Interview | Keziah Warner | Literary Manager, Descent

Keziah Warner

Literary Manager Keziah on returning to the company, championing new writing and being sick at work.

Tell us about your role in Descent.
I’m Literary Manager, so I get sent all our script submissions and I read them or send them to some of our readers when there are too many. We had over four hundred scripts sent in for our last round, which was wonderful but it did take a few of us to read them. I then get back to all the writers once a decision has been made – we always make the final programming decisions as a company. I also keep an eye on what our past writers are up to and look out for potential writers for the future. A few people have written for us more than once and it’s nice to build up that relationship. I’ve just started publishing tiny plays that I call Playellas on the blog – they’re like fun stocking-filler plays but they’re also a cool way of getting to know new writers.

What does Descent mean to you?
I’m really proud of the company; I really like what we do and am full of plans for the future. Our only real proviso on what we present is that it’s never been performed before and there are just so many places that you can go with that. I want us to start doing more readings and productions of full length plays and doing more development work with writers from the very start of a project all the way through to a full production. I’m the only writer in the company so I guess I’ve unofficially become the writers’ champion in terms of keeping them at the forefront of what we’re doing and moving our literary work forward. I think I’m in a really fortunate position being able to actively promote and produce new writing.
In a psychological word association way, my first thought when I think of Descent is me shouting to Faye across the National Theatre green room “hey do you wanna direct something for this play thing we’re going to do in a record shop?” It’s pretty cool how far you can come in two years. I wouldn’t say our meetings are that much more professional though.

Why is new writing important in theatre today?
To put it really simply, I love going to see new plays. It’s that excitement of not really knowing what you’re going to get. Sometimes of course it can turn out horrifically, but sometimes you can leave the theatre feeling like something really amazing has happened. I once got the train home on my own from a play where I’d cried all the way through the third act and I felt half devastated at what I’d just seen and half elated that something like that existed and I didn’t really know how to process any of these emotions which had been generated by the imagination of someone else. I’d like to think that one day I’ll go to see something else that will fuck me up in a similar way, and that it hasn’t even been thought of yet.
I believe that new writing is the future of our theatre industry. It sounds trite and obvious to say it, but how many playwrights do you know who are still working their day jobs? How many writer-led theatres are there? We are incredibly fortunate to have such a brilliant theatre industry in London and new writing is a massive part of that. But I think it’s imperative to remind ourselves that new writing is important today and tomorrow and next week and next year, but without support from theatres and companies and audiences, it might not always be around.

What has been your Descent highlight so far?
I was away doing theatre stuff in New Zealand for ages so it was great coming back and witnessing the pretty immense change that had happened whilst I was taking an extreme back seat. I’m going to officially rename that one as my homecoming gig. Probably the nicest thing about it was slotting right back into the company and whilst so much had changed, in many ways it felt like I hadn’t been away at all.

What have you been up to outside of Descent recently?
I’ve been working at The Last Refuge, helping them to program their next two seasons. It’s been loads of fun and I’ve met some pretty great writers and companies along the way too.

How did you get into theatre?
I played Babushka in a school play when I was six. This guy called Laurence was sick on me and two other girls mid-performance and didn’t even get told off. I felt like if theatre was an industry where you could be sick at work and no one cared, it was probably for me.
Ok, that’s only partly true.
I always went to loads of theatre when I was growing up and fell into taking it seriously during A Level. Then I wrote my first play in first year at Goldsmiths. It was seven minutes long and the opening line was “They’re having an open-casket funeral for a horse? That’s just sick.” When someone wants to produce that mad things that come out of your twisted brain space, THAT’s the moment you know you’ve found the right job.

What is your favourite new play you’ve seen?
It’s very hard. Every time I think of a play I feel like I’m cheating on the other plays. I know when a play’s been really great, because I can remember everything else I did that day really clearly as well. One of the clearest memories I have is of going to see Cock by Mike Bartlett at the Royal Court. It was wonderful for its simplicity and honesty. It’s rare to see a production so pared back to the writing and it was incredible to watch. I went with my friend Emma; it was the same night as the National Theatre staff Christmas party and afterwards we went back to her house to get ready. It was a 1950s theme. We talked a lot about the play sober and then lots more drunk. I saw it again in New York this summer, but it wasn’t the same.

Who are your theatre role models?
Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner, what a team. I like people who’ve had quite varied careers; imagine being as insanely good at acting as Mark Rylance and then being able to pull AD of the Globe for ten years out of your CV-shaped bag. Can I have Cate Blanchett? She’s been AD of Sydney Theatre Company for ages now so I think theatre can officially claim her back from Hollywood. Emma Rice from Kneehigh. This might be controversial, but I’m going to put Lynn Gardner in there too. And writers of course: Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond, Mike Bartlett, Nina Raine, Jez Butterworth, James Graham, Penelope Skinner, Simon Stephens, David Eldridge, Patrick Marber, Harold Pinter, Roy Williams, Mike Leigh, Tracy Letts, Moira Buffini – there’re probably loads I’ve forgotten.

If you could play any character who would it be and why?
The first proper part I ever played was Rosalind in a school production of As You Like It, which is a pretty great place to start and finish really. But if I had to pick a new one I would maybe go for Rose from Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau. Some friends just did a production in New Zealand and I asked one of them to send me the script. I’m gutted that I couldn’t see it and that I hadn’t read it earlier. If I ever have to humiliate myself by pretending I can act, then I might as well get a karaoke power ballad, a squirm-makingly protracted blow job scene and an Oedipus-style eye gouging out of it.

What’s your favourite line from a play?
The best lines are the simple, seemingly innocuous ones that have about a billion things bubbling under the surface, so in the immortal words of Tracy Letts: “Eat the fish, bitch.”

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