Mike Kenny in conversation with Kate Hainsworth

Creative types aren’t usually self-effacing. There must be something in the need to communicate which develops an ego raring to be recognised, but Mike Kenny seems very different. He’s full of passion for the work, but isn’t particularly interested in talking about himself. He’s tackled a range of subjects, contexts and scales. His plays span enormous spectacles to intimate studio theatres or school halls. I hear he’s a pleasure to work with, and can well believe it.

In October, to coincide with National Chocolate Week (why haven’t I been told about this before?)  his promenade site-specific piece, ‘Blood and Chocolate’ hits the streets of York, a collaboration with Slung Low, Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal. Designed to pick up on the momentum achieved in the 2012 York mystery play season it involves a community cast of hundreds. Researching ‘Blood and Chocolate’ online I find it is also the title of a young adult romantic werewolf novel. This seems oddly appropriate as Mike is often tagged as a writer of ‘young people’s theatre’.

KH: Do you think of your work as ‘young people’s theatre?

MK: Not really. Young people don’t ever make the decision to come and they never come alone so it’s never just down to them. I’ve been a teacher and I’ve got three kids so I’ve always been pretty closely attuned to kids’ reactions, but ‘for young people’ is more of a marketing shorthand to speak to parents.

In terms of the conversation between stage and audience, there’s never a better time to talk about life’s big things than with those who really need to know about it because they’re close to its beginning. Our culture now is very protective, Disney-fying life for children (and grownups!) which makes it really hard to engage on serious stuff. Of course, the traditional fairy tales are pretty serious: Cinderella explores abuse, abandonment, neglect, loss of identity and survival. These are big things, which come to the fore in folklore because it’s the business of living. We need to sort it out at any age.

If there is a distinction in work for kids or for adults, it’s where you place your focus. Catastrophes happen. Adults want to know why stuff happens. Kids want to know how it works out. Othello takes you into the nightmare of jealousy and why it happens, an adult’s perspective. Winter’s Tale takes you out of the jealous destruction and shows how things end up, more of a younger person’s perspective.

I suppose it’s true that a lot of my work is centred on the journey out not the journey into the black hole. For me that works whatever your age. We are all survivors watching drama, we want to see how things end up.

KH: How does this link to your work on an epic scale?

MK: Whether it’s a mammoth piece or a two hander, I approach it in the same way: I search for the psychological truth, the myth. But there are always frames for your approach. You can’t escape who you are and how that colours the work you make. I’m an old school socialist. I come from the Welsh borders. I’m not going to be preaching capitalism, say. But I’m also susceptible to change. I saw the film of the Railway Children when I was a teenager and couldn’t see the attraction – I was desperate to leave the countryside. Reluctantly I reread the book, and found out about E Nesbit and grew to admire her, and see the politics in the novel and I was hooked. (Mike won an Olivier Award for his adaptation of the novel for the stage in 2011.) In the end it’s a very episodic story, but it concentrates on the individual and personal and that’s what I cling to. Once I found an image for the family being ripped apart by the father’s actions – the set literally separates with him on one side and the mother and children on the other – I had found the heart of the piece.

KH: And does that happen in Blood and Chocolate?

MK: This is about a community at war, and war isn’t a single inciting incident, it’s a series of stories that co-exist at a point in time. It’s a big scale – there are fifty speaking parts (I think) and just as in the mysteries you get a focus for a while on a particular story, a head appears from the crowd like the adulteress condemned to be stoned, before being reabsorbed into the mass. Likewise, in Blood and Chocolate we wanted to zoom into moments in these ongoing stories, focus-pull on certain characters, and people the streets of York with the ghosts of a first world war past. It’s a creepy feeling, but as the city-scape hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years, there’s a sense that we’re watching the actors as ghosts of ghosts.

KH: You seem very settled in York

MK: Yes I like it. I’ve lived in Yorkshire for a long time now and feel very comfortable here. York is a good size for a city. It’s oddly like the town I grew up in that I couldn’t wait to leave because I felt recognised and trapped. Now I get recognised and it feels good.

KH: Will the streets be cleared for this performance?

MK: No. This is very much Slung Low’s methods of working, nothing is closed to the public, and the person in the street becomes part of the palette of the show.

KH: What has been the process of realising this project?

MK: It’s hard to keep a thing this size in your head. Alan (director, Alan Lane) would read a script and say ‘you’ve killed this person off already’. The main thing is to keep your nerve and not look down.

Initially it was really driven by Marcus (Romer, Pilot Theatre). He kept us going despite all the hiccups along the way. We were going to float the audience on boats at one point, but that had to be ditched because the river kept flooding. It’s been a long time in development – two years. I started on it before the mysteries (York 2012). I loved the research – it’s been my most luxurious to date. I had access to the Baltic Institute in York University. It’s full of such precious things you can only use a pencil, and things get brought out of storage to you, and really quiet and cold like being in church.

Helen Cadbury who’s herself a writer and descended from the Cadbury chocolate family, found loads of useful material I wouldn’t otherwise have found.

I had to write very differently for this piece. Usually, I start at the beginning and carry on until I get to the end. Theatre has to work in real time and the drama builds from one moment to the next so if I get stuck, I need to go back to the beginning and follow through. For ‘Blood and Chocolate’ I had masses of material and kept turning over stories and finding more underneath. I built fragments of characters or occasional scenes without knowing how they might fit in or how significant they might be.

I had the image of these chocolate boxes that two members of the Rowntree board sent to the front, privately financed. It was an astonishing gesture. And resonates so ironically in York, a chocolate box kind of a city, but this heritage is really industrial, it’s deeply political.

KH: How about working with real historical events – did you enjoy that?

MK: Yes and no. History gives you some things on a plate – the Quaker values of the confectioners in York gave me conscientious objectors and the drama happening on the home front. The women who entered the factories to fill men’s jobs refused to work alongside these men who wouldn’t fight. I saw the front and York like the two symbols that merge in the Ying and Yang – there’s a dot of the opposite colour in each side. So while York in this play is very female, there are some men who stay behind, and the front is very male, but there’s a nurse there too.

One character I was given from the records, was a mother who lost all four sons in the war. I couldn’t do it to her. I killed off three of her sons but let the fourth survive. It was too cruel. She became the character with big questions in the play.

KH: Is there a narrative through Blood and Chocolate?

MK: Yes, but more of an issue I think. About gender. Women’s history of this period is not as recorded as men’s but their lives were just as changed. Two million women were working during the war who hadn’t before, and were able to get together, whereas before they’d been isolated in service. During the war married women over thirty got the vote. After the war there were ten marriageable women for every man. A massive social change. The chocolate factories were pretty liberal, but when the men came back they moved women back out of these jobs. Only at Christmas and Easter would they employ married women, and then only separately from the spinsters, so they didn’t corrupt them. At the end of the war, only married women whose husband was disabled or dead were allowed to work in the factories, and then it was only as night cleaners. It’s amazing material and makes a tremendous spectacle in the centre of the city.

KH: What about community theatre – do you enjoy it?

MK: I’m loving this moment in theatre. After a long time of keeping professionals and amateurs strictly apart, we discover it’s a false division and that if we stretch ourselves we can produce amazing work together. It’s pure pleasure.

This has come out of hard times because no one can afford to pay for big casts, but also a yearning towards common expression of something. We saw that with the Olympics. We think we’re this grumpy snivelling country of cynics, but then we surprise ourselves and make something positive work, and we get a taste for it –I’m all for it. It’s the urge for real contact. In a world of fast-food and disposables, we get a yen for slow cooking and recycling.

Details of the production: http://www.pilot-theatre.com/?idno=1183