Things are going well for Vinay Patel. After a succession of short plays his debut full-length play, True Brits, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer. A relative newcomer to theatre, Patel admits he found the Edinburgh experience slightly overwhelming. “It was bloody intense” he says.
But Edinburgh very nearly didn’t happen. “We got shortlisted for an IdeasTap prize to take it up and it was a little bit heart-breaking that we didn’t get it,” says Patel. A less determined writer might have stopped there, but Patel’s single-mindedness ensured he got his play in front of an audience. “I thought ‘fuck it, let’s just do it.’” His determination was duly vindicated.
True Brits was a beautifully written monologue about a young Asian dealing with the racial paranoia that swept across London in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, subtly posing questions about the nature of national identity in multi-cultural Britain.
It is encouraging to see Patel continuing to engage at the level of politics with his next play, Free Fall, which opens at the Pleasance Islington next week. Produced by Poleroid Theatre, the play will be directed by Bethany Pitt, whose acclaimed production of Clara Brennan’s one-woman play, Spine, won multiple awards up at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer. For my money, it sounds like a winning combination.
Having tackled the issue of national identity with True Brits, Free Fall sees Patel hone in on the concept of tech unemployment– the phenomenon whereby technology is beginning to replace humans in the job market. “I’ve become sort of obsessed with the concept,” says Patel. “It feels a little bit niche but it’s something that’s started happening already and it will keep happening over the next couple of decades.”
Although tech unemployment perhaps remains a niche concern, the issue of employment instability and zero-hour contracts in particular is anything but, with the Office for National Statistics revealing that the number of contracts that do not guarantee minimum hours of work or pay reaching 1.4 million earlier this year. Patel, clearly, is a writer with his finger firmly on the pulse.
“There will be a certain level of semi-skilled, white-collar work that people thought was quite secure that’s going to start fading away,” predicts Patel. “I wanted to look at how two people deal with that in their own way.” Free Fall imagines a chance encounter between two strangers at Dartford Crossing in the dead of night. Although Patel started from the interaction between these two people, “it became a wider thing about redundancy and how a couple of people deal with the fact that on a personal, a social and an economic level they’re not really needed by anyone.”
The play was originally written during his time at the Central School of Speech and Drama, where he studied for an MA in Writing for Stage & Broadcast Media. “It was the best year of my life,” he reflects. The debate as to whether playwriting can be taught is a divisive one, but Patel sets out his stall as an advocate of taught playwriting programmes as a means of honing craft and developing skills. “I think it depends who you are as a person,” suggests Patel. “Someone like me responds quite well to having a structured environment and I definitely wouldn’t have had the discipline to do what I’m doing now if I hadn’t gone onto the course and got an idea of how it works.”
Having worked more or less solely on True Brits, Patel now finds himself in the unfamiliar position of juggling several different projects all at once. “At the moment I’m working full time on a TV project and I get up an hour earlier and work on something else, go into work, do that, come home and work for another hour and half on something else”. But Patel isn’t one to complain, “it’s all good experience” he insists. It’s also necessary.
Patel is refreshingly frank about the financial reality of working in theatre and is alive to the necessity of supplementing his income with other sources of money. “I don’t think people talk about money often enough in theatre,” he declares. “If you want to work in theatre you don’t get much money for that, so if you want to make a living you have to learn to balance that around other things.” That adjustment has obviously taken some getting used to. “I think that was the hard step for me,” he says. “Going ‘fucking hell this is something I really enjoyed and now I hate it’.” You sense he’s only half-joking. Nevertheless, although he admits to finding project stacking “really difficult”, his enthusiasm for theatre remains: “I absolutely love theatre.”
While some writers can attempt to act nonchalantly about their achievements, Patel’s excitement is evident, like when it was announced that True Brits would be published by Methuen Drama for instance. “It was one of those things that I’d always told myself ‘I don’t care that much about it’ but then when I got it I was like ’yeah, this is awesome’!” he says fondly. “But what was better about it was being able to give that to my family. I think that’s what made it worthwhile.”
Having achieved so much in such a short space of time, you’d forgive Patel for not having had much time to reflect on his achievements to date. “I think you can take your experience for granted at this stage,” he says. That’s not to say he’s getting complacent. “Whenever I try to write anything I try to give myself a new challenge so with this one I wanted to write very long scenes,” he says. “I’m obsessed with Richard Linklater movies and the idea of having two people on stage whose relationship you become absorbed in. I wanted to see if I could make that a viable piece of theatre – not to bore people for 80 minutes.”
Going forward, Patel wants to continue in the same vein, challenging himself to write more and more ambitiously. “I’ve done True Brits – a one man play – Free Fall is obviously a two hander, so I want to do something bigger next.” In this instance, bigger will almost certainly be better.
Free Fall is at the Pleasance Islington from 14 Oct – 1 Nov 2014. For more information and tickets go to Pleasance website.