Really Want to Hurt Me: Q&A with Ben SantaMaria

In 2017, a School Report study published by Stonewall found that almost half of all LGBTQ pupils still face bullying, half regularly hear homophobic insults, and many suffer low self-worth, self-harm and attempt suicide. Writer and director Ben SantaMaria understands this all too well, having experienced it for himself growing up as a gay man in 80s Britain. Realising that these problems haven’t gone away for young people today, he wrote the autobiographical show Really Want to Hurt Me as a way to explore what has – and more importantly, hasn’t – changed since his own teenage years.

Following sold-out dates last year in London and Edinburgh, where it was shortlisted for the Brighton Fringe Award for Excellence, Really Want to Hurt Me recently embarked on a tour of the UK, performed by Ryan Price. As the tour got underway, we chatted to Ben about the show’s journey so far and the impact he hopes it will have for audiences over the coming months and beyond.

Can you sum up briefly what Really Want to Hurt Me is all about?

It’s a bittersweet and dark comedy with dance sequences that gives the audience an intimate sense of what it was like to grow up gay in the ‘80s. The story has a lot of parallels with the same challenges that young LGBTQ people are experiencing today. It follows the life of a schoolboy in Devon from 1984-86, as he lives through all the upheaval and self-discovery of his teen years, having to hide and repress his identity to survive the pressures of being bullied and being forced to conform. He escapes into the pop and indie music of the 80s era, which promises a more liberated life ahead for him, and into theatre to enjoy playing other characters instead of the false self he has been made to be in real life.

Why was this a story you wanted to tell, and why is now the right time to tell it?

It’s an autobiographical play, so I’d reached a point where something in my mind was telling me I needed to explore my past and work out how much what happened in my formative years is still affecting me. Short answer: it shaped me more than I even realised! But with all of the arguments about expanding education to be inclusive of LGBTQ people’s lives, and research still revealing how many young LGBTQ people continue to be bullied and hear negative messages about themselves that lead to isolation, low self-esteem and self-harm, the loneliness and traumas I experienced clearly haven’t vanished into the past as some relic of a bygone era. I think we need to honour and keep revisiting LGBTQ history to see what’s changed and what still needs to change for further progress.

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the show?

We’ve already taken the show to Exeter, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in London to Soho Theatre, Theatre503 and the Old Red Lion. Audiences there have responded so positively and openly to the show, either LGBTQ people of my generation saying “that’s my story” or younger people telling us it reflected their lives. It’s also been brilliant to have non-LGBTQ people say that the show made them understand at an emotional level what their friends and family went through. I’d love audiences of all kinds to feel immersed in the schoolboy’s world and through that to reconnect with their own teenage years and any time they overcame feeling like an outsider.

What’s the show’s journey been to this point, and how have audiences responded to it so far?

It started out as a short scratch piece in 2017 when I was invited to contribute something for the Monday Club’s showcase at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in London, commemorating 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. So many of the acts there, whether spoken word, dance or film, all touched on the same issue of surviving school traumas, which just reinforced how much remains the same today. An Arts Council grant was the lifeline that led to all of those other show dates we clocked up last year. As the play’s so grounded in small-town life, away from the London stories we hear more often, it was important for me to take it on tour around the UK this year, back to the South West and all around.

What have been the biggest highlights and challenges since you began writing the play?

The highlights have been all of the venues we’ve visited and the ones on our tour this year. It’s absolutely incredible to me that my personal story has gone on this journey around the UK and had such beautiful responses from our audiences. The biggest challenge has been staying true to my Devon adolescence, making the boy’s story as intimate and honest for the audience as possible, and developing and redeveloping it until only the essential remains, to make it speak from the heart.

What are you most looking forward to about taking the show on tour?

I love visiting new venues and because the play’s partly about the huge importance of so-called ‘regional’ theatre, amateur dramatics and those drama teachers who give so many outsiders a sense of purpose when they’re growing up in their small towns, it’s really satisfying to be bringing it to lots of towns and cities where people can hopefully feel that their lives are reflected in this story. We’re also running free LGBTQ writing workshops at some of the venues – in Sheffield, Exeter, Harlow, Cheltenham and Nottingham. Anyone aged 14+ can book a place by contacting the venue and come along to try writing from their own life experiences, whether they’ve written before or not.

In your view, what can we as both a society and individuals do to combat the bullying and intimidation still faced by the LGBTQ community?

