INTERVIEW: Joe Sellman-Leava and Worklight Theatre

In Interviews, London theatre, Plays by Daniel PerksLeave a Comment

After first seeing previous show Labels in 2015 at the Edinburgh Fringe and again at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2016 on tour, I have eagerly had my ear to the ground for any hint at a future production from Worklight Theatre. Luckily, this year they present and tour their next work, Love Thy Monster, where I first caught a work in progress showing at The Pleasance, Islington before it rushes away to Perth, Australia and eventually up to the Edinburgh Fringe once more for an official unveiling.

Not one to review a work in progress, it’s safe to say that Worklight Theatre have another gold star production at their fingertips, centring once again around writer-performer Joe Sellman-Leava’s past experiences and highlighting his continued ability to weave a story. Sellman-Leava captivates his audience with an honest presentation of a past situation that causes him to reflect and question his purpose and is delivered with an unflinching openness that reveals true courage hidden beneath a humble and unassuming façade.

Over the course of an hour, Love Thy Monster compares Sellman-Leava’s romantic life with his latest professional acting role, interspersed with Shakespeare, Mike Tyson and Patrick Stewart for good measure. Seemingly disconnected events join together effortlessly as the tension in all scenarios slowly mounts; Sellman-Leava’s frustration in his work inadvertently overflows into his personal life in a way that the entire audience can empathise with.

The day after the preview, when I caught up with the writer-performer, Sellman-Leava seems pleased with how the first showing went:

After the first work in progress show at the Pleasance (Saturday 21st Jan), what were your thoughts initially?

To be honest I was just relieved that I’d got through it without messing anything up. With a solo show you can’t rely on other people for cues, so I had to use a memory linking technique and was just relieved that I’d made it.

Beyond that, there are questions we had around certain bits of it so it was really useful to hear people talk afterwards – things came up in conversation to show us where parts weren’t quite getting the reaction we wanted. But on a positive side, it was really encouraging to have audiences react in the areas you want, so as a team we feel good about where it is at the moment for Perth and something we can work on before Edinburgh.

So Fringe First in Perth, the next stop in developing the production, is only a week away now, but you’re not taking the show to Adelaide Fringe Festival. Was that a conscious decision?

Yes it was – we weren’t even planning to do Perth this year. We had a really great experience at the Blue Room Theatre last year with Labels and so applied for their scheduling again, thinking we may not get anything but knowing that if we did it would be a great canvas for testing the work in a week’s run. Trying to do a 4-week fringe in Adelaide as well seemed a bit much to try and get it right.

Love Thy Monster is another solo show, after the incredibly successful Labels – are solo shows how you prefer to work?

It’s more of how the shows came about in the first place really – both were early ideas back in 2009 that I had when I was working on solo projects. Love Thy Monster just suited the form of what I was trying to explore, couched in my memory and a soul-searching exercise. But I don’t really have a preference for one or the other.

In both of your latest shows, you come across both in character and in person as unabashed, easily likeable and humble. Do you see parallels between your characters and your personality?

As Labels is fully autobiographical and Love Thy Monster is based in truth, there is an extent to which it’s unavoidable to draw on elements of myself in these works – both are performed versions of myself in that respect. I think there’s something cathartic in both shows – we make art as a way of processing, dealing with and questioning life in some way.

Despite having a number of shows firmly under his belt, Joe Sellman-Leava still continues to be surprised and genuinely grateful for the growing success of Worklight’s work:

Labels started in 2015 in Edinburgh and immediately picked up a Scotsman Fringe award. Did you expect the level of success that has come from it?

Not at all. I didn’t even really think this was really an option – the Fringe First is one of those awards that you think one day you might win but I definitely didn’t think we were in with in a shot in 2015, I couldn’t believe it. It has really helped with touring – for venues, it’s always risky booking theatre because you don’t know how it’s going to sell and, among other things, the award has given the venue the confidence to take a chance on this. It’s been amazing what it’s allowed us to do.

Not even just the UK, you went to Adelaide in 2016 – it’s not as if the momentum is even slowing down for the show.

We’re still very lucky for that to have been the case.

So where did the idea for Labels come from, how did it come about?

