Roy Williams (RW): Uhh my name is Roy Williams. I’m a playwright, been writing plays and f- television film for about coming on 21 years
AP: And how did you feel when you when you landed the OBE? [Order of the British Empire]
RW: Umm surprised
RW: umm I mean I got the letter and then then it it always looks very un- it it, when you get a letter it’s it’s very unflattering. It doesn’t look like it’s come from Downing Street at all. It looks more like a tax bill than it does about than it does anything else and when you open it you think “oh okay” and no I was I was stunned. I never thought that that something like that would ever happen to me umm. I did have a conversation about about myself whether I should accept it or not.
RW: Because the whole you know
AP: Yes. The British Empire
RW: The British Empire
RW: that that phrase and umm you know are you sucking up to the establishment and such and such. Umm but I came away thinking “well no I’m not.” I ha- it hasn’t changed me. I’m still I’m still you know the same writer I was before I got the thing.
AP: But it’s but it’s an it’s an honour actually
RW: Yeah, yeah
AP: It is an honour, you’re being acknowledged
AP: and also I think I think they are positive role models
AP: In the arts but actually we are being honoured in this way.
RW: Yes, exactly
AP: So I think I think for those reasons it’s working and we need that shift right now
RW: I I I would agree. I would agree. I think we still we still need that shift. I feel anyone still thinks “oh well you know we we we’ve progressed, we’ve gotten better” is umm slightly deluded. If anything I think we’ve sometimes we’ve rev- we’ve reverted. You know I think there’s still more to be done… and me sort of just you know spending the day at Buckingham Palace, speaking to the queen for 20 seconds is gonna help so be it.
AP: Yeah. It’s been a little while so I’m going to take you back.
RW: Okay, yeah do that
AP: a little bit if that’s okay? So what I think what would be great if we know from you, what was the first time you met Spare Tyre?
RW: It was in 1987. 30 years ago, umm scary. Umm I was a member of the Cockpit Youth Theatre and umm they told us that umm the the theatre, via ILEA [Inner London Education Authority] got money to do a project with umm professional theatre company called Spare Tyre. Because of … Spare Tyre and the work they did at the time very sort of feminist theatre umm they wanted to do a play about sexism.
AP: Okay. Roughly how old were you then?
RW: I was 19.
AP: 19 so actually people were very young in that group?
RW: yeah yeah I think the average age was you know 18 to 21, yeah.
AP: So so still kind of finding your way
RW: Very much so. Very much sort of finding our way. That’s why that’s the reason why we were all there.
RW: We all had an interest in arts, some in acting some in writing some in directing and umm you know that’s that’s why were at the thea- the youth theatre. We were just you know just finding that out for ourselves and having fun.
AP: And and when Spare Tyre came in and said they wanted to look at umm sexism
AP: How how did you feel or how did your umm fellow youth theatre members feel?
RW: We were excited umm. We just umm we just knew we were excited that it was a you know a a you know professional theatre company. Three women Clair Chapman, Harriet Powell and Katina Noble who were just great and full of life and very funny and full of beans and we just kind of thought “yeah we like these girls we want to work with them.” They had 6 weeks of rehearsals and as I say it was a huge commitment because it was umm 5 days a week, you know, 9 to 5. So we umm we all had to kind of bring stories our own sort of personal stor- personal you know things that may have happened to us or insp- you know things that happened to people we know as well. I remember one scene I did with umm my friend Michael. It was these two young boys at school but really really close. So it was assumed by all the other, everybody else in school they were gay. So it’s just about these two boys trying to sort of define themselves and sort of think “well we’re not gay but we’re we’re but we’re close. Why can’t we why can’t we do that?” There’s one song in particular where all the females of the group got together and sang this really powerful song about umm you know about empowering, these women trying to empower themselves. It came off the back of one of the characters, and the boy I played. I played that guy in in the and he was teased because “oh you got beaten by a girl in a race.” So after the race umm we actually staged the race as wel- on stage actually. We both ran off stage came out, went round and round and back backstage and came back onto the stage again and she beats me by a whisker. And afterwards she comes up to shake, she shakes my hand the character I was playing and I hit her because I couldn’t, the character I played just couldn’t handle being beaten by a girl. She she cries on the shoulder of her of her friend and then that inspires her and the other to get up and sing this really powerful song about empo- you know about women empow- young women empowering themselves. That’s it yeah, “we’ve taken all the blame, we’ve taken all the flack, its time to show our anger, it’s time to fight back, we can we will and we must” I mean it was a real showstopper and it got a rousing applause standing ovation every time when we did it. But during rehearsals I remember it really divided the company and the division was you know fairly obvious it was it was the boys versus the girls because we saw we we we in rehearsals we sat down and we heard that song and it was so powerful and so vivid we felt we were being attacked as boys. We just kind of felt “it’s attacking us, it’s attacking men. You’re saying all men are rubbish, all men are shit and we’re not. We’re here you know we we believe in what what what we’re trying to say in terms of sexism and male identity. Why are you picking on us?” and they said “we’re not picking on you” “but you know that’s how we feel” and umm and it got so bad in rehearsals umm Spare Tyre had to umm stop rehearsals for the day.