My experiences growing up tell me that what’s needed is a healthy sense of community to support those who are targeted as ‘other’ and ‘different’. Inclusive education that acknowledges the realities of everyone who’s in the classroom. Normalising peer protection – again, through education – instead of normalising bullying as something you just have to get through as a young person. It seems to me, having grown up in a period when bullying was even more pervasive, that we’re at a point now where great advances in inclusivity and diversity are smashing against another catastrophic surge in fascism and monoculture. Reaching out collectively, whether it’s helping others whenever it’s safe to or joining a larger group to tackle hate, is always the answer. As my play illustrates, you can’t thrive alone.

Really Want to Hurt Me is on tour around the UK until October – for details of dates and venues, visit flamingtheatre.co.uk.

Writer and director: Ben SantaMaria

Performed by Ryan Price

Review: Lunatic 19’s at Finborough Theatre

With immigrants across the USA bracing for planned Ice raids this weekend, Lunatic 19’s, a topical new play by Iowa-based writer Tegan McLeod, shines a spotlight on the soullessness and absurdity of American immigration laws and procedures. A tense two-hander, it’s the kind of story you want to dismiss out of hand as an exaggerated, politicised version of the truth – but only because accepting that this sort of thing can and does really happen is an idea too horrific to contemplate.

Photo credit: Marian Medic

Gracie Reyes (Gabriela García) is an undocumented migrant worker, who’s originally from Mexico but has called Kentucky home since she was a child. After narrowly surviving a horrific car accident, she’s taken from her hospital bed, neck brace and all, handcuffed and bundled into a windowless van for the long drive back “from whence she came”. Her driver and captor is Alec (Devon Anderson), whose career depends on getting Gracie back to Mexico promptly – but as the days pass, it becomes more and more difficult for him to view her as just another number. And so what we end up with is a dark take on the traditional road trip buddy movie, in which it seems increasingly unlikely that there can ever be a happy ending for either of them.

Framed as a nightmarish, almost dystopian, memory playing out on a minimalist set (Carla Goodman), the play is outstandingly performed – both as individuals and as a partnership – by Gabriela García and Devon Anderson. García is enthralling to watch as Gracie, a survivor who’s lived through more trauma than most of us can even imagine. Though she approaches most conversations with either stoic resignation or bitter sarcasm (which only warms the audience to her even further), underneath it all she’s clearly terrified and confused by the indignity of her situation and the prospect of being dumped without warning back in a country she barely remembers.

Similarly complex is Devon Anderson’s Alec Herrero, who may not be facing deportation but is, in some ways, just as desperate. Also of Latino heritage, he sees all too clearly in the “cargo” he transports how his own life could have been very different – but with a wife, three daughters and a troubled sister to support, he needs this job. Little by little Anderson’s facade of emotionless authority slips to reveal a decent, caring human being who’s trapped by his own circumstances into becoming part of a system he knows is wrong. And although his developing relationship with Gracie has a certain inevitability to it – this is a road trip story after all – their chemistry never feels forced.

Photo credit: Marian Medic

A particularly effective aspect of Jonathan Martin’s production is the sparing but frequent use of blood as both a physical prop and a metaphor. Gracie’s body – and her blood in particular – has betrayed her many times; she’s a haemophiliac with a history of multiple miscarriages, who had the misfortune to be born in the wrong country. So while many parts of her story are portrayed figuratively rather than literally (there’s no van, no pharmacy, no detention centre, not even an actual road), it feels appropriate that the blood at the heart of the story is all too real.

Despite some very funny lines of dialogue, there’s nothing particularly humorous about Lunatic 19’s – especially when you only have to turn on the news to understand that stories like this one are not just true, but also completely legal. The utter absurdity and inhumanity of a system that values the worth of a human being purely by where they were born makes for difficult viewing, but the story is so well told that the time we spend with Gracie and Alec – though frequently harrowing – feels considerably shorter than its run time of 90 minutes. An excellent production, and essential viewing.

Lunatic 19’s is at the Finborough Theatre until 3rd August.

