Writing with Simon Stephens

Simon StephensWhen I meet Simon Stephens he is in the middle of taking over the National Theatre’s (NT) Twitter account for an hour of #askaplaywright. He is running his hands through his hair whilst rapidly dictating answers to a scribe for the occasion. He is ebullient and engaged, and exactly how you’d imagine a writer to be.

“Whatever your job is, do your bloody job,” is one of the best gems of advice he offers me. A Northerner by birth he holds “no truck with not working… what annoys me almost more than ineptitude in anything is laziness”. An hour talking to him will dispel anybody’s impression that to be a writer is not a real job, and if you examine his oeuvre you will know that he is anything but lazy. This is a man who clearly understands what it is to be a writer. He is curious about the world and what it is to be human, and our conversation covers everything from his writing process to men’s toilet behaviour.

A men’s toilet is normally “very functional and very quiet”. In the interval of a performance of his play Port at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2002 the opposite was the case, this toilet was “full of people talking to each other” and what they were saying wasn’t good. Stephens’ work has always provoked discussion, and you may know him from last year’s Morning at The Traverse, Three Kingdoms at the Lyric or his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time at the NT. Port is now being revived at the NT and I wonder whether it will provoke the same response as the cited 2002 performance, where one elderly audience member proclaimed “my husband lived through the war and that play was worse”.

Apparently “the play gave old people a bad name”, a comment to which Stephens comes back with the statement that “what they don’t realise is life is like that”. His plays are always about starkly real situations, even with expressionistic work such as Three Kingdoms, they “are plays that have fundamentally operated on a kind of psycho realist level”. Recent work has often been seen as very dark and lacking in hope; Port on the other hand is remarkably hopeful and has made Stephens wonder if he needs to regain his optimism. The experience of returning to Port after so many years has been, as he stated on Twitter: “Inspiring. Melancholy. Odd. Exciting.”

Place is very present in Stephens’s work and Port is “a story about a girl growing up and leaving Stockport” which is his hometown. “We see her from the age of 11 to the age of 23 with one apparently small scene played out every two years. The accumulated minutiae of her life gives her her life story of that age”. When asked about this importance of place Stephens responds with the following: “being human carries out on two particular axes. The axis of time is fundamental to the dramatist because it carries with us everything we remember and everything that we anticipate or want, and drama comes out of desire… but the characterstic of space is also very important, we define our sense of self in relation to where we are.”

Stephens is keen to impress, however, that Port isn’t an autobiographical play. Quoting one of his major influences, Sarah Kane, he explains that drama comes from “lived experience, observed experience and researched experience, and on some level you need all three”. There is as much of himself in Three Kingdoms as there is in Port. What he does acknowledge is that with every artist’s work there will be shared obsessions, returned to time and again, spanning all of their output even when every piece of work is extremely different. Stephens admires this in the work of artist Gehard Richter, saying that nothing has inspired him more in recent years than the Tate Modern retrospective of Richter’s work. He has a catalogue from this exhibition that he looks at every morning “just as a reminder of what an artist can be”.

Stephens is also inspired by music, and the musical landscape of 1980s Manchester played an important part in the creation of Port. “I would like my plays to inspire, excite, terrify and alarm audiences in the same way and with the same directness as music does to me”. This seems a fresh and youthful approach, but when questioned about writing plays to appeal to young audiences Stephens answers he doesn’t tend to write with any specific audience in mind: “normally I write for myself and anybody who likes it is a remarkable coincidence”. It’s in this way that the personal seeps into his work, and obsessions that he has spotted cropping up in his work with “tremendous repetition” are questions of “home and honesty”. Whilst we are talking Stephens realises that a new play he is working on “is the first play I’ve ever written that’s about coming home”. This, he puts down to where he is now in his life – married with children and a “sense of security and certainty” as opposed to a restlessness that abounded in his 20s.

I ask Stephens about his writing process; he writes on Word, on a computer with the Internet “looming and waiting for procrastination”. Procrastination is, he says, a useful tool and part of the “mulling process”. How does he procrastinate? By going on the Man United website or by doing “very old fashioned things like reading books”. He describes his process as “mulling, crystalising, writing”. The writing always comes last and “can be a matter of weeks or days even”.

Stephens is full of words of advice for writers, one of the best of which he took from Stephen Jeffreys which is this: “before you read it, print it, with a title page and look at it”. He follows this up by reminding me that not many people can say they’ve written a play; “to have written a play you’re in the top 3% of the world population and it’s worth being fucking proud of”. This is possibly the best piece of advice a young playwright could ever hear.

The National Theatre have created a storify of Simon Stephens’s Twitter takeover; you can view it at http://storify.com/Nationaltheatre/askaplaywright-simon-stephens.

Port plays at the National Theatre Lyttleton until 24 March 2013. For tickets and more information, click here: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/port