A Walk With Kate Tempest: “This idea of going into hostels is blowing my mind”

Posted on: 26 September 2012

Written by: Petia

She's performing her unique blend of spoken word at theatres, slams and festivals around the world. Her first book of poetry has been nominated for a Guardian First Book Award. She's working on a new record with her band Sound of Rum and her first play Wasted, toured the country wowing critics earlier this year. Kate Tempest is charming the world! In the last few months, it feels like you can barely flip a magazine or browse through a culture blog without catching a glimpse of her messy blond curls. Her passport will tell you that she's 26 but make no mistake, this lady is an ancient soul. Kate’s play Brand New Ancients played a sold-out season to standing ovations and rave reviews at the BAC. There is something of the evangelical in her impassioned performance style that hypnotizes audiences and her writing is infused with socially conscious poetry soaked in human empathy. It feels like she is well placed to be writing our new hostel tour show. We’re very excited.

I took a walk with her through Shoreditch last week after she spent two days in research & development (R&D) with some of Cardboard Citizens' Members. It appears that all the superlatives have not gotten to her head as there is zero arrogance about Kate. Instead, there is a sense of quiet confidence and what appears to be a relentless work ethic. As someone who has fought against stereotypes and preconceptions through her talent and creativity, she might have quite a bit in common with our Cardboard Citz Members.

What did you get up to today?

Today's R&D was a day of improvisation, people getting up off their feet and doing a bit more acting which was different from the last session which was more about talking, debating and sharing issues. This was much more about finding the stories and the issues we had been talking about last week. It was amazing. Everyone was very honest, a very generous lot. I was interested in sharing a story and then switching perspectives so that it becomes the other person involved in the story's story. That way you see it from both sides because nothing is black or white especially when you are dealing with situations where there is so much at stake. It is amazing to see how there is scope for something being so different from two people's perspectives.

What are some the themes that emerged from the R&D?

I am interested in families and what happens when you lose someone in the family to these issues. I was interested in those three plays being three plays from the perspective of three members of the same family. The same moment might occur but in three completely different ways. Last week we were talking about changes to benefits, things that have happened since the Tory government came to power and how homelessness has shot to the forefront of the political agenda but in quite a sneaky way and all these changes that have come through (as a result). So the two things I am really interested in are the human and family relations between parents, and between siblings, and also this monstrous and completely inhuman benefits system - the red tape, the bureaucracy and how difficult it is to speak to an individual when you have just become a box, living in a box. The gap between those two extremes is what I am interested in. I think more than anything else, I am writing to respond to the political climate in a human capacity. These are human lives at stake. A law gets passed by the House of Commons and it’s a bit of paper but these are people's lives at stake. Housing benefits being stopped for under 25’s has a direct effect on human beings. I think it is kind of easy to forget when you are looking at stats and figures that there are real people getting caught up in the changes. All of a sudden (with) their benefits being stopped they don't know what to do.

Why collaborate with Cardboard Citizens?

This opportunity to work with people who have been affected by homelessness, who have been so generous, has blown me away and has reconnected me with what writing stories should be for. Forum theatre and giving space to discuss and think about these issues that are important for a particular group of people is a very humbling experience. It has really reconnected me with what the purpose of making art is. If it's just for you, if it's just an exercise in you flexing your artistic muscles, who needs that? Who needs to create writing that doesn't serve anyone? This idea of going into hostels is blowing my mind. When I have been speaking to the actors involved, I hear them saying it has changed their lives. There is so much more at stake than writing a play to entertain an audience. This is greater. It is real. I am getting on really well with that side of it. It is also scary and I want to do it justice. I want to do Cardboard Citizens justice for having the faith in me to manage something like this so I feel like there is a lot at stake.

What is different about this in comparison to writing for yourself as a performer?

What will the process be? What is interesting about this is that in my work the writing comes first, it's about an expression of a feeling or a concept where it all comes in as a turn of phrase. I use language that fits in my mouth. But what is important for this stuff is not the language or the beautiful writing but the plot, the story, the moments where the story develops and changes. A lot of it is going to be improvised essentially. So the writing doesn't matter as much. If I write beautiful poetry, who gives a shit? What actually needs to happen is for it to change and move. It is a massive challenge so I don't know how my process is going to change. It's exciting to strip it all and teach myself from scratch. Basically scrap everything I have learnt, and learn again. Every time I do a new project that is how it feels. Everything I have learnt I put in this little space. I need to forget all that I have learnt, and I need to learn again. I hear speech very poetically. People speak with such great clarity and beauty when they speak with honesty, like today. These are people that have had to spend a lot of time thinking about where they are going, because they are going through it. When you reflect on what you are going through, what you are up against, you become quite skilled at expressing yourself. You have to make sense of your situation because it doesn't make sense.

