Touching The Void Rehearsals Bristol Old Vic. CREDIT Geraint Lewis

Q&A with Tom Morris, the Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic

‘’the future of theatre needs to have more diverse creative teams than white men who sound like BBC news broadcasters from the 1950s’’

On Thursday 25th March, the SU Edge Arts held a Q&A with Tom Morris, the Artistic Director at the Bristol Old Vic. The Q&A was chaired by current SU President, Francesco Masala, and gave students the opportunity to ask Mr Morris about his work in the theatre industry and any advice he had for young directors, actors and creatives.

Morris began the evening by talking about the history behind the Bristol Old Vic and the impact that COVID-19 has had on it. Morris noted that the Bristol Old Vic is the oldest working theatre in the country, and some say it is the oldest in the English speaking world. He also noted that there are three strands of the Bristol Old Vic: plays that they put on stage, their engagement program that works with communities all over Bristol to bring them new creative opportunities, and Bristol Ferment, an artistic development programme which allows people to see whether they’d want to work professionally in a theatre. Despite all the fantastic work that the Bristol Old Vic does in the South West, the theatre’s work has been put on hold as a result of the pandemic, and unfortunately, Morris stated that Bristol Old Vic lost 75% of its income in the last year and would have gone bust without the Cultural Recovery Fund.

One of the first questions was about Morris’ creative process as a director, to which he answered by saying that ‘’the order things happen depends on the project’’ – in the case of ‘Touching the Void’, one of his recent successes, the team were working from the original book and the film as sources, so they started to develop the design of the show from the shape of the narrative – one that starts as a story being told in a pub and then becomes more and more expressionist.

Another student asked Morris what inspires writers to create a story and Morris gave some practical advice to young theatre writers. He stated that some writers are voice-based, which means that they may hear two people talking on a bus or in a pub and they will pick up on something they overheard in the conversation and be inspired from that. This writing practice is common with pure playwrights as they will start with a voice and character and will build a story from that. The process differs for narrative writers, which is what Morris’ work focuses on, as they are adapting stories that already exist for the stage. Morris stated that these writers may ask themselves ‘what is the story I’m trying to tell and how do I make the characters tell it?’, which allows them to build their work around this objective.

A topic of interest during the Q&A was the global pandemic, and a student asked how the type of theatre that people create will change as a result of COVID-19. Morris stated that “there is now an opportunity to think about how things can be different and we need only seize it…even though that is hard to do, as we are constrained by economic realities that we barely understand’. He expanded by saying that this is a chance for theatres to get rid of old habits, include stories and identities that haven’t been shared, and to connect with communities that have not had opportunities in the arts world before. However, he noted that in order for this to happen, we need to restart the economy, as otherwise, there won’t be any money to pay for new theatre and previously untold stories that deserve to be put on stage.

In line with the ideas of increasing representation and diversity, Morris stated that there is a lot of work going on in theatres to make the programmes more representative and one of the first ways to do that is by diversifying the casting and then building the story based on the perspectives of the cast members’ lived experiences. However, that is not sufficient diversity as this approach must expand to the creative and backstage teams. Therefore, it is important to diversify the creative teams, and while this can feel risky if people don’t already have lots of experience, so many creative people haven’t had the chance to take on these roles even though they are so deserving of it. Morris also noted his own privilege within the theatre industry, stating that “the future of theatre needs to have more diverse creative teams than white men who sound like BBC news broadcasters from the 1950s’’.

Additionally, Morris was asked whether he has found any inspiration over the three UK lockdowns. He stated that he has found a lot of inspiration from spending lots of time with his children but that he hasn’t had a lot of time to create something from these ideas, as he has had to balance his creativity with the fatigue of managing a theatre during the pandemic.

Lastly, Morris recommended some theatre that he has been enjoying recently. Firstly, he mentioned ‘Black Matter’, a new song cycle by Giles Terera. And secondly, he recommended ‘Love Letters Straight From Your Heart’ which is taking place on Zoom. 

Thank you very much to Tom Morris for giving the University of Bath a unique insight into the theatre industry and thank you to the SU Arts team for organising such a fantastic event.

To find out more about virtual and in-person events taking place at The Edge, click the following link:

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