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Interview with Steve Trafford

A new play about the Russian Futurist poet and Bolshevik, Vladimir Mayakovsky, recently toured Britain. CounterBLASTS interviewed the playwright, Steve Trafford.

Cloud in Trousers posterCounterBLASTS : The obvious question to start with is what made you write a play about Mayakovsky?

Steve Trafford: Well to be brutally honest I was wandering around Leeds library one day and I pulled a book of the shelf called "I love" which was an interview with Lili Brik, the woman he lived with in a ménage a trios with her husband Osip Brik. I started reading it and I thought this is an extraordinary story. I knew about Mayakovsky but not in great depth, but this got me reading his poetry further, and the more I read of his work and the more I read about him, and his personal situation: I thought this is the stuff of terrific drama.

And it is a very human story in the middle of what is a very epic story about the revolution, about change, about art in society. It is about what happened to Mayakovsky as an artist but also at its heart there is a very, very passionate and emotional and moving story about three people trying to live out ideas about non-possessive love and all of that, in the midst of the world around them falling apart, and them trying to help stick it back together.

CounterBLASTS : So you came to it more from the personal angle of Mayakovsky as an artist with a troubled personal life rather than from the angle of the politics or his particular take on Futurist poetry?

Steve Trafford: Well I came at it from the politics as well because that is my own background as a writer; I was one of the founding members of Red Ladder, the community touring political theatre company. And I lived through the seventies where all the questions about feminism, about different kinds of relationships and love, and how we should relate to one another across the social divide; all those things were stuff that I had lived through. And to come to Mayakovsky and realise that then, there, in that age, they were actually dealing with similar stuff, but in a very different epoch, that really turned me on.

CounterBLASTS : One of the things I find interesting about where Mayakovsky stands as a futurist poet is that he is inspired by a complete break from the past and this fits in with the change of the revolution; but very similar ideas were being expressed by people like Marinetti in Italy or Wyndham Lewis in England, who were not of the left at all.

Steve Trafford: Yes that's right. Certainly Marinetti's bunch were very sexist, altogether weird and wacky. I think it is a sort of ferment. There are similarities with that and the punk era in the UK. There is some stuff that is very angry, but with some very creative energies bursting out of that situation. The world was perceived by all of those people as being in chaos. And as you say Mayakovsky's own personal journey was from the left into punk poetry; but then further and further and deeper and deeper into the contradictions of being at the heart of a revolution; and the questions of the party and the questions of what your role is as an individual voice; as an artist but also as someone trying to contribute to a huge social change.

CounterBLASTS : You say you come from a socialist background, one of the things that occurs to me reading Mayakovsky is that he started off as a Bolshevik before he became a poet. But his art seems more successful before he became an unofficial poet of the revolution, when he was writing about more personal things; obviously a "cloud in trousers" springs to mind. His art is better, and when he starts making art serve the revolution he loses it a bit. Is that judgement that you would share?

Steve Trafford: Well I think it is the process he went through certainly. He wrote wonderful, lyrical love poetry; beautiful poetry, but also in a very individualistic style, a Futurist style that he was creating. But he was close to the movement of Constructivism in art; to the notion of useful art; to art that should echo the roar of the street; the din of intense production; those sorts of ideas; and should contribute. Not be some indulgence in a bedroom looking at the wallpaper. Those ideas were immensely powerful for him, but at the same time he was drawn in. He said himself "I feel like a machinist with his sleeve caught in the cogs, and it is inevitable and there is no heaven". The process by which he was drawn in was a genuine desire to contribute. Not just writing eulogies to Lenin, which were heartfelt, but also which served to reinforce the state, and he ended up writing posters for the shop GUM, and all sorts of slogans about health and safety. He would have defended them absolutely as constructive art. What the fuck are the rest of you doing? This is not the time for any of you to be indulging yourselves.

CounterBLASTS : At the same time he was very critical of the proletkult?

Steve Trafford: Yeah, absolutely, because that was the other end of the extreme. Because while he is there, trying to contribute constructively through his artistic vision there are people who want to get back to the memoirs of plumbers; and Balalaika musicals and all that folksy art that he felt was deadly reactionary. It was going to go no-where; it was part of the past that was standing in the way of the future. He wanted to smash that as much as he wanted to smash institutional bourgeoisie art; and all the great museum culture that also stood in the way of the future. So he was struggling on two fronts and he was caught between the two; and the proletkult certainly had their knives out for him

CounterBLASTS : So how would you say that these issues affected you as an artist now?  You have said about the seventies when there was a much bigger tradition of political theatre in this country, which is sadly gone.

