Interview: Fin Kennedy ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Interview: Fin Kennedy

Fin Kennedy is regularly dubbed one of the hottest new playwrights in Britain. And this week Melburnians get to see why - on Friday, Hoy Polloy is staging the Australian premiere of his play, How To Disappear Completely & Never Be Found. His second full-length work, it was the first unproduced play in 40 years to win the 38th Arts Council John Whiting Playwrighting Award, which led to a critically celebrated production at the Sheffield Crucible. For your illumination, Ms TN strapped Fin into the interrogation chair and asked him some probing questions...

Firstly, could you tell me a little about the genesis of How To Disappear Completely & Never Be Found? Was there something in particular that sparked your interest in missing persons?

The play idea originally came from stumbling across the website of the national Missing Person’s Helpline (NMPH) a charity here in the UK. They’ve got gallery after gallery of snaps of ordinary-looking people who were never seen again. I was instantly fascinated and began doing some more research. An academic study I read said that 210,000 people are reported missing each year in the UK alone. This seemed like an epidemic! And far fewer of them than you might expect are due to abduction or mental health or suicide. Of those that are traced, two thirds say they did it deliberately (as opposed to just drifting out of touch unintentionally). Further research showed that there was a whole cottage industry out there in self-help books about how to change your identity, and how to exploit loopholes in various systems so that you could survive outside of the mainstream world of documentation which we all take for granted.

I quickly got into quite existential territory about what constitutes an identity anyway, especially in the modern world where ideas of things are so malleable. When I asked the people at the NMPH whether they saw a ‘type’ of missing case again and again they said yes – white male, late twenties or early thirties, good job in the private sector, makes some money, works and parties too hard, suffers some sort of personal crisis and just disappears overnight. They didn’t seem to know why.

A policeman I went to interview told me that in London a lot of them end up being fished out of the River Thames after drowning from drinking too much and falling in. That was where the character of Charlie was born and where the main trajectory of the play came from. He works in advertising as a Brand Manager, so spends all day trying to manipulate and manage people’s ideas of things, so one day he tries to see if he can re-brand himself. There’s a strong philosophical argument that you only exist in other people’s minds and that was something I wanted to play with. It’s a very dark play, but also quite funny in an absurd sort of way. It’s quite influenced by that link between existentialism and absurdism in some of Sartre’s and Camus’ writing. I’ve said elsewhere that it’s a sort of L’Etranger for the 21st century. Charlie’s journey certainly visits some dark parts of the human soul.

You say research in very important in your work. What does this research entail? Is it about more than getting the facts right? Do you have a responsibility as a playwright towards an imaginative engagement with your subject matter? How does the act of research square with imagination?

Research for me is a living, breathing creative act, not a dry thing done in a library (though that has its place). Empathy and research go hand in hand, because for me research is less about understanding facts and systems (though that can come into it) but about getting into other people’s heads and hearts. For me its about accessing life experiences which I haven’t had, and as such I think it's essential if you’re going to have any longevity as a writer (let’s face it, few of us have had such eventful lives that they will provide material for a whole career of plays – and anyway, how self-indulgent would that be?).

I usually conduct interviews whilst researching, then type them up word for word. With my first play Protection, which was about social workers, I was pretty religious about this and I had lots of people wanting to talk to me. But with How To Disappear the subject was more sensitive and obviously the people at the heart of it were a little more difficult to find having disappeared, so I never actually got to meet anyone who had done it and come back to tell the tale (though I did find some interviews online).

This meant I had to engage in a process of imaginative research, where I had to get myself into the head of someone who was absolutely at breaking point and saw such a drastic course of action as their only escape route. So I spent a lot of time in Southend, a tacky coastal town where Charlie ends up, standing at the end of the pier trying to imagine wanting to throw myself in, whilst reading interviews and rehearsing escape routes in my head if I ever had to leave my old life behind. I got all the guide books and worked out how to get a portfolio of new ID. I reckon with a bit of notice I could probably get most of it. Passports are a bit harder now but when the play was written they were still fairly easy. I’m sure it can still be done if you know how. I have a perverse admiration for criminal minds who can exploit systems and confound every security measure, so I had fun writing the character of Mike, Charlie’s mentor.

So anyway, research and imagination are inseparable for me. Those characters were born out of all of the above combined, and emerged over many months in fragments gleaned from one source or sparked off by another. A field trip to a resonant site which will spark imaginative ideas is as much an act of research as being shown pictures of drowned bodies by a policeman, or reading a book by a dodgy private detective about how to get a new driving licence. It’s about establishing the truth of a given character’s situation and the course of action they embark on.

How To Disappear gives a merciless portrayal of the moral and emotional emptiness of contemporary life, which for all its specific Englishness resonates very strongly here too. Among other things, it strikes me as an attack on the cult of appearances, on a society in which surface is everything. Identity itself seems, in the end, to be fraudulent. (I guess it's no accident that your protagonist works in advertising). Are you angry about where contemporary society is going? What are the concerns that propel the play?

I’m not angry at contemporary society so much as exasperated with it, and incredulous that people don’t see through it most of the time. The cult of the individual is the ultimate triumph of advanced global capitalism, to which we all acquiesce every day. Over the years powerful forces have created a system that keeps us unfulfilled and powerful forces continue to manipulate that emptiness by selling us things that promise to fill the vacuum, but which in fact just continue to feed the monster.

Now we have a world full of branding and disposable consumables and makeover shows and empty promises of freedom and rejuvenation. We thought all this would make us happy but it doesn’t and now we’re all stuck with it. And, so far as I can see, it’ll only come to an end when the environment breathes its last and kills us all off. I suppose that’s the ultimate tragedy - that a species so intelligent is managing to kill itself and its planet through sheer stupidity. I don’t know how much of that is in the play but it’s something that occurs to me most days.

