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BWW Interview: James Morton Talks Debut Play FATHER'S SON, Lockdown, Labels and Mental Health

BWW Interview: James Morton Talks Debut Play FATHER'S SON, Lockdown, Labels and Mental Health
James Morton

James Morton is a playwright from Stoke-On-Trent. His debut play Father's Son was shortlisted for the Tony Craze Award and, after a reading at Soho Theatre, premiered at this year's VAULT Festival. Morton spoke with BroadwayWorld about the process of writing and putting on the play as well as mental health, labels and the lockdown.

What is your earliest memory of theatre and has it always been your ambition to write for the stage?

My earliest memory is definitely panto in Stoke. I have a very specific memory of seeing the Chuckle Brothers and during a risky magic act when one of them was making it look like he was going to have a cucumber near his crotch sliced in half, I shouted from the audience 'Chop his willy off!'. Afterwards I asked for Barry Chuckle's autograph and not Paul's. They thought I was joking, but according to my mum I meant it. Paul was not happy.

It wasn't my ambition to write at all until much later. I started off singing and playing guitar in local bands. At college I made a bit of a radical move from music to drama which was due to a brilliant drama teacher. I then started acting with the New Vic Youth Theatre. I'd always written a bit and, since college, had ferociously devoured plays - both reading and watching them. I gained a place at LAMDA but found I couldn't afford the fees so didn't go. At this point, I started to take writing seriously and made it my main focus.

How often do you usually catch a play and what are some of your highlights of recent years? Do you have any favourite writers?

I try and go to the theatre as often as I can. I aim for the equivalent of going once a week within the year. This is often a challenge with work, time and money restrictions. I'm always trying to hustle free or discounted tickets to make it possible.

I've seen some incredible stuff in the last few years. Shows that really stick out in my mind as game changers would be: Misty by Arinze Kene at the Bush Theatre, The Woods at the Royal Court, Collapsible at VAULT Festival (later the Bush), Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley at Soho Theatre, All of It by Alistair McDowall at Royal Court, Mikvah Project by Josh Asare (and directed by my amazing mate Georgia Green) at Orange Tree, A Very Expensive Poison by Lucy Prebble at the Old Vic, and You Stupid Darkness! by Sam Steiner at Southwark Playhouse.

Some playwrights that I think are just incredible and have informed my writing beyond belief are Simon Stephens, Alice Birch, Robert Holman, Beckett, Gary Owen, Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Anthony Neilson, Sarah Kane, Annie Baker, Enda Walsh and Inua Ellams.

Father's Son premiered at the VAULT Festival this year. When did you first get the idea for the play and what was the process of writing it?

I think the idea for the play had been rolling around in my head in some form or another for a long time. Probably around 2016. I felt an unfocused mixture of wanting to talk about men's mental health, toxic masculinity and class. This gradually crystallised when I started to properly write it on Soho Theatre Writer's Lab 2017/2018. We went through a three draft process on that course and I was really able to properly explore and develop it.

The first draft was very explorative and not very focused with timelines jumping all over the place. By the third draft I'd had a breakthrough in terms of structure. I knew that in order for it to work it needed to be a triptych and that really honed in the focus on fatherhood and the passage of negative patterns from scene to scene, generation to generation. The subsequent drafts were then just edits, cuts and additions in dialogue to make it the clearest and snappiest two hander it could be.

How different was the play we saw to the original draft?

The play in its final version at VAULT was so, so, so different to the version that existed in the first draft.

In the first draft the play jumped between timelines in the 1970s and the early 2000s. My dramaturge on the course gave me some fantastic feedback telling me that I was essentially writing a film script and cutting between the two settings and time frames. How could I make it more theatrical? At the point I wrote the third draft I decided condense all of the material set in the 1970s into one scene in real time (essentially a 20 minute mini pressure cooker play). This then became Act One. I did the same with the material set in the 2000s and that became Act Two.

I was left with no more material and a third act to write so I decided to set Act Three in the present day as a quiet reflection on the events of Act One and Two and where the pattern between Father and Son that had been created was finally broken.

The play was then shortlisted for the Tony Craze Award and as part of this a segment was read at Soho Theatre. I did a new draft after working with the actors and seeing some of it read to an audience. This was mainly just editing parts of the dialogue and notes but the shape of the play never changed after draft three.

By the time the play opened at VAULT, I was at Draft 7 I think.

A lot of people are unaware of how difficult it is to get a play up on stage for a paying audience. How did you get Father's Son off the ground and into The Vaults?

