INTERVIEW: Jon Brittain, Olivier Award Winning Playwright
It has been a very hectic year for Jon Brittain after his incredible success with Rotterdam. The award winning Olivier play has inspired theatre goers and the LGBT community as it grows from strength to strength. Jon Brittain is now tackling depression with his new play A Super Happy Story (About Being Super Sad). The show is meant to reflect depression in a cheerful light to relate to those who suffer with the mental illness. Like Rotterdam, it’s there to provide comfort for the audience who, in this case, suffer from depression and acknowledge just how much it can hold you back. These excellent shows give you the chance to make you feel like you’re a part of a community and never on your own. We speak to Jon Brittain about his Olivier Award winning Rotterdam and his new play A Super Happy Story (About Being Super Sad).
What inspired you to write Rotterdam?
I have a few friends who transitioned a few years ago. Seeing them go through that experience made me realise that I haven’t seen that on stage or on the screen. That got me thinking about what kind of stories you might tell with these characters and it took me a few years to realise that I was the right person to tell it. I had the idea about Rotterdam and went through various alterations before it became the play it is now. It came from seeing my friends going through those experiences and that wasn’t being reflected in pop culture.
How long did it take for you to write Rotterdam?
*laughs* Way too long! I started thinking about it in 2010 and I wrote the first draft in 2012. I put it in a draw for a couple of years until I came back to it in 2014. That was the draft that the director Donnacadh O’Briain read who wanted to produce it and Roy Williams read and picked for his Theatre 503. It took four or five years because I redrafted it in rehearsals. Not every play takes that long! All in all it took 6 months… just spaced out in five years.
How many alterations were there to Rotterdam?
There’s little things here and there all the time that we tweak. They’re not big things. The conversations around transgender and politics is changing every day and as they’re evolving we are too. Occasionally we do say “Right, that was okay for us in 2014” but actually now the audience don’t need some things that are explained unlike 3 or 4 years ago. Alterations could be made because of a particular word that has fallen out of fashion. I’m looking forward for more people to see the show to give me some feedback. There’s always a weighing off as to what degree something is useful in the show or dramatically valid, or whether or not it’s too much info and explaining or not enough explaining. There’s also terminology for the characters whether you feel it would be correct for those characters for not to do that. So yes, it’s constantly evolving.
What’s the most constructive feedback you have had?
I think it wasn’t one piece of feedback, but I do recall this feeling I had that was reinforced by a few friends. In the first half of the original, it was too weighted to one characters and I think the feedback I got from my friends and other people was that they wanted to see more of Adrian in the first half. Its really good because before when Adrian was about to come out with someone the scene ends *laughs* and every time he’s about the scene finishes and it’s left to your imagination. It’s good to put that into words and for him to come out with somebody. The scene in the first half is where Adrian comes out on the phone. It made it all rounded as it gave an insight to that characters heart where you hadn’t before and the play works best when your allegiance shifts and you feel sympathy and empathy for each character. Like you can get annoyed with one character and that can shift.
Did you expect Rotterdam to win an Olivier Award?
I didn’t expected Rotterdam to go on, but I submitted it to a lot of theatres in 2012 where they enjoyed it, but its not for us. When I wrote in 2014 I rewrote for myself and tried it out at these nights at the New Diorama Theatre. I would just try out plays I did from my draw and we did a reading of Rotterdam with Susie Russell the comedian and I thought “that went well” and then put it back in the draw! Steve Harper from Theatre 503 wanted to look at it and the he sent it out to quite a load of people. He sent it out to Roy and Donnacadh, Roy wanted to do a reading of it and Donnacadh to do the production.
I generally didn’t expect that, and anything from Theatre 503 is a bonus because I was more than happy with their production. The Olivier’s were surreal, we weren’t expected to be nominated but the judges were there to see it. I was in a meeting, when I found out, with some producers I was trying to impress and the rest of the meeting went so much better. *laughs*
I wasn’t expected that at all, on the night itself we got taken down to the front row of the Olivier and Gary Barlow was playing the piano. And when they called us up it was an absolute shock, you can see videos of me backstage looking like a zombie because I was in so much shock. I called my wife three times and I apologised for not having to call her previously. I would of prepared a speech if we expected the win. And now its on the shelf next to my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
You’ve gone from NY to the West End, what’s next for Rotterdam?
