Things got strange for Emma Callander after she first directed Tom
Wainwright's play, Banksy: The Room in the Elephant. Originally seen at
Oran Mor in Glasgow in a co-production with Bristol's Tobacco Factory,
Wainwright's play looks at what happened when iconic street artist
Banksy sprayed the words 'This looks like an elephant' on the side of a
water tank in Los Angeles.
For the previous seven years, the tank had been the makeshift home of
Tachowa Covington, who had furnished it to become something of bespoke
miniature des-res. Now Banksy had given it the tag of celebrity,
however, the tank was designated as a work of art, removed, and sold
off to the highest bidder. 'Banksy Brings Misery To Homeless Man' one
newspaper headline announced when Wainwright's look at art, commerce
and real life first appeared.
Things got even stranger during the production's Edinburgh Festival
Fringe run, when film-maker Hal Samples, who was making a film about
Covington, flew his subject over from America to see the play. This
experience became integral to Something From Nothing, the resultant
film which is being screened at the Traverse following each performance
of the play.
“I'd just approached Hal to get a photograph of the tank for the show,”
says Callander, who this week brings her production to Edinburgh's
Traverse Theatre, where she was recently appointed Associate Director,
“and we've ended up becoming the conclusion of his documentary, and the
play now feels like a piece that's about the morality of something.”
Callander's production of Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is her
highest profile outing at the theatre she now calls home since she
first co-directed the now regular Theatre Uncut seasons of work. These
hot off the press short plays reacted to events going on in the world
shaped by the austerity culture that sired them, and a new season will
appear in Edinburgh in August.
Such socially aware leanings are a far cry from Callander's original
training as an actor after spending her youth doing shows with a light
opera club in Bristol so she could hang out with her best mate
“I wonder if she'd have been in a football club or something whether
I'd done that,” Callander muses.
“I had a really good time as an actor,” she says, “but I always felt
something wasn't quite right. I felt I wanted to explore theatre more,
and was always thinking of the bigger picture, so was probably one of
those really annoying actors, always chipping in. My dad's a
philosopher, and I was brought up on big ideas and questioning things,
and it took a while to realise as an actor that I wasn't quite in the
Callander ended up working in Poland with experimental theatre company,
Gardzienice, on a production of Iphigenia at Aulis.
“We were working in the forest,” says Callander, “and doing that, away
from my usual surroundings, I felt that it might have been directing
that I wanted to do.”
Callander ended up assisting American wunderkind Daniel Kramer at the
TR Warszawa company in Warsaw. Callander then assisted Vicky
Featherstone and John Tiffany at the National Theatre of Scotland prior
to their departure to the Royal Court. For A Play, A Pie and A Pint, as
well as Banksy:The Room in the Elephant, Callander directed Dalgety by
David Greig and Supply by Cathy Forde, while this season she worked on
Queen of Lucky People, by Iain Heggie.
“I feel like a kid in a sweet shop,” Callander says of her new role,
“but coming into a theatre that has produced some of the best plays in
the English language, I also feel a sense of responsibility. I'm
completely devoted to new writing, and writing that says something
about the world we live in.”
While Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is clearly an example of this,
Tachowa Covington, things haven't changed much.
“Our production hasn't particularly helped him,” says Callander. “He
now lives in a tent in a forest, and no-one in his community believes
any of this happened. They don't believe there's a play, and they don't
believe Tachowa came to Edinburgh, so that's our next mission, to do
the play on a beach close to where Tachowa lives.”
All of which begs the question of what does the reclusive Banksy makes
of all this.
“We contacted him a long time ago,” says Callander, “but never heard
anything back. We didn't want to cash in on his name, but after all
this happened, I know that Banksy gave quite a lot of money to Tachowa
to make sure he can survive. Banksy's done good. He's done his duty.
Maybe he's even been to see the show, who knows?”
Banksy: The Room in the Elephant, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh,
Friday-Saturday. Each performance will be followed by a screening of
Hal Semple's short film, Something From Nothing.
The Herald, May 16th 2014