I'm not going to lie - it was really difficult. We were given an incredibly late offer from VAULT at the beginning of December for the show to be on in late February. Unfortunately, I was very naive as this was my first play and although I had experience writing plays I had no idea how to put one on.

Prior to this I had had a very bad experience with a producer previously attached and due to the late offer from VAULT, my director had to drop out. I had a script, an offer and nothing else.

I decided to accept the offer and do the best I could with the situation. Luckily, I did a Twitter call out and found our incredible director Carla Kingham. She was the glue that held it all together. She really believed in me and the script - it would have been impossible without her. We decided to produce it between the two of us.

We did an arts council bid that wasn't successful but we crowdfunded some money through FringeFunder and I wrote a letter to a donor at Soho Theatre who saw the Tony Craze reading and loved the play - he was originally from a working class background in Stoke and he really believed in the script. He agreed to fund a lot of it.

We then cast and started PR, marketing and rehearsal. Even with a lot of crowdfunding and a generous donation we had to hustle to get free rehearsal space and discounts where we could.

It was a massive learning experience and I'd say to anyone producing or trying to put on your own show: it's a huge risk. You need a plan, time, money and a team with similar ideals who really believe in you and in turn you need to trust and believe in their abilities.

Were you happy with the reaction to the play and the reception it received?

On the whole, I was happy with it. Everyone involved worked so, so hard and I think together we created something with really clear intentions that delivered what we aimed it to and grew every night. We had some nice, thoughtful reviews and the audience reactions were so lovely. It seemed to really effect a lot of people who saw it.

We did get the occasional review that I felt (possibly due to the play not really being made for a London audience) didn't necessarily get what the play was aiming at. I try to not pay too much attention to all that. I think especially for the issues the production faced in terms of funding and the fact that it was a first run, my first ever play and as I say it's not necessarily written for a London audience... I think it did very well. This was of course down to our incredible team and the unbelievably hard work of Carla, our actors Kenny and Mark and all the team involved.

Are you looking to develop or expand the script further and take it to other venues? Or is your focus now on new projects?

We treated the VAULT leg of the production as being the first outing of the play, at a warm lovely fringe venue, with a hope to develop it and take it onto a tour of the Midlands and North of England in the future. This is definitely in the works but everything is very up in the air with the COVID-19 situation as you can imagine. Personally I'm trying very hard to just focus and keep on track with finishing play number two, which I've been writing for a very, very long time now, and to not go insane in quarantine!

What is your writing process? What triggers your ideas or inspires you?

I think the process is different for every play and I feel like I'm still learning a lot about the process and different methods for when approaching different plays.

The process for Father's Son was really informed by writing it while on Soho Theatre Writer's Lab. It took a while to find the form and once the form was found the play just clicked together.

The journey of my second play has been a long, slow and confusing process. I started with basically writing drafts that were essentially different plays exploring similar themes before nailing down what I wanted to talk about and writing out a full draft of that. At that point I got some feedback from friends who are writers and whose work I love. I then left it for a long time. Then came back and tried to crystallise it. I'm now at the point of pulling apart both of the drafts by deeply analysing the characters, the setting and structure before writing another draft.

Father's Son addressed mental health. Do you think theatre has done enough to explore this subject and do you think the medium is well placed to tackle such a sensitive yet prevalent issue?

I'm not sure would be the short answer. I think theatre, with its ability to be so much more bold and abstract than most TV and film (apart from maybe animation), is perfectly placed to tackle the subject through great theatrical metaphors. I do think mental health is a really hot topic that isn't always treated with the delicacy and care needed. It's such a subjective experience with a broad spectrum of experiences and circumstances that affect any individual's differently, so it's always going to be difficult. Dust by Milly Thomas and Collapsible by Margaret Perry come to mind as great shows that tackle the subject in a very interesting way.

Critics have described you as a refreshing voice for the working class. Is this a label you're conscious of and is it one you welcome? There must be a degree of pressure that comes with it.

No one can live up to any kind of label like that and I've never self identified as the voice for anyone. In Father's Son I was writing truthfully about masculinity and the characters came from a working-class background. I am very passionate about creating more characters from working-class backgrounds and putting them onto stages and talking about class. I just don't want to say that my experience is a voice for anyone or representative of all working-class experiences because it definitely isn't. I'm just trying to be truthful in my writing and if people feel it resonates with them then that's fantastic. I am also aware of being painted into a corner and I don't just want to talk about class although it will always be prevalent in my work.

You're from Stoke-On-Trent. Is there much of a theatre scene there? What are your thoughts on the state of regional theatre in general?

