A Conversation with Playwright: Nick Payne
Ted Sod: Could you tell us about your background and how you came to be a playwright?
Nick Payne: I am from a village in Hertfordshire called Wheathampstead (approximately 50-60 miles North of London). I studiEd English Literature at the University of York. I'm not sure when I decided to become a playwright, but I do remember saying to myself that if I hadn't had a play produced by the time I was 30 (I'm now 28) that I would stop writing and go try something else. Fortunately, If There Is…was produced at the Bush Theatre, London in 2009.
TS: What inspired you to write If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet?
NP: I read a book called Heat by George Monbiot in 2006-7. Very briefly, Heat is a manifesto of sorts which looks at the ways in which we – as individuals, as a collective – ought to reduce our carbon emissions. Chapter by chapter, Mr. Monbiot looks at – for instance – public transport, groceries, insulation, so on, outlining firstly their ecological cost and, secondly, how we might go about reducing and streamlining said cost. I found the book incredibly thoughtful and provocative – and a little galvanizing. Also, perhaps more importantly in terms of If There Is…, I noticed that Mr. Monbiot had dedicated the book (if memory serves me right) to his daughters. Later, I read another book called Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. Again, Mr. Lynas dedicated the book to his offspring. I followed this by reading The Politics of Climate Change by Anthony Giddens. Again, the book was dedicated to Mr. Giddens' children. These three dedications stayed with me and I started to wonder if there might be something dramatic about a father trying to 'save the planet' to ensure that it is fit for his child to inhabit.
In terms of what the play is about – thematically – I suppose it's about how we choose – or not – to apply what we believe (and I don't mean 'believe' in a religious sense) to the way in which we live of our life, day-to-day. With regards to the environment, I personally find it quite hard to know what to do; what is best to do. For years (five or six?), I didn't fly because of the environmental impact. Lately, alas, I have started flying again and am now looking for a(nother) way to try and reduce my emissions elsewhere. But I think the issue is seemingly so vast, that I'm not really sure whether, for instance, choosing my fruit and vegetables with great care will make much of a difference. Flying is so devastating that I sometimes think I may as well buy a 4×4 and throw caution to the wind. In a way, then, I suppose the play is partly about my anxiety and guilt about how un-environmentally sound my way of life is. But the play is also about how hard it is to be a teenager, how hard it is to hold down a marriage.
TS: What did you look for when casting this play?
NP: I love casting – and casting this production was huge fun. Jake was first. Of course I was familiar with his film work (I had particularly admired his work in Jarhead and Zodiac). And although I'm sorry to say that I missed his performance in This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan in London, the play's director – Laurence Boswell – had mentioned to me in passing that Jake was one of the most natural stage actors he had ever worked with. Then came Michelle, who I was familiar with from her various television roles (she's brilliant and sharp and extremely funny). Then Brian, and then Annie. Again, I'm sorry to say that I've never seen Brian on stage, but was familiar with his film and television work (precise, deeply engaging and, again, very funny). And Annie I'm excited to say I met through the audition process.
NP: Again, I mostly left Mike and Beowulf to get on with it. Of course, Mike is very open and collaborative and would show me the design at various points. But really what excites me is when a director (and indeed a designer) is able to think as boldly and as creatively as they can. Mike is very good at making sure that the designs for his shows have a metaphorical element. Now this might sound a bit grand or a bit over-the-top, but I think really all it means is that Mike is always keen for a design – a set – to evolve somehow throughout the course of an evening. As the play evolves, as the story evolves, as the characters evolve, so too should the set. I think what Mike and Beowulf have come up with is looking great.
TS: Has the script changed since the premiere at The Bush Theatre in 2009? What was the catalyst for those changes?
NP: Yes, the script has changed. I've never had a play of mine staged for a second time, so I felt this was a great opportunity to try and improve upon and repair some of the elements that perhaps didn't quite work first time around. Also, Mike and Jake (and indeed one or two others) had some great thoughts, so I've tried to incorporate those into the script. As I mentioned previously, this was one of the first plays I ever wrote and, having had a break of nearly three years from the play, it was great to revisit it and look at it a little more objectively – it was a little like looking at old school photographs and cringing at how my hair used to look! I hope I've taken the opportunity to make sure that every scene is as dramatic as it can be. Also, I was keen to modernize some of George's views on his work and the environment. When I wrote the first draft of this play (I think it was sometime around 2006-7?), I was fairly optimistic about how we might go about tackling the problems our planet (and indeed its population) were facing. But honestly now I'm sorry to say I feel rather downbeat – both personally and politically. I'm not sure what is being done? So I suppose in some ways, my current pessimism makes what George is trying to do all the more urgent – and I hope I've addressed this.