Features Q&A and Interviews Published 2 November 2015

Jon Brittain & Vinay Patel: “More Stories, Told Well”

Playwright Jon Brittain and his friend, fellow playwright Vinay Patel engage in an email exchange about identity politics, appropriation, trans narratives, the ownership of stories and Brittain's new play, Rotterdam.
Jon Brittain
Rotterdam at Theatre 503

Rotterdam at Theatre 503

VINAY: Jon, when I last read a draft of your play, Rotterdam, it started with an e-mail someone wanted to send but was finding difficulty with. So it goes with me, wanting to ask you lots of interesting, pertinent questions about Rotterdam, a play that delves into how a relationship works within a world of gender fluidity, but terrified that I don’t know the words, that I won’t get the terminology right without plundering through the comments section of a Laurie Penny article, and I know I’m going to end up doing some blunt intersectional comparisons so apologies in advance for all that. But I want to get it right, I want to talk about it to others, I want to discuss “cis-gender” with my step-mum without her asking if I’m talking about a new cleaning fluid.

First question: How do you talk to a broad audience that on one hand is incredibly switched on to what you’re looking at and on the other doesn’t have a clue?

JON: I think you’ve honed in on one of my major goals with the play, to create a space where people can think about and emotionally engage with issues and experiences that they may have only considered superficially.

When I started writing Rotterdam a few years ago there was a lot less in popular culture about trans issues, and definitely very little that dealt with it in a comic or positive way. There was a bit more stuff on the fluidity of sexual orientation, such as Bob and Rose and Mike Bartlett’s play Cock but to my knowledge they’d never been explored in the same piece.

Over the last few years there has been much more trans-visibility, but, like you say, a lot of people only know surface details that they’ve gleaned from Guardian articles or Orange is the New Black. They still haven’t properly engaged in the experiences of trans people and the trans community. It’s a sort of passive liberalism, accepting people without question, but not engaging with their experiences (and by this I mean their emotional experiences rather than the details of their medical history which are, to quote John Oliver, none of our fucking business). I’m as guilty as it as anyone and it was only after a couple of my friends transitioned that I realised how little I knew about their experiences. Hopefully Rotterdam will be entertaining for people who know a lot about the issues already, but also accessible and engaging for people who have never considered it at all. Hopefully they will walk away better informed than when they went in.

VINAY: On that recent visibility, a TV exec recently said to me, in an unguarded moment: “Trans is so in right now”. Behind the dazzlingly tone-deaf comment, I suppose there is a truth to the idea that trans stories are more visible and more popular than in the past, with shows like Boy Meets Girl, Transparent and a host of unscripted programmes to boot. I’d like to think that the novelty is a slightly awkward stage of bedding in to the popular conscience, (even though I do often wonder for any marginalised group how useful or wanted that assimilation ultimately is.)

Anyway…do you see that hunger for these stories as encouraging or are you worried that there’s a news cycle element to the programming – that after the appetite has past, people will become almost jaded to them? See them as done?

JON: Yeah, I’ve heard similar comments. It’s been a bit weird telling people about this play actually. I’ve been working on it for over four years off and on and so when people say things about it like ‘oh, this is so now’ I feel like I need to let them know I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon. I think it’s a really good thing that more work is being made about trans people’s experience – it’s certainly about time. But the problem with the ‘hunger’ as you describe it is that there is a danger that some of this work will be made in a hurry and will feel more exploitative than representative, and, like you say, once the ‘moment’ is over, the work stops being made at all. I think the mission now is to keep the conversation going. I think there’ll be a time when the initial surge of work dies down and people do become jaded, I think that’s inevitable, but hopefully there will have been enough quality artists and work that came through in this period that it can never go back to the way it was before when there was next to none.

Rotterdam at Theatre 503

Rotterdam at Theatre 503

VINAY: A person once asked me if my own play that involved the 7/7 bombings was necessary considering Simon Stephens had nailed it. I’d like to think that, like with the TV exec, this was slightly clumsy phrasing but I think that it brings out this awkward thing that exists of one person’s reality being someone else’s fashionable dramatic territory. I tell myself I want to live in a world when anyone can write anything, act anything, that in most cases the idea of appropriation is silly, and people should just be able to enjoy and investigate whatever takes their fancy and I believe I do, and yet…my response (in my head) to that Stephens comment was basically “get fucked, you massive bellend.”

Despite my best wishes, I would feel pretty pissed off if the defining commentary around something that hugely affected me came from someone I felt was just toying with it as a curiosity, even if my effort wasn’t as “good” as theirs. The identity politics feel hard to shake. So whilst a part of me thinks this is a dickhead question, I’m going to ask you it because I know someone else will at least be thinking it: In the process of writing Rotterdam, did you ever worry you’re appropriating someone else’s story?

JON:  It’s something I have been thinking about a lot and something about which my thoughts are still evolving. When I first had the idea for Rotterdam I definitely approached it like any other play and Adrian like any other character. It was when I properly got into the research that I had to face up to the ideas of appropriation, exploitation and the ownership of a story.

