A natural step on the journey to becoming an actor, says Luke Norris, is developing a “fairly robust” sense for good and bad writing. While the 29-year-old actor-playwright’s first step on the path wasn’t quite as planned, the result was a heightened sense for what works – and importantly what doesn’t – on the page. When his initial attempt at gaining entry to drama school at the age of 18 was unsuccessful, Romford-raised Luke decided not to wallow in defeat. Instead, he was inspired to pick up the pen himself. “It was awful, but the joy was in the writing,” Luke says, describing his first attempt at a script; a (no-doubt cathartic) angry monologue about the film industry written for a young male.
He was quickly snapped up the next year on an acting course at Central School of Speech and Drama but, such was his burgeoning love of writing, Luke continued turning out scripts (primarily for fellow acting students looking for fresh audition material). And he’s kept going ever since, regularly to great success. For instance, Goodbye to All That, which he wrote at the age of 26, was widely acclaimed during its Royal Court run for its sensitive portrayal of growing old. Meanwhile, his latest, So Here We Are, shifts the focus much younger, but delivers with no less poignancy. An exploration of lives cut short, the play premiered at HighTide Festival on the 10th September before transferring to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.
Described as “a play about what can happen when nothing happens”, Luke’s story begins on the day after the death of a young man, Frankie, where we see the impact his loss has had on those nearest to him. From there, it flips back to Frankie’s last day on earth. “It’s a play about stasis as much as anything else, so it’s important to put the stillness – the end of the show – first so it shows how people aren’t moving on or what the place does to the people in it. So you can feel some of the protagonist’s frustrations and oppressions when you come to meet him,” Luke explains.
So Here We Are follows naturally from Luke’s body of work to date, with much of his material also honing in on the lives of everyday people. While agreeing that his work is often “close to home”, Luke points out that it is never “too autobiographical”. If his plays are bound by anything, it’s more likely their genesis; all spring from a similar initial spark, he explains. “It’s a feeling of some sort. And from there it turns into a character that has something to say to another, and it grows from there. That sounds really poncey and esoteric, but really I just figure it out as I go along,” he says. “Sometimes the first thing I write is an image or a line of dialogue or a character. It’s different every time, but it’s usually brought out by a feeling, such as irritation or sadness.”
Writing is something Luke has always done in tandem with acting; a solitary pursuit he’s tended to while simultaneously building an impressive career in the theatre and small screen. Prominent acting roles include his recent portrayal of Rodolpho in Ivo van Hove’s stark and affecting production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, and Dr Dwight Enys in the BBC’s latest reboot of period drama, Poldark. For Luke, the worlds of acting and writing are intrinsically bound, so neither has ever distracted from the pursuit of other. And working with such rich material as an actor has only served to sharpen his own writing skills.
“In terms of the craft, one definitely informs the other and hopefully I’m getting better at both. Now, working as a writer, I have a more critical eye; I feel I know what an actor needs and what doesn’t work. Though, I would say most actors have a fairly robust script analysis and know what works and what doesn’t. After all, actors read an awful lot of scripts. Some are good and some are bad, so you gradually become more discerning.” While he amiably discusses about the process behind his writing and its intersections with the world of acting, talking about his craft and career is probably not Luke’s favourite way to pass the time. Watch any video interview with him and you’ll get a sense of his unease at waxing lyrical about his creations.
And it’s the same with the interview with Exeunt. Talking on the phone from a field in Cornwall where he’s currently filming a second series of Poldark, Luke’s introversion comes across clearly. “To be honest, I don’t particularly enjoy giving interviews, so you’ll have to forgive me,” he apologises. “I think it’s because you’re under pressure to find yourself interesting, and I don’t particularly.”
Perhaps it’s because he has the body of a confident young actor, but the soul of a reclusive writer? Or is that a tired old dichotomy? “I think it’s a bit of a misnomer to think of actors as extroverts,” he says. “A lot of actors are actors because they prefer to hide behind a character. It’s a way of doing self-expression without exposing yourself, because it’s somebody else’s words, staging, camera or whatever. In my experience, a lot of actors are actually quite introverted.”
In contrast, getting Luke onto the topic of a fellow actor or director is a much more relaxed affair. For instance, he speaks fluidly and enthusiastically about his experiences performing in A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic – from Mark Strong’s skills as “a phenomenal actor” to the joy of working under the guidance of Belgian director, Ivo Van Hove. “He’s very intense but very funny and generous,” Luke noted about Ivo, adding that his tendency to rehearse short days made for hard work but great fun. “Also, because he isn’t a total fan of Arthur Miller he was far less reverential about the play than an American or British director would’ve been. He x-rayed the play and brought out the best way of telling that story.”
When it comes to his own stints on the production side of a play as the writer, Luke is confident on what value he can bring. In the run up to So Here We Are’s premiere at HighTide Festival, ahead of its run in Manchester, he dipped in and out of the rehearsal room to lend a hand. “It’s just about facilitating the actors as best I can: answering questions, making line tweaks when something doesn’t work for them or a beat is being missed or not properly landed,” he explained of his input.
He likes to think he’s not overly precious with his material, but notes that “the words are the weapons for actors to use” and as such, it’s important not to veer too far from the source material a writer has so carefully crafted. “But generally, theatre actors want to say what you’ve written and do the best to learn it as it is on the page,” he adds.
But while he’s confident in the rehearsal room, opening night of a production isn’t quite so serene an experience. “It’s terrifying being in the audience. It’s what I imagine being a football manager is like. As much as you will it, you can’t make a change once it’s started,” he says. “I’m always nervous, I need to drink myself half-blind to get myself through it. But no seriously, it’s not about me anyway by that point. By that stage everyone is just there to enjoy themselves.”
So Here We Are is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, from 24th September to 10th October 2015. More info here