Ink Festival 2022: Will Gompertz makes his playwriting debut

Will Gompertz makes his playwriting debut at Ink Festival, Halesworth, Suffolk. 

Will Gompertz makes his playwriting debut at Ink Festival, Halesworth, Suffolk. - Credit: Courtesy Will Gompertz

Will Gompertz, former arts correspondent for the BBC and now artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London, makes his debut as a playwright at this year's Ink Festival in Halesworth.

“We want a good time!” says Will Gompertz. He's talking about going to the theatre which these days, like most things, is different. We still want the shared experience -  the sound of laughter and applause - but we don’t have much appetite for heavy, dark themes or analysis of the events of the past couple of years.

"We don’t want to be lectured and berated," says Will. "We want beauty, we want joy and we want hope.” He should know. After 11 years as arts correspondent for the BBC reporting on literature, design, architecture and performance throughout the UK, now he's ‘on the supply side’ as artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London, overseeing the programming of concerts, theatrical performances, film screenings and art exhibitions.

“We need to make sure we stay relevant and vibrant,” he says. “We need a programme which resonates, which means something to the audience of today, which is inclusive, which is diverse, which is welcoming.” Recent months have seen greater attendances than any other time in the Barbican's history but, like many institutions, it's facing unprecedented challenges. And it’s not just about Covid. There's also Brexit, cultural shifts in society and the need to ensure the centre’s offer reflects the city, the country and the world in which we live.

READ: 50 new plays in four days at Ink Festival 2022

“It’s very important that we recognise the fundamentally vital job theatre does for giving a community not only a sense of identity, but a sense of place and somewhere to share a common experience,” says Will. “It’s very easy to cut the arts when times get difficult. But theatres generate money, bring people into town centres, restaurants, hotels, pubs and they give people a chance to express themselves and a chance to share ideas.”

Will Gompertz

Will Gompertz says any platform which provides writers with the opportunity to present their work in public is to be welcomed. - Credit: Courtesy Will Gompertz

By encouraging creativity through education, he believes, we can support and enable the next generation, too. “My belief is that we are at our most human when we’re being creative,” he says. “The one thing which differentiates us from animals is our ability to step out of time and place, to have an idea and realise it. Being creative is the most extraordinary gift. I think if we can marry creativity and education, we can take the pressure off young people from the exam culture and social media, where people can feel isolated.”

He has big goals, then, and is not one to shirk a challenge. In the past, he felt the best way to write a Times article about stand-up comedy was to take a gig at the Edinburgh Festival. So, to support the Ink Festival in Suffolk this year, which provides a stage for emerging playwrights, he has contributed a short play. 

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“I write non-fiction,” he says, referring to his two successful books exploring modern art. “I’ve dabbled with fiction but I can’t do it. It genuinely makes me feel nauseous. So when I was asked to write a play, I immediately thought ‘oh no’. But I think Ink is incredibly important. I think any platform which provides writers with the opportunity to present their work in public is to be welcomed. And short plays are a wonderful way of being able to dip your toe in the water, to test some ideas and to see people’s reactions without investing everything into it.”

Will was given a strict brief for his contribution to Ink. It was to be just five minutes long with a maximum of three parts and one prop, a passport. “To have been told something so specific made it easier than writing about whatever you want.  And I found it was much easier to get into the invented world through direct speech. It was a really enjoyable process.”

The Ink Festival has been running in Halesworth since 2015, providing a platform for new writers with links to East Anglia to have their work performed by professional actors in a four-day festival at venues throughout the town. In addition to the short plays, the programme includes talks, workshops and stand-up comedy. 

Two people jumping down steps.

Ink is about encouraging writers to jump into playwrighting. - Credit: Ink Festival

Will has long been familiar with Ink, reporting on its endeavours while he was at the BBC, but also as a regular visitor to Suffolk. “My father was partly brought up in Aldeburgh. His mother used to take him to visit her relatives who lived on the seafront. So he took us there as a family for years and years. And my brother-in-law lives in Suffolk.” Visits to the county have featured concerts at Snape Maltings, he says, walks along the beach, an appreciation of the architecture and history in Ipswich. “I’ve been to many a match at Portman Road,” he says.

Keen to support the Ink Festival, then, Will overcame his nervousness and now enthusiastically endorses the value of writing a play. “I’m just somebody ‘giving it a go’,” he says. “The curators and the producers of Ink are very good at facilitating an environment which feels very welcoming and warm, so it actually encourages risk-taking because you feel they’ve got your back. And I found it really liberating and enjoyable. My play is definitely something done by an amateur, but with a great deal of joy.”

The festival is, of course, valuable and entertaining for its audiences, too. “It’s very, very exciting,” Will says of attending. “It’s like going to a stand-up set of 10 minutes, an open mic session. You don’t quite know what you’re going to get but you might have a pleasant surprise. You know that you’re not going to waste your time at least, and it will have provoked some idea, some thought. It’s a brilliant thing.”

And what does he hope his play will bring to the Ink Festival? “I suppose if people feel ‘that’s recognisable’, ‘that’s believable’, ‘that’s relatable’ and ‘that’s enjoyable’, I’d be really happy. But so long as they don’t boo and throw things at the actors, that will be a plus!”

The Ink Festival takes place in Halesworth April 22-24.