Recently I was lucky enough to catch up with Michael Black whose latest play Starved will be coming to the Bread and Roses Theatre at the end of the month (30 April to 11 May 2019). I’m a firm believer that we need more working class voices on our London stages, and following this chat with Michael I’m now itching to see Starved. Enjoy this glimpse inside.
Tell me more about Starved.
Starved is set in a scruffy bedsit on a council estate called Orchard Park in North Hull. Basically it is a two-hander, about these characters called Lad and Lass. So they’ve not got specific names. They’re stuck in this bedsit and they’ve not left for four weeks. It basically follows their story in real time over 60 minutes.
What was the inspiration for it?
There were two reasons really. I wanted to bring a working class story from where I came from to the London stage and also, it is all things that I’ve experienced, things that have happened to me, things that have happened to people I’ve known. I just felt like there was a story in me I could tell, all based on real things and real experiences
In terms of a London audience who might not be familiar with where you come from, what are you hoping they’ll take from Starved. What do you want them to get out of it?
I’d say a real sense of what people go through, and what people are feeling in pockets of society across the UK. Especially in the North of England. I feel there are parts of the North of England that aren’t focused on and are just sort of left and not really explored or understood. There are people that don’t necessarily have a strong meaning or reason to get up in the morning. That are feeling lost and are trying to find that meaning through various destructive behaviours.
That feels very timely. I think recent, not even that recent any more, political events have really reinforced that we are quite a divided country. There is a sense that we don’t really understand each other that well. We have so much in common but the differences are bigger and trickier than we ever realised. Do you think that, because of this, there should now be a bigger appetite for stories that come from outside the middle class London bubble?
Politically in the last few years it has shown that we don’t know each other as well as we thought we did. It is easy to assume, living down South, that everyone in the country thinks the exact same way you do and that they have a similar experience to you. I think there definitely needs to be more of a discussion, and more of an understanding, that not everyone thinks the way I do, that not everyone has had a similar experience to me.
I need to listen to this person and understand where they are coming from, and why they are feeling like this. I think that theatre is a great way to do it. I think that coming from somewhere like Hull, you don’t see Hull stories on the London stages, or stages anywhere around the country apart from Hull itself. So I feel like, shows like ‘Starved’, can really show a London audience a slice of life and how people they wouldn’t necessarily engage with are living and the mindset they are in. If that makes sense.
Absolutely. That brings me to the broader question. Obviously ‘Starved’ is your current project but it’d be lovely to talk about your journey to ‘Starved’. How did you discover your passion for play-writing and how did you take that and build that career as a lad from Hull.
I actually started writing before I started acting. When I was a kid I’d write fictional episodes of The Simpsons, and stuff like short stories, and all that sort of thing. I never really pursued it.
Is that because it didn’t occur to you to?
Yeah, yeah. I just never thought that being from Hull, you could actually make a career out of writing or acting or directing or anything like that. It just seemed so far away. And then I came to acting, and discovered acting when I was about 18. From that point I was really driven and knew that that was what I wanted to do. I went from never having acted before when I was 18… I joined Hull Truck Youth Theatre, I joined drama groups, I did a BTech at college, I moved to London and joined the National Youth Theatre, went to drama school, started doing Fringe theatre and short films. And that is when I started writing properly. Because I still had all these ideas and experiences from before I was an actor. Because I think it served me well not writing or acting professionally from a young age, because I got to experience life. So by the time I did come to acting and writing I felt I’d lived a life, do you know what I mean? I had stories to tell, it wasn’t just “I’ve been going to drama classes since I was 3 years old”. I actually had things that had happened to me, my mates and relationships, things I’d seen that I thought, right OK I can really use this in my acting and to write plays.
Once you’d decided you want to write, what did you do? Did you start with short plays or did you throw yourself straight into a long form piece?
I just went for it. I just thought I’d done enough plays acting wise, to sort of know what to do. I just had a story in me, and I wrote it and it’s called “In The Wake Of” and I did it at last year’s Clapham and Camden fringe. That was a four hander… a revenge thriller about two friends who grew up together, who hadn’t seen each other in years and basically they came back into contact with each other, and all the things from the past came up, and it was this big climax over 60 minutes, in real time.
You love your 60-minute real time plays. Do you think it is going to be your signature?
Yes, I think so. I love that fly-on-the-wall type atmosphere where it could be happening. Where you’re sat in someone’s living room watching it all unfold.
Theatre lends itself well to that.
Yeah, yeah but I feel sometimes that with the scene changes, as an audience you can disengage. “Oh OK, I’m watching a play now.” I feel like, if you can keep an audience with you for 60 minutes, you can take them on a real journey. You can really take them into the story and the characters. For me it is all about the characters and relationships. If the characters and relationships are as believable and human and truthful as possible, then an audience is willing to sit there and watch anything unfold. The story comes from that connection and engagement with real people.
Do you think your training as an actor has informed how you write, in terms of the character focus if you will?
Definitely. 100%. For me as an actor it is always about figuring out who somebody is, and how much of myself I need to bring to that character and how much of myself I have to adapt and research to bring into that character. I feel like that is what I do with my writing as well. How much of myself do I bring to these characters, and how much do I have to change and adapt.
It seems, from speaking to you, that one thing that is really important to you as a theme, is that you see your experiences reflected on the stage, a stage that doesn’t necessarily show people like you. Are there other playwrights that you think are doing this well, that you’re inspired by? People you’d like to meet, maybe we should do fantasy dinner party?
