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Ben Spiller

As artistic director and producer of the award-winning 1623 theatre company, alumnus Ben Spiller uses Shakespeare and theatre to engage communities, champion diversity and support social justice.

Ben’s love of the theatre blossomed at Warwick, where he became president of the award-winning Warwick University Drama Society (WUDS), acting in and directing productions at Warwick Arts Centre and beyond including the National Student Drama Festival.

Ben explained what motivates him to inspire, surprise and affect people through the power of Shakespeare.

 

What did you study at Warwick?

I studied a BA in Theatre and Performance Studies, through which I developed my passion for early modern theatre and how it relates to contemporary performance. I went on to study an MA in Culture of the European Renaissance (2001) from the Centre for the Study of Renaissance where I developed my interest in Shakespeare, bringing in theatre practitioners to work with students and staff, and teaching undergraduates Shakespeare in performance. Outside of my course, I performed and directed for WUDS, directed shows for Fresh Blood and Codpiece, stage-managed for Theatre For All and Music Theatre Warwick.

 

Can you tell us about your journey after graduating from Warwick?

After my MA, I was offered a job as a Theatre Assistant at Arts Council England. Doubting my skills, I thought they’d made a mistake! The role gave me an invaluable and rigorous overview of arts development, and how public funding works.

After a few years, I re-evaluated my career and decided to prioritise theatre making with an agenda of social progression, so I left the Arts Council and set up 1623 to put my new priorities into action. Having studied and worked in theatre at Warwick I knew I could make, teach and facilitate theatre. I also knew how the Arts Council, arts development and public funding worked.

 

Why is this role so special to you?

It’s exciting, challenging, awe-inspiring, humbling, and it brings about change. I love how theatre brings people together – offering us shared experiences and allowing us to empathise with the characters whose lives may be different to our own.

It gives me the opportunities to work with diverse groups who have a range of lived experiences and access requirements. I’m a great believer in the aesthetics of access, and I make sure it’s embedded in what I do with 1623 and beyond. British Sign Language (BSL), captioning, audio description and sensory stimulation are wonderful things. We need more diversity in the arts. The world is a diverse place, so art and the people who make it must reflect this. Otherwise, its focus is too narrow and we lose people who aren’t represented.

 

Can you explain the mission of your company and some examples of your work?

There are so many examples of injustice in Shakespeare’s works. At 1623, they provide us with a framework to explore injustices still in our world today. We interrogate, challenge, champion and change Shakespeare’s work to find our own voices in response.

 

What advice would you give to someone interested in studying theatre or an arts subject?

If you’re not sure – try it! If you don’t, you’ll never know.

Find out which aspects of the arts really inspire you and make you want to bring about change. Art gives you the opportunity to work as a team as well as independently. You’ll meet diverse people who enrich your perspectives and challenge your preconceptions. You’ll get to experience the world in different ways and expand your horizons immeasurably. Whether you understand yourself to be an artist, a creative, a participant, an audience member – or a combination – you have something unique to contribute to the world.

 

How does your work make theatre or Shakespeare accessible and inclusive?

By refusing to be perfect and authoritative, being approachable and supportive, ensuring people’s access requirements are met, asking questions and encouraging other people to be curious, offering answers, listening to alternative responses, and being open to learning.

There isn’t a single correct way of approaching Shakespeare’s works – there are so many ways to interpret them, via diverse ways of communicating, learning styles and artforms. 1623 breaks it down and builds it up; we rework, translate, adapt and edit.

You can’t be rigid and traditional, or you’ll end up excluding people and putting up barriers, even if you don’t mean to. Shakespeare has a reputation for being posh, white, male and dead. 1623 challenges this by saying the work is common, diverse, fluid and alive. We work with people who are disabled, female, global majority, LGBT+, neurodivergent and working class. We work with multiple perspectives, diverse experiences of art and life. At the same time, it’s also important to remember that people with protected characteristics often need safe spaces that include others who share the same characteristics and similar experiences. As such, some projects are planned, delivered and evaluated with a specific community group in mind to ensure safety is at its heart.

 

What challenges have you faced during your career and how have you overcome them?

Self-doubt! To overcome this I ask other people what they think of my work. When feedback is constructive it’s helpful, but you have to be able to distinguish between what’s useful and what’s opinion based on taste, or if someone is telling you how they’d do it differently.

Remember that theatre making is about a collective of people who all contribute to creating something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone and their work must be valued and respected for a team to work well together.