Hopefully a tour. If I think about the utility of the play and what it is used for then I think taking it out around the UK for it to reach a diverse audience on the touring circuit and the producers are talking about a rural tour as well with a new cast. We want to increase the level of outreach with the show and the charity we do around the show and the engagement with the young artists. I think a tour is the next step. I don’t know much more there is after that, but I am very happy with it. I think it starts useful conversations that people are having anyway and provides useful reference point to alot of people. Along with other shows, we are not special or the best in that regards. Hopefully, touch wood, it all depends and everything depends on money.
How did Super Happy become a play?
I’ve had a bunch of friends who’ve had mental health issues, as well as having suffered from them myself. When Alex Mitchell (director of Silent Uproar) asked me if I wanted to work on a ‘fun show about depression’ I knew I’d be a good fit for it. I can’t really remember how long it was before I came up with the idea for the character of Sally and her story but I do remember very early on pitching the title A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad). I wanted the title of our show to be a statement of intent; this is a show that people can expect to enjoy – it’s got jokes, it’s got songs, it’s got a story – I wanted it to feel as accessible as a Saturday night TV show or a comic book or a movie. We know something like 1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer from a mental health problem in their lifetimes; we wanted to make this show attractive to as big an audience as possible.
With Super Happy… are these based on personal experiences, friend experiences or both?
A bit of both, as well s a lot of research and then a load of made up stuff. I always try and incorporate details from my own life or the lives of my friends, even if it’s just music that the characters reference or a turn of phrase. It helps me feel personally invested in each character and the play. A lot of the stuff that happens to Sally is based on something that’s happened to me or stories that I’ve been told, but in every case they’ve taken on a life of their own. Their similarity to real life events becomes less important than what their function is in the story. I was also really influenced by other things I read and watched such as Marbles by Ellen Forney, Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan, and My Depression by Elizabeth Swados – it’s nice to see how other people tackle this sort of subject, not because I wanted to copy them (although that would have made life easier), but to remind myself that there’s not just one correct approach to take when tackling this sort of subject.
Is it hard to not get too emotionally invested when you’re writing things such as Super Happy?
At different times you want to maintain different distances. When you’re in the middle of a draft you actually might want to be pretty emotionally invested as it’ll help unlock the story for you. When you’re redrafting in the cold light of day you have to remind yourself that you’re telling a story and everything needs to be working towards that end. Obviously Sally goes through some pretty horrible experiences but I’m glad to say that (for the most part) I was able to invest in them when I needed to and leave them in the play for the rest of the time. In the original draft of the show we had lots of sketches to talk about depression in a different way, but when Matthew Floyd Jones came on board and we started writing songs we realised that the songs and the sketches were doing the same job. Eventually we cut all the sketches, but it took a while because I was pretty attached to them.
Do you think this will reach the heights that Rotterdam did?
I thought Rotterdam would play for four week at Theatre503 and never be heard of again so I don’t think I should be making predictions about anything. They’re very different shows and they’re doing very different things. My hope for Super Happy Story is that everyone has a great time doing it at the fringe and then hopefully it’ll go out on tour. Most of all I just hope the audiences who come to see it take something away from it – beyond that, you can’t ask for much more.
You’ve tackled LGBT and Depression, what other subjects have you always wanted to challenge?
I don’t really tend to start from a subject matter or an issue. I tend to have an idea for a story that I want to tell and if that happens to be about a particular subject matter then I’ll go off and research it. For Rotterdam it was the story of Alice and Adrian that made me want to write it. Super Happy Story was a commission so I knew it was going to be about depression, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t had the idea for Sally. I’m not interested in any one issue per se, but I do have a lot of ideas for stories. At the moment I’m working on a couple of things but I’m not sure if any of them will make it to the stage so I don’t want to jinx them. All I will say is it takes me a really long time to write a play, so I do need to feel really excited about whatever it is I’m working on. I don’t actually find the act of writing very pleasurable so I need a really good reason to return to the keyboard.