Simon Stephens

Photo by Kevin Cummins

Simon Stephens is one of the UK’s most prolific and celebrated playwrights. His plays include Bluebird (Royal Court, 1998); Herons (Royal Court, 2001); Port (Royal Exchange, 2002); One Minute (Crucible Theatre, 2003 and Bush Theatre, 2004); Christmas (Bush Theatre, 2004); Country Music (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 2004); On the Shore of the Wide World (Royal Exchange Theatre and National Theatre, 2005); Motortown (Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, 2006); Pornography (Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hanover, 2007; Edinburgh Festival/Birmingham Rep, 2008 and Tricycle Theatre, London, 2009); Harper Regan (National Theatre, 2008); Sea Wall (Bush Theatre, 2008 and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 2009); Heaven (Traverse Theatre, 2009); Punk Rock (Lyric Hammersmith, and Royal Exchange Theatre, 2009); The Trial of Ubu (Essen Schauspielhaus / Toneelgroep Amsterdam, 2010); A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (co-written with David Eldridge and Robert Holman; Lyric Hammersmith, London, 2010); Marine Parade (co-written with Mark Eitzel; Brighton International Festival, 2010); T5 (Traverse Theatre, 2010); Wastwater (Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, 2011); Morning (Lyric Hammersmith, 2012); an adaptation of A Doll’s House (Young Vic, 2012); an adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (National Theatre, 2012); Blindsided (Royal Exchange, 2014); and Birdland (Royal Court, 2014); Carmen Disruption (Deutsches Schauspielhaus, 2014 and Almeida, 2015); The Funfair (Home Theatre, 2015); Heisenberg (Manhatton Theatre Club, 2015); Song From Faraway (Young Vic, 2015); The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre, 2016) Nuclear War (Royal Court, 2017); Obsession (Barbican, 2017); Lightfalls (Royal Exchange, 2019)

Unpredictability, volatility and uncertainty

Phil: What is theatre?

Simon: I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question. In order to answer I’d need to ask the question, what do things need for me to happily define them as theatre? What makes theatre different to cinema? What makes theatre different to sport? What makes theatre different to religion?

Performers in theatre, even in the most rigorous and specific form of documentary, are engaged in a making of a fiction. The audience is not gathering to watch a real event. You can tell when a theatre has been interrupted, for example, if an actor has a heart attack on stage, that’s no longer a performance, instead, you’re watching a trauma play out in real-time. That suggests to me that theatre is performers engaged in the creation of a fiction for a gathering of people to engage with in order for them to think for a while about their life.

Also, metaphor is communicated more directly in theatre than in sport for example, because it’s a fiction. We can watch a miserable Manchester United and Arsenal game and find all manner of metaphors for living in the twenty-first century or the decline of capitalism, but that’s not what the performers are doing, they’re trying to win a football match. Metaphor in sport is interpreted if the audience wants to interpret it. But in theatre, because the performers are committed to some form of fiction, they’re committed to creating some form of metaphor.

I would say theatre is an attempt from a performer or collection of performers to use fiction to interrogate something metaphorically that a collection of people might engage in and think about for a bit.

Phil: How about cinema? What makes theatre different to cinema?

Simon: I went to watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the other week with my son and my wife, it was really good, I really enjoyed myself, but if I went to watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tonight it would be exactly the same film. If I went to watch it when I go to Manchester tomorrow, it would be exactly the same film. Later in the year I’m going to Tokyo, and New York, and Inverness and if I watch it in any of those places, regardless of who I was watching it with, it will be exactly the same film. A film is a performance captured and shaped after the capturing and then finished. A theatrical experience is alive. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any better, I’ve seen some films that have astonished me much more powerfully than many plays have. But the distinguishing characteristic of theatre, however, is that there’s a liveness about it.

Every time an actor plays a scene in a play, the people in the theatre, the people in the auditorium, the people on the stage with them, change and affect the performance so it’s slightly different every time. A good performance is different every night. It’s alive and it’s volatile and it’s unpredictable and it’s magical. To not celebrate that unpredictability or that volatility or that uncertainty as being a fundamental element of theatre would, to a degree, miss the point of theatre.

Marshal and shape

Phil: Why is the word playwright interesting?

