Originally written for Fringebiscuit.
Bottleneck, amongst a few others, is a play supported by HighTide for this year’s Fringe and is part of Arts Council England’s showcase programme Escalator East to Edinburgh. HighTide and their talented team are making waves in the new writing scene, so it was really exciting to speak to playwright Luke Barnes about his work. He shared thoughts on his journey, and also great advice about why he is writing, why anyone should be writing, and (perhaps most importantly) why Liverpool.
Bottleneck is a ‘coming-of-age’ story about thirteen year old Greg. Did you always have in mind that this would be written and performed as a one-man show?
This play has to be told by one man. Because of what happens in the 3rd quarter, and I won’t give it away, there is no other way we could do it without doing it in the manner we’ve done it. If we had tried to stage it on a larger scale it would have been ill mannered… Part of the challenge is finding a theatrical language for the story you want to tell. For me, because of what happens in the story, this is the only language I could use to tell this story. In my view, anything else would become grotesque.
What would be your best advice about writing multiple voices through one character on stage?
The nature of the story telling is close to the oral tradition of folk stories and the epic… so I think it’s about being as vivid as possible, strong characteristic and strong distinctive features. The problem then is falling into stereotypes; they still need to be rounded characters with hopes, shortcomings, and secrets…. They just need to be visually and vocally identifiable but absolutely rooted in truth and action.
You shouldn’t treat these characters any different than you treat them in conventional drama. You still have to care about them and they still have to be driven. Just because they exist when they’re being spoken about and when you hear snippets of their voices doesn’t mean they should be any less developed than the protagonist. Saying that you often don’t have too much time to set them up. The challenge then is creating who they are in their world in the shortest time possible.
As a writer, did you have any ideas of how you wanted this piece to be directed? Also, both you and the director, Steven Atkinson, are Liverpudlians. Was this a deliberate choice?
When I spoke to Steven about [the play] he told me exactly what he liked about it, why he liked them, how it related to his life, his practise, the company and, more importantly, that he didn’t have a clue how to direct it. This was the most exciting conversation I’d had about this play and I knew that I didn’t want anyone else directing it and didn’t want any company but HighTide producing it.
If he had come to me and said “I want to do this” I would have been worried. A play isn’t made until it goes through the development and the rehearsal process… Often I find I don’t know what it’s really about until it’s been running for 2 weeks.
Because of what happens in the 3rd act it was really important to have someone from Liverpool direct the piece. I’m not sure if you can really understand the significance of issues like this without being from there. I’m not saying this is the golden rule. I’m just saying that for me, when dealing with an issue from my hometown that is still fresh in people’s minds, it required someone who understood it and cared about it.
The work of Georgina, Natasha, Tom, James and the rest of the team have made a play that is primarily a lot of jokes about cocks and fannys beautiful. And that is no easy task. But at the heart of it, with Steven, it had to be someone who cared about the core of the play. This play is all about finding clarity in a convoluted world. And Steven, as a director, works hard for that. And I was excited to be working with a director that cares about new writing. Seeing what he’s done with it I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it.
This play has been supported by the High Tide Festival. Are the tides changing (if, even, you consider there to be such ‘tides’) for emerging young playwrights in the UK?
The theatre world seems to be realising that New Writing is the most exciting platform for debate and is gagging for New Voices all the time. It’s all about new worlds, new thoughts, new societies that the theatres haven’t seen. It’s about engaging with the world we all know, how we see I and there has never been more opportunity for new writers to do work.
I read a lot of new plays and it’s my view that if the writer finds something they really care about the world we live in today then they’re half way there. Every company is looking for a play like this. Every producer and director wants to work with these writers. You can make a play good but you can’t make any body care about an idea you don’t care about.
There is so much work that young writers can be doing and for me the change is that there is platform to do it yourself! You don’t need some producer to make it for you. If that’s not happening and you really care about what you’ve written, you feel like you need to say what your saying then do it yourself. My first play got several reads everywhere but no one put it on. So I did it myself and it launched my career, got my first commissions, agents… because it was something I had to say and because I had to say it it gave me a voice.
I recently was lucky enough to meet Phillip Ridley just after the run of Shivered was on at the Southwark Playhouse and Mercury Fur was revived at the Old Red Lion. I asked him why a writer so important to our generation was still being produced in hire venues like those (not that there’s anything wrong with them).
He said: ‘I write things because I need to say them. I can’t wait two years while a theatre umms and ahhs about whether they want to do it because the reason I wrote it will be redundant by then so I put them on myself. Because what I’m saying needs to be heard now.’ And I thought that was so admirable from a writer like him.
What small wisdom cookie would you pass onto young writers?
Write what you want to see. Write what you want to say. When you read don’t look for flaws or what you would improve just ask yourself “what do you notice”. Find directors you like. Find writers you like. Steal things, being original isn’t a necessity, you make things original by putting your world into it and what you say. Be inspired by other work and the world around you. Tell a story you want to tell. Be bold and brave. Make a career plan. Know the next step you want to take and make it realistic. You’re in it for the long term.
Don’t be worried about working in small venues; just be worried about communicating what you’re trying to say. ‘Telling a story you want to tell in a way that excites you.’ That’s what excites me about theatre. And I think we’ve done that with Bottleneck…
Bottleneck, Pleasance Courtyard. 3-26 Aug (not 13), 2pm.