Traps’ ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘TARO’ if you can at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre prior to the 16th February 2019 when they finish.
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Arrows & Traps have a website that can be accessed via the following link: