The Right Billy Cowan

The Newtownards-born playwright asks the hard ethical questions in The Right Ballerina, even though he still isn’t sure of the answers

At the start of the interview prize-winning playwright and co-founder of Truant Theatre Company Billy Cowan explains apologetically that our conversation might be cut short. It happens – a better interview, a previous commitment, low battery on the phone. Or, in Cowan’s case, he went blind in one eye this morning and is at the hospital waiting for an emergency eye-operation.

‘Talking to you will take my mind off it,’ Cowan says cheerfully, although I think he might be over-estimating my interviewing technique. Still, it’s up to him.

The Right Ballerina, Newtownards-born Cowan’s most recent play, is opening at the Crescent Arts Centre on November 10. Unfortunately, the situation with his eye means that Cowan might have some trouble getting here with it.

‘I’ve been told I’m not allowed to fly,’ he explains. ‘I’d have to take the ferry.’

Still, Cowan’s going to try his hardest to get Belfast for the opening night. Not only are all his Northern Irish friends going to be there – ‘usually they have to come to England,’ he says – but Cowan used to work in the pre-renovation Crescent Arts Centre.

‘Back when I was an actor, I was part of the Out and Out theatre company,’ Cowan explains. ‘We were based in the Crescent. It’s really nice to be back.’

Of course, Cowan isn’t the only member of the production who will be bringing in friends and family members. The set designer, Colin Ecclestone, is also from Northern Ireland.

‘I interviewed him because he was a nominee for the Linbury Prize (the most prestigious UK Theatre Design competition) and he happened to mention he was from Ballymena.’

Not that Ecclestone needed that to net him the job – Ecclestone is an up and coming name in theatre design – but Curran admits that it was nice to work with someone from Northern Ireland again. Especially someone that he could give a hand-up with their career.

‘Not that I’m the only one working with him,’ he adds.

The play that brought them both back to Northern Ireland was inspired by the true story of ballerina Simone Clarke. Although Truant Theatre Company was founded by Cowan and Natalie Wilson to fill a gap n the market for an LGBT theatre company – ‘there were lots of LGBT performers and spoken word artists, but there was a shortage of traditional theatre companies,’ Cowan remembers – The Right Ballerina isn’t about LGBT issues.

Although it does, Cowan points out, deal with a forced outing. Back in 2006 The Guardian exposed Clarek, then the Prima Ballerina of the English National Ballet, as a member of the BNP. Afterwards there were protests outside the London Coliseum demanding that she be fired.

The whole situation intrigued Cowan. ‘I’m a guardian reader and I identify as a socialist,’ he says. ‘But I kept asking myself, ‘Do I believe she should lose her job?’ and I still don’t know the answer.’

He admits that it would difficult to work with someone whose ideas clashed so fundamentally with his own. ‘I definitely wouldn’t be happy about it.’ Yet at the same time, ‘ethically and morally’, he isn’t sure that he thinks they should lose their job.

Cowan takes that provocative, real life idea and runs with it. He explains that he wanted to explore all sorts of fundamentalism and to do that he needed to take the play to an ‘extreme and surreal’ place.

‘I did worry that the play could be read the wrong way,’ he admits. So far, though, it hasn’t been a problem.’

Since Cowan is looking forward to coming back to Northern Ireland for a visit, is there any chance he’d make a permanent move?

‘I’ve thought about it,’ he admits. ‘Being an Irish writer in Manchester, sometimes you feel like a fish out of water. It’s tempting, but the move hasn’t materialised yet.’

With the interview uninterrupted by a doctor, Cowan says goodbye and to watch out for him at the opening of The Right Ballerina. ‘I’ll be the one with an eyepatch.’

The Right Ballerina is at the Crescent Arts Centre November 10 – November 11