Roger, the commission brief asked for a direct response to the current American political climate. What were your immediate thoughts? My ideas for the play were already percolating. Last year also saw the emergence of some very troubling conservative ideologies that have been festering below the surface of American society for some time, but which were suddenly given permission to blossom like ugly warts. People feel emboldened to express their horrid notions when there’s a monster in the most esteemed position in the country bragging about “grabbing pussy” or calling white-supremacists “very nice people.” The search for truth was once an ideal, but he’s totally upended that by asserting his lies are the truth. It’s a very surreal time. I’d rather see bigots out in the open though; it’s insidiously worse when that person you know and think of as cool and okay secretly harbors racist or bigoted thoughts. There was an excellent photo-essay in the New Yorker, dozens of images of men and women from middle America who had voted Republican in the Primaries. Each photo was accompanied by a small quote explaining who they voted for and why. It was very revealing of the ways people in America are thinking. One recurring idea that was expressed was the kick-back against political correctness, which I think is only about protecting one’s privilege. That really lead to the writing of this play.
As the ideas developed what themes did you really want to highlight in the play? Here’s the twist: when I started scribbling down notes for the play, I thought to approach my exploration with a jolt of empathy for the straight, white male who is the target of so much discussion regarding privilege. I wanted to understand where he was coming from. It’s easy simply to attack, but I thought: How might Chekhov examine this? (He’s the standard for objectivity in my mind!) Or Fugard? (He’s a writer with enormous compassion for his characters.) You know, it must be very confusing for people to hear they are privileged when their own dire life-circumstances suggest otherwise. The Father of my play would never be able to comprehend his privilege. He’s confronted by a fifteen-year-old school girl and completely misses the point. The slow burn to their understanding what privilege is and how their supposed-birthright and entitlement has brought about their demise, is ultimately the journey of this play for my two characters.
In the story, you have a divorced, inactive Mormon and father of twins, holed up in an Apartment in Salt Lake City. Is there a particular relevance to him being a Mormon, or for that matter the choice of Salt Lake City as a setting? I was raised Mormon, in South Africa actually, and even though I’ve moved far away from both of those entities if you will, I find they are enormously useful to me as a writer. I’ve lived in the USA for over half of my life now, and a good many of those years were spent in Utah, so by setting my plays in Salt Lake City (they are all set there) I am able to capture something distinct, as well as uniquely American. There’s a language to Mormonism that I love to draw on in my writing. Terms and phrases that you only truly understand if you’ve been seeped in the religion. It’s like a secret language at my fingertips. To add to that, I seldom write characters with their faith intact. I’m always writing outsiders, whose faith has eroded. I’m very rough on the father in my play, and he goes on a devastating ride from the moment he enters the apartment, having already had a rough day, and an even rougher life. One of the exciting things about the writing was still being able to find other ways to pull the rug out from under him. (I’m not sounding very compassionate now, am I?) Maybe his faith has been slowly waning, but it’s not till he attempts to pray that he finds the words hollow and his faith completely depleted. What it means to be a man, what it means to be a good father, that’s all wrapped up in religion and society. Setting the play in Salt Lake allowed me to explore my ideas in a very specific way.
Father and son are both struggling with their sense of identity in a country that once held so much promise to them. How would you describe the emotional state of the play? A couple of months ago I handed the play to an incredible American actor who I thought would make an excellent Father. I really just wanted him to read the play and say: “God, I love it. Please, yes, let me play the role!” Instead he sent me pages of the most curious notes, which suggested to me that I might never again want to know what goes on the mind of a great actor as he’s processing a script. (laughter) It’s a strange alchemy. He called the play “relentless,” which I don’t think he necessarily meant as a compliment, but that is exactly what I was after in the writing. I was very angry and upset as I wrote—thank God I had my writing to pour those emotions into when the election results came in!—so I wrote with urgency. I hope the play feels dangerous.
Can you tell us more about how the story reflects the current situation in the USA? I think there’s a disconnect between politicians and the people they’re supposed to serve. Ordinary people, who are struggling or just scraping by—and I think that’s the vast majority of Americans—don’t feel as if their concerns are being addressed. They’re losing their jobs, factories are closing, their rents are rising, and yet they’re still holding out for the American dream. Then along comes a trickster like Trump who claims to represent them. What the hell does he know about poverty? He’s even got people believing he’s a friend of Jesus. What a joke! He has no religion besides his own brand. And spirituality? Forget it. But he has the audacity to say: “I know you. I’m going to fix this. I’m going to stop other people from coming into the country and stealing your jobs, and I’ll do that by building a wall.” How ridiculous! He plays into their fears about terrorism by implementing a travel ban. He’s like a stupid third-grader coming up with these basic solutions. The sad part is that people are so desperate to have their struggles and fears validated that they believe him. “Make America great again!” That slogan played so well into their nostalgia for an America that only ever existed in a fantasy. The sadder part is that in the end he will have done not a damn thing to address the real problems. His latest tax plan, for instance, still just benefits the rich. So where does my play fit into this? With PSYCHOPOMP, I tried to identify that man who once held enormous potential but who has almost lost it all, and put him under the spotlight, to examine the tragedy of that. The political forces exist outside of his realm. He’s just swept along in the current. I don’t have a solution besides suggesting that as white Americans we do have to take stock of our privilege, that we do have to acknowledge that we inherently have opportunities because of colour and gender.
