Steven: Why’d you write that?
Joel: Christ, really? Well, the Arts Council said that Peterborough was a ‘cultural cold spot’. Jargon for ‘hardly anyone there goes to anything arty’. So Eastern Angles commissioned me to ‘respond’ to Peterborough.
Steven: So you wrote about a man who dresses up like a diva in his suburban living room.
Joel: Yes. Well, about someone trying to control their own, and their loved one’s identity. And I wanted to write in a new way; I was a bit bored of my own voice.
Steven: Do you mean writing very different characters or the change in form with all the narration and songs?
Joel: Well, I felt everything I was writing was a bit familiar and pandering so I approached this one differently. I was heavily influenced by poets such as Galway Kinnell and Simon Armitage and directed it to tell the story visually. So this one’s a lot more poetic.
Steven: It looks like a piece of cabaret. Did that world influence you?
Joel: Yes, totally. Kiki and Herb, Taylor Mac, the tradition of drag acts miming to songs. Really I just took the star and accompanist dynamic from cabaret, and the idea that it’s sometimes easier to tell a room of strangers your most intimate secrets than it is to tell someone you love. Somehow it ended up becoming a play. You’ve got Mannish in your production – he’s amazing!
Steven: Did you identify specific cabaret elements you wanted in? How much of that stuff was in the script, or was that from your director’s hat later?
Joel: I realized I’ve been trying to direct my plays through the stage directions and how crap that must be for directors. So none of it’s in the script. But I knew I was going to be directing it while I was writing it, so some of those ideas influenced the writing.
Steven: One more. The audience. Do you invite them to respond? On the day I came we were being addressed but noone spoke back. Have they? Would you mind if they did?
Joel: That’s exactly the atmosphere we want, a conversational, confessional atmosphere. I love theatre for its ephemeral, live and necessarily interactive qualities. Milo Twomey (who plays Lulu) can handle it, he’s brilliant. Jay Taylor (who plays Hew) is so secure in his character that he’ dprobably have a mild breakdown. Which would be utterly appropriate. Now, my turn. Why did you write Punch?
Steven: Christ, really? Well I was commissioned to write a piece for these two actors and they had certain ideas and a certain type of play they wanted. I took some of their suggestions and played with them; for example they said ‘We’d be interested in a play about Punch and Judy’, so I said, ‘OK, but it would have to be set in Haringey.’ It’s astonishing how supportive they’ve been considering what I gave them. In the end I’ve written a play about lots of questions I’ve been struggling with for years – ever since I wanted to be a stand-up comic as a young boy and was bemused when the church drama group wouldn’t let me repeat a Dave Allen routine because it contained the word ‘gang-bang.’ I thought a gang-bang was a sort of party. It is, right?
Joel: Yes. A ‘sort of’ party is exactly right. So did you know Matthew Floyd Jones as Mannish? Did that change how you wrote for him?
Steven: I didn’t actually. I’ve seen Frisky & Mannish since a few times– they’re brilliant. But I did write specifically for Matthew and Kirsty (Mann, the other half of Punch) and we improvised scenes first. I’ve enjoyed pushing Mathew into new areas, like the stand-up bits he has to perform. They’re terrifying. They really divide the audience so he has to put up with a lot of hostility on some nights in a very intimate space.
Joel: Kirsty’s some kind of genius. She studied Physiology and everything.
Steven: Yeah, Kirsty and Matthew met at Oxford, in fact I’m the only non-Oxford bod in the room; our director Jess Edwards is another one. This was all part of a cynical attempt on my part to manoeuver myself into more successful social circles.
Joel: Did it work?
Steven: Well, we’re producing a play in a car park in the middle of the afternoon. You don’t get better than that.
Joel: Is it true that Tom Stoppard and Mark Rylance bankrolled your production? (And I use ‘bankrolled’ loosely here…)
Steven: Well, yes, they were very kind. They haven’t seen it yet, but I think they’d enjoy it. The play contains heightened language that I found in archaic dictionaries, which I think they’d both appreciate.
Joel: What’s your favourite?
Steven: There are loads, but it’s hard not to laugh at the word ‘betwattled.’
Joel: Totes amaze. And what’s this about Burning Man Festival?
Steven: I’ve been writing site-specific theatre for festivals for a couple of years now. It’s fun. At Burning Man we’re playing on a massive art-car that will look like a Victorian steamboat, out on the red rock of the desert playa. It was going to be a promenade piece but now it’s grown into this three-act epic, with a mixture of my writing and extracts of poetry. It’s mad, and probably it never would/could be performed in any other setting, which is the joy of it. I think theatre has to respond to its place and time, hence bringing a play about stand-up and offense to the Edinburgh Festival. There will be a small stage in front of the boat, basic lighting, some actors and an audience. Oh, and a nine-piece band sound tracking the play from the top deck. What more do you want?
Joel: How come you’re so much cooler than me?
Steven: Hard to say, mate, hard to say. But I did just get ID’d for rizlas.