Review: The Canterbury Tales at Tower Theatre

For someone who spends a lot of time sitting on stationary trains (and almost missed the start of this show because of a public transport delay), the premise of Tower Theatre’s new production of The Canterbury Tales is all too familiar. A group of passengers stranded on a train to Canterbury West – among them a soldier (Toñi Madja), a musician (Paul Willcocks), a librarian (Sarah Bower), a handywoman (Emily Carmichael) and a lawyer (Alistair Maydon) – are encouraged by the train guard (Alexa Wall) to turn to storytelling to pass the time, with each of them competing for the audience’s winning vote at the end of the evening.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Directed by Angharad Ormond, the resulting collection of tales is a slightly disjointed but wholly entertaining evening, alternating between comedy and tragedy, and with no shortage of topical commentary; though the tales are all based on stories written centuries ago, it doesn’t take too much of a twist to bring some of them bang up to date. Like Constance, the central character in the lawyer’s story, who’s forced to flee her home and later becomes the sole survivor of a slaughter at the hands of religious extremists; Griselda (Arabella Hornby), of the librarian’s tale, who’s trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage; or Alice (Deborah Ley), better known as the Wife of Bath, who’s been married five times but has never managed to achieve the one thing she really wants – gender equality. The production makes no secret of its political orientation in these moments, with cast members reciting key facts and headlines relating to the refugee crisis, and Alice referencing recent news from Alabama in her plea for women’s rights.

Unsurprisingly, this means that there are points in the production where things get very dark indeed, but luckily there’s also plenty of humour – much of it quite cheeky – to lighten the mood. Both the bookie (Ryan Williams) and the soldier entertain their audience with stories about two men chasing the same woman, set centuries apart but both with predictably disastrous results. The priest (Paul Graves), meanwhile, brings the evening to a cheery musical conclusion with his cautionary tale about the proud rooster Chauntecleer, who learns the dangers of falling for flattery.

Although each story only has one narrator, the production is a great example of ensemble performance, incorporating physical theatre, sign language and clowning at various points. Music also plays an important part in the show, whether it’s a cappella 60s hits, haunting folk melodies or tongue-in-cheek opera, and this adds an extra dimension to an already lively production, with strong vocals and harmonies from the whole cast and musical accompaniment provided by the multi-talented Paul Willcocks.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Parts of the show have a slightly improvised feel, and with more characters than stories I did leave wondering if a different combination of tales might be told each night – if so, this would be another clever twist (and would also keep the cast on their toes). Whether or not that’s true, though, this new take on The Canterbury Tales brings Chaucer well and truly into the 21st century, and is certainly a lot more accessible than the dry text most of us will remember studying at school. It’s great fun, slightly bonkers and well worth a visit.

The Canterbury Tales is at Tower Theatre until 20th July.

Review: One Giant Leap at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Othello, Three Sisters, Frankenstein, The White Rose, Taro… Over the last five years, Arrows & Traps have proved time and again that they know how to do serious drama (and also that there are an awful lot of different ways to die). That label cannot be applied in any conceivable way to their new play One Giant Leap, which is a very silly story with no other mission in mind but providing two hours of pure entertainment.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

It’s 1969, and Apollo 11 is all set to launch for the Moon. But it’s too hot up there to film Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s one small step for man, so CIA Agent Harris (Alex Stevens) has come to cash-strapped TV producer Edward Price (Christopher Tester) with a request: he needs him to fake the Moon Landing. There’s just one problem – Price’s cast and crew of misfits are too wrapped up in their own issues to focus on the job at hand, and time is ticking away…

Writer and director Ross McGregor has thrown literally everything at this historical sci-fi romantic comedy (there’s no kitchen sink but there is an alluring stepladder) and the result is an often chaotic but always enjoyable romp that culminates in a musical number I don’t think any of us will be forgetting any time soon. The characters are stereotypes – the arrogant leading man, the scantily clad actress, the frustrated producer – and the plot relatively predictable, but there’s enough detail to ensure none of them are ever lacking in substance. At times, this detail actually works against the production; with every character getting their own story, there’s a lot to try and keep track of at any given moment. This also means that the play’s conclusion, particularly following the unbridled hilarity of the Moon Landing sequence, feels a bit like a box ticking exercise to ensure we’re not left with any unfinished plot threads.

That said, one of the best things about One Giant Leap is that the cast are clearly having an absolute blast. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun up there: Will Pinchin as Howard, the world’s clumsiest cameraman; Lucy Ioannou as sweet but insecure Alchamy; Steven Jeram as casanova Daniel; Vivian Belosky as sharp-tongued and quite possibly permanently green Linda. Alex Stevens’ CIA Agent Harris showcases some impressive accent switching (and interesting wardrobe choices), and Christopher Tester and Charlie Ryall engage in excellent verbal sparring as increasingly desperate ex-spouses Edward and Carol. And Daniel Ghezzi, appropriately enough, steals every scene he’s in as frustrated actor and lover of all things jazz hands, Perry.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

As Arrows & Traps arrives at a crossroads before embarking on a new chapter with The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde later this year, One Giant Leap feels like the company is taking a welcome opportunity to pause and let off some steam. It’s not Shakespeare, and it doesn’t have the beauty and eloquence of, say, The White Rose or Taro – though it is still visually quite a feast, with an incredible set designed by Justin Williams and some unforgettable costumes from Delyth Evans. I didn’t always know exactly what was going on but I had fun trying to figure it out, and sometimes that’s all you need. So why not boldly go and get a ticket for two hours of silliness and escapism, and – for once! – a happy ending.

