Interview: Stewart Laing


Callum Madge talks to the director and designer about his new show, Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Image of Interview: Stewart Laing

Stewart Laing on the set of The Salon Project

Artistic Director of Scottish theatre company Untitled Projects, Stewart Laing is both a director and designer. His new production as a director, Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, opens in Edinburgh’s Summerhall on Thursday the 17th of October. Callum Madge catches up with him before the run.

What can you tell me about the show?

One of the things the show is about is what’s true and what’s not true. Because when you’re dealing with history that’s 25 years old, different people have completely different ideas of what happened. Even if they claim to have been in the same room at the same time, one person’s version of history is completely different from another. Pamela Carter, who’s the writer on the show, I know that one of the things that she’s really interested in is the idea that in general, art is lies. You’re telling a story but in general you tell a lie to tell the truth, that somehow through telling a lie, you tell the truth. I sort of think that’s an interesting idea.

You previously did a show on the philosopher Michael Foucault, do any of his ideas feed into this new show?

No not a lot actually. That show that I did on Foucault was really to do with his biography. At the time I made that show there were three biographies on Foucault and they were very very different. Everybody was saying ‘that one’s rubbish, this one’s the truth’. So it was really to do with the biography, not Foucault’s ideas. I find it very difficult to read his ideas and I find biographies very interesting. This [Paul Bright] is biography. That’s absolutely what we set out to do, to sort of stage a biography. And also in terms of George Anton the actor we’re working with, it’s autobiography, in that he’s worked very closely with Pamela in writing down the script.

What’s it like working with just a solo performer?

It’s great but also there is a big team behind it. The thing that’s in front of the audience is one actor but actually it’s a huge team that made the show. We’ve just been putting together the programme with all the credits and there are like 150 people who worked on the show. It’s a huge enterprise; there’s lots of film, there’s lots of things in the exhibition. It is a lot of people, so I never felt I was just working on a lonely enterprise between George and I. It’s always been a much wider group of people and artists feeding into that.

George Anton in Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner

You trained as a designer, did you have a lot of influence on the exhibition side of the show?

Quite a bit but again I think it’s very collaborative. We worked with two visual artists, Jack Wrigley and Robbie Thomson, who are from Glasgow School of Art and they work with this Glasgow collective called 85A, so it was very collaborative. I have a very visual input into anything I make as a director because I think directing is a very visual art from and I think a lot of directors don’t think about that. I think a lot of the time, theatre directors especially, come to directing as a text based activity and I really think of it as a visual activity that happens to have text in it.

What made you feel confident enough to work with students who didn’t have as much experience as other people in the trade?

They were the people I was excited by. We originally met Jack and Robbie because we were looking for people to do sound design for another show we were doing and we interviewed them as sound designers but then we realised that actually, as artists at GSA they actually had a really wide range of talents. We were excited by them. They were the ones who came into the room and got us excited.

Do you think this stems from you past experiences in teaching?

No, I think I just want to be interested in things. I don’t really care how much experience somebody’s got, I just care whether they’re imaginative. Whether they’ve got good ideas or not. I think if you’re working with somebody whose really imaginative and got good ideas you can support them in the skills that they need. You can put somebody who’s a lot more experienced to work along side them, to make sure the technical side of things is delivered sufficiently. But I think that the other way round, if you’re working with somebody who you think is very technically skilled but not very imaginative, there’s nothing you can do in that situation. There’s nothing you can do to make an unimaginative person imaginative.

You’ve worked on a lot of opera, how is it different from working on theatre?

Opera demands a bit more of a spectacle and usually there’s a lot more money involved in opera. There are a lot more resources available to you to put that spectacle on the stage. The other thing with opera, well certainly the way most people do opera, you can’t pull the thing around. If somebody’s doing an opera they do every single note, there’s no idea of being able to sit down and cut it or rearrange it or put something else into the middle of it. And that’s what I like doing in theatre, just sort of taking things apart and putting them back together again.

Do you think this sort of show would work in larger venues?

No I don’t. I think if you’ve got one person on stage, maybe between 100 and 200 people is the maximum you can play. It’s quite a sort of personal relationship between the actor and the audience [in this show]. I mean he’s really talking to them, there’s not a forth wall divide, so I think a small audience is pretty much built into this show.

This show is playing in two venues in Scotland, would you like to tour it further?

Absolutely. One of the thing’s we’re interested in is whether it will work outside Scotland because an awful lot of the references are Scottish. We have some presenters coming up from England and they’re specifically interested in whether this thing, which certainly on paper looks as though it’s very Scottish, will work in their venues.

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