Features Q&A and Interviews Published 26 October 2015

Alistair McDowall: “I Spend a Lot of Time on the Internet.”

Andrew Haydon talks to Alistair McDowall about the inspiration behind Pomona, the influence of the internet on his work, the potency of in-the-round theatre and the changing face of Manchester.
Andrew Haydon
An exploded puzzle board. Photo: Richard Davenport

An exploded puzzle board. Photo: Richard Davenport

Andrew Haydon: So, what’s Pomona about?

Alistair McDowall: I think I keep changing my mind about it whenever I go back to it or have to do something with it. It’s a weird play. I can’t really talk about it without talking about the initial practical impulses to writing it.

I think what’s hard to communicate about a play is: sometimes you want to have some kind of big romantic idea about “I wanted to write about *this*” and “this thing happened which sparked it”, but sometimes the impulse to write a play is completely arbitrary and there’s no telling whether it’ll be good or bad based on whether it came from a high-minded place or a low-minded place. In this instance it was just “I want to write about the M60″ and “I want to write something that is – process-wise – a contrast to the last thing I’d done.” So I started doing that. And then, as the play started forming, I realised what I was really doing was writing a play about my relationships with cities. I’ve lived in Manchester for ten years now, but I work mainly in London now, so I’m down in London at least once a fortnight depending on what’s going on, which means that I’m constantly pinging back and forth between two major cities.

Wandering round London… It is a play all about motion… So; in London… If you don’t live in  London, but you spend a lot of time there time between meetings… I’ve walked so much of central London just aimlessly. It’s that thing where it’s not your home, and it’s not not your home. You feel oddly connected and disconnected from it at the same time…

So that was kind of the feel of the play. This kind of urban environment where everybody is pushing past one another at a hundred miles an hour but no one is actually connected to each other properly.

And, actually, just the place Pomona. It’s this post-apocalyptic, kind of… In and of itself it’s not that interesting a place. I mean, I guess it is: there’s a kind of history to it, but what’s interesting is that it’s right in the middle of things, and it’s empty. But I didn’t really know what to do with it. For years you just go past it, and then – a tram pulls up “This is Pomona” and then no one gets on and no one gets off – and all it was was really a running joke between me and people who use public transport. “This is The Ghost Stop.” And I just thought there was something interesting about that.

It’s a bit of a leap from that to…

This is what often happens with a play. These [elements] are all completely separate. Pomona is the oldest impulse, and then I’m on the M60, and then bubbling under all of this is the feeling of what life is like… [I was] just scribbling things down and playing with the impulse that I’m going to write something impulsive, and write more from the subconscious, and etcetera. And actually it didn’t end up like that at all, in that I ended up having to plan a lot because the plot just kept getting thicker and thicker

But how do you get from the M60 to HP Lovecraft?

In this one I left a lot more space in the actual planning process, so I could take Cthulu – who is this embodiment of the universe’s apathy – and that seemed the most logical thing in the world to fit the play around. I’d also, for a long time, wanted to do something with Dungeons & Dragons. When Dungeons and Dragons is used in plays, TV, films, whatever it’s usually used as a shorthand for “this guy’s a nerd, he likes Dungeons & Dragons…”

Or “troubled, self-harming goth…?”

Yeah. Usually, yeah. So you’re either the troubled kid or the loser kid who might get the girl at the end. But what I thought was interesting about D&D was that the mechanic of it *is theatre*. It’s the same collective imagining on the part of someone who crafts the story and people who engage with the story. It’s more active, because they’re altering the course of things, but I thought there was something to be done with that mechanism, the formal device, and it seeped in.

So it was a weird process writing this play, which is why lots of this [this explanation] is muddled and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Because it was a weird blend of really careful plot structuring merged with things just bubbling to the surface that I would allow to kind of sit. And some things would come and go and some things would stay…

PomonaAnd it was directed by Ned Bennett all the way through?

It was Ned all the way, yes. That’s another weird thing about this play, is that it’s had a very peculiar journey, in that it premièred at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama… I knew I was going to write this play and then Royal Welsh asked me to write a play for them. And, if you’re a writer, I guess particularly a writer at a certain point the drama school gig is something that you might get offered. I’d never been interested in it, because you have to write quite a specific lot of people and you’re really writing them a showcase so there’s all kinds of sub-textual expectation there, but I just really *liked* them.

