Interview: Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen, Paper Creatures

Paper Creatures is a new London-based theatre company founded by Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen. The company’s debut production, Flood, which opens at Tristan Bates Theatre on 31st July, is a comedy drama written by Tom Hartwell (known for recent hits You Tweet My Face Space and Contactless), which shines a light on the millennial generation while examining themes of grief, nostalgia and what it means to leave home – and come back again.

“The play centres around the day’s events in this village at two of the characters’ mother’s funeral, and friends coming back,” says Jon. “We have one character, Adam, who’s never left the hometown and everyone else has, so it looks at the effect that’s had on him and them. We were just fascinated with this idea of why everyone wants to move away from home, where does this come from? But it’s a comedy drama – we wouldn’t get Tom Hartnell on board if it wasn’t going to have its light moments!

“Tom was in the year below me at drama school and I remember having a drink with him and I told him about the potential of this company and how we wanted to look at certain themes. And then he went on tour for a month to a place called Tenbury Wells, where every year it gets flooded and the government has deemed it too small a place to do anything about it. And he was really interested in how that affects the people living there, and especially the millennial demographic – so he wrote Flood.”

While Jon is “a London boy, born and bred”, Nathan knows all too well what it’s like to move away from home. “I’m from Perth, Western Australia – as south as you can get, almost! So there are definitely themes in the play that are very strong for me, and in the rare times I’m able to get home there are scenes that happen in this play, which Tom wrote of his own accord, that have exactly happened to me. I wanted to leave in order to achieve the things I wanted to do with my life – I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that in Perth – but it’s fascinating to me to think about identity and where you relate to. Would I call myself a Londoner now? I’ve only lived here five years. It’s an interesting question.”

The decision to focus on the millennial generation was made early on: “We’re very intrigued by this term,” explains Jon. “There’s almost this association now with the millennial generation that we’re addicted to phones, and disconnected from people because we’re so invested in the technologies that are around us. There’s a reason for that – because our lives are on phones and laptops and emailing – but at the end of the day we’re human beings and we still feel, and I think the way we’re portrayed sometimes in the media is that we don’t have those feelings. We wanted to dig deeper and prove that we still grieve, we still laugh, love, we still have secrets.

“But we didn’t want a gimmick with the company either. From the get go we believed that the story should be enough and you should take something away from it – regardless of what the play’s about, there’ll be a moment there. It’s all about the story for us; that’s our USP, I think. I reference theatre to history as well, and the reason we have history is to learn from it. Theatre’s the exact same thing – so we can with new writing tell these stories now so in the future people can look back and see what we were like.”

“I think we’re lucky to have access to so much amazing classical theatre, but I also think classical plays get put on all the time, and it’s incredibly important to continue to create a platform for new writers to come forward,” adds Nathan. “There are never enough new voices and we just wanted to not do anything special or different, but just provide another platform for new writers to have a voice and share their stories.”

Jon and Nathan met on a five-month tour of Much Ado About Nothing with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and bonded over a mutual love of the NBC show Friday Night Lights. “We absolutely adored the show because of the simple storytelling of these country people’s lives in Texas, where their whole lives revolved around their Friday night football game,” says Nathan. “To them it was the be all and end all. And we’d watch it and see a really honest portrayal of people caring about something so much. Then we’d chat about theatre, and when the tour finished we went and saw a lot of theatre together – Chekov, Yerma, Groundhog Day. We started going to some of the fringe theatres and we really got excited there.

“We’re really inspired by other new writing companies like Falling Pennies and Flux, and we wanted to create a place in which creatives and artists from all different aspects of the theatre community – lighting designers, actors, directors, writers, sound designers – could come together and invent. And particularly focusing that on the millennial generation; everyone we’re working with is a young, emerging artist, that’s really exciting for us.”

Jon adds, “And everyone helps each other out. We met up with so many people that we really admire – because we’re still learning every day, it’s not something you can get a degree in, you just have to crack on with it. We kept having these meetings and they were so helpful and honest with us so we could take what we wanted and put our spin on it. So we’re not just mimicking, we’re utilising what we’ve learnt.”

Photo credit: Benjamin Cooper

Even so, starting a theatre company is not without its challenges: “We’re trying our best to make it feel really professional,” says Jon. “It’s that feeling of making our team feel safe so they can just show up and enjoy themselves. And we’re learning about other elements of being in the theatre world like marketing, doing interviews – these are all new to us. I think it’s a really admirable thing when actors do decide to set their own companies up because you’re taking a massive risk.”

“I’ve been fascinated by the learning process of having to trust our own instincts about things,” agrees Nathan. “Things that I didn’t think I’d ever have to worry about as an actor, like designing posters, and then standing by your decisions. If you’re an actor in a play you have a director to guide you, but as the producers and the artistic directors we’re the ones calling the shots. It’s very rewarding but also you just have to click and hope – ‘I don’t know if this is right but let’s go for it’! And it’s been really gratifying to have to learn to trust our instincts on that.”

One of the biggest hurdles proved to be deciding on the company’s name, and it took about a month to finally settle on Paper Creatures. “We used to sit and just crack names out; we wanted to make it personal to us,” Jon explains. “The idea behind the name is: the paper is the script, and the creatures are the characters that come from that, the storytelling, and theatre is where we show you that. So the more you think about it, the more it makes sense – instead of thinking about an origami tiger or a swan, it makes so much more sense if you think about story, characters and theatre – just in a more poetic way. So that’s how it came about, but not without a lot of trial and error!”

Finding the right cast and creatives to work on Flood was another new experience, but Jon and Nathan are thrilled with the team they’ve assembled. “Our lighting, sound designer and set designers we’d never met before, so we found them essentially by just talking to people. Georgie Staight is the director – I did a scratch night with her last year, and she was great, then she directed Dubailand at the Finborough and we saw that she really gets a lot out of her actors, so we approached her and she thankfully said yes because she liked the play.”

The cast of five, which includes Nathan, Jon and Tom, is completed by Emily Céline Thomson, who was at drama school with Nathan, and Molly McGeachin, who was introduced by another friend. “That’s a nice element as well, meeting new people – we’ve never met some of them before but already have a great relationship,” says Jon. “It’s quite nice now to let the creatives get on with things and trust that they’ll do a great job, which they will, and we can concentrate on learning our lines!

“We want this to go really well. We want to learn a lot from it and make sure we’re doing it right, so we’re taking our time with it and not rushing into things, we’re making careful decisions – which venue we go for, what time slot, what kind of show we want to put on, what ideas we want for the poster… We’re making sure it’s done in the right amount of time, because the last thing you want when you’re putting on your first show is for it to be stressful and horrible. We want it to be a great experience for everyone involved.”

Nathan adds: “We want it to be fun, not one of those really stressful fringe productions where everybody’s tearing their hair out. We want them to want to do another play with us and be a part of it – that’s the kind of atmosphere we want to create. And we adore people getting in touch with us – actors, all different creatives; we want to create a community, so get in touch with us!”

Finally, why should we come and see Flood? “It’s a world premiere!” says Jon. “I think that’s exciting. So it’s a new piece of writing full of heart and humour, set in a flooded Somerset village, from a new emerging writer and company – what else could you want?”

“I think that theatre is something that’s a bit of a mirror. We go to the theatre to see ourselves or see something new, and I think that Flood will have moments we can relate to, and you’ll learn new things about people you might know,” concludes Nathan. “There will 100% be at least one moment where everybody will sit back and smile and say ‘I totally get that’. And that’s why we go to the theatre.”

Book now for Flood at Tristan Bates Theatre from 31st July-5th August.

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