The playwright chatted to us about his new play Sorry, You’re Not a Winner produced by Paines Plough and opening at the Theatre Royal Plymouth from 24th February for a limited two week run before touring around the UK.
How did the commission come about? David Prescott, who was Artistic Associate at Theatre Royal Plymouth at the time, came to see Shook and indicated that he might like to chat about work in the future and then I was contacted by Paines Plough.Theatre Royal Plymouth and Paines Plough co-commission has been a long-running connection between the two organisations. Things like Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love, James Graham’s The Angry Brigade and more recently Sam Steiner’s You Stupid Darkness!. So it was a slot with a bit of history behind it, which is really exciting.
When I originally got asked into Paines Plough, it was quite an informal chat. They said they really liked Shook and asked if I had anything that I might want to work on with them. I pitched them a couple of ideas of plays that I wanted to write, including this one. I didn’t hear from them while they were making things work behind the scenes and then I got a call from Katie Posner, Joint Artistic Director of Paines Plough with Charlotte Bennett, who said,” We really want to take Sorry You’re Not A Winner forward with TRP, it’s this slot in the drum. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the plays?” And of course, Love, Love, Love, and You Stupid Darkness!, I’ve read all these plays, and I saw James Graham’s. It was an exciting phone call to get, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
What is it like to work with Paines Plough? Amazing. I love Paines Plough. I remember there were two potential commissions that I was in the running for at the time. A friend of mine asked if you could only get one of the commissions, which one would you prefer? And it was Paines Plough, hands down.
I didn’t grow up in London, so I really value Paines Plough’s work, taking really high-quality work to regional spaces and communities. When you grow up in London, you have access to so much culture and so many arts venues, and that’s not necessarily the case in many parts of the country. You grow up in a town outside of a city as I did, and it’s just not really accessible in the same way. I was really proud and pleased to be asked to write this play for Paines Plough.
Making theatre in covid times is always a bit bumpy, and it’s a bit of a balancing act. The play had already been kicked back once, but I think making allowances for that has been so far fairly smooth. But touch wood (you don’t want to count your chickens) generally, it has been very smooth and very enjoyable. We are now putting a cast together, and the creative team are all there. It’s starting to feel real now.
Where did the inspiration for the play come from? The inspiration came from quite a personal place. The last play I wrote, Shook, was personal because the characters were loosely based on people I knew. This time, it’s a little more personal because it’s a journey I have experienced.
Hopefully, there is a universality to the play. A lot of people know what it’s like to leave home and potentially feel a bit lost and conflicted about whether you want to go back or carry on living away. That sense of ‘what does home really mean?’ and ‘what does it represent?’
I didn’t go to Oxford or anything like that, but it definitely has some personal resonance. The central relationship in the play is quite closely drawn with a mate of mine.
Can you tell us a little more about the main themes in the play? The main theme in the play is questioning and interrogating social mobility – it asks what it means, is it real, and if so, is it always positive? The idea of social mobility is often sold as inherently positive. If you are from a working-class community and a working-class background, you should aspire to leave and succeed in some way. Or, in order to succeed, you have to leave. And those two things are sort of inextricably linked. I’ve always questioned that idea because, for working-class people, moving through the world can be quite alienating. You are basically being asked to shed who you were before, and a lot of the people you know, to become someone new.
Male friendship is also a big part of the play and how that endures. I think we all know that it often doesn’t endure in the same way that maybe female friendships do. That is certainly one of the lenses that will hopefully speak to people.
What do you think the audience will take away from the play? Questioning social mobility and social class is quite a complex issue. It’s kind of nebulous. It’s not a black and white issue. In my previous play, it was about the justice system not being fit for purpose and how it’s failing the young men who go into it. That’s quite a simple thing that people can get on board with.
Trying to interrogate what social class means and what it means to move through it in different ways is something many people have very different opinions on and very different experiences of. Hopefully, people will question their place in that system and think about the structure of the institutions that are in place in our society.
Is there a typical creative process that you follow when writing? No, I tend to write every day. I’m a little and often kind of person. I’ve got friends who are wonderful writers who will sit and think on a play for 8 weeks and not put a single word on the page. Then in a sort of flurry of activity, they will write an amazing play in three days. I can’t do that.
I take a lot from personal experiences, anecdotes, things that me and my friends have been through. I’ll talk to them a lot about things that may have slipped my mind. You build up the plays that way.
When you’re representing young working-class men, it’s important that the characters don’t feel two dimensional. In the media, they are often presented in a way that I think is quite reductive. It’s important that the characters feel rich, authentic and make choices that are surprising but feel true to them. It’s making sure that the characters feel like they come off the page and feel like real people. That takes quite a long time which is a big part of the creative process.
The fun bit begins when you get into the rehearsal room, and then you get actors’ brains on it and the director’s brain on it. That’s when the play really comes to life, and you start to realise what you have got.
There’s only so far you can take it when you are in the kitchen on your own saying the words out loud. Until you get people questioning it and pulling it apart and seeing how far it can be pushed, that’s when it gets really exciting. That’s the bit we all look forward to, and that’s why we make theatre, right? Because we want to hang out with other people and have a nice time and enjoy the creative process rather than sit on our own for hours and hours a day.
Can you tell us about your relationship with the Director Jesse? Working with Jesse is always challenging. Not because of him, because we challenge each other, and I think the best creative relationships do that. We worked together before on a play called Champ at Tobacco Factory Theatres in Bristol in 2016. It was a great process that I think we both got a lot out of. I really wanted to work together again. Even if we are not working directly together on a play, I will often ask Jesse for input on a project. It’s an ongoing relationship that I find hugely beneficial to my work.
Jesse is never scared to tell me when he thinks something is not working. You can only develop a relationship like that over time and with trust. I’ve known Jesse now for 10 years, and in the early days of making theatre, he was like a big brother to me. When I first entered the world of theatre, I felt a bit out of place. I wasn’t sure if I could write stories like this or if there would be an audience for them or interest in them. Stories that resonated with me and reflected communities that I had grown in and places that I had grown up. Jesse made me realise that that was possible. He was one of the first people to give me the confidence to write from my own experience.
It’s always a pleasure to work with him. It’s been great as well to watch him develop as a director. In the 10 years that I’ve known him, he’s gone from strength to strength with his own work and with The Wardrobe Ensemble. To get him on board with this project is incredibly exciting.
To find out more about Sorry, You’re Not a Winner and where you can see it being performed visit: https://painesplough.com/productions/sorry-youre-not-a-winner/