I went there and Dave Bond who’s head of acting, he’s such a *nice guy* and I liked that it was – they were just about doing *good stuff*. It was a proper school, it was about people trying to get better. It didn’t seem just to be about “gotta get an agent, gotta get an agent” I wouldn’t have done that gig if I didn’t have a play, but I had this play and it seemed like a fun place to go. Now, if I was sensible, at the time, I would have written that play for my Court commission. But I didn’t. I have mostly done things in my career because it amuses me in some way and I thought it would be fun for me to write this – what I knew now – this *weird play* full of bizarre things and take it to this school full of nice people in Cardiff and so that’s why I did it. Because I thought it would be fun.

So I did it at Royal Welsh with Ned, and people seemed to like it, and it did well, and he did a really good job of it, and it turned out to be really useful because the draft I did after that honed it down quite a lot. It was a lot messier [before]. Like, for instance, that opening scene – which is kind of potentially messy – just went of for ages in Cardiff. (You know, the big scene in the car with Indiana Jones and everything.) So we honed it doing it that time, and I did another two drafts [after the Cardiff run].

When the Orange Tree wanted to do it I didn’t, like, I nearly *didn’t*. I didn’t know what to do, because the Orange Tree had a certain reputation for the sort of work it did and the audience it had, which I wasn’t necessarily against. I know a lot of people were very sniffy about it, but y’know, like; fine, whatever. People *loved* that theatre, y’know; in that area. The only reason I didn’t want to do it is not because I didn’t think it was like cool enough; I just, I didn’t want to be the guy who turned up and wrecked the party. I didn’t want to be like the naughty schoolboy who turned up and was like, “Well, you’ve been having a nice time, but here’s this horrible play for you…” But I went and met Paul [Miller, Orange Tree artistic director] and he was just really nice, and he just got it. He’d sussed pretty clearly what [the play] was about and it was written for the round, it was perfect – it was definitely written for in the round – because the big play was such a pros arch play that I thought “I’m going to do this in the round”. So we did it there.

And it did pretty well.

Alistair Mcdowall's Pomona at the Orange Tree.

Alistair Mcdowall’s Pomona at the Orange Tree.

Did the mainstream press really go for it? 

At the time I didn’t really read the reviews, because I was so sure they were going to be really bad. I have been given a bunch of them since. And, y’know, you can tell, because the theatre’s got them up on the walls and stuff anyway. But, it was mostly pretty… I don’t think Michael Billington *liked it*, but his review seemed to say “I can see this is all right” (“But, y’know, I don’t really like this”), which is fair enough. But I think most, I can’t think of… The worst reviews we got were from some of the Orange Tree regulars, who wrote letters to the theatre. But, similarly, a lot of the Orange Tree regulars really liked it and stuck around and I met a lot of them and what I loved about doing a play there, actually, was that it was a much more varied audience than I was used to. Not in many ways, but in terms of age it certainly was . There were trendy kids who’d shipped in from East London sitting next to 70- / 80-year-old folks-plus, and that was their local stomping ground. And I liked that it was… It was an odd-looking audience for an odd play.

It is nice that the older audience – that people think of as more staid… 

You know, people make a lot of assumptions. But, these people were around in the sixties, you know? I mean, it’s not… It doesn’t matter what your age is, it just matters what your life has been like. And it’s also personal preference. I wouldn’t want to go and see a play like *every night* of the week, you know? I didn’t feel affronted if someone didn’t like it because they thought it was unpleasant. I mean, it is pretty unpleasant.

And because it’s in-the-round…

It was in the round from the beginning, though it doesn’t say it in the published script – it should do actually. I’m sure maybe someone’ll try and do it a different way, but for me it has to feel like a coming together and a community. Not just that, but having people on top and on all sides – the energy.

That’s the other thing that I think is really important to think about when you’re writing a play: how am I cooking the room; what temperature am I cooking the room at.

It’s like a ring as well, scene fifteen is almost kind of like a little face-off. They’re quite short punchy scenes where it’s quite clear what people want from each other at that particular point, even if they’re not saying it.

You know, I really love the pros arch though. I think a lot of New Writers aren’t such a fan of it, Because they feel it’s distancing, but I love it: the frame. I think it’s really, really important. But for this play, from the start, it was part and parcel of it – that idea of a form reflecting the landscape.  “I want this to feel like the most communal thing it can.” Which is in-the-round.

[fag break]

AM: I really liked Teh Internets is Serious Business, and one of the main reasons I loved it is that it felt firmly rooted in *The Now*, y’know?  I don’t think that play will loose relevance in time, because it’s about right this second. I think it’s about bigger things than that. But it was really good to see something about the landscape in which we live. I spend *a lot* of time on the internet – as you can probably tell from how pale I am – so I got a lot of those jokes; I’ve been in forums like that and shit. And I thought it was really great to see a play that had actively engaged with a wider kind of cultural community than just theatre.  I thought that that was kinda exciting.