Growing up, it very much felt like no one went to the theatre and it wasn't a thing that existed for people like me, in places like Stoke other than to see big budget musicals that were touring. When I got older and started to act at college I was hungry to be in anything I could so I started to perform with the New Vic Youth Theatre and watch more of their productions. This really opened my eyes to the great people at the New Vic and in local organisations and companies like Appetite and Potboiler who are making great work in Stoke.

London theatre is a totally different world to regional theatre. It's so much harder to get an audience regionally - especially a younger audience and an audience from a more representative background. I think the key is to make good work relevant to the community that the theatre is based in, to be brave with it and to make the community feel like the theatre and the work is for them. Doing specific outreach work to build the theatre into feeling like it's part of the fabric of the community is also incredibly important.

Do you think there's enough support out there for new writers? Could theatre be doing more for new talent?

Yes and no. I came to London at a very young age independently without having been to university. I've gained so much of what I know of writing and the industry from courses ran for free or at least at an affordable price by theatres and organisations such as: Sour Lemons (who I now work for as an alumnus), National Youth Theatre, National Theatre Playwright's Toolkit, Soho Theatre Writer's Lab, Soho Writer's Alumni Group and Royal Court Young Agitators.

This was all incredible for early beginnings and development and I'm so grateful to those theatres. I do feel slightly left in the wild now I've had a play on but I wouldn't call myself a settled, commissioned, regularly working writer.

Some of the theatres I trained with have been great at keeping in touch and building networks and opportunities, especially Soho and Sour Lemons. Others, not so much. I think overall there needs to be more development and investment into new artists that are making work but not necessarily making a living from it yet.

There are so many budding writers out there but it's an incredibly competitive field. What advice would you give to someone hoping to write a script and get it out there?

I'm still very early on in my journey, so this advice might not be super useful. We're all in the same boat, and although theatre can be competitive, it is still very friendly and encouraging compared to other creative industries (in my experience so far).

Just write. Write however it works for you. Write about you and about whatever you HAVE to say and feel you HAVE to say. Don't bother worrying if people will like it or if it's trendy or popular or not, although you will worry about this. Write truthfully.

If you have some friends you trust get them to give you feedback. Don't let them say 'this was good' or 'this was bad' just get them to read it and ask interesting questions. Most of all, as much as you can, just immerse yourself in theatre, art and the world.

Watch and read as much theatre as you can, read books, watch good TV and film, go to exhibitions and galleries, travel, meet people, read the news and be informed.

How are you coping and keeping busy during the lockdown? Has the isolation fuelled your creativity in any way?

I'm usually based in London and have been for the last four years but I've had to move back up to Stoke with my partner and live with family in order to support them. The isolation has done the opposite in terms of fuelling creativity. I usually like to write in cafes or to at least get out and 'go to work'. I'm finding it very hard to motivate myself and to focus living in a house with my family and partner and trying to write and work and balance everything. My mental health is also up and down but I'm managing, at the moment, to keep going and keep writing... just about.

With theatres having gone dark, are you having to seek other, unrelated work or have you had support from theatres/the Arts Council to enable you to keep writing?

I usually work a balance of freelance and Front of House in theatre to allow me to survive and write. The freelance work has paused but will soon be continuing digitally (I work as an Evaluation Officer for youth charity Sour Lemons) and I've been furloughed by the theatre I work for in Front of House. Due to this I'm in the very fortunate position of knowing that I'll be okay for the foreseeable month's money wise but many of my friends and colleagues are really struggling.

We're all missing theatre. Do you think it will bounce back well or is it going to take a long time for it to recover from this unprecedented period? What do you think we, the public or the Government can do to allay the impact of Coronavirus on the arts?

I think it's going to be very, very hard. I'm scared as an early career writer that opportunities that might have existed before won't exist with the amount of money lost by theatres. I think it will be unlikely theatres will be able to take risks on people like me that no one has ever heard of.

I think it'll be a time where theatre-makers will have to graft more than ever and create work for non theatre spaces, not relying on theatres and organisations as much as before and will have to make work that is more grounded.

I think the Government massively needs to increase arts spending and needs to issue more emergency funding to help keep theatre afloat. I doubt this will happen. If you want to support the arts then do not vote for the Tories. As an audience member, where financially possible I'd say if you can in any way then please donate to theatres. If you have tickets that were booked for a cancelled performance then please allow the theatre to keep the money and treat it as a donation if this is financially possible for you as it's going to be such a difficult time.

You can read our review of Father's Son here

Photo credit: Soho Theatre

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