Had you encountered Forum Theatre before?

No. I have done a bit of reading now, since I have been invited to get involved. But it is still something really new and I think that it can actually work in my favour. Obviously you need to know the rules, but to come to something with a brand new understanding will hopefully give it a kind of energy that comes from excitement. It is exciting. A lot of the stuff that I am thinking about, the voices that I am hearing are voices I am familiar with from where I am from, from people that I know. It's not as though I'm thinking 'oh these poor homeless people'. I feel that this is real. (As we reach Brick Lane, Kate is approached by a fan who tells her how much he loves her work and how sad he was to have missed her last festival appearance.)

How are you taking to the popularity? Is it freaking you out?

It's cool. No one camps out at my house or anything. What's cool is that a lot of people tend to get something really honest from what I say. They come over to say thank you, it doesn't feel creepy, it feels really genuine. Most people just say 'I really like what you are doing'. It feels great. It is reassuring.

How did you make the step from spoken word, to lyric writing, to theatre?

The director of Paines Plough, James Grieve saw a narrative possibility in my writing and believed in me enough to challenge me (Kate wrote her first play Wasted for Paines Plough earlier this year). I've been really lucky because he gave me the opportunity and the support. Now I can't get plot, character and narrative out of my head. It is creeping into my lyrics. I am working on a record right now and I can't shake these characters or the idea of narrative, plot and reveal and all this kind of stuff that I have learnt from thinking about writing in a different way which I got from theatre. What is cool about this project is that it is not like theatre. Theatre is quite scary. It's something that happens for other people in these places where you feel like you are not allowed in if you are wearing trainers. And this just feels real. It's going to hostels. It feels like reinventing the oldest ideas of theatre: lets play this out, give space for these ideas and lets all get involved in telling a story in order to think about our own stories. It just feels honest in a way that is unlike going to the theatre and pretending there is no one in the audience. This is new to me, it's very exciting.

Had you heard of Cardboard Citizens before?

No. Honestly, I am new to a lot of this stuff. I was just a rapper, making music, that's all I was doing. Slowly my horizons have been expanded and now I am learning about all this incredible stuff people are doing. Cardboard Citizens' current cycle of 'history plays' are all exploring the role of the little man in big history.

Your new show Brand New Ancients is looking at the idea of everyday heroes. It feels like there are some fitting parallels?

It's strangely perfect. The whole premise of Brand New Ancients is that there is no right or wrong in a situation, there is no hero or villain, there is only the human. We reinvigorate humanity with a heroic nature even though our deeds now are not the deeds of the ancients, obviously we are not Goliath. We don't have these great battles to fight but the everyday battles are big enough. These are the ideas I am thinking of, everyday people with these huge epic narratives which you just don't know about because we just get on and do, we shut them out. It's exactly what I am hearing from talking to people at the minute and it is why Cardboard Citizens is so important. People taking care of families and just getting on with it. There is the same epicness to it. Everything is hugely epic. It's love, redemption, passion, fighting.

Do you write fast?

Well, I going to have to for this. I don't have a way of doing it as of yet. I take it as it comes. To be honest, I am so busy that perhaps I should not have taken this commission but I really wanted to do it. I wanted to go through what this is going to put me through, in terms of the people I'm meeting and seeing if I could do it. I did some work for Amnesty International which was amazing. Working for people that are out for something bigger than themselves. Most artists are just out for themselves, such big egos and then you come up against these organisations and charities that are about more than themselves. It's inspiring, it makes you reconnect to what your art could be about.

Can poetry change the world?

I don't think that poetry is going to change the world but I think poetry can change someone's heart a little, change how you feel about something. Even coming out of yourself, it is important in order to see what it's about. When you are in a bad place you can't see what you are up to. You are just doing it. I am just excited about being involved with the idea of what these hostel tours can do.

Can we expect to see some music, some spoken word and perhaps some beats?

I don't know. That's like another whole challenge for the actors so it's not fair for me to inflict rhythms I have spent 10 years working on. If I just turn around and say 'guys we are rapping this bit'...they might be like 'what? We will see. I haven't got to the writing bit yet so I don't know, part of me says yes and a part no.

The first draft of the script is due in roughly a month and 2013's Hostel Tour hits the road on February 4th. We will keep you updated.


With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded