Abi Hynes, a writer who wears many hats: producer, artistic director, performer and more. Here is our interview with her:
Fem: In your bio, you call yourself a writer, a producer, and a performer. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with each?
Abi Hynes: These days I tend to call myself a drama, fiction and poetry writer – usually in that order. I feel like a playwright first and foremost; my background is in theatre, I’ve got a Drama degree and MA and I spent a wonderful year training as a playwright at the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse. I’ve been producing plays with my own theatre company,Faro Productions, since university, and we’re currently touring a new play of mine, a one-woman show based on the life of exotic dancer turned spy, Mata Hari. I also regularly perform my fiction and poetry in the buzzing live literature scene in Manchester.
As a producer, in addition to working on our Faro shows, I also run a Manchester based cabaret night called First Draft. We try and create a safe space for artists of all kinds to try out new work and works-in-progress, and we run a regular night every other month in the Northern Quarter, as well as special one-off events across the city.
When you make a lot of Fringe theatre, you get used to being a jack-of-all-trades, which is what I think I’ve ended up as! I realised pretty quickly that if I wanted to make creative projects happen, nobody was going to do it for me, so I tried to learn how to do everything. That’s more or less where producing came from – just wanting to make things happen.
F: How did you get involved with First Draft? What has that experience been like?
AH: I set up First Draft in my first year out of university, with my very good friend Sonia Jalaly, who is now an actor and founder of the excellent Papermash Theatre Company. We were both a bit lost, and looking for somewhere to perform the stuff we were writing without the pressure of charging for tickets and presenting everything as a finished product. So we contacted The Castle Hotel, a wonderful little hub of creativity and generosity in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, which is still our main home today. Since then, the team has grown and changed (with Sonia moving to London), and we’ve gone from being mostly a group of friends performing for each other, to something that has a life and an audience of its own. I’m incredibly proud of it.
We’ve also connected with and have been lucky enough to receive support from the host of live literature nights that make up an integral part of Manchester’s creative scene: nights like the amazing Bad Language, Stirred Poetry, and more recently, The Real Story. The fact that this is a city that can support so many events like these is absolutely to its credit. We’ve been very lucky to find a home amongst these brilliant folk.
I blog fairly regularly about my creative projects and First Draft – if you’re interested, you can read some of my ramblings here.
F: How do you maintain a supportive environment for performers at First Draft?
AH: As far as I’m concerned, this is the most important thing I do. The whole ethos of the night is about supporting new work – and I’m very pleased and proud to see that all sorts of pieces that have begun life with us have already gone on to bigger and better things. I’m sure that the fact that most of our events are free is part of this, as is the diversity of our programming. Lots of open mic nights operate a ‘first past the post’ system of sign up, which works for them, but I’ve found it usually results in a lot of white, twenty or thirty-something men on the line up. Lots of those young men are talented and lovely people, but our night needs variety to be at its best, and other kinds of performers need our support. So I programme very carefully – if we’re not getting enough women signing up, I go out and find them. It’s more work, but it’s important.
And the rest of it is just about openness, friendliness and inclusivity. Our excellent host and my co-producer Andrew Williamson does a great job of putting everybody (especially new performers and audience members) at ease, and we’ll give pretty much anyone a chance on our stage if they want to perform.
F: You’re also the Artistic Director of Faro Productions. Something that caught our eye is that a part of your mission is “to engage with cultural institutions and buildings to collaborate on projects that reach new and varied audiences and participants.” What does this look like? How do you make it a reality?
AH: This is an important part of our ambition as a company – not to spend all our time ‘preaching to the converted’. We do quite a bit of work with young people – yesterday, in fact, we took our show, 7 Veils, to a sixth form college to share it with over 100 drama and performing arts students. We’ve also been fortunate enough to work in partnership with venues and organisations across Manchester like The Portico Library, who bring new audiences to our work who might not usually go to the theatre.
F: How do you decide what’s worth writing about?
AH: During my training as a playwright, we had a workshop with the brilliant Jonathan Harvey, and he said that the bestwriting ‘comes from a sense of anger and outrage’. That has stuck with me for years. I think we need writers – and artists of all kinds, come to that – to show us both the world as it is, and to imagine how it might be different.
Having said that, I’ve done that thing where you try to write an ‘issue based’ piece because you think it’s relevant, or it’ll tap into some kind of zeitgeist. Maybe that works for some people – but it never works for me. I can only write anything half decent if it taps into something I care deeply about. Buried in nearly all of my writing is something deeply personal. The key then, for me, is to bury it well enough so that it brings an element of emotional truth to a story that is actually of interest to other people – rather than something that reads like notes from a therapy session.
F: Have you always been drawn to performance? What drew you to it?
AH: Well, I started off wanting to be an actor, which I think a lot of ‘Drama kids’ (affectionately termed!) do. I come from a theatre-loving family – and I’ve always felt at home on stage. These days, performing my own writing at literature nights is almost my favourite thing, and when I write plays it’s a very collaborative, practical process, where most of my work developing the script happens with the actors in the rehearsal room.
I think there are two major things that excite me about live performance. The first is the fact that you can almost never do it in isolation – making theatre, for example, is an innately collaborative act. Even if you’re performing poetry, you’re performing it for somebody, and it’s what you ultimately share with them that matters. Performance is a brilliant antidote to the (usually) solitary act of writing; when it’s good, it connects you deeply and intimately with other people.
The other thing (and this is where my ego comes into it) – is that you get an immediate response to your work. Whether it’s the first time actors read your lines out loud, or the first performance of a new play, story or poem, you get to hear and see and feel how an audience relates to it, right there in the room with them. I’m never as dedicated as I should be when it comes to actually sending off work for publication; waiting for an email from a potential editor or publisher just doesn’t have the same buzz to it as standing up there in front of a living, breathing audience, and seeing first hand which bits work and which bits don’t.
F: What writers have influenced your understanding of writing?
AH: Every few years, I discover a writer that gives me a bit of an epiphany about the craft. Jeanette Winterson was one of the first writers to do that for me; reading The Passion was a total awakening, because I just didn’t know a novel could be like that. More recently it’s been Hilary Mantel – after being utterly astounded by her craftsmanship in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, I’ve been working my way through almost everything she’s ever written. Her books are teaching me so much about being sparing and controlled with language.
In terms of drama writing (and I’m talking about both theatre and screen here), David Hare’s The Reader was another big turning point for me. And for poetry – my latest epiphany came in the form of the magnificent Kate Tempest, when I saw her perform pieces from her new collection, Hold Your Own, at Contact Theatre as part of Manchester Literature Festival (and I wrote a very gushing review here). I’ve never seen a poetry audience so excited by work that has such integrity. It inspired me and it gave me hope for the form.
F: Do you ever run into topics that you want to write about, but don’t feel ready to write about quite yet?
AH: Oh god, yes, all the time! I like this question. I recently put down a novel I’d been chipping away at for the best part of a year, because I realised that, as a story, I just wasn’t good enough yet to do it justice. As a writer (and Hilary Mantel is excellent evidence for this, I think), our apprenticeships are lifelong, and I will need to serve a lot more of mine before I can write that book the way I want to. I hope its time will come.
In a slightly different way, I often find it impossible to write about major life events while they’re still fresh. I spent about two years helping to care for my mother-in-law while she was dying, and it was nearly another two years before I could put pen to paper about anything touching on that experience. And I sometimes find my imagination captured by stories that I leave alone because I know I’m not the best person to tell them. There’s a solution to that, of course – do the research! But that takes time, and it can’t be rushed.
F: Do you think that your writing is shaped by your identity/identities? Would you mind sharing any of these with us?
AH: This is a tricky one – to be honest, I don’t think I’ve made my own mind up on that. Identity politics are tough – some people find labelling themselves empowering, and others find it claustrophobic. I think I’m mostly in that second camp. Yes, of course, as any kind of artist, our work is informed and shaped by who we are. But Margaret Atwood says: ‘Wanting to meet an author because you like their work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté.’ What you write and who you are – they’re not one and the same thing. I don’t think I want to be limited by or even understood through the lens of whatever boxes I might tick on an equal opportunities form.
F: How do you understand feminism and the importance of inclusion as it relates to your work?
AH: Feminism – diversity – inclusion… it’s just all about fairness, isn’t it? And about knowing what’s good for you – if you limit the range of people you work with, you limit the scope of what you make and the audiences it will matter to. I’m so sick of going to the theatre or the cinema or turning on the TV to see this homogenous bulk of stories that are about white men’s experiences. Nobody’s saying ‘Stop telling those stories’. But other work (and this feels like it’s only just starting to happen) needs an equal platform for us to have a creative and cultural landscape that’s worth taking seriously. Some people in the arts will talk about ‘excellence’ and ‘inclusion’ as if they’re mutually exclusive. They’re not – and if we let people who talk like that run our industry, we won’t have an arts scene in 50 years.
And the other thing about feminism (stop me if I’m teaching you to suck eggs) is that there’s no model for it – there’s no shape you have to fit into to make ‘feminist’ work. Everything I write is feminist, because I wrote it. The fact that I still get asked that question just goes to show that being a woman and doing what you want is still a radical act – I’ve written a bit more about that here. Anyone who gets excluded from the mainstream, for whatever reason, should go and do their own thing instead for a while. It’s harder work, but the world will be better for it.
Abi Hynes graduated from The Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Young Writers Programme in 2010. She writes and performs her own fiction and poetry. Follow her on twitter to see what she’ll be up to next.