In Conversation with ‘Gypsy Queen’ Playwright Rob Ward

We last spoke to Rob Ward whilst his latest play, Gypsy Queen, was performing at London’s King’s Head Theatre as part of its regional tour. Since then, with a hundred performances under his belt, he is embarking on a new phase of the play’s evolution.

Early next year, Ward will be taking Gypsy Queen to VAULT Festival. After being hailed as the ‘future of theatre’ by Emma Thompson in 2015, the festival has slowly risen in prominence and, with its cavernous labyrinth of venues, is set to open up Ward’s play to a whole new audience.

We caught up with Rob and had a chat about the changes he’s making to Gypsy Queen, why he’s decided to take the play to VAULT, and his great work with organisations such as ‘Kick It Out’ tackling homophobia in sport.


You’ve been touring Gypsy Queen for over a year now. Why did you make the decision to extend the tour and take the play to VAULT Festival in 2018? You’ve had quite a long run!

For us, there’s always a new audience we can reach. When we saw the breakdown for VAULT and looked at all the different spaces, we really felt like there was a lot we could explore in these venues. We’re in the cave space – and it’s just got this intimacy and feel to it that fits the mood of the play perfectly.

VAULT is also gaining this lovely reputation. Someone pitched it to me as the Edinburgh Festival of London. I thought that sounded like great fun! We had a good laugh at the Edinburgh Festival this summer, so I thought it would be cool to take our show to VAULT and experiment with the play further – and, of course, we want to share our story with new audiences.

Do you feel like the play has developed since you started touring? How might these new performances be different?

There’s going to be one major change: my co-star [Ryan Clayton] from the previous run has got a small job for a couple of months on a TV soap, which coincides with VAULT – so there will be a completely new actor taking on the role! We’re still in the auditioning process but I’m hoping that it will bring a completely new energy to the piece. I reckon we’ve had around a hundred shows so far, so inevitably when someone else comes in there’s the opportunity for this new dynamic, something different and new and fresh.

In terms of the script, we’ve been working on it since we started touring. I guess one of the beauties of doing a new piece of writing is that the script is in a constant state of evolution. Our director Adam would pop along to every other performance and suddenly make small tweaks to lines and phrases – just tiny little things to bring new meanings out of the work. I imagine with a new actor in place we’ll be doing a lot of that.

Gypsy Queen only requires two actors and your last play was a one-man show. What draws you to projects with such a small cast?

There’s two answers to that question. Firstly, there’s me as a producer saying it’s less expensive to tour with fewer people! But also I always enjoy the slightly magical element of theatre, that you can get away with something like multi-rolling, with one actor playing several parts. It’s always appealed to me. I’ve loved watching shows that do it and I’ve always admired the artistry behind it, from the actor’s point of view; it’s kind of why I got into acting. I’ve just always enjoyed this style and I feel like it adds something that you wouldn’t see on telly – some theatrical magic.

It’s always good fun to see an audience interact with it. The theme of an actor playing different parts in a show almost becomes a bit of an in-joke at times between the audience and the performers. It just keeps it fun and playful, which is what theatre should be, really.

You’ve spoken in the past about your experiences with homophobia in sport that inspired Gypsy Queen. Do you think these attitudes have changed since you started touring?

The idea of homophobia in sport has risen in prominence as an issue in the past five years. It’s been propelled by some high profile sports people coming out, such as Gareth Thomas and Tom Daley.

The play was initially in response in part to comments made by Tyson Fury; since then, there’s been some terrible homophobic remarks made by Manny Pacquiao too. Even this summer while we were in Edinburgh during the run up to the Colin McGregor and Mayweather fight, Mayweather was on the microphone calling him a faggot. The crux of it comes down to this old-fashioned idea of what it is to be a man. That’s what I think keeps that culture of homophobia alive in sports. I think there really needs to be a challenge to thenotion that that it is still possible to be a gay and a ‘macho’ sportsman.

But there are some small steps forwards being made. Orlando Cruz became the first openly gay world boxing champion. I watched an interview with the Mancunian boxer who he fought earlier this year and he basically said ‘I don’t even have a problem with it. My brother’s gay.’ It doesn’t sound like much, but slowly but surely there’s little tiny steps being made.

How have you tried to challenge these notions in your work?

With my previous play [Away From Home], which was about being gay in football, I tried to go further with it and take the play to football clubs. I worked with a brilliant organisation called Kick It Out, who were set up to challenge discrimination in football, but it was just so difficult to make any progress in that world. So many doors were constantly being shut. No one seemed to want to talk about it. It made me realise that in the world of sport these tiny steps are the equivalent of big steps in other walks of life, however frustrating that is. Football clubs are still very cagey about homophobia in the sporting world, but there is still progress being made.

Films such as The Pass, which came out last year and explored the life of a gay footballer, have attempted to bring these issues to the fore, but never quite found the right audience. Who is your ideal audience?

I’ve always said that a perfect audience would be a bench full of homophobes that would sit and listen to what I have to say. But actually getting them to see a play that’s LGBT is a massive challenge.

What do you have lined up for future projects? Is there anything on the horizon after Gypsy Queen?

Me and my friend Adam Zane, who also runs Hope Theatre Company, launched a brand new LGBT writing evening and I wrote a short play for that back in summer. Gypsy Queen started out as a short play and I wasn’t quite ready to let go of it, so I explored it further. I think this short piece might have the potential to develop into something longer – I just need to take the time and make sure I know what I want to say. I’ve got so much more I want to explore.

VAULT Festival will run from 24th January to 18th March 2018. Tickets go on sale 5th December. Visit the VAULT website here: vaultfestival.com

To catch up with Rob’s work and the evolution of Gypsy Queen, visit the Hope Theatre Company website (https://www.hopetheatrecompany.com) or follow Rob Ward on Twitter at @robwardplazy.

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