RW: and everybody had to get round in a little circle and everybody really just had to be honest and really just say umm exactly what they were feeling because you know because they said “look we can’t go any further until this is resolved” and umm
AP: That’s very powerful
RW: I know yeah!
AP: That’s really powerful theatre actually
RW: Yeah yeah that’s why that’s why I’ve never forgotten it. That’s why I’ve never forgotten that play, that experience
RW: and it’s it’s certainly and it’s it’s it’s it’s stayed with me over the last over you know over the years. It really it really really has umm but but
AP: And that show was called “Fists and Fingernails” is that right?
RW: Fists and Fingernails yeah
AP: Yes, okay (laughs)
RW: Yeah yeah
AP: And you can’t remember any of the songs by any chance can you?
RW: I remember I remember I remember… I remember the theme song “Fists and Fingernails” because that was the opening
RW: umm how did, what was the, I’m not going to sing!
RW: I’m not going to sing! Something like “fists and fingernails girly girls and masculine males, what you see and what’s- and what you seize and what you fails, the best years of our life”
RW: because it was centred around a school
RW: What what what I took away from that was “wow that’s the power of theatre, that’s what… a song, just a song, can do and how it can stoke up these feelings among these umm group of young people” that that had never happened to me before before then.
AP: Tell us about “Rose Bruford”
RW: Umm it was a three year writers course umm started in 92 graduating in 95. I just feel at that time I was umm I was ready to take my writing seriously. I remember at the time the only thing that I had written was umm was a short 45 minute play called uhh “Luke for Gary” and umm I wrote that play, it came off the back of the play I was doing with Spare Tyre “Fists and Fingernails” umm based on the scene that I… that I acted in in the play about the two young boys who are so close that everyone thinks that they’re gay. So I took that took that scene out and and I and and made it longer into a 45 minute piece and that was the only thing that I that was the first play I’d written. The first thing I’d… written. So when I got to umm an interview with umm Rose Bruford you had to submit an example of your writing work and that was all that I had. So I sent that in and that was the play… and then on the strength of them reading that play I got umm I got a place at Rose Brufords.
RW: Did the free writers course. So umm so yeah so it’s so (laughs) Spare Tyre is kind of one of the reasons you know I’m I’m sitting here talking to you.
AP: So it was really pivotal
RW: It was really, it was very pivotal, that’s why I’ve never forgotten it because it was yeah it was because yeah you know because of umm Rose Bruford I got umm my play done at Stratford East but because of umm Theatre Sense but because of Spare Tyre I got into Rose Bruford because I wrote that play because I was so inspired to umm it it… just doing that like doing that show with them just ignited my love for writing
AP: And you did say just a little bit earlier on that actually sometimes it’s okay to be a black writer
AP: and sometimes it’s just okay to be the writer but actually largely in your career do you think people umm respond to you initially just as a as a black writer? Is that what they expect from you?
RW: Yes, yes I do but umm good and bad. Umm I’ve had long conversations about myself with with in in in in that regards you know you know “do I want to be seen as a writer or do I, do I mind being called a black writer” and I’ve come off, where I come out of that is you know umm you know I don’t care what they what they call me as long as they don’t miss out the word writer. Umm I’ve got no problem being labelled as a as a black writer umm but but but that umm I know what that what that comes with. Umm because I I just sometimes feel it’s umm it’s not my it’s not my place to say “I’m not a black writer” I think it’s my place to challenge what they perceive a black writer is.
RW: Umm that I c- that I do come up against but people even people with the best intentions in the world they just can’t help themselves. I don’t know maybe it’s just a human nature thing we we can’t we just can’t help resist putting people in boxes and that’s fine. What I, well it’s not fine but I just think I think then I think it’s down to us the people who are really who who when we feel being placed in the box you do what you can to umm you know kick and punch your way out of that box and say “okay fine, that’s how you see me but I’m gonna challenge your perception of what a black writer is” and that’s what I do. Umm that’s what I I aim to do in in in in my work you know. When I wanna surprise them any chance I get.
AP: So Roy umm how do you think it was important for you to have somewhere to go to when you first started off?
RW: Very important umm I wouldn’t be here tod- sp- speaking to you if there wasn’t any if there wasn’t somewhere like the Cockpit or accomplished such as Spare Tyre to just kind of you know help me you know just you know bring out that that that voice in me because umm I was looking for somewhere even though I wasn’t fully conscious of it or not but I was kinda searching and and lucky for me I I I I found that place in order just to kind of you know just sort of say okay this is me this is what I wanna say about the world I’m living in.
Roy is an award-winning playwright working in theatre, radio and TV. His first acting role was in one our early plays, Fists & Fingernails, a show that addressed issues around gender stereotypes.
Roy spoke to us about the importance theatre and arts in creating opportunities for young people.