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Interview with Jonathan Watkins 

What is your earliest theatre memory? 

My earliest memories are all dance-based as I come from a dance and ballet background. Northern Ballet’s A Simple Man by the late choreographer Gillian Lynne was based on  L.S. Lowry and his paintings that feature industrial landscapes. When the curtain goes up, it’s a freeze frame like his paintings and then it all comes alive. It was dance, but it was theatrical with storytelling, and that’s very much like what I do now. 

Growing up in Barnsley, Yorkshire there is such a specific way of people talking and reminiscing. Sitting around a dinner table with my family, they’d paint pictures of what they were like at school – it was very vivid and imaginative. So it didn’t really start with theatre but at home with storytelling, and specifically a sort of Yorkshire way of storytelling.  

The structure and elements that go into telling a story translate to a theatrical setting because all we’re doing is gathering people in a room and trying to express and communicate a story, narrative or concept. That’s really what theatre is to me. 

What was your route into the industry? 

I left home in Yorkshire at 12 years old to train in classical ballet at the Royal Ballet School, Richmond Park. I started very early creating my own work based on ideas that I’d read in books.One of my first pieces was called Suppressed Expressions responding to the feeling that we were all made to learn ballet the same, every move was the same and there was no room for individual expression.  

I was fortunate to join the Royal Ballet Company for 10 years, I danced and created work there, but I always knew I wanted to expand and tell stories in my own way. Some stories call for words or texts, like what we’re doing now with Reasons to Stay Alive, some don’t. 

I left the Royal Ballet and branched out into choreography and movement, working across film, theatre, and dance to understand how different genres tell stories and play with combining them all into a hybrid form. 

I created Kes, an adaptation of A Kestrel for a Knave, at the Sheffield Crucible, a dance/theatre production with no spoken word. It’s a story very much from the North, that’s really owned by the people in that area. So that for me was a learning experience but also the beginning of really trying to hone the kind of craft and theatricality that I wanted to express within a production.  

I was then searching for another project I could do that would need words and would benefit from all the different elements that I was learning and experimenting with to tell a story. I read Matt’s book in 2015 and was totally inspired. 

What advice would you give to emerging artists now?  

Believe in yourself. Be passionate about what you’re creating and find people who can see the same thing, who believe in your idea and can help you along your way. Personally, I can’t do things to the best of my ability unless I believe in it as an idea as my best work comes from those ideas 

Who or what inspires you? 

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and there shouldn’t be any prejudice about where it comes from – it could be Socrates dialogues, a beach read, Eastenders, or a pop song – whatever spurs thought or thinking about things in different ways, is absolutely fine. 

What has it been like working on  Reasons to Stay Alive? 

When I first read Matt’s book I was really inspired by him sharing his personal truths and own experience with depression and anxiety. He is very clear in the book that all minds are unique and can go wrong in very unique ways. I was always upfront with Matt himself and the company that the story we are sharing on stage is Matt’s very personal story in the hope that by being specific we can also find the points where this experience overlaps with others and resonates with lots of different people. We are not trying to say we have the answers but trying to express in a visceral, theatrical way what Matt’s experience was and what helped him. It was important to also impart to an audience the things he had learned for example the ‘weapons’ he discovered as a way of coping along the way. 

Reading the book, I was struck by its theatrical potential. Matt’s descriptions of the shifting relationship with time, the mix of personal story with practical advice and stories and the notion of Matt talking to his younger self all felt like they could be explored and shared theatrically.  

It has been vital working with such a talented group of actors to mould, craft and take ownership of this story. It’s exciting to take what April’s given us and imagine it with a collaboration of set and movement that informs the flow and structure of the play. Matt’s book is then our own manual for the play to stay truthful to. 

For anyone starting out in the industry as a director, do you have any words of wisdom? 

Jump on any opportunities that you are offered or can create for yourself. Try to create opportunities by finding the people that believe in what you are passionate about. It doesn’t need to be big scale, it can be any scale, and those opportunities become stepping stones not to success but to our growing and evolving practice