Renowned and award-winning poet, playwright and performer, Louise Wallwein has made a name for herself as an explosive artist that detonates the imagination of her audiences around the world – from Manchester all the way to the Sydney Opera House. She was recognised in The Queens Birthday Honours 2018 with an MBE for Outstanding Contribution to Literature and Music and Services to the Community.
It was recently announced that Louise Wallwein MBE would be taking on the role of Advocate at Manchester’s Contact Theatre, a venue known across the UK as a hub of creativity for young and emerging voices. We caught up with Louise to talk about her art and the importance of protests.
Congratulations on your MBE! How did it feel when you found out you would be recognised in The Queens Birthday Honours 2018?
Thank you very much! Well, I was surprised, quite scared but then ultimately quite proud of myself. My next thought was about how I could use it to continue to support the causes that matter to me. Such as care leavers and refugees – the displaced people of the world.
The royal appointment recognises all of my achievements as an artist and as an activist.
It sounds like you were able to make a life for yourself in the arts through passion and determination. How important is knowing your self-worth?
I think knowing your self-worth is one of the hardest things to truly know. It’s a daily struggle for me.
Being a working-class butch lesbian and growing up in care, I’ve had to overcome a multitude of barriers to reach this point in my life where I can start to feel like I’m successful in my fields. I’m still that person that lived through all of that. I’ve still faced all the negative stereotyping of me in the world of the arts.
You were part of the now-historic anti-Section 28 protests in Manchester in 1988. 30 years on, how do you feel activism has changed and why does it remain so important?
Activism will always remain important. Young people need every opportunity possible to make art and make a protest. Fascism is on the rise and has been for some time, therefore we all need to be ever vigilant about that. This is a time for unity and solidarity across many causes.
People are still being murdered in racist and homophobic attacks. Trans people are being murdered and kicked out of home too soon. There are 67 million refugees. Just because some of us have achieved equality doesn’t mean we forget those in the world that don’t – activism is sexy anyway, we all should be doing it. Speaking up and speaking out not just for ourselves but for all.
What does your role as Advocate at Contact Theatre entail?
Mainly shouting out about what role the arts can take in empowering young people. Contact was my lifeline when I was a kid just out of care. It raised me, gave me my first break as a writer and performer. The arts play a vital role in creating young leaders.
How do you think the newly-revamped Contact will blend together what it’s already known for alongside something new?
Contact will forever be on the front line in the community and the wider theatre world, bringing challenging and entertaining new voices to light.
How important is Contact Theatre and the work it does, not just within the local community but on a wider scale too? How has it impacted you and your life?
According to Lawrence Till, who is the Director of Contact Youth Theatre, I exploded in my first workshop in 1987. I was a volatile child and I had just left the care system. The world was afire with homophobia and youth unemployment. Contact became the place where I could test out my politics and learn to express them through poetry and theatre. I acted in plays by Edward Bond and Caryl Churchill.
Contact threw me a lifeline and, at the same time, taught me how to be a collaborator. I wrote my first play aged 17. It took a while longer to become a professional artist, but when I did, I kept on detonating in many theatres across the UK and around the world. My play ‘Skid 180’ went as far as the Sydney Opera House. Contact was the first place I could just be me.
You wrote her first play at the age of 17. For anyone trying to get into the world of performing/playwriting, what piece of advice do you have for them that you wish you knew back then?
Don’t worry about what you should be doing or what others are doing, go with your gut. When I wrote my first play I had absolutely no idea how to do it, I wrote from pure instinct. Your instinct and your gut make for great art.
Listen to others but make your first marks on the page your own, your imagination knows how to do so much. Be open-minded and listen to directors and fellow theatre-makers, and learn how to collaborate as theatre is a purely collaborative space.
You took a fifteen year hiatus. What was the catalyst for that hiatus and also the catalyst for coming back?
It was a performance hiatus, I continued to write many plays and work with thousands of people as a poet working in the community. The catalyst for the performance hiatus is in my show ‘Glue’ and is related to my search for my birth mother.
‘Glue’ tells the story of the search for my birth mother and, ultimately, my identity. I was adopted at birth, then grew up in 13 children homes. Through this search for my mother I was hoping that I could build a picture of who I was as I have spent most of my life not knowing anything about how I came to be. For example, last year I took a DNA test and discovered I”m Irish Welsh with a bit of Norwegian which is actually great because, for some reason, I’ve got one of those faces that people question so now I can finally tell them a straight answer.
You’ve had a very impressive and varied career. What’s next on the agenda?
More plays! I’ve been commissioned by Manchester Camerata and have a top-secret project in the pipeline with the Royal Exchange Theatre.
Contact Theatre is currently undergoing major building redevelopment. The £6.65million project will transform the building for the next generation of audiences, artists and young people. During this time, Contact will present a year-long diverse programme of performance taking place in partner venues and unexpected spaces. You can find out more here.