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Interview: Bridget Foreman playwright, Riding Lights theatre director

14 March 2014

'Theatre touches a part of us that is unreached by sermons'

No two days are the same. I might be researching, reading, writing, or meeting people. I could be at home, in the office, or in rehearsal. If I'm writing a play, most of the work is likely to be done in the middle of the night, when there are fewer distractions.

I joined the Riding Lights Theatre Company as an actor in 1992, and haven't left - though I've been through a number of job descriptions since then. I'm now an associate director.

I went to Oxford University, and was also member of the National Youth Theatre, but then I just took a leap of faith into the theatre. I started with small jobs in small companies, and found a way.

I work freelance in addition to my work with Riding Lights, which helps me to keep at least one foot in mainstream theatre.

When you visit the optician, you're asked to decipher a chart while a succession of lenses, sometimes layered together, are placed before your eyes. As Christians, we view the world through a faith perspective - but other things may sharpen our understanding, or reveal to us things that we'd never noticed before. Theatre can do that. At its best, it is both communication and communion: it touches a part of us that is unreached by sermons, and it connects us to the people who share the performance with us.

I'm not sure I understand what constitutes "Christian drama". Which is more Christian: a play about the life of St Paul written by an atheist, or a play about the NHS written by a Christian? The only thing that can accurately be described as "Christian" is a human being; so the term "Christian theatre" is simply a stumbling block to putting plays before audiences. I'd abolish it if I could, and then we'd be judging plays on more helpful criteria.

We need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what theatre is, as well as a more catholic taste. What are we afraid of? We don't turn on a tap and question whether the plumbing is sufficiently evangelistic.

I tend to think that if a play packs a punch, God's in the punch. I've been challenged, moved, delighted, and spoken to by all kinds of theatre. It can be holy without being sacred.

I don't think that any institution fires the imagination. It's the people within it who have the ability to do that.

There's an increasing interest in the Church in the power of story, which is encouraging; but imagination is even more important: imagination encourages empathy, and with empathy comes compassion. It's critical to how we relate to other people. Being imaginative isn't a way of escaping the "real" world: it's the key to engaging with it.

I'm lucky enough to have the gift of being able to immerse myself in, and be fascinated by, whatever I'm writing about. So, to a large extent, whatever I'm working on has the potential to be my dream play. But I hope that my best work is always ahead of me.

I've been working on a new Passion play, based on a piece I wrote for the last Lambeth Conference, and an adaptation of a children's book.

And I'm researching dementia for a play, by reading, talking to people, meeting scientists working on it. We're running workshops for people and their families to see if we can explore new methods of communication based on theatrical approaches, and use this for the play eventually. I hope we end up with a play we can tour and wisdom we can share to improve communications between people with dementia, to deepen richness of relationships just at the point where they feel as if they are breaking down.

Riding Lights performs all over the place. We're rehearsing a co-production of The Alchemist with the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and touring in churches, homes, schools, and prisons.

The themes in The Alchemist of crooks playing on people's need and greed is amazingly topical in this financial crisis that we are in now, and it's also great farce: hugely funny and acerbic, with larger-than-life characters.

I grew up in Oxford with my parents, and younger sister and brother. We were a raucous, somewhat Bohemian family, with a front door that was always open. I now live in York with my husband, Mark, who's a teacher, and our five-year-old twin daughters.

We adopted our daughters from Ethiopia in 2009, when they were seven months old. We had looked after nieces and nephews, but having two at once held its challenges. You learn as you go along about things you can do, like how to get two babies in and outof the car - and the things you can't do, like go swimming withtwo babies. It's a learning curve,but parenting is always a learning curve.

The twins have a kind of mirror in terms of each other, not just in terms of appearance but also in experience, and I hope that will counter that sense of loneliness that some adopted children may feel in a family. I hope that will bind them to each other and comfort them.

I'm happy to do almost anything for my church, but these days I prefer it not to be drama-related. I'm also a diocesan governor for my local Church of England primary school.

When I read Aristotle's Poetics, I remember being astonished that there was still a market for all those "How to write" books. He's got it nailed. I was expecting a commentary on Greek theatre, but I thought it could be written now - it's so directly applicable to our understanding of character and dynamics of drama. When you read the plays he would have known, we don't read the richness into them, but you can see his work being mined and developed in more sophisticated texts from later.

I like up to the sound of my children discussing whether or not it's too early to get into Mummy's bed. And woodpigeons.

And I like anywhere with sunshine and good food. Halki, a tiny Greek island, is hard to beat.

I was last, will be next, and am continually angry with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and the people who are comfortable with that.

I'm happiest in the summer.

I mostly pray for other people. There's one family who have been the focus of much of my prayer for the last few years.

I've had a crush on Joseph Banks (1743-1820) ever since being floored by Joshua Reynolds' portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery. He led an extraordinarily energetic life, including travelling the world as a botanist with Captains Cook and Bligh; so he'd have some good stories to tell. Is flirting allowed in church?

Bridget Foreman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

 

Inheritance, Bridget Foreman's new Passion play, is produced by the Riding Lights Theatre Company, and opens at Halifax Minster tonight, 14 March. It tours throughout the UK until Holy Saturday.

www.ridinglights.org/inheritance

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19 October 2020
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