I have a lot of similarly nerdy friends who are very schooled-up on all kinds of cultural, artistic things. Friends who are really into film – you know, I’m super-into film – and novels and really into poetry, and really into music. But theatre is this kind of blackspot where they don’t really go. That’s what bums me out. That’s a market who, without even having to change a lot of the work that’s going on at the moment, would probably dig a lot of stuff that’s going on at the moment.

But [with the internet] you can get books without leaving your house now. [Theatre is ] a commitment.  I teach writing at the Court quite a bit, and the thing that I’m just constantly drilling into them is: it’s a big commitment to say to an audience “come and watch this, get a baby-sitter, leave your house, book your evening,” You know, “get dressed…”

So you have to make sure that it’s worth it on every level. So the experience, it has to only be available live. There can’t be anything where you feel like, “Oh, you could have videoed this and sent it to me, you know?” There has to be something in that room that cooks it in a way that…

Pomona at the National. Photo: Richard Davenport

Pomona at the National. Photo: Richard Davenport

Although it would be great for more shows to be livestreamed, maybe?

I’m not against the livestreaming. I always think of myself as a teenager. I grew up in the North-East, in the countryside and if I’d been able to go to the cinema and see a live-stream of stuff that was on at the Court…

But not even that; like, click-on-a-theatre’s-website-livestreaming…

Yeah. Just having some kind of availability. I started writing when I was I was sixteen and the stuff I found really helpful was things like photos of productions. To just look and see: “that stuff’s on that side of the stage” and “oh, that’s kind of how that looks.” Like *really basic stuff* that everyone ignores because it’s not really romantic, it’s just practical: here’s how a stage works. Here’s how it looks when people are stood on it.

You had the internet when you started writing. Is that right?

Maybe just. Yeah, you’re right, I will have had the internet by then. But I’ll have started writing stuff before then. It was very slow. You couldn’t do much on it. You could do MSN Messenger and stuff like that.

That’s a really interesting generational difference…

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I was writing before then. Short prose before we got the internet. The thing was, it wasn’t fast enough. You weren’t watching movies. Most of my experiences going on the internet was buying CDs, and talking to my friends. I think. Like message boards and stuff.

Because for a while it was a really text-based medium.

Yeah, and you could only go on as long as your mum didn’t want to use the phone. Which seems like such an alien, old man kind of thing to talk about now…

Well, when I was that age, it didn’t exist.

Well, there you go. So, the internet was a huge. [But] I think the internet is mentioned like once, in the whole play. It’s not mentioned many times.

I wonder if MSN Messenger and so on had an impact on your generation of playwrights. 

There was a huge amount of plays, I guess early 2000s where people were trying to dramatise the internet, and it was people saying, like, “Log on!” and people just standing in a spotlight and talking streams of text and stuff. Whereas Teh Internets is Serious Business, I thought, was a considered approach to, “How can I dramatise *this*” without it just being people sitting at… Like, did you ever see Die Hard IV?

There are people just talking about… Like, people are saying “He stole the internets!” and stuff. They’re just saying these nonsensical phrases, and just hoping no one checks up on what they’re actually saying.

Although the internet was really clunky in the days when those kinds of plays were being written…

But it was exciting territory. I remember being on there either playing some game and my dad walking past and I’d be like, “I’m talking to someone who lives in Wisconsin” or something, and it’d blow his mind. He couldn’t believe it.

But, with the play, to drag it back to that: I guess even though they don’t really talk about the internet, the form of it – again – is very internetty. It’s very like ADD, like click,click,click,click,click. The rapidity at which it moves. And the way that it flicks from story to story to story and also just the fact that once you had the internet and now if I want to see a film I don’t have to wait for it to come on TV or hope that it had a recent VHS release I can watch that like now. It’s very rare to find a film now that I cannot see in some shape or form. Like even really rare stuff I can find somehow. So that changes *everything. It just means that everyone is super- pop-culture-literate. Even people who aren’t pop-culture-literate know way more, just by osmosis.

Not just osmosis, but – and this is a *really* old-man comment – you used to have to listen to the radio, like listen to the John Peel show or something, to hear particular music, whereas now, like, music journalism, you can always put a link to the song they’re writing about. So, I grew up on a load of music journalism describing music that I was basically never going to hear and imagining so much stuff. Dan Rebellato wrote this really similar thing about Doctor Who novelisations.