A workshop with Emma Thompson was actually the stimulus – we were asked to prepare something for university, so I put together a much shorter 10-minute piece. The visual concept of putting the labels on was there, but the script was much reduced from what it is now. It took a good few years for us to give the show the time that it needed to develop fully. It always had that potential but we knew that, having made two other shows in that time, we wanted not to rush the process and so it took a while between the initial idea and it being ready to perform.

I think it’s quite useful having these longer development periods – we used to make shows more quickly (in a few months) and were never quite happy with the quality of those. The gaps between the time you work on something are as important as the time spent working on it – more things come to mind and ideas can mature and grow.

How easy is it to procrastinate with this process? You must have a very structured and logical approach.

In some ways, in others it’s quite messy to be honest. The planning allows you to filter things out and work on things.

For instance, with Fix, which is a piece that we are launching in Edinburgh this year alongside Love Thy Monster, the idea for it came in 2015 during the Fringe Festival but we knew it wouldn’t be ready until 2017, which we set as a target right from the start. We wanted to tour Labels and we knew we couldn’t make a new show as well. With that two year target in mind we had to also set markers, such as a preview workshop in June 2016 and regular meetings for researching. Whenever we were in a theatre on tour we would use the daytime as a residency to work on it further.

With Labels still touring and two shows in preparation for Edinburgh Fringe later this year, it seems unlikely that Sellman-Leave and Worklight have time to give any thoughts to the future of the company:

So what would you wish for as the future for Worklight going forward this year?

We definitely want both the new shows to tour. With Love Thy Monster being solo, it’s able to be more nimble and get around more easily, whereas Fix needs a bit more planning and is suited to slightly bigger spaces so would need a longer run in each location. Labels will continue for as long as people want it and after that who knows, we may be able to start working on something else entirely.

As someone so focussed on planning and preparation, do you have any ideas for future shows even after the two at Edinburgh this year?

We’ve been interested for a while in conspiracy theories, how they catch on as ideas and why people really love them, but we’ve never sat down and done any work on it. Now, even with watching the election, people had such a willingness to view Trump as a viable option against Clinton by believing such things about her because they wanted them to be true. Even though they were demonstrably false people would believe them readily, yet there were proven things about Trump that were clearly awful and they were very willing to ignore.

I don’t think a future show would be about the election specifically, but the reality that has led us towards this President is a marker of where we are in society. New technology has now enabled bubbles of people to willingly suspend disbelief in real life and that has come into the mainstream.

2016 was such a pivotal year in this regard. Do think that it will change the landscape of theatre for the next year or two?

I think it will – my colleagues and I graduated in 2010 in the early days of the coalition government and one of the first shows that we saw after was in the Barbican in Plymouth, which talked about the funding cuts for the arts. A scary time and possibly a damaging one, but we know that often in hard times, with great challenge comes great art. With all the awful impacts on peoples’ lives you see this reflected in the theatre – it’s a medium that is quick to respond.

Apart from your work, is there anything else that you’re particularly excited about coming up?

We’ve just been rehearsing at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, so walking past their rehearsal rooms and seeing The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin makes me really excited for their whole next season – especially for Room and Le Gateau Chocolat: Black.

Daniel Perks on Twitter
Daniel Perks
"Corporate by day, culture by night" is the strapline for Daniel Perks’ website, where he’s been blogging for several years independently, covering "opera, ballet, contemporary dance, interactive theatre, musical, Shakespeare and everything in between’. Daniel contributes on a freelance basis to several publications including The Reviews Hub, Exeunt, A Younger Theatre and Theatre & Performance, and he is an assessor for the Off-West Awards (‘The Offies’). Daniel tweets @dperks13.

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Daniel Perks on Twitter
Daniel Perks
"Corporate by day, culture by night" is the strapline for Daniel Perks’ website, where he’s been blogging for several years independently, covering "opera, ballet, contemporary dance, interactive theatre, musical, Shakespeare and everything in between’. Daniel contributes on a freelance basis to several publications including The Reviews Hub, Exeunt, A Younger Theatre and Theatre & Performance, and he is an assessor for the Off-West Awards (‘The Offies’). Daniel tweets @dperks13.

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