It's been said that you're in the tradition of David Hare, a social realist playwright. How To Disappear isn't by any means a documentary play, however. Can you talk a little about how you see your work in the context of British writing?

That was only said of my first play Protection, which was a traditional research-led piece of social realism, documenting an aspect of the public sector, in the tradition of Hare’s state-of-the-nation trilogy Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and Absence of War at the National Theatre in the early 90s. How To Disappear was my second play and I deliberately set out to do something completely different, so it’s a nightmarish netherworld of distorted timelines and people waking up dead. If Protection was politics then I guess How To Disappear is philosophy. I’ve also done a modern Jacobean revenge tragedy, a radio play about religion and mental illness, an as yet unproduced play about the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, and lots of plays about teenagers in east London. As for where all that fits within the context of British writing, I’m not really sure. Like most writers, I just get on with it and leave academics and so on to put forward theories linking us all up.

Bizarrely (I think) How To Disappear was turned down by many companies, and was only produced after it won a major prize. How hard is it for new voices to enter British theatre? Does the theatre culture suffer from a closed shop mentality? Or is it just hard all round?

It’s hard to break into theatre if you can't afford to work for nothing. That’s the main problem. The current system puts the onus of responsibility onto the individual writer to subsidise their own play, by working on it in their spare time in the hope that it might pay off one day with a commission. This effectively turns playwriting into a speculative activity. It’s the same for directors.

This is why most theatre practitioners are white, male, middle-class graduates – they’re the ones who can afford to take these risks. Now these people can of course produce great drama. But in the modern world they’re not all that representative of the country at large, and it doesn’t seem fair that lower socio-economic groups are excluded from taking part by the ad hoc nature of the current system. There are a few schemes emerging now to address that, and I’m involved with one of them, so I hope things are changing. I remember when I wanted to write my first play for the fringe I had to quit my job and live off my credit cards for six months. It took me two years to pay that off. That’s what ‘arts funding’ means for most freelance artists at the start of their careers, and I think most people would admit that it isn’t the best system for producing great work. We really need some sort of system to spot talent and nurture it and fund it prior to getting that first commission. That’s where most people fall down.

As for How To Disappear being turned down, I’ve never really got to the bottom of that. I suppose structurally it breaks a few rules and that makes theatres nervous, especially in a new writer. Audiences and critics all loved it though, which was a real boost.

You have worked a lot both teaching and with specific communities - can you expand on that work? How has that work influenced your writing?

For the past two years I’ve been playwright-in-residence in a school in east London. I teach playwrighting to students and staff, I help the GCSE and A-level kids develop their play ideas, and I write and produce a new play each year for the kids to take to the Edinburgh Festival. Before that I did similar work on a smaller scale for a variety of different companies working with inner city communities. I also did a play-making project with kids in the social services care system. I love it. It’s very easy as a writer to sit in a room pontificating about how the world works without actually taking an active part in it. That side of my work keeps me real and in touch with some of the most vibrant communities in the UK. It’s so rewarding helping them explore their creativity and shape their ideas, and of course it informs my own work because I have a long-standing relationship with Half Moon Young People’s Theatre in east London who produce and tour my plays for teenagers, so I draw on a lot of my teaching experiences when I write for them.

The young people’s theatre sector is terribly overlooked over here, especially by critics. There’s still a perception that we’re putting out some rickety theatre-in-education tat when actually the sector has changed hugely since the 1980s when that may have been true. As a writer who works both there and in the mainstream I have to say that the young people’s sector affords me far greater opportunities to develop ideas over a long period and experiment with form.

My first play for Half Moon Locked In was a hip hop musical set in a pirate radio station, and was effectively my first verse play. I developed it with them over two years of workshops with their youth theatres and play readings in local schools. A mainstream adult company would never offer you that broad a canvas. You’d get a commission and be expected to deliver in six months with little or no support. Young people’s companies despite, or perhaps because of, having less money, are very loyal to their writers and develop much longer term relationships with them. You get to grow as an artist.

These two sides of my work are now totally inextricable. For example, I can trace a direct lineage from experimenting with verse in Locked In to Chimeras, my modern Jacobean tragedy, which the commissioning company Liquid Theatre are now trying to co-produce with one of the big national companies. I could never have written a play like that without having the time and space to experiment with form which the young people’s sector offered me.

Do you write things other than plays (and blogs/journalism)? Have you always just wanted to be a playwright? What made you want to do it in the first place?

I’m just a playwright, and occasional blogger and features writer. I’ve been doing drama in one form or another ever since I was a kid, through youth theatres, then school shows, then a Drama and English degree. I’ve written stories ever since I could hold a pen, and I’ve always worked in theatres too, long before I was a writer I was an usher, crew member, box office staff etc. I suppose I wanted to write plays because I always had an interest in politics, philosophy, sociology, language and poetry/literature. Playwrighting seemed to combine all those, and in the most exciting way. The self-employed thing also appeals to me, as well as not having to wear a suit.

Who are the writers whom you most admire?

Oh, loads. I won't list them. Playwright love-ins are always a bit tedious. Also I might offend someone by leaving them out. Writers are sensitive like that.

Fin Kennedy's website
Playscript on amazon
Hoy Polloy website


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,
What an interesting man, I'm not yet acqainted with his work but I'll certainly follow it up now...

dri said...

Gosh, this play sounds absolutely fascinating and so very relevant! Guess I'll just start praying someone stages it in Sydney ... :p

Thanks for sharing, Alison!

Duncan Graham said...

Great stuff Alison. Your site continues to inspire. That is a wonderful interview. Thanks.


Alison Croggon said...

My pleasure indeed - after all, Fin did all the work! And take my word for it, it's a really good play. I'm very much looking forward to seeing it in three dimensions.