Sex, Love, Comedy, Drama & of course, Annie Lennox, all meet in a magical play from Death & the Dominatrix
Hello Chris, first things first, where are you & Karen from, & where are you at, geographically speaking?
It’s a long-distance working relationship – Karen’s in Huddersfield, I’m in London.
What for you makes a good piece of theatre?
I want to think, but not to think I’m thinking. Not to be told to think. I want the author and the actors to slide in bits of thinking under my consciousness without me realising it.
I go to the theatre to be entertained, really.
Can you tell us about your experiences at last year’s Global Motion Picture Awards?
Surreal! I entered two screenplay competitions – I got to the quarter finals of the PAGE International Sceenplay, which is a biggie, and randomly entered another one for no reason I could think of. Then I got the email saying I’d won both Best Screenplay and Best Character Development. That was it. No Business Class flight to Los Angeles, no ticker-tape parade down Hollywood Boulevard – just the email. It’s great to have the recognition. Any writer will tell you how painful it can be to keep writing, not knowing whether anyone really rates or appreciates it. I could still have done with meeting Susan Sarandon, though.
Can you tell us about Two Foolish Productions & your role?
We put together Two Foolish Productions just as an experiment to take a play to the Edinburgh Fringe and three years on we’re still experimenting. I’ve got this not-so-guilty passion for the music of the 80s and I wanted to know whether I could write plays that would incorporate that. Get Fit With Bruce Willis was a title that randomly leapt into my mind one day. So far the plays have used the music of Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond and Annie Lennox. We both like comedies that have a heart. Something that makes you care for the characters even as you’re laughing at them. We like our characters vulnerable. Karen’s a fabulous director and slave-driver, and she also has a great mind for plotting. I always say these plays are co-written but she doesn’t see that, as she never actually puts any words down on the page. She’s the organ grinder. I’m just the monkey.
You’re bringing a new play to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – can you tell us about it?
It’s a play about power and sex and love and disappointment. Karen plays an ageing Dominatrix who’s summoned to the afterlife by Death. But not death as we know it… he’s had a rebranding, now he’s more touchy-feely, more user-friendly. She’s a hard-nosed businesswoman, he’s a corporate suit. Turns out both these are just shells for the real person underneath.
What is it about being performing in front of other people that makes you tick?
I don’t think it’s about being ‘in front’ of people – the great thing about live theatre is that you’re in the room with them. We’re on a journey together and even though I’ve been through this journey many times – performances and rehearsals – I still want to make it fresh and real. That’s the challenge, and it’s great…
Comedy-drama is a difficult theatrical genre – what are the secret ingredients behind a good mix?
When we find out, we’ll let you know! You have to believe the characters. You have to believe that they’re always doing what they think is right, even if it’s a stupid idea. You know that cliché ‘act 1, force your character up a tree; act 2, throw stones at them; act 3, get them down’? That still holds, you just have to make the stones ridiculous and the tree preposterous. I really admire Richard Curtis (‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Love, Actually’ etc) even though I hate myself for admiring him. Every character has a gaping wound that he remorselessly exploits for drama. Comedy drama does that but just adds… err… comedy.
How much of the play’s main character, Maggie Taylor, is drawn from your own life?
Ha! How is a mini-skirted, thigh-length booted, corset-suited woman based on my life? Well… Karen and myself both enjoy talking about sex and we get an especial kick when we talk about it with younger people who seem to think that we should have forgotten about That Sort Of Thing since we’re both So Close To Death. So the fact that Maggie is unapologetic about being a Dominatrix and regards it as a perfectly valid career choice works for us. The relationship between Maggie and her impending death is also a chance to riff on existentialist themes. I like to think of myself as the Camus of BDSM. Sisyphus in high heels.
You premiered at this year’s Brighton Fringe – how did it go & have you tweaked the show since?
It went really well. We did small modifications during the run, but the time since then has allowed us to do bigger tweaks. Sadly our strongest discovery – that the title sucks – came too late to do anything about it for Edinburgh. We were already committed.
What is the biggest obstacle you overcame while putting your show together?
Quite often we’ve been in different continents. That’s quite challenging. Rehearsing by Skype doesn’t really allow you to practise prop setting (Karen’s biggest bugbear) though we got the lines crafted. The other big obstacle is common to every comedy writer – you never know whether a joke’s funny until the audience laughs. I’m devastated to have had to cut the original opening, which I loved… but nobody laughed. They were intrigued, but that’s not good enough at the start of a comedy.
How are you finding working with Karen Kirkup?
You call it ‘working with’, I call it ‘doing what I’m told’… It’s fab. She’s got such a good eye for structure, staging and plotting that I know I can come up with any idea, no matter how difficult to stage, and she’ll find a way round it. In Get Fit With Bruce Willis I wrote a nightmare scene in which she played four different characters all torturing my character. I think the script said ‘different hats, or whatever’, and I had absolute confidence that she’d either sort it out, or tell me why it was a bad idea dramatically.
Why are you using the songs of Annie Lennox and Eurythmics?
Get Fit With Bruce Willis was based around the songs of Jimmy Somerville and the groups he’s been in, because I look vaguely like him and I have a similar singing voice. Painted Love took on the songs of Marc Almond because I’ve always been a massive fan. That’s two male singers, time for a female one – and who is more iconic and evocative of 80s music than Annie Lennox? What a voice. What a stage presence.
We knew we’d got it right when almost everyone we mentioned it to had the same ‘ooh….’ reaction. We don’t try to imitate Annie (who could?), but the themes of her songs – empowerment, sexuality, love, vulnerability – all hit the dramatic spot.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the play to somebody in the streets of Edinburgh, what would you say?
It’ll make you laugh. It’ll break your heart. How often do you get whips, wit and existentialism in the same play? It’s sexy and it’s got a fabulous Annie Lennox soundtrack. Death goes management-speak – ‘it’s not death, it’s a negative lifestyle outcome’. Where else can you get all that at 1pm?
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
Writing the next play! Provisional title is ‘Hit Me, Baby’ (guess where we’re going musically with that one…) and Karen plays a woman who decides to take up boxing in later life but gets mistaken for a hit-woman. She finds herself unexpectedly contracted to take out a hit on a man’s wife…