East London born Philip Ridley has had a varied and prolific career. Trained at St Martin’s College, he’s won multiple awards for writing and or directing both plays and films. He’s also written for children and is a successful photographer, songwriter and artist. Since his first play, The Pitchfork Disney launched twenty-five years ago, his work has at times been considered shocking and controversial by some and has divided critics. Chris Bridges spoke to him just prior to the debut of his new play, Karagula.
CB: I’ve seen quite a few of your plays over the years and this feels like a departure from the previous urban dramas. What inspired the genre of this play?
PR: Well it’s always tricky to know where something starts. I don’t think there’s a big eureka moment. You never know what you’re doing in the process of doing it. Sometimes I’m half way or two thirds through something before I realize “oh I’m involved in a new project” That’s what it is I’m working on. So I suppose lots of bit and pieces were flying around and it might just be the fact that for the past few plays things have been fairly minimalist. They’ve been fairly stripped back. There’s been one of two actors or a few actors on a bare stage with no props, no sound effects, no lighting cues, no music, nothing. It’s all been stripped back to the minimum, so perhaps there was something brewing that I was unaware of that was going to throw me into a different direction and boy, have I… this is a different direction! This is over 70 speaking parts.
CB: I’ve read articles that label you as an experimentalist in theatre form and this sounds like a big experiment with the gender mix, the ethnicity, and the secret location.
PR: I always want to scare myself a little and do new things. I don’t want to feel that I’m repeating myself or going down a path that I’ve been down before so I deliberately throw myself out of my comfort zone as soon as I feel safe anywhere I get out of it.
What can I say about the secret location? Well the decision to do that evolved. It wasn’t a masterpaln that we had. By mutual consent of all of us concerned we knew that we wanted to find a different kind of space for this and most of the theaters with before wasn’t going to work for this. We needed somewhere that gave us a different space. It wasn’t going to work is a proscenium arch space. The play is too wild for that. We needed more entrance and exit points for people to come on and surprise people. The longer we were deciding where to do it, the more the idea grew. The play is a bit of mystery thriller in itself, so why don’t we make the whole experience a bit of a mystery thriller and say it’s going to be done in a secret location. Everyone got quite excited by that idea.
I’ve always been pretty passionate about the idea of when you go to see a stage play the whole evening, the whole process of going should be theatrical, the moment you leave your front door you should be on a journey towards something. I think this helps contribute to that.
CB: You wrote about a homophobic murder in 2000 in Vincent River. Do you think that we’ve become too complacent about where we are in society now?
PR: I say this to young people the whole time. Don’t be complacent about where we are because it can all snap back in our face very quickly. I still get little homophobic comments that people don’t even register as being homophobic.
You find it a lot in the lexicon. The words people use to describe certain things. We’re suppose to be living in these liberal times but I saw on the internet, this thing came up, “15 Famous Celebrities that still haven’t admitted to being gay…” The choice of the word “admitted” you know it’s a hair’s breath away from “confess”.
That kind of lingers on. It’s still there. I agree there’s certain areas where that if you’re with your boyfriend perhaps you’re not now that intimidated about or scared or that worried about holding hands or kissing as you walk down the street, but believe me there’s still lots of areas where you are… You kind of instinctively find yourself unlocking your hands with your lover, without even knowing it. There’s still a long way we’ve got to go and we’ve got to be fighting it at every level. I used to go on gay pride marches where people on the pavement used to spit in your face as you walked past – yes we’ve moved on from that, but it’s by no means a battle won. It’s a battle in progress.
CB: In the past critics have sometimes counted the number of walkouts from the audiences in your plays…
PR: I’ve never written anything with the aim of shocking anyone. As if I sit down at my desk and think, well it’s about time that I wrote something that’s going to make people walk out of my stage play. All I’ve done right from the beginning is be honest with the journey that I’m on with a play. I haven’t censored it. I’ve tried to get rid of the policeman in my head and be completely honest about how I see life and how I see the world and what I think human nature is. Now if that ends, when it’s presented to an audience with disturbing them or shocking them, I can’t help that. I’ve just been honest.
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Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.