One Giant Leap is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th July.

Review: Voices From Home at Theatre503

Since its inception in 2017, Broken Silence Theatre’s Voices From Home has been championing new writers from across the South East, and more importantly from outside the capital. Volume 3 found the event in a new home at Theatre503 and showcasing five original pieces on a variety of themes and covering a broad emotional spectrum.

Anatomy of a Victim by Rachel Tookey (Surrey) is an intriguing and slightly unsettling piece about the murder of a young woman. The play starts with an unsentimental laying out of the facts from A (Abbi Douetil) and B (Ella Dorman-Gajic), who are a bit disappointed at the clichéd nature of the young woman’s disappearance, and convinced they’ve just uncovered a huge miscarriage of justice. Which is all well and good, until we’re taken back to the beginning of the story, and meet Rebecca (Hatty Jones) – the victim – who at this point is still alive and well and full of plans for the future, as she tells her friend about a frightening encounter she’s just had with the boyfriend that A and B are so keen to exonerate. The play ends on an abrupt and ambiguous note, leaving us to make up our own minds about what really happened that night, and slightly chastened by the realisation that behind every sensational true crime documentary, there first has to be a real victim.

From the first Kent writer to be featured in Voices From Home, Mark Daniels’ My Boys is a bittersweet portrayal of a grieving family as they take their first steps towards reconciliation after a lengthy estrangement. Stacha Hicks gives a particularly powerful performance as the newly widowed but still delightfully stoical Pauline, alongside David Ellis and Steven Jeram as her sons Jamie and Lenny. Tomorrow is the funeral of their late dad Len, and as he lies in his open casket, the remaining family members finally have a chance to say all the things they couldn’t say before – but have they left it too late? Funny and sad in equal measure, this enjoyable play about family and forgiveness will make you want to call your loved ones (especially if you’ve not seen them in a while) just to say hi.

Also on the topic of grief, Like and Subscribe by Berkshire’s Rachel Causer sees another awkward reunion, this time between two former best friends. One, Polly (Alanna Flynn), has gone on to become a successful podcaster, while the other, Kas (Antonia Salib), has been struggling to come to terms with her mum’s death. With Polly portrayed as superficial and self-absorbed, we’re immediately inclined to dislike both her and her brand of forced positivity, particularly when she appears to be trying to capitalise on her friend’s grief. But things aren’t quite as simple as they seem, and behind the weird podcast voice and fixed grin, there’s more to Polly’s positivity than meets the eye. Like and Subscribe is a witty and relatable story about friendship and the lengths we’re prepared to go to convince the rest of the world we’re fine – even when we’re anything but.

In Losers by Precious Alabi (Essex), two complete strangers meet outside a club. It’s 31st October 2019, and Her (Dominique Moutia) is having a bad night when she runs into Him (Andy Sellers). He thinks she’s superficial, she thinks he’s rude – but as the minutes tick down towards Brexit, they realise that maybe they have more in common than they thought. Though it may sound like it, Losers isn’t really a political play; it’s about two human beings finding a brief connection in a world that’s not treating either of them particularly well, and the many ways in which we make assumptions about others based on first impressions. The conclusion – in which Her has a revelation about how badly she’s behaved – feels a little bit too neat and tidy, but were the piece to be expanded into something longer, there’s potential here for some really interesting character development on both sides.

Last but by no means least, My first time was in a parking lot by Phoebe Wood from Norfolk is a powerful and disturbing story of one woman’s teenage trauma and the lasting impact it’s had on her life, relationships and mental health. Though Mira (Eleanor Grace) talks about her first time with seeming nonchalance, each time she returns to the story it becomes a little clearer that there was a lot more to it than we first thought – and not in a good way. Eleanor Grace gives a brilliant solo performance as this complex character who masks her pain with humour, and while it’s difficult to watch, at the same time this is the kind of piece you want to see again because there’s so much detail in those few short minutes.

With high quality writing, direction and acting across the board, the third outing for Voices From Home was as enjoyable, varied and thought-provoking as the previous two, and as always, it’s refreshing to see talent from outside London being given a voice. Roll on the next one…

For more details about Voices From Home, visit brokensilencetheatre.com or follow @BrokenSilenceT