Reformation: Q&A with James Martin Charlton

James Martin Charlton is an award-winning playwright whose previous work includes the critically acclaimed Fat Souls, I Really Must Be Getting Off and Coward. This week sees the premiere of his new play, Reformation, which runs at the White Bear Theatre until 13th July. The play was inspired by the life and work of the Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach and tells the story of Eva, a young woman caught up in a world of powerful men. Directed by Janice Dunn, the production – staged in contemporary dress – strikes a topical note, with clear connections between Eva’s story and the #metoo movement.

As Reformation approached its opening night, we spoke to James about the importance of telling untold stories, getting to know Cranach, and just how much really has changed over the last 500 years…

Can you sum up briefly what Reformation is all about?

Reformation is the story of a young woman from a poor background who becomes involved with a celebrity artist and his son. The son falls in love with her and the artist uses her as a life model. When the powerful man who commissioned the artist sees a sketch of the model, he not only wants the painting – he wants the girl. It’s about what a person might be faced with doing in order to survive.

Where did the idea for this story come from?

An exhibition in Berlin of works that Lucas Cranach and other Renaissance artists did for the Berlin royals. I became fascinated by the portraits by Cranach of Joachim the Elector and his brother, and also by Cranach’s self-portrait. Looking at Cranach’s moral scenes, I was struck by how much flesh was on display. These were paintings which ostensibly counselled the viewer against being led astray by desire. At the same time they provoke desire. And I noticed a small, anonymous sketch of the Berlin of the time, with a gallows on the outskirts. Powerful men, desire, the consequences of upsetting the powerful were all there. I began to tell myself a story which put all of this together…

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

I tend to write about people whose stories don’t usually get told. People on the side-lines. People who are neglected. People the media ignores. We hear a lot in the history books about the movers and shakers, artists and rulers, but what of the people around them? Each of their lives were important, and each life has profound depths. Luckily, we’re living in a time when such people are beginning to tell their stories and be heard. Obscure individuals are telling us how they brushed up against the wealthy, the powerful, the influential, and how that encounter then shaped their subsequent lives.

What would you like audiences at the White Bear to take away from seeing the play?

I hope that they’ll feel entertained, thrilled, moved, a little disturbed perhaps. I do not write plays with messages in them. I want each individual in the audience to encounter the story and think about what it might mean to them. I believe that stories should be democratic, and so I give the audience the choice of how to respond, what to think about what they have seen.

#metoo has been a frequent theme in theatre over the last couple of years. What is it that makes Reformation unique as a contribution to this ongoing conversation?

I conceived of the play sometime before #metoo hit the headlines. I choose stories which can be applied to any time and place. It is important for us to remember that our problems have been bothering humanity forever. The play, uniquely I think, connects #metoo to the Reformation. There seems to me to be some ongoing process of reformation which is happening with human beings, where we challenge power structures which become too rigid, bring their failings to light. Yet history tells us that new power structures emerge, which themselves become rigid. Have we really reformed?

Photo credit: Max Harrison

How much of the play is based on historical fact – and does that significantly change your approach or process as a writer?

The powerful, famous characters are based on real people. Lucas Cranach and his son, the Elector Joachim and his Bishop brother Albert all existed. The peasants in the play are invented. Their encounters with the powerful are speculations. If I am writing a historical piece, I try to soak myself in the period as much as possible. I consume volumes of books, paintings, music, anything that helps. Then I treat all of this as the material for the play. No play is entirely a fiction, it’s all based in something one has encountered, either in one’s own life or in finding out about somebody else’s life. I take found material in and use it rather in the way the unconscious mind uses stuff when we’re dreaming. Any play of mine is a dream based on the real, with its own rules and roads.

Finally, as a successful writer, what would be your top tip to aspiring playwrights or those just starting out?

Find out as much as you can about everything you can. Keep up with what is happening in the world but don’t just look at contemporary stuff. Read myths, folktales, history. See and hear as much as you can, in any medium you can. But never lose sight of your own perspective. You’re a unique individual, and will have encountered things in a way in which only you individually could have. Try to talk to the individuals in your audience from that place which is known only to you.

Reformation is at the White Bear Theatre, 25th June to 13th July (Mon-Sat evenings, Sunday matinee).

Director: Janice Dunn

Cast: Jason Wing, Ram Gupta, Alice De-Warrenne, Imogen Smith, Adam Sabatti, Simeon Willis and Matt Ian Kelly

Arrows & Traps: What’s Next?

