Alistair Wilkinson - writer, director and producer - wants to reintroduce themself.
The founder of collaborative company WoLab is keen to make work about their own experiences.
Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
Each issue features an interview with an exciting, emerging theatremaker - and gives them a chance to be explicit about where they want to go and what help they need to get there. Maybe you, reader, can give it to them, or put them in touch with someone who can.
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Alistair Wilkinson is trying to be a bit more selfish.
For years – as creative director of collaborative company WoLab, as an associate artist with the National Youth Theatre, and as head of artist development at The Old Vic – they have worked to support other emerging theatremakers, running countless workshops, assisting with innumerable funding applications, and raising over £1.75 million. Now, they want to focus on their own work.
“Lots of buildings and lots of companies know me, but they know me as a producer and as a dramaturg and as someone that supports other artists,” Wilkinson says. “My task now is to reintroduce myself as a writer and a director, as well.”
Born and raised in Manchester, Wilkinson first fell in love with performance through a community theatre project they were involved with when they were young. They fell out of love with it as a teenager – “I didn’t really like my drama teacher, so I did GCSE PE instead,” they remember – then back in again thanks to an inspirational experience on a summer camp. Three years at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama studying Drama, Applied Theatre and Education followed, during which Wilkinson had a particularly tough time.
“I never realised how poor I was until I came to London,” they explain. “All of a sudden, you can’t afford a pint, and you realise that you’re actually a bit different from most people there. I started self-medicating, and went on this mad journey of addiction, homelessness, sex work, and queer discovery, all while trying to hold down a degree. I realised I didn’t know what I was doing.”
It was while working on a placement at the National Youth Theatre during their third year that Wilkinson found their forte. “I’m quite sensitive to people’s needs, and I discovered that I am really good at pastorally supporting people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” they say. “I am good at working with people who have never been given a shot but are so bloody gifted.”
“My default has been to think about what other people need, rather than what I need, but I am trying to find a better balance…”
Wilkinson graduated from Central in 2015, spent one year studying for an MA in Text and Performance run jointly by RADA and Birkbeck, and, in 2017, founded WoLab, the company they co-run with Kaleya Baxe (who recently directed Martha Watson Allpress’ Patricia Gets Ready). It is not a theatre company in the traditional sense, explains Wilkinson, but a “working laboratory” for the development of artists from diverse backgrounds, without an emphasis on end-product.
“This industry is so results-driven and I think that is damaging,” Wilkinson continues. “Taking your time, developing your work, and expanding your imagination can be much healthier and more rewarding in the long run, and it is a way of taking power back as an artist. WoLab puts a real emphasis on not worrying about the end goal.”
WoLab’s success led Wilkinson to a range of other work. They became a trustee of Boundless Theatre in 2019. In 2020, they became The Old Vic’s head of artist development – a role they left earlier this year when they realised they were “just not the right person for that job anymore.” In April they were awarded a £9000 Developing Your Creative Practice Award from the Arts Council, and in October they were made one of the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme’s five “connect artists”.
Wilkinson now lives in East London and, after so long supporting other artists’ development, is keen to make work for themself again. They have done so before – Man-Cub was a semi-autobiographical, dance-led, devised show that had several acclaimed London runs in 2017, and was the original spark behind WoLab – but it has rarely been a priority.
“My default has been to think about what other people need, rather than what I need, but I am trying to find a better balance,” they say. “I get a lot out of helping other people, I really do, and I will continue to do that. But I am not just a producer, and a facilitator, and a mentor. I am a director and I am a writer, too, and I want to focus on that side of things more.”
What do you want to do?
I want to make work about my own lived experience. I want to make work about addiction, and sex, and intimacy, and queer identity, and working-class identity. I want to make work for theatre and other mediums. Ultimately, I want to make a living as an artist.
What support do you need to get there?
As a director, I would like a full, four-week run of a show, as I have never had that. As a writer, I would like someone to give me a real boot camp in structure and form, as I’ve never had that either. And as a producer, I’m feeling okay. I don’t think I need anything as a producer. I’m enjoying the journey I’m on.
How can people find out more about you?
There are lots of projects coming up. Eng-er-land is a super topical one-woman play about racism and sexism in football, written and performed by Hannah Kumari, which I am producing with WoLab. It’s going on a 16-venue tour next year.
Screwdriver is a one-woman show by Eve Cowley and Elin Schofield, which is going into a three-week R&D in Sheffield in January. In The Net is a play by Misha Levkov, which is having a London run next year and then transferring to New York. A Nightmare Is Witchwork is a piece by Billie Collins, which is supported by City Of London School for Girls. That’s all as a producer.
I am writing a short film called Ostrich, which is directed by Emily Aboud and supported by Shoreditch Town Hall. And I am directing Tiger, which is a solo show about mental health written and performed by Tom Kelsey that was originally supposed to be at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. We are still working out what to do with that.
People can look out for all of that. I’m currently developing a website, which should be live soon. And, in the meantime, they can look at WoLab’s website, which has a lot of my energy, my ethos, and my spirit in it.
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