Tyrone Huggins Interview

Essay Interviews  
Tyrone Huggins

Tyrone was a founder member of the revered experimentalists Impact Theatre Co-Operative. He has subsequently mixed performing in new plays at the RSC, National Theatre and most of the main regional theatres with working for much more independent companies often on devised projects. He has been commissioned to write thirteen plays and a number of productions have been staged under his own name. Alongside this hectic 40 year freelance career he has actively worked to promote the diversity of performance (both what is made and who makes it) including taking positions on numerous boards.

Tyrone is currently Chair of Friction Arts and this summer (2019) he is in Edinburgh performing To Move In Time, a one-man-show made with Forced Entertainment and written for him by Tim Etchells.

He works from a base in Birmingham, where he was born and brought up, We feel more people should hear his story.

You’re from Birmingham aren’t you?

I lived with my family in Nechells until a programme for clearing the back-to-back housing moved everyone out. We came here to Bordesley Green and where we used to live is now all dual carriageways and light industrial units.

I went to Duddeston Manor School, which is now Heartlands Academy. The school was only two or three years old when I started, it was a rare example of a Bilateral School that mixed a selective grammar school intake with a non-selective intake.

An English teacher, Peter Kirby, at Duddeston was highly influential. He would stage three plays per year: a Christmas show, something serious in the spring term and then a musical in the summer. By the time I left I’d done about twenty plays in school plus plays with Birmingham Youth Theatre and at St. Peter’s Teacher Training College. I’d already decided I wanted to become an actor.

A kid from the year above me took most of the lead roles and went off to drama school. When I saw him next he’d become all ‘weird’. I thought he’d become a ‘soft southerner’ and I didn’t want that to happen to me so I went north.

You gained a degree in metallurgy at the University of Leeds?

Metallurgy made sense because I’d worked in the holidays with my father who was a contractor working at the Leyland car plant in Longbridge. His firm Down & Francis worked all around the site and working with him I learnt to weld and drive a tractor, that sort of thing; so when I went on an open day to Aston University and saw that Metallurgy Department it appealed to me.

Has your degree proved useful?

Yes. It’s an applied science, you do pure maths, mechanics, chemistry, engineering, crystallography all that sort of stuff which then has to be applied to make metallurgy make sense. That was my foundation, I used the structured thinking that metallurgy encourages, which was the biggest thing that came out of it.

When we formed the company [Impact Theatre Cooperative] no one else had those kind of practical skills, so I was wiring up lights and sound and building sets. There were the primary creators Pete [Brooks] or Graeme [Miller] and they’d have the big ideas and I’d be in the next wave of creativity, able to take those ideas and translate them into the real world, make them happen.

Tell me more about Impact.

When I arrived in Leeds I joined the Drama Society of course. Hugo Burnham [drummer in the band Gang of Four], had seen Barrie Keeffe’s Abide With Me in London and wanted to play the main role. Hugo gave me a part in it, Pete directed and cast Graeme. It went to the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF) where it did well and got taken to the Edinburgh Fringe as part of the National Student Theatre Company. There’s a picture from the show on the on the cover of the NSDF 50th anniversary book Raw Talent.

Following that Pete was invited to work with [playwright] Stephen Jeffreys and the money we made off those two productions was the first investment in the company. That was the end of my second year of university, so I stepped out to do my final year. Graeme was supposed to go to Spain for a year as part of his degree but he kept putting it off and ended up never going.

In the year I was finishing off my degree Impact did a kids’ show set in an inflatable, a big plastic inflatable with loads of kids inside and candles with occasionally a fan re-inflating it all. Looking back on it now it was so dangerous!

Nasser Memarzia had joined the company, he was from Iran (this was at the time of the revolution) and Claire [Macdonald] had come on board for the Stephen Jeffreys show (Like Dolls or Angels) as had Leslie Stiles and maybe a couple of other people. Then as it went into the second year, Richard [Hawley (currently playing Johnny Connor in Coronation Street)] came on board as a performer. Richard may have studied drama, he and I were the only ones with real acting backgrounds. We would improvise our text. I’d be rigging the lights in a white boiler suit with my costume on underneath, I’d work up until the last minute on the lights and then strip off the boiler suit and get on stage.

In those days at university there was a thing called ‘the milk round’ in which companies looking to recruit graduates would tour universities in a form of careers fair. My lecturers tried persuading me to attend but I didn’t want to go. I thought I may be tempted in if I saw the money I could be earning. I rejoined the company once I’d graduated and we did an adaptation of Ice, a novel by Anna Kavan.