In a couple of weeks, Arrows & Traps’ seventeenth production opens at the Brockley Jack – and for anyone who’s been to see them in action recently, it may come as a bit of a surprise. From 2nd July, the thirteen-time Offie-nominated company will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landings in their own unique style with One Giant Leap, a brand new comedy written and directed by Ross McGregor.

Last week, in the first part of our Q&A, Ross told us a bit about where Arrows & Traps came from and the journey so far. In Part 2, he’s looking to the future – and it turns out there’s plenty to see…

Your upcoming show is a bit different to most of your previous productions. What made you go for a comedy this time, and how have you approached it as a writer? It must be very different to the other plays you’ve written for Arrows?

Yes, absolutely!  And what a relief it is.  I’m so happy to be working on a play that doesn’t end with: “and then she was executed by the Third Reich,” or “and then she was hit by a tank,” or “and then she threw herself in front of a train,” or “and then her husband’s shot,” or “and then they both die on the ice,” or “and then everybody died”… Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we got to tell so many stories over the last sixteen productions, but my goodness, haven’t the majority of the storylines been so f*cking depressing?!

I guess the exception, not sure if you remember this one, would be The Gospel According to Philip, which was a sketch show comedy we did back in 2016 about the last few weeks of the life of Jesus, basically the story of Easter, told as a satire. I didn’t write that one, but I had such fun directing it, and everyone loved it at the Jack, it was an absolute storm of a show – such a joy. I wanted to go back to that and spend a summer working on something lighter, where nobody is destroyed by fascism, but where we can also push the boundaries and try our hand at that rarest of all theatrical genres – the sci-fi comedy.

One Giant Leap is basically a “what if” kind of a story – set in July 1969, where a two-bit run-down shoddy little TV company is asked by the CIA to fake the moon landing. The idea is that whilst NASA can get to the moon, all the cameras they test just melt in the simulation of the extreme heat on the moon’s surface, so they need someone to fake the footage for them to prove they got there. Which would be fine, but the TV company they ask to do it has just had their sci-fi show Moonsaber cancelled after its first season, and everyone has fallen out with each other, and is leaving the show, so there’s a lot of confusion and misdirection as the producer has to basically con them all to come back, and somehow pull off the biggest conspiracy in history with these bunch of misfits.

It’s certainly different in terms of the fact that it’s wholly original, and obviously a complete fiction. All the characters are products of my imagination, and it has no basis in fact or adaptation whatsoever, which has been super fun to start from scratch. It is also the silliest, most chaotic and most ridiculous thing I’ve ever written – it’s Noises Off meets Space Balls, I guess, or Hail Caesar meets The Play That Goes Wrong. I just love it, and I just know the actors in the company are going to have a ball doing it.

My approach for One Giant Leap is to tell a fun spin on the greatest event in history since World War II, to give the audiences a hilarious night out, telling a story that some of the audience, certainly those of my parents’ generation, can get a little nostalgic over because it’s set in an era that they were part of. Most of all, I just want to stage the funniest thing South London will see all summer. It’s going to be great. Everything about that period is so iconic, the music, the clothing, the language, the political figures, the movies, the cars, the culture – it’s so vibrant and giddy – and we’re literally building the moon as part of the set, so that’s worth a look all by itself.

After that you’re heading off on tour with Jekyll and Hyde – what prompted you to head out of London and what are you most looking forward to about the tour?

After five years, sixteen shows and thirteen award nominations, I feel like we’ve found our USP, and developed a sense of the type of work that we want to produce. And whilst we’ve loved being at the Jack, there comes a point (and for me it came after our production of White Rose last year) where you have to consider what the next step would be in terms of the company, and in terms of our progression both creatively and financially. It seemed like there were two options, to either scale up or down. Either Arrows become a purely artistic venture, done for the love of the process, in which case it only really made sense to do a show a year, and also only in the summer as to not interfere with my day job as an English/Drama teacher, or to scale up and take the company further. As much as I love the Brockley Jack, we all know it’s not about to get 150 more seats added to it, so it’s about reformulating the model and making it work for more audience engagement, and a wider profile beyond SE London. So I decided I’d try touring.

The model is that we will retain the Brockley Jack as a home, always debut each show there, hold the press nights there, and have the 3-4 week run of 15-20 shows as we have in the past, but then to take the show on national tours that are produced and supported for a longer period of time, and run for an extended season of shows. So more shows, less productions, if that makes sense. We’re building a team to support the shows, a tour booker, a producer, a fundraiser, set designer, costume designer, etc – and the cast size has been streamlined to make it viable for a touring model. So in a sense this is the end of an era as the 8-15 person cast just won’t be possible anymore, but I’m excited about the possibilities that touring produces, and I’m very eager to instigate a paid model that edges away from the profit-share fringe structure that unsubsidised theatre often has to be done at. The most exciting part for me is to go to new places and debut our work there, to build new followings and to really work at making this a viable business model. Of course, I’m not expecting a six-figure salary for all, there’s no money in theatre, never has been, but the pride and justice involved in finally being able to pay every single person involved in the show properly for the vast amount of time they put in to each show will be very validating and satisfying when it at last happens.