I think where I’ve got to is this: A while back one of our playwright friends posted a question on Facebook along the lines of ‘does a playwright have the right to tell any story they want to?’ A lot of people basically replied ‘Of course! Anyone can write about anything.’ But I can’t bring myself to take that black and white a position. Obviously the first problem is that I haven’t lived the life of a trans person. I don’t have first hand experience of what I’m writing about. But on the other hand that also applies to most characters. The greater problem, I think, is that I have access to tell this story, whereas a lot of trans people might not. Basically, I am a white, middle class, cis-gendered, straight, male playwright living in one of the richest countries in the world – in other words, I have had all the privilege. I have the ‘right’ to tell any story in the sense that I have access to opportunities to tell stories about other people’s experiences that those people may not have had access to themselves.

And so, I do think we all have a responsibility both to create more opportunities for artists from minority communities and to put a spotlight on the work they are already making (such as the play Trans Scripts that was at the Edinburgh fringe). But at the same time, I also want to write plays myself, and I don’t want to just write about myself (the canon is not crying out for more plays about 20something men).

So how do I square those two positions other than just by not writing anything at all? Well, the conclusion I have come to is that the right to tell any story is not something that is god given, but something one has to earn. You have to earn the right to tell a story by doing a really good job. Because you have a responsibility to the people you’re writing about. You have to make sure you aren’t misrepresenting people’s experiences, or sensationalising, or making any mistakes out of ignorance or carelessness, or turning it into a superficial ‘issue play’, you have a responsibility to put in as much work as possible to try and be as honest and heartfelt as you can given that you have not personally gone through the experiences of the characters yourself, and if you do a bad job, you have to take responsibility for that too.

So that’s how I justified writing the play. But nevertheless I do know some people will still disagree with that, and I am not unsympathetic to their arguments. I’ve struggled with bulimia since I was seventeen and, while I am not comparing having an eating disorder to belonging to a minority group, I think it has allowed me to experience similar feelings of ownership over stories. A few years ago there was a piece of work about a man with an eating disorder written by woman and my initial reaction was ‘what the fuck do you know about that?’. Ultimately though, I realized I had had this reaction with no consideration for the quality of the work, nor who this person was, nor what they were trying to do. It might have been a really great play, but I’d dismissed it out of court because of a knee jerk reaction to the identity of the author.

I think a lot of theatres are doing a really good job at reaching out to writers from different communities and encouraging them to tell their stories. I think that’s great and essential and I support it. At the same time I do have a minor concern that if you completely subscribe to the notion that ‘only people with the same background/experience as a character can write stories about that character’ the hidden ending of that sentence is ‘and nothing else.’ You and I both know playwrights who feel that they have been pigeon holed in this way, and while I think a HUGE amount of balance-redressing needs to go on to give more opportunities to emerging trans artists, I don’t think that they should be limited to ONLY telling stories about the trans experience if that’s not what they want to do.

Anyway, that’s roughly where I’m at, like I said, my view is evolving and I’m sure it will continue to evolve. I don’t think I’ll ever subscribe to any particular hard line on the subject because that’s not really who I am (perhaps not having to take a hard line is also something my privilege allows me to do more easily) but ultimately, when I weighed up both sides of the argument I still felt writing the play was the right thing to do. There is so much diversity within the trans community that I think there needs to be a plurality of work to reflect that. like I said Rotterdam is not my attempt at a ‘definitive’ piece of work, but a contribution to a larger body of plays, TV shows, films, books, songs, documentaries and other pieces of art that deals with gender and sexuality. Do I think a lot of this work should be made by trans people themselves? Absolutely. And I would hate to think that my production has taken an opportunity away from one of them, but at the same time, I can’t help suspecting, even when you take into account the increased appetite for trans stories, that the only thing I would have achieved by not writing Rotterdam is to have made sure there was one less piece of work about trans issues in the world.

VINAY: I think the plurality is the important point there. Always more, always as different as possible. I remember when we tried to recast my play which had an Asian lead in it for Vaults this year, it was a bit of a pain because there were two large-cast plays with brown folk in ‘em going on at the National and East is East was on tour as well and after the “for fucks sake” feeling was the “Oh great!” feeling.  Not so much the plays which were fine, but more that those actors had a livelihood and experience and that’s not nothing, and they’ll go and act and write and create and even just talk to people about their journeys. The burden of representation that sits on any story is a nightmare for any creative involved, I think, and I don’t believe anyone really wants to carry that weight. The more “data points” that exist for an audience, the better shape the understanding of that sphere will be. More stories, told well – hopefully.

I’m going to stop talking about me now. Sorry.

Vinay Patel's True Brits

Vinay Patel’s True Brits

JON: That’s OK. You’re summing up a lot of what I think far more eloquently that I can. More stories, told well is a good motto. Having said that, I also look at the work done by Fin Kennedy and think that’s a great model to pursue. He works directly with young muslim girls at the Mulberry School to create work that relates to their lives. As such, yes, he writes the plays, but they are involved in their inception, creation and execution. I think if I were to ever write something with trans themes again, it would be in collaboration with one or more of the trans actors or writers I have met through doing Rotterdam.

