BWW Interview: Oscar Toeman Chats THE SUGAR SYNDROME at the Orange Tree Theatre
Oscar Toeman is the director of The Sugar Syndrome at the Orange Tree Theatre. He is the runner-up of the JMK Award 2019 and previously directed productions at Trafalgar Studios and the Finborough Theatre. Oscar spoke to BroadwayWorld about his career and the production.
Who inspired you most growing up?
My dad was an unconventional babysitter, in that he used to sit my younger brother and me in front of old VHS films he'd taped, regardless of how unsuitable or inappropriate. I guess I have him to thank for being a seven-year-old who could quote verbatim large chunks of Mel Brooks' The Producers, Eddie Murphy movies from the 80s, and The Blues Brothers. In hindsight, this is probably the best bit of parenting I can imagine.
What drew you to a career in directing?
I was a miserable teenager, and really hated school. I used to skive off and was fortunate that Shakespeare's Globe theatre was close enough that I could get to it, so I'd go watch shows there. Lucy Bailey's production of Titus Andronicus changed my life: it was wild, full-bodied and dangerously alive, and I was just completely hooked - looking back now, it was a proper addiction.
Later, I studied English, and loved interpreting plays under a brilliant, inspirational tutor, Hester Lees-Jeffries. This led to trying directing at university and working with actors to unlock the emotional truth of what was going on, and with designers to find a spatial form that might reflect and serve this. It sounds naive, but when theatre is good, I'm not sure there's anything better out there for me.
What can we expect from The Sugar Syndrome?
It's Lucy Prebble's first play. We follow Dani, a 17-year-old girl who's on a mission.
I think in all Lucy's work there is a desire to talk about huge, often uncomfortable "elephant in the room" type subjects; and in The Sugar Syndrome, we meet four characters, each of whom in their own way is ashamed of their bodies - two of whom form an unlikely friendship that exists in a grey area, beyond judgement.
It's a play about bodies and addiction; about shame, empathy and judgement. I think it's a mistake to define Lucy's work as simply "smart", although it is. I think that overlooks the depth of feeling and compassion for humanity that her work is filled with. It's powerfully sad, and darkly, savagely funny.
What's been the most interesting aspect of the piece for you to stage?
I've found The Sugar Syndrome enormously satisfying to work on, and there are several areas I've enjoyed: how do you tell the story of a conversation taking place online without screens or laptops? How do you stage a chatroom where characters can't see one another, but are connected? And how do you do this in the round?
It's a play with multiple scenes, several locations, and told at an electric pace. Conceiving a world with Rebecca Brower, Dan Balfour and Elliot Griggs which can do all the things we need it to (and a little more!) has been blissful.
Alternatively, there are hyper-sensitive, profoundly personal subjects raised within the play, and, together with the brilliant cast, movement director Chi-San, and our wonderful stage management team, working out how to honour each of these moments in a way that is truthful and engaging has been amongst the privileges of my career. I feel very grateful to Paul and Hannah and the whole Orange Tree team for entrusting me to direct it.
Why did you think this piece should be revived for 2020 audiences?
We live in a world of instant judgements, immediate condemnations; quick fixes and quicker dopamine hits. Though the term the "sugar syndrome" refers to something that "makes you feel better instantly" in an uncertain world, the play itself argues for something more compassionate. It feels quietly radical in its plea against knee-jerk responses and tribal judgements; its insistence on listening, understanding someone else.
By going beyond clickbait, the play dares audiences to empathise with characters with whom they might initially think they have very little in common. I think this notion feels urgent and necessary for us all right now.
Do you think the internet has changed society for the better?
I think my generation is in an interesting position: we were teens when the internet became commonplace. So, we grew up with it, but remember a time before it.
Obviously, in many ways the world has been immeasurably improved by it. At the same time, however, you don't have to look far to see how the worst aspects of humanity have also been amplified. Are we now more connected, or more atomised and lonelier? Or both?
What I do find interesting is that while we now Instagram filter and curate our online selves, in the early '00s The Sugar Syndrome characters reinvent themselves through anonymity in chatrooms. It's 180 degrees, but it feels like nothing's changed. I suppose we as a civilisation will always find ways to use the tools at our disposal for both good and bad, and all the shades in between.
Any advice for aspiring directors?
Nobody really knows what they're doing, and that absolutely includes me, so I'm wary of giving any advice about anything.
That said, I do think there's value in working out what makes you "you" as an artist: what concerns matter to you? How do you see the world? What do you think is important in both the stories you want to tell and the form in which you tell them? You can only ever be the best version of you after all - what might that look like?
On a practical level, it's a long game. Find yourself mentors and peers who you'll be able to check in with honestly, without competition; and work out how to foster your professional resilience and stamina.
Any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?
There's an adaptation of a classic film I'm working on, about profiteering in a country riven by division, which I think might have increased pertinence in the next few years; and a musical about Paul Gascoigne I'm collaborating on.
Why should people come to see The Sugar Syndrome?
When I first read The Sugar Syndrome, I was struck by how much I wish I'd seen this play in 2003, when I was a teenager.
I think it taps into feelings that are deeply specific to being a young person - where do I fit in? Why isn't my body like the ones in magazines? And these questions also run through you as you get older. I don't know if those insecurities ever truly go away. I think maybe we just learn to handle them better. The play speaks with profound empathy for this.
And then alongside that, the play compels audiences to really ask themselves: when does one's compassion become problematic? Where does one draw the line? It's up to each audience member to decide that for themselves.
It's a beautiful play - funny and sad, and human in its complexity and messiness.
The Sugar Syndrome at the Orange Tree Theatre until 22 February
Photography credit: The Other Richard