Gareth Stevens speaks with theatre producer, writer, director and actor John Knowles.

John and I meet on an under-promenade bench framed by a white arch that somehow seems perfectly designed for risk-assessed social distancing. You may not be aware of Fetch, but surely you know of A Penny Pincher’s Christmas Carol which has become a firm part of the local cultural almanac and for some is the signal for the start of festivities.

“You can forget your high-proscenium arch theatres and West End shows, for me theatre is all about intimacy, it’s about breaking boundaries, it’s about the moment.” To John the very heart of vivid pulsing theatre is that which is prohibited under lockdown.

Bar Barbarian
PICTURE: Peter Mould

His love of theatre started In Liverpool, at The Everyman Theatre. “I grew up sitting in the Bistro Bar in the basement of the theatre, rubbing shoulders with actors, painters, pimps, prostitutes, musicians and madmen.” 

Having moved to Hastings he now leads Fetch Theatre, a well-regarded community-based company that receives Arts Council funding and has a whole string of innovative productions to its name. Recent work by the company has been staged in London, Prague, Brighton Fringe and the Edinburgh Festival.

Time Please
PICTURE: Peter Mould

He tells me how he came to understand that theatre should be a “visceral, guttural and physical” experience. He recalls seeing a recent production of Julius Caesar at Bridge Theatre in Southwark and describes it as a “full-on, in-your-face, spit, blood, rush, shove and push of a show where the audience were in the midst of the whole thing, not voyeurs but an essential part of it.”

John’s brand of theatre is an extension of that love of audience/actor mix. Orchestra pit? What orchestra pit? Small scale, intimate and challenging. “For me there is no greater moment than when the audience, the script and the actors are in unison, all held in one communal breath.” 

My only criteria for a piece is that I enjoy making it and I like it when it’s finished

I sense the frustration John feels that he cannot ply his trade during the Covid-19 lockdown. The idea that to resume any form of theatre normality might involve sparsely spread audiences sitting two metres apart numbs him. If the audience and actors are not rubbing shoulders and looking each other directly in the eye, then the event will be anodyne and impotent he tells me. 

Despite valiant attempts to keep theatre alive during this period, no amount of free streaming of National Theatre productions can replace the physical encounter of being present at a live theatre piece in its ‘moment’ of performance. The BBC’s Unprecedented series has been written and filmed in lockdown and not only responds to the radical way we have seen our world change during the coronavirus pandemic, but is formally ‘of’ the pandemic. One piece in the series, for example, is a dramatised family Zoom meeting. This is like theatre, but it is not actually theatre. It may be good TV, but is thin gruel compared to the ‘real’ thing.

Pandemic aside, it is a surprise that a town that has such a thriving independent music scene, a full professional symphony orchestra and such a communally agreed commitment to and love of the Arts, does not have a thriving experimental theatre community. This is especially the case when you consider how many proven and distinguished actors and theatre professionals there are who live in Hastings. But people and projects need a space, and John emphasises the urgent need to establish a dedicated ‘black box’ venue in the town.

“The curtains are closed for now, the lights are dimmed, but visceral, tangible and full of passion, we will return.” John assures me.

For more information please check Fetch Theatre website

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