Steve Trafford: It was smashed. I earn my living and put bread on the table by writing for Television. We are in a very different set of contradictions. Mayakovsky says "All art serves, either as we dream the world can be; or as the world is, contributing to more dust settling on our hopes." You are caught in that trap aren't you? What are you contributing? Attempting through your art to shift and shunt the way in which the world is moving? And artists today I think feel incredibly marginalised by commercial art. In his instance he was being drawn into an authoritarian state that again wanted art that would serve. As he said, "Stalin wants poetry he can brush his teeth with." Stalin didn't want provocative, inspiring, disturbing poetry. And I think our culture is similar. I think it is cynical and it is brutish and it is commercialised; and artists are trapped in those dilemmas.

CounterBLASTS : I haven't yet seen the play. Is the play experimental in form; in the way you are talking about; or is it a relatively conventional theatrical production that is trying to engage with challenging ideas?

Steve Trafford: It is a bit of an expressionistic piece actually; the way that Damian Cruden, who is the artistic director at York has directed it I think is wonderfully magical. It is not a naturalistic piece, and the text is heightened in a poetic way, because it is a play about words; as well as being a play about people. And the set is minimalist, evocative of Malevich, and the design of the period; and the lighting and the atmosphere is very particular. There is also an original musical score by Christopher Madin that I think is terrific. It borrows from that whole feel of the music of the period; of Shostakovich and some of the Futurist musicians. So you have got a kind of real energy, and I think a vision in it that really is expressionistic beyond the natural

CounterBLASTS : You have had a couple of performances, I think in York and Newcastle under Lyme. How has the audience responded.

Steve Trafford: It has been terrific. We had some PhD students from Sheffield University who are studying Russian Literature and culture. And they were knocked out, and that was so inspiring, because they really felt it captured the spirit of the period; and the contradictions of the time for an artist like Mayakovsky. And indeed for men and women addressing the whole question of change; changing yourself internally while the world is being changed externally; and having a part to play in both. So all of those sorts of comments were coming back, which is exactly what you wanted to hear. Yeah, it has been really warmly received and that is great.

CounterBLASTS : One of the reasons I asked is that in the past I have been to the theatre to see Brecht, and you sit there watching the "Caucasian Chalk Circle" or something like that; and you have an audience around you who seem to be entirely middle managers wearing their suits for a night out. And you do wonder how this radical art can reach the audience it was written for. Do you perceive that as a challenge?

Steve Trafford: It has always been a problem. If you go to workers' canteen you are accused of preaching to the converted; put it on in theatres you are accused of playing to the bourgeoisie and the literati and the middle classes. It is part of the contradiction of how and where art serves its own purpose and intention. And you have to accept that, of course, in theatres there are audiences that are not attuned to and looking for radical challenging work. But at the same time they will come and they are challenged. That is the task. That is why we are playing in new writing venues, because it is new writing and new writing is stuff that it is difficult to get on; because theatres cannot afford to put it on. So with new writing you do tend to find audiences that are interested in theatre; and are interested in ideas through theatre. That was my experience of the audiences in York. They were mixed audiences; and there were a lot of young people coming in which was great to see. And feeling that these are interesting questions, these questions about sex and sexual relationships, because of course they are the same questions now about feeling passionately jealous and possessive. But here are a bunch people actually taking about it, and trying to organise it, ideologically, culturally, psychologically, not just kind of murdering each other because of the emotional passion that it evokes. So what can we say - the revolution is not happening anyway is it?

CounterBLASTS : I also wonder if you feel this is a bit of a false polarisation. You don't only find working class or radical people in factory canteens, even if there are any factories in your area any more. Similarly perhaps the university educated, theatre going audience are also likely to be trade unionists. They may be office workers, or teachers or in the health service, or whatever? It is a changed world isn't it, even from the seventies?

Steve Trafford: That is right. You never know who is out there, and you can't do a social analysis of who has come along. All you can hope for is to build audiences through coming back to venues and working with those venues creating an audience for the kind of work that has got ideas in it; that is not just entertainment and escapism. For me that is what we are attempting to do. How successful we are, I don't know, how can you judge it? The world isn't going to turn just because we put a play on, or write a poem.

CounterBLASTS : But also things have got to be judged in their own artistic terms, don't they? And there is a question to what degree it affects the direction of art. You are talking about new writing, but equally you say you earn your crust with less challenging writing for the TV. So how do you see the situation now for people who are trying to write creative and challenging work? How difficult is it to find funding and get those productions in front of an audience?