Canal Café had over 100 submissions of synopsis for the commission, from professional playwrights in the USA and UK. After the short-list was made, your play was unanimously chosen by the panel. What goes into writing a play from a synopsis? Well, first, it was amazing to hear that complete strangers across the pond, as they say, were excited about my play. I’ve sent the script to so many places in the US, submitted it for workshops and competitions, but it’s been passed over. I received two rejection letters just yesterday. Perhaps it’s too dark for Americans, I don’t know, but thank you, London, for welcoming me! So, to answer your question: the truth is the play was already in draft by the time I was submitting the synopsis. I could never write a synopsis first. That’s not how I write. I write blindly, in the dark, with only the vaguest sense of where I’m going. That way the play unfolds on a subconscious level. Eventually you begin to see what it is and you can craft the whole, and then maybe at some point it is helpful to try to streamline one’s thinking with a synopsis.
What’s your background as playwright? I always intended to be a theatre director. I was in the first class of directors to graduate from The Juilliard School, and I worked regionally in America for many years as a director. Fresh out of Juilliard though, I was given the opportunity to adapt Paul Monte’s novella “Sanctuary” at the Sundance Theatre Laboratory. My actors would improvise and I wrote in response. One day the head dramaturg at the Lab pulled me aside and said: “You’re a writer.” That was like a blessing! It gave me courage and permission to think of myself in that way too, and I’ve been writing ever since. One of my best learning experiences as a writer came from working with children. For four years I wrote and directed a play with 4th and 5th grade kids. Each year I’d go to them with an idea, they’d write poems, or stories, or songs that would lead me into the play. I’d come in each day with new pages, and then I’d say: what next? and they’d come at me with their ideas, and off I’d go to write again. And six or seven weeks later we’d present a fully staged production. It was nerve wracking, having to face a ten-year-old who was asking if you’d written her part and there you were two weeks away from opening. That’s basically how I learned to write.
What, for you, are the best moments in the play? I love the funny bits. I’m enormously entertained by the son’s antics. What he does with his Father’s 7-Eleven uniform, or the way he flips the light-switch on with his foot without getting up off his bed amuses me to no end. I am most pleased with the way the play slowly peels away from reality. You think you’re watching the concrete world, but then mystery and metaphor begin to assert themselves. I’ve stacked the events of the play really densely, still, I hope that by the end even the most literal-minded person will let go of the details and give themselves over to Poetry.
Finally, what were you looking for when casting the play? When I show the play to theatre practitioners, a typical response I get is: Well, you're going to need two amazing actors to pull this off. I wrote with the power of a performer in mind. There’s a ton of energy below the surface of my text which an actor has to fill and the play requires two actors who are really willing to throw themselves into walls. I’m talking about risk-takers. The actual task of casting fell to our terrific director, Russell Lucas. I knew within the first few minutes of our initial Skype conversation that the play was in good hands. He’s cast actors whom he trusts, and that’s a real boon.
CASTING: This two-hander will be performed by Charlie Allen (Best Male Lead, Brighton Fringe 2012, The Albtross 3rd & Main, Park Theatre) and Harvey Bassett (The Importance of Being Earnest and Romeo and Juliet, Blue Orange Theatre; Reprehensible Men, Tristan Bates Theatre).
PSYCHOPOMP (lit: a guide of souls to the place of the dead)
Canal Café Theatre, W2, 20, 21, 27 & 28 October 7pm
Tix: £12/£10 Concession (£1.50 membership may apply)
Running Time: 75 minutes
A divorced, inactive Mormon and father of twin boys, one of them deceased, reflects on life whilst holed up with his surviving son in a one room apartment in Salt Lake City. Each struggle with their sense of identity in a country, once promising, now slipping dangerously out of their grip. Will a hint of glitter on his son's face be the unravelling of it all?
Director of the season, Russell Lucas (Julie Madly Deeply, Sh!t Theatre, The Tape Face Xmas Special) said:
"Psychopomp is to the America of 2017, what Jerusalem was to England in 2009."