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James Graham backstage at the 2018 Olivier Awards


James Graham, Playwright

When did you start writing plays? 

15- 20 years ago, just at university first and then I had my first professional play staged in 2005 in London at the Finborough Theatre and I’ve been writing ever since. I’ve had plays in the West End, I’ve got a play coming up this Christmas at the Young Vic, I’m doing musicals, serious plays, political plays, TV and film! I’m very lucky.  

What is it that draws you to telling stories and theatre?  

For me, especially given what’s happened in the past 18 months, theatre is all about the ‘liveness’ and having a sense of community in a room. Sharing the story with a collection of people which is so magical and beautiful when it works. Telling stories on TV, Stage and Screen is how I think we make sense of the world and I feel very lucky to be able to do it. 

For you, what was your journey from theatres closing to theatre’s reopening again?  

I was quite lucky actually, I know loads of friends who were going to be on stage performing or writing that night when theatre’s closed. Their life just completely stopped. I didn’t have anything going on at the time and I was very lucky to have some TV work during lockdown. As a writer you’d think that being on your own, trapped in your house is going to be ideal state for creating, but I found it the complete opposite. I found it really hard to write when there wasn’t that sense of community or the idea that theatre wasn’t going to survive and questioning what else would survive and how it was going to come back. So, it wasn’t the most creative of periods for me even though we were given all that free time, and I felt huge shame and guilt about that in the first instance.  

Tell us about being on Question Time?  

It was freaky and scary, but interesting. I was making the argument for why, unlike any other part of the economy – who could sort of do a version of its work from home or without the world being open,  theatre just couldn’t do that. What makes theatre special is that you have to be in close proximity to the work, so there was just no way one of the oldest  industries in the country was going to survive without government help and some money to get them through. We were having to make that case to politicians and to normal people about why theatre was more in need of help during that time. It felt like a scary argument to make as you don’t imagine anyone is going to be sympathetic to the arts when people were dying and we were worried about the NHS and care workers. I felt nervous about advocating about it publicly. What was really amazing, beautiful and surprising was that we all got very positive support from normal people, I don’t think anyone wanted theatres to close. Even if you don’t go, you recognise the value that is has. So the response from the public was really good.  

Have you seen evidence of things being more positive?

Yes, at least having the conversation is, in itself, positive. Theatre, like any part of the country, suffers from the same flaws and the same unforgivable systematic inequalities, whether that’s race or gender or class or region. Those are all built into the system, and I was as positive as everyone else during the pandemic that coming back, we would be able rebuild without those inequalities in the system. I don’t imagine that we’re necessarily seeing evidence of it yet, as I think things are tough and getting an audience in is very difficult so the programming at the moment is quite safe by producers and buildings, just to convince a mainstream audience to come back. But I think further down the line there will be opportunities given to people and communities that are underrepresented in theatre. I think there’s a really sincere desire from most people at the top of this industry so I’m hoping that we’ll see the benefits from that further down the line. 

How does it feel to be Back On Stage? 

It’s amazing. It’s great, I think we’re still we’re still months away from it being normal, but shows are happening, audiences are coming and enjoying it and new seasons of work are being announced. So, it feels really exciting. I’m going to be in a rehearsal room for the first-time next week in almost two years and just to be working with actors and directors and designers again in a room together, knowing that an audience is going to come and see it in four weeks’ time. It’s thrilling, it’s really exciting. I think artists always probably overstate the significance of their work, but I do think it’s really important at this time, that we find ways to get people together in a physical space and try and make sense of what we’ve all just lived through.