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

Starved: Q&A with Michael Black

Following a short run at the Bread and Roses in May, Michael Black’s award-nominated play, Starved, transfers to the Hope Theatre next month. A grimly realistic portrayal of life below the poverty line, the third production from new writing company Faded Ink is directed by Matt Strachan, with Michael reprising his role as Lad alongside Alana Connaughton’s Lass.

The Starved team will be hoping to repeat the success of the show’s previous run, which earned several five-star reviews and a nomination for London Pub Theatre’s Standing Ovation Award. Michael chatted to Theatre Things about introducing Lass and Lad to new audiences, and why it’s so important for people to hear their story.

Can you sum up briefly what Starved is all about?

Starved is a two-hander set in a scruffy bedsit on a council estate in Hull. It’s a character driven story about a couple on the run, with hard hitting themes such as mental health, poverty, addiction, toxic relationships. Starved also has a lot of comedy, fast paced and witty Yorkshire humour.

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

The play is semi-autobiographical and based on my life growing up in Hull. I wanted to really turn the heat up on these characters and look at what people can be driven to when they feel isolated. When they feel like they have no meaningful purpose or place in society. Starved is based on things I’ve heard, seen, been through, but taken to that extreme.

Why do you feel is this story an important one for you to tell, and for a London audience to hear? And why is now the right time to tell it?

I wanted to put a Northern working class story on a London stage. The North of England feels under represented in Theatre, which is a shame because the people I’ve met and stories I’ve heard would make for really gripping and exciting new work. People I’ve spoken to are feeling scared, alone, pissed off, not listened to, ignored etc, especially in areas like where I grew up. I feel a story such as Starved can help break that London bubble slightly and show that there is a whole other way that people are forced to live, which might go some way in explaining the current divide.

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

I hope a sense of understanding that there are people out there that are having a really shit time of it. If we can be more compassionate towards those that have fallen under then hopefully we can start a conversation about how we can work together to see eye to eye. Also, I hope it’s refreshing to see a play set in Hull.

What are you most looking forward to about reviving the play at the Hope?

Really excited to work with a new group of people, we’ve got new designers and stage manager etc so looking forward to collaborating with them. Also, for new audiences to see the show and to just get back out there and see where it takes us.

Did you always want to be a playwright, and if not what was it that first sparked your interest in theatre?

I always had an interest in writing as a kid, I’d write episodes of The Simpsons and short stories. But it wasn’t until I moved to London to train as an actor that I really started to combine the two and realised that I had some stories in me that were worth telling.

On a related note, how did Faded Ink get started as a company, and how would you describe your mission?

Faded Ink was founded with the aim of producing high quality work that reflects working class backgrounds. We want to perform stories which represent communities that are not regularly touched upon in the theatre. Bringing something raw, passionate and based on personal experience to our work.

Book now for Starved at The Hope Theatre, 16th July to 3rd August.

Director: Matt Strachan

Cast: Michael Black and Alana Connaughton

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.

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.”