Yeah! ‘Cause it was the only way you could see those episodes, ’cause they were dead. They weren’t on video, they hadn’t been released. And occasionally it’d be on TV when I was little, but everything else was just existing in these novels.

That’s a good example, because Doctor Who was, I remember when I was a kid, the re-runs they were showing were Jon Pertwee, so he was my guy, but what was interesting is that there’d be references to other stuff. The show has always been in love with its mythology and you’d hear about other beasts, or monsters.

With film, because you still weren’t streaming, I would comb car boots and stuff, because we didn’t have a video store near us, so just finding some *thing* that I’d heard about was: “Oh my god!” You don’t have that thrill any more, that’s kind of gone now.

But, to drag it back to the play, you have that character Charlie who’s playing Pokemon and into the whole D&D thing, and the Indiana Jones stuff. Because it was so weird – I was always very aware that it was a peculiar thing – [I wanted] to root it in this world of, “yeah, this guy at the beginning is very threatening and strange and unwieldy, and who knows what his motives are, but, I’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, I can connect with this” you know? That stuff helps, because that’s a shared mythology that we all have.

And it felt like that speech kind of teaches you how to watch the play.

Yeah. He’s like the crank tape, which is what they call that tape that they’d have outside freak shows, you know, “roll up, roll up, roll up” kinda thing. He’s like the ringmaster, like, “come on in! Weird things afoot!” That’s always my favourite thing whenever I watch the play – you can feel when the audience is getting what it is…

What’s weird is the stuff that’s woven in is mostly American popular culture. But the stuff that was an influence on the story and narrative and character was mostly either novels particularly Infinite Jest and Thomas Pynchon’s writing. But, probably more than that, Japanese anime, manga, like Akira, there’s a series called Paranoia Agents, and a series called Neon Genesis Evangelion, but those shows, and that whole kind of anime culture of how they allow children or younger people to function within the story, which is the character of Keaton, the young girl who’s this kind of Angel of Death , who’s this kind of urban myth – she’s ripped straight out of something like Akira or Neon Genesis, this god-like child, although in a more grounded way, I mean, she doesn’t have, like, actual powers, or at least doesn’t seem to, she’s more like Don’t Look Now, this figure that haunts the landscape.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion

I was reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy and he creates these characters that are just like forces of nature who seem carved out of the landscape in which those books are set. And I thought it was interesting to try and boil down one of these very male, rampaging death characters into this girl, like a notably small girl. And without it being cutesy or kind of flippant. Actually kind of investigating how someone like that would shift through that landscape. And that even if she doesn’t have an emotional grasp on people, she seems to have such a grasp of how the currency of the play works. She goes *places* and does *this*. And she’s only flummoxed when a different emotion happens that she can’t process.

With the Cormac McCarthy thing, maybe the characters end up like that because the landscape’s like that?

Yeah. That was definitely a conscious thing, with underpasses and canals and flyovers. And concrete rather than rock. And brick. That’s something that’s really struck me about Manchester, it’s not that concrete-y, actually. It’s brick. It’s a weird city now.  I’ve been here ten years and it’s changed so much. There just seem to be new buildings just popping up overnight. It’s really becoming like London 2.0. It’s really strange. It definitely felt like the right time to write that play, even though it’s not about Manchester in the slightest, like it’s got nothing to do with Manchester… And also, it’s not a dystopia, which a lot of people seemed to claim… There’s no science-fictiony elements in there really…

There’s an underground breeding thing!

It doesn’t matter! That’s within the realms of contemporary possibility. It’s just a large place with beds.

I thought that was completely science fiction.

I guess that’s allowed. But there are huge underground air-raid shelters in Manchester which you could kit out and do whatever with, if you owned them, so it seemed like a bit of a stretch to me, but it’s not like 1984. The rest of the play is very much like people sitting around in the rain and in like scuzzy rooms and stuff. So even though the play is not *about* Manchester, it’s got that same tension [between] that contemporary buzz of life and this more industrial, older…

Of course, there are those planning applications in to build on Pomona now.

It’s fun to me that the play will be geographically out-of-date so soon.

Pomona is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, from 29th October – 21st November 2015


Andrew Haydon

Andrew Haydon was a freelance theatre critic (FT, Guardian, Time Out, etc.). He was also the editor of the CultureWars theatre section between 2000-2010, where he discovered exciting new theatre thinkers, including Andy Field, Matt Trueman and Miriam Gillinson. Then he went to Berlin for a while. Now he seems to be back for a bit. His blog here: http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/



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