HIP talks to this month’s ‘Community Ledge’, John Knowles about life, theatre and what they contribute to each other.

Where did you grow up?
Well some would say I never have, but … I grew up in Liverpool, left at 17 (with a brief two-year stint in Australia as ‘Ten Pound Pom’). I went to a bog-standard comprehensive school, barely getting enough ‘O’ Levels to get into Arts College. I left without ‘A’ Levels, having been interviewed at Liverpool Polytechnic by two tutors recently returned from a heavy pub lunch (mainly liquid).

How did your upbringing shape the person you are today?
Liverpool is a place of sharp wit and you get your attack in before anyone else: walk into a room and realise you have the biggest nose, then say so, otherwise someone else will. Humour and chips (on our plates, in bag and on our shoulders). I grew up in a time when Liverpool felt like the scapegoat for every Tory; I felt I had to defend who I was and where I came from. Liverpool is not a small city. It’s huge in terms of its presence, its iconic status. But I grew up shit poor: my dad was a factory worker with ambitions, my mum a cleaner and a school cook. Politics seeped into my life through music and theatre; in retrospect I wished I’d been less afraid of life, more outgoing, but even skimming across the surface I picked up so much from the people around me and was lucky to be born in a city that prides itself on a ‘f*ck you’ attitude, ever the underdog, always biting back.

Did you take an interest in theatre when you were young? 
For me everything changed when I walked into the Everyman Youth Theatre and discovered that I wasn’t an alien after all – I found likeminded souls and a home, a theatre company who genuinely embraced us (we weren’t just a tick box entity). And so it was Everyman Theatre and The Bistro downstairs where every artist, musician, poet, wannabe hung out. Prostitutes, pimps and poets and me drinking snakeebites and walking four miles home through the notorious Toxteth. I had, at school, been part of the lighting team for school plays, left alone with a lighting rig late at night, no health and safety and several electrocutions. But it was The Everyman that changed me, and so many others, forever – and Roger Hill our puck-like guru.

When did you leave school and what happened next?
I left before ‘A’ Levels and went straight to a foundation course in Arts, way to young, way too naive and disappeared into art. 

What sort of employed work have you had over the years? 
I was lucky really. After discovering art school and The Everyman, I pretty much worked in theatre, doing every and any job that the two theatres (The Playhouse and The Everyman) would hand out to me (I did a brief stint in Blacks Camping and Leisure as a Saturday job, my extensive knowledge of walks in Wales and The Lake district coming in handy). I worked as a scene painter, design assistant, part time flyman, prop maker … if it was in the theatre I did it – I loved it. And at college I was a rising star, always destined to get a First and totally unaware of how to play the games that went with making it.

What was the most significant employment?
I guess in my early years 7:84 Scotland and The Everyman, both heavily socialist, both promoting theatre with a genuine concern for community, place and politics. I’ve done huge projects since, The Millennium Dome (Two Zones), Theme Park Rides, Huge corporate events for BT, Electrolux, Royal Mail, Tango … but … I’m at heart a young boy sitting in the wings or backstage, hanging out with theatre people and soaking it in.

How did you end up in Hastings?
I blame my wife! 

What was the first play you wrote? 
The first time I seriously sat down to write, it was a film script for a film based on the White Rose Group in Germany (a group of students in 1940s Germany who led a pacifist resistance to the Nazis and who were caught and tried and guillotined). I sent it to David Morrissey who I knew from the Everyman Youth Theatre, though we hadn’t spoken for probably 20 years. I said: “Please tell me I can’t write so I can stop wasting my time.” He wrote back “You can write, don’t stop. PS this is never going to get made it is too epic.” We had recently moved down to Hastings, Robin had been diagnosed as autistic, we were broke, totally. I should have stopped then … but thanks to David, I thought … ‘well one more can’t hurt’.

And when did you first direct a play?
Properly, I’d say Hitelria Pizzeria (now called Bar Barian). Up till then I’d been dabbling, but this is when I actually said, err … that’s my creative decision.

What made you decide to go freelance?
I was sacked from ‘Real Life’ – that’s only half a joke. I worked for a company called In Real Life (creating live events for major brands). After several artistic run-ins they sacked me – annoying as the week before I’d threatened to leave for another job offer (I was head-hunted in those days). I went off and the next day was designing two zones in the Millennium Dome, the Work and Learning Zones. I never really suited the real world of work, the bullshit, the power breakfasts, the bullshit, the ‘training opportunities’, the bullshit, the profit margins the bullshit. I’m poorer now than at almost any point in my life; my choice (sadly not my kids’ choice). But I suffer less bullshit and I’m happy to have that on my grave. Freelancers are misunderstood in the UK, it’s bloody hard and the safety net is getting smaller and smaller, but compared to listening to some suited idiot, metaphorically poking me in the chest and explaining some new corporate bollocks … I’ll take the scraping by.

