The award-winning playwright behind Bluebird, Pornography and Punk Rock tells us about his latest play, The Trial of Ubu, shares some brilliant writing exercises and tries to imagine why he’s so popular with young theatre makers…
Your recent play, The Trial of Ubu, is about to transfer to Hampstead Theatre and has been described as a “savage comedy”. Have you really taken up comedy?
The Trial of Ubu is a reimagining of a 19th-century play called Ubu Roi by the playwright [Alfred] Jarry. Ubu Roi is a grotesque pastiche of Macbeth, which he wrote to take the piss out of his schoolteachers. On the opening night it caused a riot and was only ever performed in his lifetime again with puppets.
You can see its influence on modern comedy from The Goons and Monty Python through to Chris Morris’s work. It defines the strangeness of terror and the comedy of the horrible.
The director asked me to write a response to Ubu Roi, which imagined the king on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity. I’ve never done that before.
Every year it seems that you can find someone putting on a Simon Stephens play at NSDF or at the Edinburgh Fringe. Why do you think you’re so enduringly popular with young people?
God, I don’t understand why anyone likes my plays, other than my mum
I always wanted to be a writer, but originally I wanted to be a songwriter. The writers who really inspired me were people like Mark E Smith, Tom Waits and Shane MacGowan. I’d been to see Christmas shows, like West Side Story, and mum did amateur dramatics, but I never really went to the theatre of my own volition until I went to university. Maybe that’s why students like my plays – fundamentally I’m still writing for the Drama Barn at York University.
I have always valued young audiences. I value them in the theatre where I’m doing my plays and I value them in the theatre where I work as an Associate Artist [the Lyric Hammersmith]. There’s also a lot of good swearing and violence in them, of course.
What’s your starting point when writing a new play?
I don’t always start from the character: sometimes from an idea or an image. It could be a political, or philosophical or social idea; it could be a news story. But in order for it to have dramatic energy and live as a play, it eventually needs to be distilled into and reflected through character, otherwise you end up with an essay.
By using character you can embrace contradiction. We’re dramatic animals: we’ve always had drama and always will.
In Focus: Simon Stephens’ writing exercises
This is the most important one: think about the spelling of the word playwright in the English language. Linguistically, it doesn’t stem from the verb to write, but from the verb to wraught. You are a playwright in the way that a shipwright or wheelwright or the cartwrights are wrights.
You are a shaper or maker of a play. Playwrights shouldn’t get too concerned with language; it is our job to consider behaviour. You’re mapping the behaviour of characters as they try to negotiate their way through life, in pursuit of what they want.
So, try this:
Get a kitchen timer, give yourself 10 minutes and in that time write a list of 20 things your character wants.
In 10 minutes write a list of 50 things they remember.
Close your eyes, give yourself a minute, and with your eyes closed draw a picture of your character. With your eyes closed, you won’t see the picture but it’ll crystallise the image of your character.
Give yourself five minutes to list everything the character knows about themselves that nobody else knows.
Give yourself five minutes to list everything the character knows about themselves that other people know.
Give yourself five minutes to list everything that other people know about the character but the character doesn’t know.
Then, give yourself five minutes to write a list of things you know about the character that neither the character nor anybody else knows.
Another exercise – to help build the relationship between characters:
Write down when they met one another and in what capacity they know one another.
Then write what they openly like about each other, and what they openly dislike.
Then write what they secretly like about one another, and secretly dislike about one another.
Finally, write what they get from one another, followed by what they want from one another but don’t currently get. For instance, they could get a sexual relationship, but want somewhere to live. Or, conversely, they get somewhere to live, but want a sexual relationship.
The Trial of Ubu is at The Hampstead Theatre from 18 January to 25 February 2012. For more information, visit the website.
Photo by Robert Workman