Interview: Jon Tozzi, Section 2

Paper Creatures Theatre was founded by actors Nathan Coenen and Jon Tozzi on a mutual love of new writing, truthful storytelling and innovative theatre. Their mission is to tell simple, compelling and bold stories that hold up a mirror to the millennial generation.

“The media often portrays millennials as social media-fixated, self-involved and careless of the society in which we find ourselves,” explains Jon. “Paper Creatures is committed to making theatre that breaks away from that stereotype and digs deeper. Good theatre for us is about storytelling. We lead with the idea that the story should be the primary focus from which everything else springs. Our shows aim to provoke, engage and encourage discussion after having left the auditorium.”

And they’re hoping to do just that with their second show, Section 2, which explores the often sensitive subject of mental health, and in particular aims to shine a light on the topic of sectioning. “Mental health is thankfully an issue that is gaining a brighter spotlight and focus in recent years, especially with depression and anxiety,” says Jon. “However, not much is said about sectioning, a treatment that is increasingly required, particularly among those aged 18 – 35, not to mention those who work in the arts.

Section 2 is a part verbatim story about a young man named Cam, the golden-boy in high school, who is sectioned under the mental health act, but no one can figure out why. Taking place in real time on potentially the final day of his sectioning, we follow a glaringly insightful truth into the process, challenges and effects of sectioning, on the patient but also his key worker, girlfriend and best friend.

“Sectioning is a subject that is rarely talked about in theatre, and definitely not in such an honest and revealing way. When Peter Imms, the writer, approached us with the initial story, we felt it important to take the opportunity to shed some light on the subject and tackle its effects head on. The fact that this piece was inspired by a personal encounter of our playwright means the approach to the text is much more truthful and raw in comparison to many other mental health plays. Section 2 is told in real-time, allowing audience members to experience every joy, hope, silence and heartbreak right there along with the characters – as if they were in the room with them. The play oozes subtext and Pete’s writing style allows for lots of exploration for the director and actors to explore this in various ways through each performance.”

Photo credit: Monika Jastrzebska

The production began life in September 2017 as ten pages of script and a short verbatim piece from a personal experience Peter had with sectioning. “Since then, we’ve done what we do best: given Pete the time and creative support necessary to write the play Section 2 has become,” says Jon. “This included several read throughs with different actors and creatives listening in, an R&D week away in Wittering, and taking part in A Pleasance Scratch at the Pleasance Theatre to gain some useful feedback. We work extremely collaboratively and have given the piece the time and dedication it needs to be performance ready. The key for us was to approach this play and the subject matter with sensitivity and a clear understanding, so lots of research was undertaken and it has been invaluable; we hope that comes across after having watched the play.

“In today’s day and age, it’s important, particularly as millennials, that we continue to open our minds and expand our knowledge of a lot of key issues that affect many people in our society, such as mental health. What Section 2 will give you is a brave and truthful insight into the world of sectioning, at the same time as letting you come away with a hopeful outlook on how we as humans can help break the stigma attached to mental health and how we as a theatre community can help support this. What makes this piece so special is that we have had support from MIND, the mental health charity during the script development stages, so what we are bringing to The Bunker is a play that accurately depicts the inner workings of a mental health hospital and the emotional journey of those that are a part of it.

“We want our audiences to leave with a greater awareness and knowledge of sectioning and, with that, the ability and willingness to reach out to those in their lives who suffer from mental health conditions and become a part of their support network. Something as simple as an informed conversation can help sufferers immensely.

“Good theatre is about connection and we hope that there will be at least one moment in the piece which the audience is able to connect and empathise with. We also strongly encourage audiences to stick around after to discuss the play with us so we can begin the conversation regarding mental health.”

Following the success last year of their debut production, Flood, Paper Creatures are excited to be bringing their new project to The Bunker as part of the Breaking out season. “The Bunker has been attracting a young, vibrant and, most importantly, diverse crowd since their debut show which we saw back in 2016,” says Jon. “Just sitting in the space, there is a distinct buzz and community feel. Having the opportunity to share our stories with this kind of audience is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us. The performance space itself will lend itself perfectly to the production as the audience will be looking in on the action of the play, giving a fly on the wall type feel.

“To be in repertory theatre for a month with five other emerging new-writing theatre companies is also an absolute privilege for us here at Paper Creatures Theatre. The chance to meet and work alongside these different creatives, each with their unique approach to their craft, has taught us a lot and given us the opportunity to expand our audience. We hugely appreciate and champion The Bunker Theatre’s efforts to make this happen – more needs to be done to support new companies and this is one hell of a start.”

Get your tickets now for Section 2 at The Bunker Theatre, on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

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.