An interview with Stephen Brown, writer for Does My Society Look Big In This?

Will the real UK please stand up?
If you could make one law, what would it be?
Have you ever taken a stand for something you believed in?
If someone offered you money for your vote, would you sell it? (For how much?)
If your child said, “I want to be a politician when I grow uo, how upset would you be?
Do you pay your taxes with a smile?
Does it matter that no-one (not even Robert Peston) can really explain how the economy works?
Does my society look big in this or am I just being lit from an unfortunate angle?

These are some of the questions director Tom Morris, writer Stephen Brown and the Wild Oats cast are asking themselves in preparation for Does My Society Look Big in This? the farcical, highly-responsive political show. We caught up with Stephen Brown to find out about him and his involvement with the show.

The script for Does My Society Look Big In This? is being developed through improvisation during the rehearsal process. What are the challenges and benefits of this process?

I’ve devised several shows, with theatre companies such as Filter Theatre and Lost Dog. It’s pretty scary starting off without a script. And you always have moments where you think you’re completely lost. Agreeing what you’re all aiming at is often hard too. But what you end up with is something very up-to-the-minute and personal to the performers. It brings together the many different voices of the people involved in a way you never have with a ‘straight’ theatre show. In fact, I’d say that certain kinds of theatre – where words and action and visuals are completely integrated – are difficult to achieve any other way.

The rehearsal process has yet to begin. What are you most looking forward to?

I always love being in the rehearsal room. When I’m writing a ‘straight’ script, it’s just me and my laptop, day in, day out. Working in a rehearsal room with everyone coming up with ideas is a lot of fun.

Does My Society Look Big In This? is being performed by the cast of Wild Oats. How do the two plays differ and in what ways are they similar?

On the face of it, they could hardly be more different. Wild Oats is a classic – and brilliant – comedy from 1792, which has been performed many times before. Does My Society Look Big In This? is a piece devised by the actors in it – and Tom Morris [Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director and I] – about the state of Bristol and the UK in 2012. But Wild Oats has all sorts of interesting themes in it – debt, charity, goodness, wealth and society – which resonate with what we’re going to be looking at in Does My Society Look Big In This?. And, as our title suggests, we hope that the Wild Oats cast will bring that play’s farcical comedy into the new show.

One of the design features of the newly developed auditorium is that the stage has been brought forward to allow a more intimate relationship between the audience and the actors. How will this be used in Does My Society Look Big In This?

Well, I can’t tell you exactly, now, partly because I don’t know and partly because I don’t want to spoil our surprises. But Tom is one of the great geniuses in British theatre when it comes to connecting with audiences. 

We’ll be theatrical squatters, theatrical magpies, taking over the set of Wild Oats and no doubt borrowing some choice items from their props list. Maybe. We’ll definitely be taking the audience on an imaginative journey.

We may need to buy in some special extra-large trousers to accommodate Society.

Does My Society Look Big In This? will “sift the biggest news stories of today and unearth the truth that lurks behind the headlines”. Are there particular topics that you will be focusing on?

We’ve discussed quite a few topics with the cast already, for example, if you could make one law, what would it be? And, have you ever taken a stand for something you believed in? And, if someone offered you money for your vote, would you sell it? (And for how much?) We’re interested in the history of Bristol – the greatest of all British Tory thinkers, Edmund Burke, was MP for the city – and its politics now, especially as it’s the only new city to choose to elect a mayor. I think many people feel quite ‘in between’, quite muddled about politics and Britain at the moment, with our awkward coalition government and our limping economy. I’m interested in that ‘in between’.

Have you worked with Tom Morris before?

I’ve known Tom for about ten years, since when he was Artistic Director of the Battersea Arts Centre and I was starting out as a professional writer there. We’ve done workshops together but never a full show, so I’m excited we’re now going to be partners in crime. Like most such relationships, there’ll be a lot of overlap in our roles, though I’ll be doing more of the writing and he’ll be running the rehearsal room. Tom is a big vision guy and I’m more of a brooder. Somewhere between the two, it will all make sense.

The best shows are the ones that provoke you to think and feel about things in a new way, but which leave you to make your own mind up. I hope audiences will have a fun evening and they argue all the way home. (Then kiss and make up.)

Does My Society Look Big In This? is at Bristol Old Vic on 10, 12, 13, 17 & 19. Book tickets on 0117 987 7877 or by visiting www.bristololdvic.org.uk

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