With a new play, the collaboration between writer and director is paramount. Jeremy Stoller, who dramaturged Ken Urban’s A Guide for the Homesick prior to its world premiere in Boston in 2017, interviews Urban and director Jonathan O’Boyle as the play readies for its European premiere next week at Trafalgar Studios. Time to get booking!
A Guide for the Homesick, the powerful new play by award-winning American writer Ken Urban, gets its European premiere at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios in a strictly limited season from 16 October to 24 November 2018, with a press night on 18 October and a post-show Q&A chaired by Mates co-founder Terri Paddock on 19 October.
Can you confess your greatest fear to a stranger?
In A Guide for the Homesick, Teddy is searching for a friend for the night. Jeremy is searching for a beer. Worlds apart and miles away from home, two strangers, consumed by their own secrets, find each other in a hotel room in Amsterdam.
For Stage Traffic Productions, Jonathan O’Boyle directs Douglas Booth as Jeremy and Clifford Samuel as Teddy in Ken Urban‘s tender and bittersweet play about conscience and connection.
Jeremy Stoller is the Literary Manager of Keen Company in New York and, in addition to A Guide for the Homesick, has also dramaturged the world premiere of Urban’s Nibbler.
Jonathan, this is the second play of Ken’s that you’ve directed (following the Theatre 503 production of Sense of an Ending in 2015). What about his work speaks to you?
Ken is a brilliant writer with a unique voice. His plays always have a political angle, which I love, and they always challenge a director to think outside the box in terms of how the world of the play is realised. His characters are beautifully drawn and it’s a real privilege to explore them in the rehearsal room.
You’ve both done quite a lot of research to find your way into this play. What were some of your most profound discoveries?
Ken: For me, it was discovering the American involvement in the rise of anti-gay and lesbian violence in Uganda. Finding out that Scott Lively’s Abiding Truth Ministries based in Massachusetts conducted talks about the “homosexual threat” with Ugandan leaders was an unsettling revelation for me.
Jonathan: Like with any play, I immerse myself in the detail of the world of the play. A Guide for the Homesick was no exception as Ken has created a really detailed, multilayered world. From LGBTQ rights in Uganda to Ken’s interviews with Doctors Without Borders workers; issues around bipolar disorder to social responsibility. It’s a rich tapestry that’s fantastic to discover whilst working on the play.
This play moves rapidly between characters, locations, moods. Why are those shifts important to this production, and how do you navigate them?
Jonathan: This is a crucial part of the storytelling and one of Ken’s brilliant authorial devices. They feel unique to him and to his work. They propel the story and accelerate the drama in a way I haven’t experienced before. They’re challenging to achieve, but once we’ve cracked it, it really unlocks the rhythm of the play. We navigate them primarily with acting shifts and working with the actors on changing their vocal placement and physicality. Plus, lighting and sound help enormously to ignite the imagination from one scene to the next.
Ken, you are also a musician, and Jonathan, you direct both plays and musicals. How did your relationship to music inform your conversations about and approach to this production?
Ken: I think of my scripts as scores. There is a rhythm and energy to the language and that feels to me like music. It casts a spell. Funny thing though, in my band, I don’t tend to write lyrics; I write the music.
Jonathan: Music and sound are always integral to anything I direct. It adds texture and deepens the atmosphere of the play. I collaborate closely with the sound designer, in this case Max Perryment, on working through the script and seeing how sound can support the action, particularly the shifts.
The play opens with two Americans onstage, although none of the action takes place in the United States (or in the UK, for that matter) – it has a global scope. How do you believe it speaks specifically to London audiences at this moment?
Jonathan: We are at a crucial turning point in Britain, where we find ourselves ever more inward looking as a nation. With our impending exit from the European Union, A Guide for the Homesick is a play that reminds us of our social responsibility not only here in the UK, but beyond our borders. I think it speaks to a London audience on many levels, from the way we communicate with each other and how we treat our friends and neighbours, to how we need to project our basic and fundamental human rights at home and abroad.
Ken: I hope it will move audiences here as much as it did in Boston [where it premiered in 2017]. Like the characters in the play, I feel like we are all craving some intimacy. And that intimacy can help us better understand the world we live in. My country is now run by a person who lacks basic empathy and an understanding about the world. We cannot become that.
Jonathan: The play asks us a question about choice and consequence – whether we’re better off alone or are we more wealthy being part of a community.
Ken: Being in a dark room together, watching a story unfold, that ritual can bring the events of the world home to us in a way that no other art form can do. If I have done my job, you will be swept up by the story, but after the show, you will be talking and thinking about the issues the play raises.
A Guide for the Homesick runs from 16 October to 24 November 2018 at London’s Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY. Performances are Monday to Saturdays at 7.45pm, with Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are priced £25-£35. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!