How were you able to do this as well as pay the bills?
I can’t. Ask my friends and family. Everyone seems to think that as an artist I’m well up for ‘showcasing my work’. Well sadly, the garage, the grocer, the plumber all seem to want cash and not the opportunity to showcase their talents … I’ll be honest, I should stop now! It makes no financial sense at all, but I get by and people have been hugely supportive. We beg, borrow, steal (only from the rich) and live hoping that we don’t need to fix anything expensive or buy a new-to-me car. I genuinely want the respect of my peers for what I do … but cash wouldn’t go amiss … but the price I pay for this lifestyle is actually a harder one on my kids, than me.

What do you think about the theatre scene in Hastings?
Challenging. We lack a space of our own, somewhere we can develop work which can be marketed outside of Hastings and we lack a touring space for unconventional theatre, small scale touring. There is room for optimism, lots of theatre talent down here and serious theatre makers who wish to develop professional work. It’s an affordable place to make work, there is talent here to support it, but audiences are small and need committed development, not ad hoc one-off events. We need to think bigger and for me that has meant sadly looking beyond Hastings. At the moment whilst we are homeless, we make our homes where we can find them: we tour, we target festivals, we look elsewhere. Genuinely I’d like to see the council have an arts budget and to see theatre as a major tool in community relations and the development of a voice for Hastings.

What are you doing to try and improve it?
I am setting up a charity, ‘Theatre Network’ with the idea of acting as a focal point for theatre development here but also to try and establish a long-term producing venue owned by theatre makers. We’re currently awaiting a decision from the charities commission and once we have our status confirmed, then we’ll be setting up a forum for the support of local work and also looking for a space, our space.

How was last year for you as an actor/writer/director?
Exciting, but this year more so, I have five shows going to Edinburgh including two world premieres, a commission for a play with music by Rory McLeod for the Widgeon Theatre which will be touring the canal system in 2019/20 and the possibility of a show in Serbia in 2020.

What can theatre offer the youth of Hastings?
A voice. A genuine chance to express ideas, frustrations and dreams. I’d love to do a big theatre project with the youth of Hastings, but to be frank, I have shallow pockets and so far I haven’t met anyone with access to resources that shares the vision of large-scale community theatre projects here in Hastings. I teach for the Pauline Quirke Academy of Performing Arts in Tunbridge Wells and this year we are at the forefront of an education initiative which involves the live filming of shows we can as a resource tool for schools. I am taking nine of their students to Edinburgh with a new show Shadow of the Rose. I wish I was doing this with local youths as well. If Theatre Network gets a venue, a real Youth Theatre with a vision beyond ‘Jazz Hands’ will be part of our commitment.

How do you feel theatre, and the arts in general, enhances the community?
Theatre is quite unlike other art forms, the actors, directors, etc, etc, are nothing without the audience, who are an essential, silent (though not always) partner, in the creation of a work. Essentially we are nothing without the community, the audience. Theatre can also act as a voice for the community, a voice for the voiceless. I’m a huge fan of Dario Fo and Brecht, I am a socialist theatre maker. To me theatre isn’t just an entertainment, it’s a human need: to tell stories, to share, to cry and to laugh together. It’s also where we can shout and challenge the world and, change it.

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” ― Bertolt Brecht.

The community theatre has been destroyed by Thatcher, by the years of austerity, by ‘money matters more than art’ attitudes. The community of Hastings deserves a voice, that challenges them, stands for them, unites and berates them. For me theatre is political, people are political. We live in dangerous times when the enemies we took down rise like zombies from the ashes of the 80s: the far right, misogynists and bigots, the anti-gay. Theatre needs to be at the centre of challenging conventions and ideas and putting a spotlight on to who and what we are, have become, could be.

Keep going!
I am inspired every day; my problem is that I don’t have enough days left on the spinning ball to make the difference I want and I don’t have the financial punch to make most of my dreams come true. I write because it’s a need within me. I put on shows because I promised myself to keep creating and exploring and because even small moments of beauty can make a huge difference in people’s lives. I saw Lindsey Kemps shows night after night because a magic drew me and I was filled with wonder. I watched Ken Campbell in awe. I bought my first ever theatre ticket with my own money to watch The Threepenny Opera at the Everyman Theatre and inside I’ve just wanted to be … in their company. Now I’ll never be a Brecht a Dario Fo, I can’t claim to be anything other than a wannabe – but I wannabe and whilst I do, I will keep writing, creating and I hope making a difference somewhere, to someone.

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Alison Cooper
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