Sam Ward is telling innovative, ambiguous stories on stage.
The theatremaker behind YesYesNoNo on Edinburgh Fringe hit we were promised honey!, which transfers to the Soho Theatre this month.
Hello, and welcome to another issue of The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
This issue features a chat with Sam Ward, the theatremaking brains behind YesYesNoNo. His show we were promised honey! was a hit when it ran in the Paines Plough Roundabout at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and it transfers to the Soho Theatre later this month.
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That’s all for now. A bit more from me at the bottom but first: Sam Ward of YesYesNoNo!
When storyteller Sam Ward took his first show – Five Encounters On A Site Called Craigslist, a work about exactly that – to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, one reviewer labelled him “sleazy” and a “narcissist.”
“Another basically implied that I was a manipulative misogynist,” Ward remembers with a laugh. “I was a bit worried. I didn’t think they reflected what the show was at all. Fortunately, Lyn Gardner came to see it after I flyered her, and gave it a really nice write-up. That’s when things started to turn around.”
Turn around they did. Five Encounters won a Total Theatre Award, toured nationally, and made a name for Ward and his alias-company YesYesNoNo. He followed it with [insert slogan here] in 2018, then the accident did not take place in 2019, then we were promised honey!, which ran to acclaim in the Paines Plough Roundabout in August, and transfers to the Soho Theatre this month. Not bad for a sleazy narcissist.
All four productions showcase Ward’s remarkable, by now recognisable approach to theatre. They use direct address storytelling, often in the second person. They play with ambiguity and honesty, liveness and unpredictability, distance and disruption. They often integrate audience interaction in interesting, exciting ways, too.
In we were promised honey!, for example, Ward invites spectators to perform scenes from their own futures – years, decades, centuries, millennia into the future – and poignantly interweaves them with the sad story of Richard Russell, a 29-year-old American who stole an aeroplane from Seattle Airport in 2018, and flew it for an hour, performing several tricks along the way. It was, I wrote in my review for The Stage, a “thoughtful, philosophical” show addressing humanity’s “increasingly bleak future.”
“I used to call the shows we make ‘live art’, but I don’t think that is really true,” Ward reflects. “Now, I tend to say that we sit on the more experimental end of theatre and storytelling. Storytelling, that is what I increasingly come back to. Stories, told straightforwardly, can have a real sense of scope and space, and can accrue all sorts of associations and ambiguities in an audience’s minds.”
“Personally, the fringe was quite tricky for me,” Ward continues. “My show was on at 10am, so I would wake up at 5am in panic mode every day. That was exhausting. Professionally, though, I was really happy. I could see it having an impact with people, and it is the first time I’ve really felt like doors were being opened to me that haven’t been opened before.”
“Storytelling, that is what I increasingly come back to. Stories, told straightforwardly, can have a real sense of scope…”
Born in 1994, Ward grew up in Salisbury. He was involved with Stage 65, Salisbury Playhouse’s Youth Theatre, then started a theatre company with friends when in sixth form. “We put on Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock,” Ward remembers. “I knew then that I wanted to work in theatre somehow. I knew then that theatre was where I was happiest.”
Ward went on to study Theology at the University of Oxford – he was a contemporary of the playwright Nathan Ellis, the director Thomas Bailey, and House Of The Dragon star Emma D’Arcy – and immersed himself in the theatre scene there. After graduating, he moved to London to study for an MFA in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck, and was inspired by innovative, experimental theatre he started seeing.
“When I left Oxford, I thought I wanted to direct plays,” Ward says. “Then I moved to London, and I saw a lot of work that I’d never encountered before. Barrel Organ Theatre. Made In China. Kim Noble. Jamie Wood. In Salisbury, all the shows I saw were pretty traditional plays. These artists made me realise that there was a whole other world of ambiguity and audience participation to play around in.”
Ward met the producer Rhian Davies – the other half of YesYesNoNo – then moved to Manchester in 2016 and started making shows. 2017’s Five Encounters was a “very, very autobiographical” solo show about Ward exploring his own sexuality. 2018’s [insert slogan here] was another solo show about advertising and desire. 2019’s the accident did not take place was a Forced Entertainment-ish exercise in repetition and truth-finding, and the first show that Ward himself did not perform in, although last week’s interviewee Emma Clark did.
Simultaneously, Ward and Davies devised some workshops – on Making Autobiographical Theatre, on Audience Participation, and on Big Images From Big Ideas, all distinct features of YesYesNoNo’s work – and began developing the engagement arm of their company, something they is still pursuing post-pandemic. Covid-19 scuppered a new show, Code Silver Code Silver, and saw Ward return to London and start writing plays, too: Everything I’m Thinking All of the Time was shortlisted for the Verity Bargate Award this year.
“I think there was a generation of theatremakers that were interested in making purposefully low-fi shows about connectivity and communal experience,” Ward reflects. “I think I – and other theatremakers like emma + pj and Nat Norland – are going in completely the other direction. I think we want to make visually spectacular shows that disrupt and interrogate that relationship with the audience.”
What do you want to do?
I would love to have the reputation, the infrastructure and the funding and the time to make work like Gob Squad does, or Tim Crouch does, or the Spanish company Agrupación Señor Serrano does. I want to think for a year, then make for a year, and I want to make big, playful, conceptual shows, and tour them internationally.
I’m happiest when I’m in a room, devising work with other theatremakers, puzzling things out. I’d just like to be in a position where I can do that all the time.
What support do you need to get there?
I would like to see the theatre industry take risks and invest in new artists and companies, and I would like to see those artists and companies challenge themselves to be curious and be better. I’d like to see venues relinquish their reliance on writers and directors and incorporate companies and collaborative makers more. I think the whole thing feels quite stagnant at the moment.
How can people find out more about you?
People can come and see we were promised honey! at the Soho Theatre from November 22. It is doing a national tour next year, too, but the dates and venues haven’t been announced yet. There are a couple of other projects coming up, too, so look out for those announcements as well.
That’s it for now. Next week’s issue will feature Flo O’Mahoney of Zoo Co., whose show Perfect Show For Rachel opens at the Barbican later this month. If you want to suggest someone for a future issue, just shout, as I am always looking for interesting interviewees.
One final reminder about the various ways you can support this newsletter: you can share it with anyone you think might be interested, you can become a paid subscriber using the button at the top, or you can get in touch with me about using it for promotional purposes.
That’s all. Thanks for reading. If you want to get in touch for any reason, just reply to this email or contact me via Twitter - I’m @FergusMorgan. See you in a week!