The last of Lee Hall’s screenplay readings at Live Theatre take place this week. As part of the theatre’s partnership with Northumbria University, journalism student, Rosie Willan spoke to the celebrated writer to find out more about the final script in the series: For the End of Time, his long association with Live and his honorary degree from Northumbria.
In 1998, a selection of Lee Hall’s work was read exclusively for Live Theatre audiences. It included Dancer which went on to become Oscar nominated film Billy Elliot, and later an award-winning musical on which he collaborated with Elton John.
His play, The Pitmen Painters premiered at Live Theatre in 2007 went on to enjoy sell out runs at London’s National Theatre, on Broadway and on tour in the UK.
It’s obvious that maintaining a strong relationship with the Newcastle venue he credits so much of his success to is hugely important for the writer, who is now based in London. “My friends are all jealous of the bond I have with Live Theatre,” says Lee, who enjoyed bringing Cooking WIth Elvis back to the venue last year as part of Live’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
“There are very few places like it in the country – it’s certainly my artistic home. I wouldn’t be the writer I am or have had the success I’ve had without it.”
His most recent project with Live has featured a series of readings of screenplays, still in development, on a range of topics from George Orwell to Elton John.
The last of these, which will be read tomorrow and Friday, is based on the true story of a French composer who wrote one of his most famous pieces of music whilst languishing in a German Prisoner of War camp in the 1940s.
“It’s a beautiful story about a group of people coming together to make an extraordinary piece of music in difficult circumstances,” says Lee.
“The audiences in Newcastle really seem to understand my work so having the chance to present these pieces which are still in development and get feedback at this stage is extremely valuable to me as a writer.” Born and bred in Newcastle, Lee feels there is a unique connection here between ordinary, working class people and expression in the arts. T
his could be one reason for his special relationship with audiences in the North East. Like so many great writers, there is a common theme which underpins his work and which makes it so universally appealing.
“The stories are really about underdogs who are trying to find meaning in their life,” he explains. “Just as you don’t have to know about ballet to enjoy Billy Elliot, you don’t have to love classical music to enjoy For the End of Time.
“These things are just metaphors for the character creating something bigger than themselves.”
This passion for creating entirely new work is something which Hall hopes to encourage in others. He is a huge supporter of up-and-coming artistic talent, championing Northumbria graduate Paddy Campbell, who made a startling - and Culture Award winning - full-length debut at Live last year with Wet House, a play set in a hostel for alcoholics.
It will return to Live in September before touring to Hull Truck and Soho Theatre in London.
“For writers who are just finding their voice, it’s important to have institutions like Live Theatre who focus on new work, have years of expertise and such excellent actors,” says Lee, who is a big supported of the partnership between Live and Northumbria, which was established in 2013.
“You couldn’t ask for a better exemplar than Paddy, who is an extremely talented writer. Just as Northumbria benefit from the partnership, new thinking can reinvigorate a working theatre year on year.”
Lee received an honorary degree from Northumbria in 2012 in recognition of his cultural contributions to the city. Returning to his home city to receive the award was, he says, very moving.
“It meant a great deal to me, since no-one in my family has ever been in higher education. The recognition that I had made a contribution shows that if you persevere, you can be heard. If this inspires another kid like me to have a go at writing, then that’s even better.”
So, what advice would Lee give to other aspiring writers hoping to follow in his footsteps?
“Write about what you know and know who you are trying to address with it. For the past 20 years, I’ve tried to have a conversation with my audience – to make them laugh, cry, think.
“The importance of your audience is something I had drummed into me during my time as a pupil at Live Theatre and it’s stayed with me throughout my career. That’s what Live Theatre offers to the North East and Newcastle – an on going relationship with art.”