Were you under any pressure from your family?

No, I’d managed to subvert that by going away to study metallurgy. I spoke to my family once or twice a year. In the first year I came back in the holidays but not after that. I have five brothers in England, one older than me and the others were doing things like apprenticeships.

My brother Grantley wanted to be an artist, but where I never listened to my teacher’s advice he did and they told him it was unrealistic. He got a job but didn’t like it. Three or four years later he did a foundation in art and then went on to be a graphic designer.

Arvid wanted to be a musician and was advised to join the army where he got into the Staffordshire Regiment band so we’ve all been working it out in our own ways.

Your CV shows you almost always work on first productions of new plays; is this a legacy of your devising heritage?

When Impact left Leeds to go south to London I wanted to say up north, so my connection with the company became much more technical. Without Impact I joined Otto, an actors cooperative agency based in Sheffield and started to work in the mainstream, where the actor’s job was much more ‘remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture’. I balanced this by starting to write.

In 1987, when all my tools were stolen out of the back of my car I took that as a sign to give up technical work. It shoved me further into playwriting. I’d also started to see how, as a black actor, I was being asked to play Africans or Americans or minor roles in classical texts. I thought ‘there’s a structural thing going on here’. I’d gone for an audition at the RSC, I had three jobs on offer but held them to see how it went with the RSC.

The audition process was terrible. I got herded on stage by an ASM and told to do my thing, a few minutes and that was it, there was no discussion about the part, no chance to talk to anyone. On the way out I met a friend, Ellie Haddington and we both said “what the hell was that? We were treated like cattle!” Then they kept us waiting for an answer and I had to decide whether to accept these other jobs, which I did. So when I got offered the part of Ariel I turned it down. I got a chiding from RSC for that but I’d had to choose. I thought ‘I’m not going to put up with this shit’. I got a letter a couple of weeks later apologising. I thought ‘I’m not going to be part of a meat market, a market that is going to consume me as a black actor in a particular kind of way’. I saw black actors go into the RSC thinking it would be the making of them and it wasn’t, it would be for their white contemporaries. At that point I realised there wasn’t a model for a career as a black actor.

I realised that all the classical repertoire, everything written before say the 1950s was created with no conceptualisation of my existence, before this the thought of a thinking black man was regarded as a joke. So I decided I’ll only do stuff from 50s onwards. What came out of that RSC experience was the thinking that Shakespeare wasn’t going to do anything for my career, so why should I do anything for his? I thought I’m going to concentrate on new work. It doesn’t mean I don’t like his plays though!

What work was there by black artists around at that time?

Some black actors I knew had created a group called The Posse whose slogan was ‘There is no justice, just us’. The BB Crew was their female equivalent. They were invited to do some TV but the energy started to go out of it and it couldn’t be sustained. It started to be seen as a novelty thing and the members started decamping to America where there were more opportunities. I saw how this country is very poor at acknowledging black actors here – unless they’ve been acknowledged abroad. I thought we could all go to America but if we all go then who is staying to change things here? So that’s when I started working on infrastructure stuff here, in the mid 90s.

Earlier in the 80’s, back in the Impact days I was in The Fenton pub in Leeds, where the punk bands hung out and I met a teacher who told me how she had managed to get dance on the curriculum at Harehills Middle School. Some boys coming out of there had started their own dance company and she wanted me to help them improve their technical presentation. She wanted to buy tour equipment that the school could pay for but that these boys could also use on tour. So, I went out with them on tour for two weeks improving their lighting and sound. These six young black guys had called themselves Phoenix and things really took off for them, they got swept up by the Arts Council and in 1987 I joined their board.

You’ve been on so many boards I had to draw a table in order to keep track of what you did when, it was only then I realised you’ve never been on more than two at once.

I’ve been on boards and panels for 25 years but I’ve tried to be systematic about it. Early on I realised looking around these boards that everyone else had a salaried income and I was the only one who was freelancer. I was fascinated in the relationship between my time being on the board of a company and the moment I stepped out on stage in front of an audience.

Have you done this within the same company?

I was on the board at The REP, and a Janet Suzman production The Free State ran into trouble when an actor fell ill. I was called on a Friday, could I step in for someone at Monday’s tech? It opened on the Thursday. I remember thinking that was the kind of contribution I could make as a board member that none of the others could!

Tell me more about Phoenix Dance.