Tell us a bit about your new Renegade season. How did you select the stories you wanted to tell and which are you most excited about?

The idea with the Renegade season is to continue the work we’ve already been doing, and just go further with it in new areas and new remits. For the last few years our work has been falling into one of two categories, the literary adaptation of classic novels, and the new writing about a historical figure. I want to continue this remit by bringing a conclusion to the Gothic Trilogy that we started with Frankenstein and Dracula, and write a modern political thriller adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde set in the 2020 US Presidential Race. I think, when reading the novella, you get the strong sense of the importance of reputation in Victorian society, and the hypocrisy that so many fell into when they tried to conceal a darker part of themselves, and only present the morally upright version of their personalities. To our modern audiences, and to students of the text, this is quite hard to find a parallel to in our society or see the importance of why something like a “Hyde persona” would need to be concealed, but I think politics still has that sense of moral rectitude and the threat of what a sudden scandal can do to your career – so the political arena seemed a good setting, particularly when you look at our current social climate. Oh and yes, I’m choosing to set it in the States mainly because I’m sick to death of hearing about Brexit, and I certainly don’t want to write a f*cking play about it.

We then plan to follow it up with a rewritten version of our 2017 hit Frankenstein, which was very popular at the time.  I also want to continue our new historical writing slant, but obviously I’m aware that the viable choices for real-life figure is slightly more limited if you want to go outside of London, so I’ve chosen to tackle the origin stories of two of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. In CHAPLIN, we’ll deal with how he becomes the Little Tramp, and cover his childhood and upbringing in Victorian London – his story is absolutely breath-taking and heart-breaking – it reads like something ripped out of a Charles Dickens novel. And in Making Marilyn we’re dealing with Norma Jean and her road to Hollywood. Hopefully, we’ll be able to tell you stories that you didn’t know about figures that you are familiar with, and with all prequels, there’s some fun to be there about how exactly the iconic images are created, and the reason behind them.

What made you decide to bring back Frankenstein, and can we expect any other revivals in the future…?

I think, with all of these shows, as the writer, you go through a process working on them. Frankenstein was the first show for Arrows & Traps that I wrote as well as directed, and I think that version was something of a scatter-gun, in terms of the fact that I threw everything that I found interesting about the book and its author onto the stage, it was stuffed with characters and plotlines, almost to confusion-levels, I found. Often, when you get to the last night, you have just worked out what story you wanted to tell, only to have it all be over. I think I’ve managed to refine that over the two years I’ve been writing for Arrows & Traps, but Frankenstein really stands out to me as one that I’d love a second go at writing. Hone and rein it in slightly, make it more about the absent mothers, and the uncaring fathers – less about the romances, and it’s an opportunity to bring back Will Pinchin’s phenomenal performance as the Creature, which really has to go down as a company highlight for me.

I certainly wouldn’t rule out other revivals in the future. I think White Rose and TARO have been my favourite productions so far, and I’d certainly like to bring both back at some point… we shall see what destiny holds. For the moment, there’s certainly a lot going on, and I’m looking forward to building a roster of great productions that are touring, reaching new audiences, and bringing the company to the next level of working that we’ve all been dreaming of since 2014.

Tickets are now on sale for One Giant Leap and The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde. And to keep up to date on all things Arrows, follow @arrowsandtraps on Twitter.

Interview: Michelle Payne, Sad About The Cows

Michelle Payne is a playwright, director and performer whose work has been widely produced since 2015, when her debut play Orchid picked up two awards on its first outing. She’s also a founder of Caspa Arts, an acting school for young performers who can’t afford to go to drama school, and from tomorrow brings one-woman show Sad About The Cows to Tristan Bates Theatre for a week-long run.

The dark comedy explores the themes of female self-image through the story of Rachel, a young woman obsessed with consuming. “In the age of social media we are constantly bombarded with information and images, and it’s how her impressionable mind processes this,” explains Michelle. “I wanted to create a seemingly high-functioning character that happens to suffer with her mental health – it does not define who she is.”

Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre

Though it’s not a directly autobiographical piece, Michelle did draw on her own experience to write Sad About The Cows. “I’ve seen a lot of theatre and TV about characters who face problems with their mental health, but hadn’t necessarily seen anything that resonated with my experiences,” she says. “I used my personal experience as a starting point for creating the play, but made sure that I adapted the plot so that Rachel is definitely a fictional character. This thought helps me to safeguard myself in the performance, to remember that I’m just telling an important story.”

Sad About The Cows transfers to Tristan Bates with a female creative team, after first being performed as part of the John Thaw Initiative Working Class Season with Actor Awareness earlier this year. “We stepped in for a gap in programming for the first full length showing as part of the John Thaw Initiative, which challenged me to finish writing the play,” says Michelle. “From this, the Tristan Bates offered us the week run. I was lucky enough to find a diverse female creative team who have shared slightly different views about body image and its relationship to mental health. Each creative in the team had something different to offer towards the piece, whether that be culturally different or from their life experiences so far! It’s been a great process with five different voices in the room.”

According to national charity BEAT, 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – 75% of them female. Michelle hopes the play will break down barriers and start a conversation about the subject: “The main thing I’d like people to know about eating disorders is that it’s not necessarily that people who suffer want to be skinny, it’s often a way of keeping control. And also that people can function despite the illness. I’d like our audiences to be able to have an open discussion about mental health disorders. So often the stigma stops people from discussing this at all and people worry about what others might think if they admit they suffer.”

Catch Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre from 21st-25th May.

Interview: Stephanie Silver, Walk of Shame

For one, it’s a night of glory – for the other, a walk of shame… Glass Half Full Theatre return with a topical new production next month, as they bring Walk of Shame by Stephanie Silver and Emelia Marshall Lovsey to the White Bear for a limited run.

“I don’t want to give too much away,” says Stephanie. “As with most of our plays we produce, it takes the audience on a journey and the ending isn’t what you expect; we like twists and turns. It’s a story based on two characters: Alice, written by Emelia, and Liam, written by myself. We merged the two characters together to create a story of one night and two different points of view.”

The show was first picked up by Stephanie through Actor Awareness, at a new writing event based at Spotlight. “I co-produce these nights with Tom Stocks and I read the script submissions,” she explains. “I read this piece and instantly loved it, and felt it fit the ethos of plays I wanted to produce through Glass Half Full. Thought provoking, tragic and funny characters is what I like to home in on.

“Initially it was just Alice that was written, but after directing the piece for the event I went away, wrote a two-hander and asked Emelia if she fancied putting it on. We’ve since done R&D with it at the Actor Awareness new writing festival and also with Get Over it Productions at the Tabard Theatre this summer.”

One aspect that particularly drew Stephanie to Walk of Shame was its relevance: “Alice is a very loud and sexually overt character, and a lot of judgments get placed on her by the audience for her in ya face nature. I think it’s important that as women we are still breaking down stereotypes of how people perceive we should behave. Alice is not ladylike; she doesn’t say the right thing or often make the right choices. So I think her story is important, as it’s getting female characters out there that aren’t perfect and are flawed. I think women everywhere will relate to characters like Alice.

“Liam, the other character in the play, is very interesting and it’s a very different journey the audience go on with him – and without giving any twist away, it’s very interesting to see how the audience respond at the end after hearing about Liam’s life.”

Walk of Shame brings together a cast of talented creatives, the majority of whom have worked with Glass Half Full previously. “Emelia was actually in my last play Our Big Love Story; she played Katie at The Hope Theatre in March,” says Stephanie. “As a producer, when I like people I keep them around. This is Emelia’s first play as a writer, so it’s exciting to be on that journey with her. She’s worked with the company a lot.

“Michelle Payne is a very accomplished actor, writer, director, producer slash superwoman. Her last play, Full Circle, about mental health won awards at the Brewery Fringe 2018. Michelle’s worked with Glass Half Full on new writing night Series of Short Plays, and she’s just set up acting school Caspa Arts. As a woman of all trades, and who knows the company’s work well, she’s a perfect fit to direct.

“As for the cast – Liam will be played by the very talented Calum Speed, who got an Offie nom for his role as Chubby in Chubby, which also had a run at the White Bear Theatre. And I myself will take on the role as Alice, which is exciting as I’ve been mainly producing for the last year, so it’s good to get back to doing what I love.”

The show opens at the White Bear on 11th December, where it will run until the 15th. “The White Bear is a great venue for new writing and it’s also a perfect space for the piece. Its intimacy will really lend to the story, and we hope the audience will go away with a lot to think about. We aim to challenge and get the audience to talk at the bar after. Our theatre company motto is ‘hard hitting and engaging’ – which this play is to a T.”

