“I think that most of us don’t think that our lives are especially worthy of attention, when actually we often have very sad, funny and magical stories to tell. Those tend to be the stories I am drawn to and which I want to write myself”. Young emerging dramatist Zoe Cooper describes her inspiration as a playwright as she talks about her upcoming new play Jess and Joe Forever, which premieres at The Orange Tree in Surrey on September 8.
“Looking at what I have written so far, there is a definitely a theme of writing about people who would not expect to have plays written about them at all”.
Jess and Joe Forever centres on two young people as they grow up, spanning several summer holidays in Norfolk from when they are nine years old to the year they take their GCSE exams. Memories of teenage years and summer family holidays are so universally reminiscent, but was it a conscious decision for Cooper place her story within such a relatable and contemporary context. “I went to Norfolk every summer as a child” Cooper explains, “and I remember clearly what it was like having summer holiday friendships, reinventing yourself and being whoever you want. Both Jess and Joe have big secrets, and end up being revealed as outsiders. I think I felt like an outsider as a teenager… which I think all teenagers do”.
Cooper says that she thinks imagination, and the concept of making something true by believing in it is something that changes through our teenage years, and explains that this sense of transition is something she wanted to capture in Jess and Joe Forever.
“I wanted to write from the perspective of two young people who still see their story as epic, huge and magical, but who are also growing out of that sort of imagination,” she says. “I also wanted to write a play about how it’s possible to find magic in an ordinary place, like a quiet little village in Norfolk”.
Themes of teenage nostalgia and the emotional adolescent years do not seem too common in contemporary playwriting, especially when a lot of new writing today is focused on cultural and political events. Did Cooper set out to deliberately buck this trend? “I saw a lot of theatre growing up, and it all tended to be quite serious,” she says. “But I remember watching Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite and realising that it was possible to write plays about the kind of people I knew, in ways that honoured how remarkable they are, and that was really inspiring.” Nostalgia, gender, identity and growing up are explored in this funny, sad and thoughtful coming of age tale, a welcome breath of fresh air amid the more hard-hitting cultural and politically aware pieces of work.
Jess and Joe Forever is commissioned by Old Vic New Voices, a programme dedicated to offering access to theatre-making for everyone, and the play premieres at the Orange Tree Theatre this month, co-produced with Farnham Maltings. “The support that the scheme offers is vital for emerging writers like myself,” Cooper says, “In particular the New Voices team Steve Winter, Alex Ferris and Laura Humphrey, their support was invaluable. They enabled me to write with a very open brief and the money for the commission also gave me the time and space to hone my script to the point where Farnham Maltings and the Orange Tree were able to take a risk on such a strange little play”.
What would Cooper’s advice be to budding writers? “One of the most important things you can do is develop your taste, read lots of plays, especially by people only a few steps ahead of you,” she suggests.
“Make sure you read great emerging writers like Caroline Horton, James Fritz and Charlene James as well as Churchill, Pinter and Shakespeare”. She backs programmes and initiatives such as Old Vic New Voices as a vital thing to get involved with, as established theatres and companies can offer young theatre makers invaluable experiences and professional experience.
It’s a tough climate for these schemes, as Cooper acknowledges. “Literary and emerging artist schemes are often the first to get cut when belts are tightened, but ultimately that is where the next generation of work will come from,” she says. “The more money we put into it, the more diverse and exciting the plays of the future will be”.
It is undeniable that without the generous support and encouragement from companies and theatre producers such as the Old Vic, Farnham Maltings and The Orange Tree, Zoe would not be awaiting the world premiere and tour of Jess and Joe Forever, but without the new, fresh and exciting emerging talent from young playwrights such as she, the future world of theatre would be very dull indeed.
Jess and Joe Forever premieres at The Orange Tree Theatre on September 8, running until October 8, after which it plays various tour dates.
Image by The Other Richard