I’d just become Chair at Phoenix when I came to The REP; this was strategic. I’d seen 3 or 4 companies where, as soon as it got black leadership the whole momentum would die. It’s about whose dinner parties you don’t get invited to if you’re not in that circle, if you’re not able to handle that social side of it. That’s the thing that causes the disparity of achievement. Graham Devlin was the Chair at Phoenix before me and he went on to be Deputy Secretary General of the Arts Council when it was in meltdown. I thought I could learn from being on the board of The REP by seeing how their Chairman operated, I could see how the spheres of influence work. The finance sub-committee is always the one I insist on being on, that’s where things happen.

I was probably one of the only black Chairs of any arts organisation in the country. The second round of lottery money was being dispersed at that time. Phoenix got two million pounds for a building project with Northern Ballet but it was in the Yorkshire Post before we heard anything about it! We hadn’t even made an application! We were the front. There was a project manager who worked for the ballet company but was seconded to us. It was a £12M project and they would have three rehearsal spaces and we would have two.

Up until this point we’d been earning 80% of our income, we were sliding towards 60% and so we were declared as being ‘in crisis’. It was hard to keep control of the management because the Artistic Director was used to a different way of working with a board.

As a company we had been spinning off new companies because the dancers were learning how it all worked, they were seeing those company mechanics in detail because we were so dancer centred and they were on salary, but the Arts Council wanted the model to be an Artistic Director employing dancers as freelancers. I was resisting this model as I felt it was important for the development of black practitioners to have the safety net of full-time employment.

I got called in to see the consultant who had been appointed to ‘sort things out’. I looked around his wood panelled drawing room and thought if they’d given us the consultant’s money we could have done so much with it! Anyway, the dance world wanted ownership of Phoenix and I wasn’t part of the dance world so I wasn’t as biddable as they wanted me to be, I was moved out and over the next six months they disassembled the company and reassembled the one they wanted. The founders, the original guys, had formed a new company called RJC long before all this happened so they could maintain control.

You moved on to the Regional Arts Council Board…

Yes, that was the investigation I was on, trying to see the workings of all the mechanisms you’re in as an artist. At the centre is the Arts Council. They seemed to be able to find a quarter of a million pounds for establishment organisations but struggle to find five grand for others. What was playing in my mind was burnout. I was looking at Stan’s Cafe at the time and I was thinking they’re in danger of burnout, how much difference five thousand pounds would make to them but no one’s going to give it to them. So I raised an issue with Dorothy [Wilson] who was Chair, this issue is what I called ‘fear of the artist’. I perceive it as existing in this city [Birmingham] in a way I didn’t see in Leeds or Manchester or other cities. There they value their grass roots; they don’t lavish a lot of money on them but they do sprinkle some around. Here the approach is “we’ll give it to the big guys who can sprinkle it down”. This city doesn’t trust or believe in the enterprise of artists or their ability to use small amounts of money wisely.

I’ve been registering these points, so it’s been noted. I’ve been building an archive, all the Phoenix stuff and Eclipse stuff and Sustained Theatre stuff.

Tell me about your connection with Eclipse.

I was asked to do a keynote speech for Eclipse. I asked why does it [work by black artists] always have to be small scale? From this emerged a model in which a consortium of three large theatres collaborated with a black producer who moved between the theatres producing middle scale touring theatre. I was asked to mentor the producer Steven Luckie and thought the core job was to stop him giving up! I understood the emotional dysphasia that came with what he was being asked to do. People are put into these jobs and they know something is wrong but they can’t work out why it’s not working, because they can’t see what’s above them, what system they’re in. My job in those moments of despair was to say “this is why this is happening, you can’t give up because giving up would generate the failure narrative”.

When the original Eclipse scheme was coming to an end I was asked to do a report. I wanted to do it as a narrative and the Arts Council said they can’t commission it as such, so Sarah Holmes at New Wolsey Theatre did instead. I created three strands; the first looking at each production; the second looking at different roles: actors, director, executive director, producer, playwright, production people; the third strand was all the poetic image based stuff that exists in the African psyche.

This third strand contained material about the ‘Eclipsed’ who witness all this. I was trying to carry the perspectives of the black population witnessing and experiencing all this.

In the end they managed to publish it without an ISBN number so it’s very difficult to get hold of.

I petitioned for the Eclipse scheme to continue but the Arts Council replied that they can’t keep giving the money at this level because the theatres should be doing it themselves by now. I agreed but asked what if it was a smaller independent company? So that was agreed and Stuart Rogers, Giles Croft, people from the West Yorkshire Playhouse and me had to appoint an Artistic Director and because those other people all had full-time jobs they didn’t have time to work on the detail of it, I ended up doing lots of the work drafting the documents. We put the advert out and I was on the panel and we appointed Dawn [Walton] into that role.

