Caro Meets Spoken Word Interview Theatre Interview

James Rowland: Piece Of Work

By | Published on Friday 6 October 2023

We’ve been big fans of James Rowland for quite some time now, having first witnessed his work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe a fair few years ago. We like him so much, in fact, that we gave him one of our ThreeWeeks Editors’ Awards back in 2018. 

The reason for all this love is, of course, the brilliant shows he creates and performs, so we were delighted to hear that his latest – the highly critically acclaimed ‘Piece Of Work’ – is headed for a short run at Camden People’s Theatre this week, before beginning a UK tour. 

I thought it was definitely time for a catch-up with James, so I arranged a quick chat ahead of the upcoming run. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about ‘Piece Of Work’. What story does it tell?
JR: Hello! ‘Piece Of Work’ is my fifth show.

I made it about the last year of my life, because – in September 2022 – I received a letter out of the blue which upended things in a wild way. It takes place around the UK, as I was touring my previous show ‘Learning To Fly’.

It’s about dealing with the ghosts of our past, finding peace in our ever-whirling world and, of course, chicken burgers.

CM: What themes do you explore through it?
JR: Sons and fathers, how hope makes life liveable, the grace it takes to live with pain, ‘Hamlet’, and chicken burgers.

CM: What made you decide to create a show based on this?
JR: Well, to start with, I begin with my life and the things that I feel deeply about. Starting there, I identify the parts of what I find compelling that other people might identify with, and can be beautiful or useful or interesting to spend time working on and watching.

CM: Can you explain – for those who might not have experienced your work – what manner, or genre, of show to expect? How do you tell your stories?
JR: I think I’m somewhere in a Venn diagram between conventional theatre, stand-up comedy and meeting an interesting stranger who doesn’t outstay their welcome. The shows are very relaxed and low tech.

The trick – if it’s not too demeaning to talk about 700+ shows of experience and thousands of hours refining the stories a ‘trick’ – is to render the most important and knotty parts of being alive funny, articulate and humane.

CM: How do you go about creating your work? Do you sit down and write or is it a more devise-y process?
JR: Ha! Good question. It’s absolutely more of a devise-y process.

I do research and then tell the story over and over to friends and preview audiences, record it, keep listening back to it, keep talking to my director.

I keep refining and refining until it’s settled into a shape that works sentence to sentence, word to word.

CM: Being the creator and performer of your own work must make your relationship with a director a bit different from if you’re just, say, acting a role in someone else’s play. What’s your dynamic with your director like?
JR: My friend Milly Thomas described it as “both midwife and doula”, the practical and ephemeral are both vital parts of that role.

In some ways I think the director/dramaturgs that I’ve worked with are friends first, guides second. It’s absolutely key that you’re not on your own.

No one really makes anything alone, and a companion who is both in and outside of the show is such an important thing. It’s a role I’m incredibly grateful for my collaborators making around my shows.

CM: Can you tell us how all this began? How and when did you decide to pursue a career in the arts? What made you want that?
JR: Well… thousands of tiny moments have nudged me this way.

The main thing is probably growing up in a house where art was supported and encouraged. Then continuing to grow up as someone who was absolutely terrible at anything else.

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your creative career?
JR: Oh gosh. This is a difficult question not to appear like a wanker with… honestly I think just every time someone likes something I’ve made. Is that OK? I feel like that answer makes me seem disingenuous but it’s true.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
JR: I’d like to keep doing what I’m doing for as long as I can. Maybe add about another fifteen to 20 tour dates a year and do a bit more international touring.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
JR: Tour! I think after this run in London I’ve got another 40 odd dates around the country. Alongside that I’ll make a new show. By night I fight crime.

‘Piece Of Work’ is on at Camden People’s Theatre from 10-14 Oct, for more info and to book, head to the venue website here.  

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Photo: Rosie Collins