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theatre director extraordinaire, matthew xia sets the scene

From DJ to Director, Matthew Xia is a cultural star of London via Liverpool. Having directed the sold-out play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, to rave reviews, we catch up with the director to discuss making, destroying, dreaming and theatre daaaarling. The stage never looked so cool.

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So how did you get into directing? 
It’s been a rather odd journey. This time a decade ago I had my own hip-hop radio show on BBC 1Xtra and was pretty much set on following that path. However, I had started out as a young actor and had a small part in a film and some theatre work before music took over. It’s actually this combination that pushed me towards directing. I was recommended to a brilliant theatre director and designer, ULTZ, as someone who could help with the adaptation of a Rogers and Hart Musical called The Boys From Syracuse into a hip-hop musical called Da Boyz in 2002. ULTZ and I maintained this relationship and he became a sort of unofficial mentor and champion of the work I was doing. In 2007 he asked if I’d like to co-direct Jean Genet’s The Blacks with him. Despite not knowing what that entailed, I agreed and it was a success. Around the time my contract with the BBC ended in 2006, I was becoming a little disheartened with the DJing lifestyle and there was a lot more theatre work on offer. I decided that this was what I wanted to do because, at the heart of it, DJing and theatre directing are both about sharing stories and the power of shared experience. 

What do you think of the state of theatre today?
It’s a weird beast. It’s full of flaws like institutional racism and is often classist and elitist, but on the other hand it's a magical art form and everyone involved in it seems to be a progressive thinker. There is a huge interest in the European style of symbolism over naturalism lapping at British shores and this is having an influence on the work being created here. I try to look at the work as a pure, living art form. It helps me to see beyond the flaws and to focus on my own practice. I believe that theatre is a multi-purpose art form; it educates, entertains and can be cathartic but most importantly theatre is a public service - it’s there to create what Joan Littlewood called a continuous cycle. Stories are taken from the local community and reflected back to create and instigate a dialogue. This newly aware community then inspire the next wave of stories to be told and on it continues. Theatre - and more importantly, story telling - has always been, and always will be an essential part of the human experience. 

Are there any plays that you would love to direct? 
So many! That’s a huge part of my work - finding classic scripts I have a take on, and nurturing and discovering new writers and new stories to tell. I would love to get my teeth in to some Shakespeare in the next couple of years. I also really love the work of Philip Ridley, August Wilson and Arthur Miller. 

What's the best thing about London?
It’s my home. It completely informs my identity. It’s the best city on earth. It’s the worlds biggest cultural melting pot where you can be anyone you want to be and do anything you want to do. The opportunities are limitless. 

What is the best thing about Liverpool?
Its vibrancy and potent identity, rich and conflicted history and the music it has created and given to the world. The Everyman & Playhouse Theatres too!

You also DJ. How important is music to you? 
I can think of very few things of more importance. It informs so much of who I am and it captures and describes the invisible. I think of rhythms and melodic and harmonic texture when creating theatre. At a base level it connects to something within us and allows release and expression which is something that as humans, we just cannot live without. My direct link to music isn't over - I still write and play music. In fact, in 2012 I was one of a trio of DJs at the Paralympic Opening Ceremony. 

What made you want to direct Sizwe Bansi is Dead?
The themes are still so very relevant. Maybe we don’t live in a segregated society, and South Africa’s problems have evolved since the end of Apartheid, but the bigger issues of identity and itinerant workers looking to provide for their families are still present. I was looking for a small piece that could work in the studio space at the Young Vic and this was suggested. I fell in love with the characters and knew that an audience would too. With regards to the particular timeliness of the production, when we first started rehearsing Mandela was desperately ill. By the time we had finished the production and been told it would be restaged this year he had passed away. I think it’s important to use history to remind us of where we’re headed and our current mistakes. 

Why did you choose to segregate the audience racially at the start of the play? 
I have a strong belief that a theatre audience must be as active as possible. It’s a live art form and therefore passive spectators will only absorb the energy coming from the performers instead of encouraging and boosting them. Specifically, I wanted to locate the audience in time and place: South Africa, 1973. This was the segregated world the play was created in and protesting against and I thought it was important to remind the audience of that, but also to ask them to make a decision, to comply or kick against it? I believe art should be provocative.

Is humour important in your work? 
I think humour is important in both work and in life. I’ve always tried to find the humour in situations and think it’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves. I’m always wary of those who can’t laugh at themselves. I think with this piece in particular, the humour is akin to gallows humour - it’s the only thing that helps lift them out of this absolutely dire situation. 

What really inspires you?
Living. Watching humans destroy and build. 

In Sizwe Banzi is Dead, there is a line that says 'one must never interfere with a man's dreams'. What are your dreams for the future? 
What a beautiful line! My dreams, they change on an hourly basis. My personal dreams for the future are about my work and my family. I’m keen to keep creating work and hope to become an Artistic Director of a theatre to enable the creative dreams and ventures of others. I would like to experiment with storytelling in other forms such as film and opera (which I’ve dallied in - but would like to really commit to). I have bigger dreams for us as humans, but unfortunately I have very little control over that so I’ll carry on responding and reacting, creating and playing.