When you feel you are constantly under attack you end up in with bunker thinking in which everyone else is the enemy, a psychosis takes over and this can become the excuse for failing a project. It’s one of the things I look out for in black leadership and it’s why I’ve always stayed just below the headline. I’ve stayed just below, leading from behind and leading by walking about, moving around is how I’ve tried to play my hand. Not being a fixed target.

The biggest issue as a Black British person is having the label of frustration attached to you. If I sense I’m getting frustrated I drop it and move on to something else.

It must have been satisfying to be in the Eclipse production Black Men Walking.

It was, it was a great piece. I’ve always allowed myself to be driven by the aesthetic whilst acknowledging the marketing, the great thing about Black Men Walking was that it brought both elements together well. We were worried while rehearsing, could we make the show match up to the marketing! It worked out really well.

In amongst all this you have been producing your own shows.

In 1987 or ’88 I produced Darkness Into Light, my one man show. I decided I’d do it as a true one man show. I would perform and operate sound and light in performance. It opened it in Theatre in the Mill [in Bradford]. There were lots of different sort of tapes – cassettes and reel-to-reel and lights and an aerial thing with fluorescent tubes slipped into aluminium tubes with holes drilled though so the light came out at all angles and a smoke machine. There was a lantern on a bogie providing back light and when the whole thing twisted round would become front light. I had all this set up for the first performance then, just before we’re due to let the audience in, the venue’s sound system collapsed. Fortunately I just happened to be borrowing the Phoenix van with their sound system (a proper one not the one I’d bought for £200). So the technicians helped me get it out of the van and set it up; we let the audience in late. At the start of the show I play a technician who’s waiting for the actor who never arrives. I’m mixing up fake whisky with burnt sugar and so on. When everyone’s in I go to find the first tape for the show in my pocket and I can’t find it. Somehow in the confusion around the sound system I’d lost the first tape. So I start the show in the middle as that’s the tape that I can find. So then I discover the first tape and have to go back to the front of the show and then jump over the middle bit that I’d already done. This show was supposed to be an hour and twenty but that first performance was an hour and fifty. It played 8 or 9 venues after that, those [performances] were alright!

What were the origins of Sounds In Session?

I’d been commissioned to write a new piece for Contact Theatre who’d produced my play The Carver Chair. The National Theatre Studio had commissioned a play to be workshopped and Paines Plough commissioned me to write a show for a younger audience.

The first one I wrote in my flat in Brixton, the second in Ellie’s house in France and the third was written in Manchester but each play ended up being delivered to someone other than the person who had commissioned it. In each place the commissioner had left and the new person just put the play aside.

Sounds In Session was the Paines Plough piece. Anna Furse [who commissioned it] was more from our world – the performance world – but was running a company that was a literature company and they’d started to get nervous about what she was doing and so she left.

I tried to get [Sounds in Session] off the ground in Birmingham from 1994 for a couple of years with no luck then I moved to London in 1998 and got the money together quite quickly. We put it together with five weeks rehearsing and five weeks touring. Nottingham Playhouse had put some money into a week long workshop with it, this was when Ruth Mackenzie was there in 1996, leading to the production in 1998, in London. It was challenging because I didn’t know what the technology could do at the time, I had to learn the software that was needed but I got a studio engineer and a jazz musician in; pushing an electronic and acoustic musicians together in the centre of the room and we then devised around them, working in an environment of sound.

It worked for audiences but numbers were poor. [On reflection] I thought that there was a visual element missing, so in 2003 I took it out again and added that visual element. This was to do with a character appearing on film in the sound booth window and then the screen morphing into the inside of a computer.

What about The Honey Man?

In 2009 I thought I’ve given myself four years with writing at the forefront of my activities to work on eight plays. I had four plays, three already written and a new one to write which together formed the Inheritance Quartet about Caribbean diaspora. Then there were another four about how the digital world is influencing the way we live today, one of which was The Honey Man. At the end of Year Three of this writing period that show was going into rehearsals in Derby.

Back in 1991 I decided I’d never sign on [the dole] again because it messes with your mind. So by the time The Honey Man was about to go into rehearsal I had re-mortgaged this flat. I had money to get to Derby and back, that was it. I got there for 10 as there was a 10:30 read through for a group of producers. The male actor wasn’t there and his agent couldn’t track him down! By 11:15 the producers are looking to leave and at 11:45 some had drifted away and the Artistic Director said to me “Either you do it Tyrone or we have to cast another actor”. I realised I had to do it, so suddenly I was doing a read through in the afternoon. I knew there were re-writes to do so they put me in a hotel in Derby that night and I started rewriting. I rejigged the play over the weekend, then switched my head over to being an actor. It worked out really well for that rural touring audience. We were doing five shows a week for a six-week tour to village halls on the New Perspectives circuit.