Steve Trafford: I think it is a difficult situation; and more resources ought to be put in this direction. And the institutions that are offering up that money are impenetrable to a lot of people. And I think what is great about what is happening in York is that they are opening the studio for new writing, and taking a whole range of different sort of plays, some by writers like me, but also by young writers. So there are niches being created, but they are small and they are few and far between. In the seventies it was a different atmosphere. You just did it, and you got in a van and you went out and you did it in a pub, or a club or in the street, or wherever. And you got your audience, because you knew who your audience were in some ways because of the location in which you took the play. Putting on a play in a theatre, as you say, you don't know who your audience is, but you can build those audiences. There aren't enough resources available, particularly for young writers to make a break through, but the more work of the kind we are trying to do is given a space, then the more that cultural tradition can become part of the mainstream funding that at the moment is being dissipated into directions that I don't think it ought to be.

CounterBLASTS : I think that is a good point, because you build a sort of specific weight or a cultural direction by doing things that are challenging. People need to say I don't care if it doesn't make any sense I am going to do it anyway. If nobody does that then you create no new art, and go in no new directions.

Steve Trafford: That is right. Everything is filtered. You may as well put yourself in a museum. And say this is the way it is and I'll just write anything that I will get paid for. But there is, and has always been, the challenging edge of theatre and other art forms, but they are always on the margin. They are always banging on the door and not necessarily inside very easily.

CounterBLASTS : So how is this play funded then?

Steve Trafford: Whey hay! We are funded by the National Lottery! We formed ourselves into a company. All that means is that I as a writer, and Elizabeth as an actress have to create our own work, and so we have to go to the Arts Council and say: "We have got a play. We have written it. We have made it. We want you, the lottery fund, to put up money for us to do it." And you have to jump through a lot of hoops for them, administratively. Can you handle the money, have you got the tools, will theatres take you? But you have to do it yourself, and then the lottery fund will give you money to tour a show around regional theatres. And we had the good fortune to also show the play to Damian Cruden at York and he said "This is a terrific play and I think we have got to do it". So we had a double hit, a studio theatre set up to promote new writing took on the play, at the same time  we could tour it by going to the National Lottery. There is money there at the National Lottery but you really have to go through all this administrative palaver and malarkey to get to it. So artists have to turn themselves into fucking administrators or accountants, and all this other stuff; which of course excludes a lot of people, who don't feel happy and have no skill in doing that.

CounterBLASTS : It is a sort of legacy of the Thatcher revolution isn't it? People are only judged in their ability to do the books, and art is judged on how much it sells for or how many people will pay to go and see it, not on how much they enjoyed it or were provoked by it while they were there.

Steve Trafford: That is right. And you have to do all the accounting that they can pick over the bones of, before they will give you a penny. So you have accountants and administrators deciding what should be funded for regional theatres.

CounterBLASTS : Despite all those obstacles you come over as optimistic. You have beaten the system and got some good work out there.

Steve Trafford: Yes, you get knocked back, and you go again. And you write another play and try again. And you say to them, you are supposed to be funding new work, provocative work, challenging work, not brass bands, not light entertainment. This is what you are supposed to be doing, we want to do it, give us the money. It is the same argument that took place in the seventies. All those theatre companies didn't come out of the ether; they were fought for in that kind of way. By banging down the door of the Arts Council and saying "Give us the Money, don't waste it on so much on the other crap that is over bloated already. Like the RSC or the Opera House."

CounterBLASTS : This actually does tie back to Mayakovsky doesn't it?  Mayakovsky was saying that art should be useful, and then the dramatic irony is that he was both personally and artistically defeated by Stalin. Who was also saying art should be useful. It should serve what I want not what you want.

Steve Trafford: That is exactly right. It should be utilitarian in the terms of the state. And Mayakovsky did get himself trapped in that dilemma but actually saw that he was trapped in that dilemma and stepped out. His suicide was basically a withdrawal into himself. And the dreams that he still hung on to about what the future could be. His poetry is wonderful, some of the things he said. Love is the heart of everything; that drove all his belief; that ideas are never enough; that Marxism, economic analysis. Yes of course, we understand the need for that, but if you are not driven by love then you are driving no-where. And of course people like Stalin were not driven by love, they were driven by all sorts of other desires. But not, definitely not the kind of impassioned desire that Mayakovsky had.

CounterBLASTS : I don't think we are going to find a better point to finish the interview than that, do you Steve?

Steve Trafford: No. He was a wonderful man. He said this wonderful thing about how he would end up in a lunatic asylum because he suffered from hallucinations that he could see the day coming when the space ships of the commune would hurtle out to the moon and the stars and teach them that "we" can be as tender a word as "me". That is just wonderful stuff; that the collective is as beautiful as the individual. He wrote great poetry, and he took the exit door rather than face the horror of what was happening.

 

January 2005

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