Simon: I say I was earning my living as a playwright before I knew why it was spelt with a ‘ght’. The assumption that I’d always made was that it was some kind of misspelling: Samuel Johnson got drunk in a pub in Southwark when he was compiling the dictionary and spelt it wrong and it stuck! But the compound noun playwright stems not from the verb which in its past tense is to have written but from the verb which in its past tense is to have wrought. I’m not a playwriter, I’m not a writer, I’m a wright and just like a shipwright has wrought a ship or a cartwright has wrought a cart, I’ve always thought that a playwright has wrought a play. We’re a shaper or a maker, not a writer. I’ve always found this an inspiring and encouraging idea. It’s helped me get my head around the idea that some of the most powerful moments in plays might be moments of great inarticulacy or moments of silence that the playwright has marshalled and shaped. Mark Haddon pinpoints the difference between a playwright and a novelist to one example from Curious Incident. He says that the funniest line in the stage play, for people who’ve seen it, was when the headteacher character stands up and says, “Okay.” It always gets the biggest laugh of the night. He says that ‘okay’ could never be the funniest line in a novel because in the theatre it can be placed, and shaped, and timed. Then recently on Twitter I came across somebody saying that originally the noun playwright was an insult coined by Ben Jonson. It was used as an insult to describe writers for theatre who weren’t good enough to think of themselves as poets. The great writers for theatre were poets and the lumpen ones were playwrights. I like that new discovery, it’s really fun that everything I’ve been celebrating about my craft and my work had been intended as an insult.

Time and death

Phil: Music directly influences your plays; what are the similarities between music and theatre and how does the theatricality of music inform your writing?

Simon: The element that is shared between theatre and music that’s really imperative is the time-based medium. I think a lot of people who come to be a playwright from a literary tradition rather than a theatrical background, like actors or directors, they find the time-based thing trickiest to get their heads around. If you’re writing a poem or a novel the reader is in control of the time, in theatre the artist controls the time, we decide how long it will take. That’s the same as music, it’s by necessity a time-based medium. It’s not like the plastic arts where we can look at a painting for as long as we want, three hours or thirty seconds. If I want to see a play I’d have to sit there for as long as it is and it’s the playwright’s job to control the experience of time. I get a lot of inspiration from the way musicians control time.

An example of something I’m listening to a lot is Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s new album Ghosteen. It’s a double album, on vinyl it’s four sides, it’s an hour and twenty minutes long and for me, it’s an immensely theatrical experience. It’s theatrical because on shuffle it’s ruined, you have to listen to it in the right order. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the co-composer of the album, are absolutely in control of where the album starts and how it ends, and they’ve imagined the journey from the beginning to the end of the whole experience. There are linguistic images that are set-up and repaid throughout. There are characters: the character of Ghosteen, as well as the fictional character of Nick Cave. They use time, linguistic images, and characters, which are all elements that you use when you’re making a play.

I think in linguistic terms the sound of words still informs my work; just how words sound: consonant choices, vowel choices, length of sentences, length of words, length of phrases, length of dialogue, rhyme. Rhythm is communicated in a play-text through the length of things, so for me, rhythm in plays comes from length of words, length of phrases, length of sentences, length of scenes, length of acts, length of play. They’re all kind of concertinaed out.

Light Falls is an example that I’ve been working on recently. The metabolism of the thinking that underpins Light Falls is it’s a play about a death within a family. It’s a three-part structure which is a musical kind of thing in itself. It starts off with a monologue of a character on her own and then you have a whole lengthy part where there’s a whole layering of multiple narratives and then the final bit is one naturalistic scene where the characters are all drawn together. That structure has a musical gesture in that it seems to speak of a kind of redemption, a bringing together of disparate elements. I always say I learnt more about dramatic structure from listening to Pixies than anything else because you’ve just got loud bit, quiet bit, loud bit.

I think music and theatre are two art forms that are different from painting because they control time in their form. Therefore, music and theatre are a consideration of mortality, because in their form they end, and when an art form ends, it affects us, because it’s a metaphor for dying. Whether the audience or the artist is aware of it is totally irrelevant; it is a metaphor for death.

Disorder and Disruption

Phil: What’s the relationship between the rational and the irrational when making a piece of theatre?

Simon: I think another element that is fundamental to theatre is humanity, humanness. I think plays have always got humans, even Caryl Churchill’s new play, which had people who were characters on a mantlepiece, fundamentally only worked if we agree that their metaphors for humans. If cats had really been about cats, I doubt it would have run on Broadway for twenty years, it would have involved a lot more sleeping and occasionally a random kill. Fewer ballads about love and many more scenes about random violence and sleeping. So, all theatre’s about humanity. Thinking about what a human is has been really central to my practice. When we make a play, we marshal behaviour. Our works not about utterance, it’s about behaviour, but behaviour can be linguistic. Sometimes there can be a contradiction between utterance and action, utterance and behaviour. In simple terms, you can say one thing but mean something else. The job of the wright, the job of the craftsperson, the job of the playwright is to marshal the tension between utterance and action.

It’s been helpful in my practice to think that people largely do things because they want things, and there are obstacles preventing them from getting what they want. I play this out in consideration of a character’s death. So, if I’m working with students, I’m often asking what a character wants before they die? What’s stopping them from getting it? What are they going to do in order to get it? The character is then revealed by the behavioural choice. For example, two characters, two people, two different 15-year-old kids and they both want a new coat from Westfield, but they’ve not got enough money. One kid will behave in one way to get the coat and the other kid will behave in another way to get the coat and what they do will define their character.

Character is defined by the negotiation of obstacles in pursuit of desire.

Then you read Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and an economist who won the Nobel prize for economics. In the early 2000s he predicted the idea that people don’t do stuff because of what they want they just do stuff, and after they’ve done it, they construct a narrative to make sense of what they’ve done. Their behaviour is rational, it’s fucking random. He won the Nobel prize for economics because if people just do shit then they will just buy shit, and afterwards you can tell them why they needed to buy the thing that they had no need for. So, as a playwright, traditionally I’d think that a character will say or do the things that will help them overcome the obstacles to get what they want, but maybe I should stop thinking about that. Maybe I should start having characters who should just say or do shit, and I don’t know what they’re going to say or do next. Therefore, there’s a tension between a rigorous marshalling of a character’s rational behaviours as they pursue their desires in the face of their death and the chaos of irrational human behaviour. You can see that in Heisenberg, the Uncertainty Principle. I tried to have characters whose behaviour and utterances were more irrational and when I wrote it, I didn’t know what they were going to do next.

The rational and the irrational is mapped out in the shaping of the narrative of the play, but it also just comes out in an energy. If my wife walks past the room that I’m writing in, she’ll hear me laughing but I won’t be necessarily writing gags. In fact, I might be writing the stage directions at the end of Punk Rock, where William Carlisle just shoots people randomly. It’ll make me laugh because the creative space of generation is an anarchic space in which, by necessity, you’re permitted to be disruptive and disobedient.

In my teaching, I’ve started talking about the three stages of a play being wrought which would be the generation of the material, the selection of material, and the articulation of material. We generate, select and articulate.

There’s a tension between the generation of material and the other two stages because at the point of generation you have an ethical commitment to be chaotic and disordered and disruptive. That’s why society needs artists because it’s only when you’re allowed to do that, that you speak the unspeakable and say the unsayable.

Control of my craft

Phil: Some people may say that it’s impossible to teach people to be a playwright because it is innate and connected to ideas of genius. However, you do a lot of work supporting other playwrights, or visiting schools, or teaching on the MA/MFA at Manchester Metropolitan University. Why is it important for you to share your experience and thinking?

Simon: I think the genius thing is really poisonous. There are two reasons I share stuff, one is a political reason and the other is a selfish reason. The selfish reason comes from my sense that a writer or an artist or a wright, a playwright who celebrated entirely their instinctive approach to their work would never really understand the craft of what they were doing. Therefore, they would find it difficult to repeat, they wouldn’t be able to do it again. I’ve done a shit ton of other jobs, I’ve been a door-to-door salesman, a teacher in a school, a DJ, I’ve worked in cafés and bars, but my favourite job is being a playwright. I really like doing it and I really want to carry on doing it. I realised early on in my working life that if I’m going to carry on doing this, I can’t depend on instinct, I need to have control of my craft so I can do it again. If I can identify what I’ve done, I can do it again. So, to get a body of work that is sustained over years you need to understand what you’re doing. I couldn’t just walk into a classroom of people and say you’ve just got to feel it, it’s bullshit, it’s a lie.

To be able to communicate the craft, you need to understand it. In order to think of exercises that allow writers to consider certain elements of the craft, you need to have considered those elements in an analytical way. To analyse it and communicate it will make you better at it.

The political reason: I think the construct of genius is a deliberate and sustained attempt to alienate women, non-white people and non-rich people. If I can offer anything that might dismantle the ideological notion of genius, it’s to encourage women, encourage working-class people, encourage people from all kinds of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds that they can write plays.