Interview by Dimi Theodoraki for ETL
Sam Kioni Roberts is an English artist and theatre-maker who moved to Leipzig from London in March this year. Sam developed a love for theatre early on in life, getting leading parts in school plays and quickly devoting himself to acting. After changing direction at university, he began to focus on directing, and founded the University of Manchester Shakespeare Society in 2017. As project-lead, he took an ambitious adaptation of four inter-connected Shakespeare plays to the Edinburgh festival fringe in 2018, and subsequently directed his own play in two parts More Fool You, which debuted in Edinburgh in 2019.
He has founded two theatre companies- Windfall Theatre UK and Exhibition Theatre, both of which seek to produce experimental and exciting theatre and live-art, with Sam’s ultimate ambition being to create a style which truly blends supposedly separate art-forms together in one experience.During the COVID-19 pandemic he studied for a Masters degree at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and in that time developed a truly collaborative style of directing, as part of which he always seeks to make sure that the cast and crew of every show he directs feel that they can call the show their own.
About the play
What I learned from my time in the Fridge is a semi- surrealist play, that is meant to be quite funny, but it’s also meant to be quite uncomfortable and a little bit scary. People will hopefully laugh- I like making people laugh, when I can. It was a weird idea that came to me last year, inspired by stuff that happened during the pandemic, but it is not explicitly to do with it. The play is fundamentally about healing. Particularly when we talk about mental health, but also anything that goes wrong, and you’re told that you need to heal. There’s a lot of stuff out there in the world now about self-healing, self-help, and the processes that you need to go through to be healed. That is what the play is dealing with. What happens if you heal yourself? Is there a possibility that there’s still something a bit wrong, even after you go through the process? And what do we turn into, after we heal ourselves? What might be the right way of healing for one person is not the right way of healing for another person. I take it to the extreme of course, because it’s surreal and weird and it is all about someone who lives in a fridge. The structure is based on the idea of a TED-talk: someone doing a TED-talk about their experiences living in a fridge. There’s a fridge on the stage and the suggestion is that there’s still something living inside the fridge…
English Theatre Leipzig
I knew that coming to Germany was going to be overwhelming and particularly coming to a city that isn’t Berlin- due to the language barrier. I think, it is slightly less easy here for someone who doesn’t speak German, and I’m doing my best to learn the language as quickly as I can. I discovered ETL through reading stuff online as recommended by my partner. They had an open call for work, so I decided to put something in. The people of ETL are very open, accepting, and friendly. I initially sent in my proposal to put on a piece of Shakespeare; Richard II, but I think I was a bit too ambitious. They asked me, if I had any shorter play, I could do for the September showcase. So, I put this idea in, which at the time wasn’t a finished version. At that point I had a kind of a skeleton, mostly one person speaking. I made changes to it later and they said great! They’ve been really open and friendly with me, and it has been great to connect with people who are interested in theatre in English. In no way would I ever suggest that theatre in English is better, but it’s what I work in. I’m glad that there is a community of people, who want to get stuff in English out there, because there’s a large community of people within Germany who speak English, and there’s a definite appetite for theatre in English because of that.
The Actors and me
So, looking at the actors, there’s Lillian Kauffman who is playing Alex Wilde, the person who was in the fridge. She’s giving the presentation and then she’s brought along two other people to be on stage with her, who are her fans, because she has written about living in the fridge online and has started to get some followers. We’ve got Philipp Schrot, who’s playing Billy. I’ve got Emma S. Jahns playing Casey. And I’ve got Armin Axt playing Schrödinger’s Cat,which is a character based on a famous thought experiment from the 1920s. They are all absolutely fantastic for the roles. Three of them actually knew each other beforehand, and all of them have got really good chemistry! Yuliiana Pynzenyk is my assistant director and she’s a huge help to me in the rehearsal room.
The process is very much about collaboration. I’m a guide, in a way. I don’t want to absolutely dictate what’s “right”, and so basically my process is about giving the actors a kind-of palette where they can paint the picture they want to. The characterization is theirs, I guide it in a particular way. I started off by asking them to think of an animal that they associated with the character in the script, and we did some physical work with that. And I’ve done similar work with them in terms of their voice. I’ve set up resources like a Spotify playlist with music which can help them think about their characters and the show more generally. I want them to come to me with ideas as much as giving them mine to work with. The idea of this process is to give them lots of different ways to interpret the characters, making the characters feel more real and relatable for them.
Another point about directing this play was being sensitive to language differences but also to cultural differences. Lilli, for instance, thought at some points that there were some questions that in Germany you wouldn’t ask. Or the original inclusion of a slang term, like “yum, yum”, when eating something, is very British and quite “posh British” at that. She said “this doesn’t work for me” , so we changed it. I hope making changes like that has made the process easier for them. I want all of us to feel like it’s a show for us, not just for me. I’m not like Samuel Beckett, for instance. If the message is still there, and as long as the core of the show is still there, I don’t see any reason why words can’t be changed because in the end the show´s got to work for the people performing it as much as for the people watching it.
Art, for me- any art- is about provoking conversations and people going away and thinking about it. I learned a long time ago that as an artist you can’t necessarily control how audiences react to things. There’s a few twists and turns and some weird stuff that happens in the play, hopefully the audience will laugh, cry, and get a bit scared, but I’m not expecting everyone to react in the same way. I would like people to pick up on the healing thing. I’d like people to really think about how we heal, how mental health is something very personal, and how one person’s idea of healing isn’t necessarily going to work for somebody else. Asking for help is always the best way, because if you consistently think “I can do this by myself” it’s likely that you’re going to get something wrong, and then all that healing will go nowhere. It’s not the most obvious thing I’ve ever written- it’s not literally slapping people in the face with the message, it’s a little bit subtle.
Favourite theatrical plays
I’ve always enjoyed Shakespeare since my childhood. I like the plays of Beckett, although I find it annoying that when you perform in one of his plays, you must usually go with the way he wrote it. I really like Happy Days, which is a play, we don’t know exactly when and where it’s set, but it’s meant to be in a house and it’s a woman talking both to and about her husband and her relationship with him. But slowly everything’s filling up with sand, or in one production I saw, with water. It’s a clever, funny, but also deeply uncomfortable bit of theatre. You’re stuck there thinking… Why is this happening? When it was directed with the water, that production was making a point about global warming and about melting ice caps and rising sea levels. But when it’s directed with sand, which is the way that Beckett wrote it, the suggestion is that it’s kind of post-apocalyptic: the world is ending and she’s trying to remain as normal as possible. Happy Days is a very good play and it has a lot of relation to the stuff that I’ve written here.