Get your tickets for Walk of Shame at the White Bear Theatre from 11th-15th December.

Interview: Alexander Knott, Renaissance Men

A bleak and bitter comedy about toxic masculinity and the millennial generation, Renaissance Men is a new production from writer James Patrick and Bag of Beard. The show will debut at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November, with tour dates to be announced for 2019.

“On the face of it Renaissance Men is about three art school dropouts who discover a lost masterpiece in a charity shop in Streatham,” explains Bag of Beard co-director, Alexander Knott. “But beyond that concept, the play is about what happens when men don’t talk to each other. When masculinity gets in the way of human connection. What happens if three young people are faced with a life changing opportunity? Does huge wealth generate huge contentment? What is the relevance of art in a society that values only capital? Is there a voice for Millennials that aren’t just obsessed with their phones? Is there a voice for nostalgia? And through this, can we connect to each other on a fundamental level?”

The story was inspired in part by the personal experience of writer James Patrick, combined with the company’s interest in discussing how the millennial generation connect with each other – or fail to do so. “We weren’t interested in the clichéd image of millennials; we’re not telling a story of iPhones and Instagram, but a kind of counter culture, as James puts it,” says Alexander, who plays Quentin in the show. “With our productions, Bag of Beard are interested in a sense of the timeless, of a heightened reality, but one that we can see society reflected in.

“We explored this in our first production Bath, at The Bread and Roses Theatre, but it was almost an unintentional discovery. With Renaissance Men we wanted to intentionally look at the idea of nostalgia, along with a discussion about toxic masculinity and how friendships can disintegrate. Without giving any plot away, we also examine the oppressive nature of depression, and how so often men fail to communicate what they’re feeling, which luckily is coming more to the forefront of awareness.”

The play has been about a year in the making, and had evolved significantly during the development process: “James started developing an idea of a couple of criminals who stole a priceless painting during a burglary, and then had to deal with the repercussions of this when they discovered how valuable it was. Fairly soon into the writing process, the characters evolved to be art students, and the piece became semi-autobiographical. Through a process of devising and improvisation, followed by scripting the dialogue and shaping it into a narrative, we had the framework of the narrative we have now.

“We went from what we thought was a dark comedy, into a story that has a resonance about our generation, we hope. It’s a satire in parts, we’re not advocating the lifestyle that these characters live, but we think it has a truth in it. During the rehearsal process, we’ve worked a lot with music – the original music for the show was composed by Sam Heron, who also plays Irvine, and elements of physical theatre, to create the semi-heightened world of the piece.”

Alexander is co-director of Bag of Beard along with Ryan Hutton, who also directs Renaissance Men. “The company was formed when, sat in a rehearsal room in South London, working on a classical play, we started discussing how we would do it differently,” he explains. “The ideas we threw around were stylised, surreal, almost grotesque versions of these classical characters – pulling at any threads of naturalism and distorting them into an abstract shape. It was from this discussion that the idea behind the company came together. We’ve yet to make our abstract version of that particular Jacobean tragedy, but ever since we’ve been creating theatre that is darkly comic, uses elements of physical theatre and poetry, and offers a comment on our generation, and how we engage with the world, with original words and original music.”

Renaissance Men will be performed in a special sharing on 25th and 26th November, at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre. “The Old Red Lion has an incredible reputation for being a hub of great new writing, and such an amazing launchpad of new work, writers and companies,” says Alexander. “We saw Kenneth Emson’s Plastic earlier in the year, and the poetic storytelling really made it electrifying. A fascinating working class story, brought into an almost heightened reality by the use of language. That’s something we strive for with Bag of Beard, and the Old Red Lion’s track record of supporting really ambitious new theatre speaks volumes.”

Following these initial performances in London, the company are hoping to embark on a regional tour next year. “We have good relationships with some really exciting theatres in the north of England, so it’d be great to see what the reaction is up there. It’s always good to try and share the work with as many audiences as possible – one of the cornerstones of Bag of Beard is an idea of a national ensemble, as half our company is London based and the other half hailing from Yorkshire, so that’s the aim, is to share the show up there.

“We hope that the audience will leave with questions, stimulated minds and a sense of unease when considering where the characters will go next. This play evokes a sense of a generation devoid of a cause and one which tries to fill that hole with so much; politics, memes, nostalgia etc. We hope the question of how the generation can hope to survive in the real world is raised. But conversely, we hope they have a bloody good laugh!”

Book now for Renaissance Men at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November.