Then there was a question for me of whether it would work with a more urban audience. I started talking to producer Judy [Owen] and Roxana Silbert at The REP who came on board as co-producers in 2014 and in 2015 The Honey Man went out on a national tour. It was a success!

Playwriting is a two-week process. I get food in, I clear my diary, I unplug everything, I don’t wash or shave or anything; for two weeks, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week I have nothing else to do but write a play.

There’s a side of me that’s not that bothered if my plays are not done this lifetime because I’m not writing them for this lifetime. I’m thinking, if I were coming through now as an actor what would be useful? I’ve written seventeen plays and across them all you would have great roles for actors aged 17 to 80 years old, there’s a career path there.

I realised if you were a white actor you could start as a seventeen-year-old in Romeo and Juliet and there’s a pathway for those actors supported by the industry, the critics and directors. There isn’t a pathway of black actors yet, so that’s what I’ve been trying to write. So if you were making Tyrone Huggins your playwright of choice I have parts that could see you right through [laughs].

I noticed in the 90s that the system has a fascination with black suffering, in a black person killing another black person or a black person being abused or suffering, they want to see this on stage but my plays are not about this, they are full of proper characters. My plays look like they are only seventy or eighty per cent finished on the page, but this is to do with my devising background, I’m leaving that gap for the devising, to be discovered in rehearsals.

This is a change of tack: I notice on your Spotlight profile that you are an expert fencer.

Epee fencing came out of a metalwork project at school [Tyrone leaves the room briefly and returns with a sword]. The project was to make a poker for the fire but I thought I could do it as a sword and that would demand more metal working techniques. I got really interested in swords and did a project on their nomenclature and as part of that I decided to learn to fence. I started here in Birmingham and I carried on in Leeds. I was Chair of the university Fencing Club and won Yorkshire Junior Foil silver or bronze. I had the opportunity to train with the GB team but thought I’d better keep on with my degree.

Early on I used to tour with my fencing kit in case I could get some practice in. Occasionally fellow actors would say they fenced and we’d start up but it was only what they’d learnt at drama school for stage fighting and so it never really worked out as a proper contest!

For a while I thought I would write a play based on The Curse of Capistrano, the story that Zorro came from, so I could do the fencing on stage, but in the end I got to fence in People Show #118 instead.

I’m so pleased I asked that question! What’s next for you?

I’m wondering if I come out from behind the parapet? Do I come out and do something with my profile and experience, or have I got time to continue in the underground?

I’ve got involved with Friction [Arts, as Chair of their board] and we’re trying to build an infrastructure that builds on the range of artists and small companies in and around Birmingham to create a critical mass that has enough weight to kick some ass, but we’re talking a five or six year project there.

Aesthetically the next thing is quite a challenge, so do I see if I can get it as big as it could be? I’ve tended to work on the idea that the next thing is the most important thing, but looking back starts to come into play as your energy begins to fall off.

I’d had all my stuff in storage in London then I bought this flat and moved everything here. Having this flat was as cheap as having that storage space in London! So I have been working on the archive material, I’ve been collecting documentation, including the Phoenix and Eclipse archives. This is why I’ve built my new shed, to keep these materials safe.

It’s tempting to do work that is easier and better paid, more comfortable, where they look after you better.

What kind of work’s this?

Black Earth Rising was great. It was the first time I felt I had a character to play on TV. Normally on TV you’re African Dad Number 1 or Londoner or Uncle Whatever, but [Patrice Ganimana] was a proper character. There are black actors with lots of experience who would normally be in line in front of me but I was put in the running because although this character was crucial for the plot, it was a smaller role in terms of screen time. I’ve not done as much TV as those actors I’m in competition with but they haven’t done as much theatre as me!

In the summer I was thinking I need to get myself to London because there are many more opportunities and London gives you a lot more energy. No matter what, the regions are where the cutting edge is aesthetically, there’s a sameness at the sharp end of the London thing, but in terms of status and turnover and self-promotion and marketing you have to be there. I need a London base again.

And of course on Christmas Day and Boxing Day [2018] I’m on Emmerdale. Who knows, maybe my character will become a regular on that!

Interview by James Yarker, Birmingham, 6 December 2018.