VINAY: What’s engrossing about the play is the way you allow for the honesty behind the conflict of Adrian’s partner Alice coming to terms with Adrian’s decision without moralising. I think there can be an understandable lack of generosity to people who can’t intellectually get on-board with accepting people as they are, but by routing it through Alice’s emotions, you tie the issue of acceptance of trans individuals to the way we feel about any change in our own partners (I’m now thinking of Al Smith’s Harrogate: location-named-change-plays-ahoy) which gives anyone pause and I think lets in people who aren’t on the intellectual/philosophical forefront of the discussion. The play lets Alice struggle with what might be our own hesitation in that situation, whilst also letting Adrian be a bit of a dick. I loved that. Diversity means being allowed to be a dick. (I’m now thinking about how many of our insults are genitalia based).

JON: I really like the characters and I think an audience will too, but I think it’s really important that neither Alice nor Adrian know how to deal with the situation before it happens. Both of them find it confusing, both find it difficult. Adrian, because from his perspective he is being his more authentic self but people are treating him like he’s less so, and Alice because she identifies as gay and Adrian’s embracing of his own identity conflicts with her embracing hers. I think there’s definitely a place for stories that show trans people and their loved ones dealing with these experiences in the best possible way, especially if they can be used as an example to show audiences how the world should be. But I also think it’s important to show characters not getting it right. As you say, a lot of people watching might feel the same way as Alice initially does – ‘doesn’t this change who you are?’ – but hopefully by emotionally engaging with her and going on the same journey they’ll have to question that assumption. Equally, I think a lot more people will relate to Adrian if he is struggling to express how he feels, rather than if he was already completely on top of it all. Like you say, Adrian does get it wrong and occasionally acts like a dick – but don’t we all? I think it would have been really easy to try and make up for the lack of positive representation of trans characters by making Adrian a perfect human being, but I wanted him to be fallible. I wanted them both to be fallible. That’s why they’re together, their flaws complement each other.

VINAY: All in all, it’s more complex emotional territory than the show most people will know you from (Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho). Before I met you, I thought of you as the guy who the did The Funny Things, with a slightly sad thing involving a dog that I caught whilst half-pissed at Latitude which I thought was lovely

JON: Vinay, that play was on at 12pm, why were you half-pissed?!

VINAY: So you’ve done a bit of a Jim Carrey in my eyes since we’ve met. Does Rotterdam signal a shift in direction for the type of work you want to write, or can we expect Ted Heath: The Golden Years in future?

JON: I mean, I am working with Matt Tedford on a Margaret Thatcher gameshow so don’t expect me to stop doing ‘the funny things’ any time soon, but really, that reputation is based more on what plays of mine were getting put on as opposed to what I was actually writing. I wrote the first draft of Rotterdam a year before Thatcher, and even though my earlier plays the Sexual Awakening of Peter Mayo and The Wake were comedies they always had a darker underside or deeper question they were trying to explore alongside the laughs. Rotterdam has its fair share of jokes too so I don’t see it as that much of a departure. I guess it’s just the way I like to work, to lead with the laughs then reveal something else beneath, or ‘funny funny funny little bit poignant the end’ as I used to describe my short plays. But I am not wedded to it. If I have a good idea for a more serious play I will write a more serious play.

My friend Chris is a PR and once complained that I haven’t defined my brand, but I don’t really care about that. I’d be much happier if I looked back on my career in years to come and could say ‘no two plays were the same.’ The comedian Demetri Martin has a great quote I always think of in regards to this, he said “If you’re making things for a large audience, you may get put in a box once people know who you are and what you do. So, the trick is when nobody knows you yet, when you’re anonymous, you can make the biggest, weirdest-shaped box possible. So when people put you in it, there’s at least some space in there move around.” That’s my approach. I’ll do the ‘funny things’, then I’ll do Rotterdam, next I’m writing a musical for a commercial producer and then a play about depression for a company in Hull, after that I’ll devise the Thatcher gameshow with Matt and hopefully direct a couple of comedians’ shows at the fringe next year. Then after that, who knows? But I don’t see a reason to constrict myself or what I do to suit someone else’s idea of who I’m supposed to be. As long as I keep trying to make everything I do as good as it can be, the rest will hopefully take care of itself.

VINAY: An easy one to end with, Jon, the one that I’m sure’s the first question you actually get asked. Why Rotterdam?

JON: Well, the deep thematic reason is because Rotterdam is a port, a place of flux and transition, where things are constantly changing, people are constantly moving through, and yet Alice and Adrian are stuck. But the other reason is that after my first year of university I got a job in a call centre in Rotterdam with two of my best friends (my family lived in Holland). We all hated it and so ever since then I’ve always wanted to trap a character there in the same way I felt like I was. Plus it gives you an excuse to use the Beautiful South song, and who doesn’t love the Beautiful South?

VINAY: No-one I’d care to know.

Rotterdam is at Theatre 503, London, from 27 October –  21 November 2015

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Jon Brittain is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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