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INTERVIEW: Jon Brittain on Rotterdam

Jon Brittain is a playwright, comedy writer and director. Jon’s plays include The Wake, The Sexual Awakening of Peter Mayo and the hugely successful Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho. He has written for Radios 4’s The Now Show, Comedy Huha’s Ted or Dead and Cartoon Network’s BAFTA and Emmy award winning The Amazing World of Gumball. And if that wasn’t enough, he also directed comedian John Kearns’ Fosters Newcomer-award winning show Sight Gags for Perverts and has since directed comedian Tom Allen. His latest play, Rotterdam, runs at Theatre 503 from 27 October to 21 November 2015.

Rotterdam is a play that explores so many complex personal issues, what made you want to tell this story?

It was a combination of two ideas. I had had a couple of friends over the years who came out as trans and it made me a lot more conscious of how little popular culture had explored trans characters and their experiences. I’d also been toying with writing about the fluidity – or lack of fluidity – of people’s sexual orientations. One day it struck me that these two ideas might work in the same play, and the two characters arrived pretty much fully formed in my head. Alice, who has finally come to terms with being gay and is ready to come out to her parents, and her girlfriend Fiona, who has finally come to terms with the fact that he has always identified as male and wants to start living as a man named Adrian.

Rotterdam is obviously set in the Netherlands, was there any specific reason for setting it there?

I moved to the Netherlands when I was 13 with my family and went to a British school near The Hague for five years. I love Holland and I wanted to write about a bit about the culture and the place as it means a lot to me. However I also wanted to isolate the characters from support groups, friends or family. Rotterdam is a kind of limbo for them. It’s somewhere they ended up but not somewhere they ever intended to stay. I liked the irony that Rotterdam is a port, with lots of people and things just passing through, but these characters are stuck and can’t leave.

Do you feel that plays which deal with topics like this need more of a platform to ensure that all voices are represented in theatre?

I think you might be asking two different questions. Yes, I think plays that deal with trans issues should be given a platform, but I don’t think that that solves the issue of representation. I am very aware that my voice – white, cis gendered, straight, middle class, male – is massively overrepresented in theatre, and just because I’ve written a play that features underrepresented characters, does not mean that their communities are being properly represented. I think it’s important that playwrights feature members of the trans community in their writing, as it will continue to increase their visibility in popular culture, but I also think it’s very important that opportunities are made for people in the trans community to make work themselves and to put a spotlight on the work that they are already making.

You’ve created your own scratch night Brain of Brittain. As a writer, what are the advantages of exploring work in this physical way?

It’s been great. Usually, you’ve got to rely on other people to create the opportunities to develop work ‘on its feet’ – directors, producers, literary departments etc – so it was nice to take matters into my own hands and just put on a series of shows where I tried stuff out. Rotterdam got its first rehearsed reading at one of these nights, and we tried out a lot of material for Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho as part of them too. Actually, the show in which we tried out Thatcher material was the one that we performed on top of the set for the show Land of Our Fathers which is set down a pit. It was very funny to have Thatcher singing songs in a coal mine.

Even in your more dark or serious work there are plays plenty of laughs. Is this a deliberate device or do you think this is your coping mechanism coming through in your writing?

Bit of both. I find it very hard to go too long into a conversation without throwing in some jokes. At the same time I personally prefer work that has a lot of humour in it and I wouldn’t want to give my audience anything I wouldn’t want to watch myself. Having said that, I always try and make sure its rooted in character and I’d probably never do a show which was just funny (not that there’s anything wrong with that); I always like to use the humour to counterbalance or highlight something serious – whether that’s the exploration of identity in Rotterdam or the advocacy of gay rights in Queen of Soho – as Mary Poppins said “…a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, but you do need the medicine.

You enjoyed huge success with your cabaret show Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho. Having both co-written and directed the show, how much were you able to distance yourself from the writing when directing?

I don’t know if I have to distance myself from the writing. It’s not so much a question of trying to ignore the fact that you also wrote it when directing, more that you exercise good judgement in deciding which job is more appropriate for solving a given problem. Sometimes you can save a lot of time directing by fixing a script problem; alternatively you can make stuff work in a completely different have to be open to that.

Thus far you’ve managed to find a delicate balance between writing and directing, is this something that you hope you’ll be able to continue, or do you eventually want to put more focus on one or the other?

Any balance I’ve found is purely accidental. Weirdly, I started out directing plays at university and I feel I am more naturally suited to that than I am writing, but after writing my first play The Wake, I fell in love with making scripts and so let the directing go for a while. A lot of people who didn’t know I had directed before were sceptical when I started directing my own work, but after Queen of Soho and What Would Spock Do? I feel confident enough to now be able to tell people whether or not I want to direct a play myself. With Rotterdam, I wanted to collaborate with a director rather than do it myself, and luckily Donnacadh O’Briain is fantastic so I feel in very safe hands.

You’ve directed a few stand up shows in recent years, what are the greatest challenges when directing a stand up show?

Taking your own ego out of it is crucial. You are there to be invisible – to support the comedian, not to impose your own values or goals onto their show. When working with a comedian, I try and adapt myself to fill whatever rôle it is they need filling. With Tom Allen I was a sounding board for ideas during the writing process, whereas with John Kearns I was more involved with watching and feeding back on the show during previews. It all has to depend on what kind of director the comedian needs you to be. Crucially though, I only work with comedians that I love, so I am only trying to help them unlock what is already there, as opposed to trying to ‘fix’ them.

Having done some stand up yourself at university does this new route make you want to dip back into performing stand up?

Well, I stopped performing stand up after university because I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I certainly have a lot more confidence in myself than I did at 22. I love performing and making people laugh, but I do feel a bit like I missed my window to make a go of it. The stand ups I know have worked so hard for so long to become as good as they are (on top of being naturally talented) that it’s very daunting to even consider trying it again. Occasionally, I will do five minutes here or there, or perform a character in one of the Weirdos show, but I think – realistically – that it’s best left to the professionals. In any case, writing and directing are more than enough hats to be getting on with.

What advice would you give anyone who wanted to go into writing?

Don’t wait for someone to give you permission. Just do it. There are books you can read and courses you can do, and they can all be useful, but honestly none of them will be as useful as just sitting down and writing something. Set yourself goals. Force yourself to do a scene a day. Finish a draft and then put it away for a while, give yourself time to come to it fresh. When you do read it try and do so as if someone else wrote it. Everyone has the ability to say what they do or don’t like about a movie or a book, so apply that basic critical analysis to your own work, then fix the things you don’t like. That’s my approach to writing in a nutshell – write the sh*t version, then fix the problems until it’s not sh*t anymore (or “fail better” as Beckett said, but I like my version). Also, don’t rely on other people to make it happen once it is written. If you know anyone with a venue, or actors, or have access to a good video camera, then use it. Make stuff. That’s how you learn how to do it better. By doing it.

And finally, what’s next for Jon Brittain?

I’m quite busy actually. I’m writing a musical with Harry Blake called How to Stop Being Fat and Start Being Happy which is about the diet industry and a play called A Super Happy Story About Feeling Super Sad which is about depression. Then next year Queen of Soho is going on tour and doing a live gameshow. What Would Spock Do? is going to Australia, and there’s a play that I’ve been trying to get off the ground for years about a little girl whose imaginary friend is Patrick Stewart that I would love to make happen. And a holiday. It would be great to go on holiday.

Rotterdam runs at Theatre 503 from 27 October – 21 November 2015 | Image: Contributed

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East
The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Charlotte Broadbent. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.