Emma Bentley talks to Jonah York in advance of his Brighton Fringe show, My Fern Flower about grief, plying people with instruments and awaiting his Grandma’s feedback.
Jonah York could easily be seen as a hippy from Brighton who wants to make a play about the stories that are embedded in us. But somehow, he goes about making theatre in a completely non-self-involved, genuinely passionate and experimental way.
I have my own problems with how Fringes are becoming less and less about taking creative risks and more about putting on a finished, shiny, award-winning piece of brilliantness. Not to say this show isn’t going to be brilliant, but shiny, it is not. York performs My Fern Flower at Brighton Fringe, his debut solo show about two brothers that weaves together ancient legends with his own imagination. The show will use music and spoken word to tell a new story in a way that will be messy, possibly muddy (in some kind of indoor way), and very fresh.
Our first conversations about the show goes along the lines of: “I want people to walk out of the theatre and be like: ‘what the fuck was that?’” And if you think he means in a good way, he doesn’t. York is just genuinely excited about creating something that will shake an audience up. I remark on how I am kind of in awe of his confidence: “No, I’m not confident at all,” he replies, “I’m absolutely shitting it.”
The show comes out of a fascination with story, which blossomed at LIPA (The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts) where York trained, and was encouraged by head of acting Will Hammond. After writing his Final Research Project on the subject and taking in some inspirational Ken Campbell along the way, he locked himself in a room to write a first draft. And so, began the process of turning his research into a creative endeavour – apparently drama school essays can be helpful!
After writing several “horrific” drafts, York tells me he eventually found an interesting way to frame these folk stories; coming from Slavic and Asian culture. This manifests as the story of two brothers: Jonah and Jim. “One writes all these stories in this book where magical stuff happens, and then Jonah has to live these stories to save his brother.” Grief is the moral compass of the piece he tells me: “It’s about letting people go.”
York was drawn to writing a solo show but working with Brighton-based musician Adam Michalakis has been a key part of the process. Michalakis originally came on board solely as a percussionist but apparently one day York turned up with a loop pedal saying: “let’s use this,” then the next day, “we’ve been given a Korg piano, you could learn that too right?” before, “how about guitar as well!” The fact that Michalakis is not, “a theatre person” was equally helpful as York tells me: “he’s picking up on things that I would never have thought of,” and he has treated the continuous soundscape that York wanted, “really like a film score.”
Unearthed Theatre, which York runs with his talented other half and fellow LIPA alumni, Lauren Waine, was apparently made from a bet in 2014. It was clearly a winner. Since then, they have made a variety of shows for different audiences including: a musical for Liverpool Light Night and an Edinburgh Fringe production about young people and mental health, as well as work for National Theatre Connections. Despite the fact he comes from Brighton, this is York’s first venture into the Fringe there. It seems particularly apt to bring this show to his hometown because of My Fern Flower’s connection with his family and particularly as his father and brother have been working for the hospice, Chesnut Tree House. This in turn, partly inspired the show. York goes on to tell me: “What I love about [the staff at Chesnut Tree House] is how they encourage creativity and not even that, just life.”
As someone who is in the midst of an MA in Writing, I’m surprised and inspired at how inventive York has been with his process. He tells me about barriers with the stories, with regards to: “how do I make this relatable for a 21st century audience and within the framework of my story.” But by writing in different outdoor spaces it shed a new light on them – literally. It’s like how every writer imagines writing a play instinctively, but I doubt many of us would actually commit to it. These adventures with the laptop led to some of the “weirdest” moments. York recalls how one night he was writing the culmination of the play which is all about the winter solstice: “I was really getting into it and I didn’t realise how late it was and it was like midnight and there was a full moon and I was like, I’m gonna check what day of the year it is and it was the winter solstice. And I closed my laptop, because I thought I’m going to awaken this ancient thing… I couldn’t sleep that night.”
It is this kind of magic and imagination that I expect the audience to find in My Fern Flower. With such an enjoyment of simply telling a story, it is an approach that York hopes he will bring for some non-typical theatre goers. This week, he knows this will involve his Grandma and a large group of her local friends – York awaits their feedback with open arms.
After Brighton, he hopes to take the show on tour and share some of the stories in workshop form. They are still tweaking the show, having just done a preview at Barnwave Festival which he tells me was, “perfect, as we were literally in a wood.” Talking about stories and woods, throughout the conversation I keep urging him to read Into the Woods by John Yorke, who mysteriously he shares a (if a different spelling) surname with. Although, half of me doesn’t want him to – this York’s perspective on story is already a unique one.
My Fern Flower is playing at Junk Yard Dogs: The Dog House from 25 May until 1 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Brighton Fringe website.