I’d say definitely Philip Ridley
(Unprofessional, over-excited gasp) He’s one of my favourites too
I love the way, and this is something I try to do with my writing, Ridley really turns the heat up, really puts the characters in the most extreme situations possible, really ups the stakes and then you watch these real people have to deal with these really extreme situations.
With Philip Ridley that sometimes tips over into the fantastical. Do you ever go that far, or are you much more tethered in the real world?
I don’t quite break the barrier into fantastical. I like to be somewhere that is near the edge. I’d say Harold Pinter as well. He’s a big inspiration. But filmwise… Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Shane Meadows. Shane Meadows has been the biggest inspiration for me. When I saw “This is England” I went like, “yeah ok, working class people can do this as well, working class people can tell stories, they can be actors, writers, directors. Shane Meadows is like… if there was a dinner party and I could invite one person it’d be Shane. Big respect for Shane. And I like to work in that way too. I like to work with improvisation in rehearsals, finding the characters through improvisation, whether that’s relationship exercises, acting out key events from the characters past… going out in character. All that sort of thing. I like to build the world and be fully informed about the character’s history and that, their background as much as possible. So that when you are in the world, you’ve just been informed by all that stuff so you can really let it go and move around in it.
So does this mean that you don’t work from a rigid script? Are you making changes during the rehearsal process?
I do like to stick to the script as much as possible. The improvisation is in the actual performance. We do try to stick to the script as much as possible, just because what I write is so… what one person says is informed by what the other person has just said. It’s a real conversation. It’s fair enough improvising but you’ve got to hit those key beats, because what you’re saying is an answer to a question you’ve just been asked.
So the actual play-text won’t change much at all, it is much more around the physicality of it?
Yeah, improvisation is more from an acting rather than writing perspective.
Does that inform how you work with directors?
On my plays, the director I’ve worked with is very much into improvisation, to build the characters and build the world, and then when you know who you are and what your objective is, and what you’re doing to the other person, then you can let it all go and stick to the script. If that makes sense. Move around it and go from there. I am aware that not all directors work like that, and I’m fine with that. So it’s all about, as an actor, working out what I need to bring and what I need to adapt to work with a specific director, because I’m aware that not all directors are like “right OK we’re going to improvise that”. But as long as I can get a bit of that in in my personal process, then I feel I can be as mould-able as possible… if the director is just “stand over there and say it like that”…
But as a playwright, when speaking to a director about a project, wouldn’t you have the opportunity to work out if you had similar philosophies and approaches before deciding to work together?
Exactly. And I do feel that the directors that do work in that way are the best directors. They’re the directors that people want to work with and there’s a reason. Actors aren’t just puppets to be moulded. It is a collaboration.
If a director doesn’t want to collaborate with a playwright, they could always focus on pieces by dead writers.
Exactly, I think there are some that do do that, for that very reason (LAUGH)
Well I don’t know. That’s just an assumption
It’d be useful though. Easier than having to bump off the playwright right?
In terms of your plans for the future. As you’ve said, you’re full of stories that you want to get down. In terms of your writing plans, do you have another play that is itching to get out, or is it already out and waiting it’s turn?
I’ve got a few ideas. I’ve not put anything solid down yet. I think I’m going to try to push ‘Starved’ as much as I can.
It’s always an interesting question about whether, as a writer, you can work on over-lapping projects. I know writers have different approaches to that.
From a writing perspective I’m going to focus on ‘Starved’… take that as far as I can, and in the meantime work on poetry. Because I write poetry as well, and do spoken word poetry nights, and stuff like that. Sort of work on the writing that way and then, when the time feels right, maybe next year, maybe in a couple of years, do another play.
That’s interesting about the poetry. Do you find that poetry stimulates parts of the brain that theatre writing doesn’t?
I feel like it is all from the same place. Whether it is poetry, writing, directing, acting, it’s all coming from that same instinctive place. And then it’s about putting it into a form that people can actually see and listen to.
I know a lot of my playwright friends are always interested in that transition from writing stuff to making money writing stuff. I find a lot of people talk about the day job. How do you balance living life in a pretty expensive city (London), and working in an industry that is notoriously badly paid?
I just do bits and pieces where I can do. I do medical role play work, where you go in with the doctors. And other bits and pieces, seems to pay the bills. As for acting and play-writing, I’ve not quite worked out how to make enough money from that to live off yet. It’s a work in progress. But I’m getting there.
Thanks for being so honest about it. It is a subject that comes up so much, I know people who have amazing stuff out there but who don’t feel “proper” because they’re not earning enough to live on. Quality of art can’t be based on how much money it makes, otherwise X Factor would be high art.
I always think, if you’re doing it for the money, if that’s a real concern or consideration, then do something else.
True, but is this a barrier that is limiting working class voices breaking through? We don’t want theatre just to be created by people who can afford to not make money from it.
I know it sounds clichéd to say, but you’ve got to really want to do it, and figure out what you need to do to make it work. I think it’s an individual thing. Everyone is different on an individual basis, what one person needs to do won’t be the same as what another person needs to do. If you really want to do it, work out the specific steps you need to take and then you need to put them into action, so that you can pursue those goals that you’ve got.
Thanks so much for your time and honesty Michael. Just to finish up, let’s full circle back to ‘Starved’. In a nutshell, why should people go see it?
If you want to see something a bit different, something that is based in truth… something human, and character driven, with themes that are relevant to today’s society then get yourself down to the Bread and Roses theatre and come and see ‘Starved’.
If you’re as intrigued as I am, and feel ready to spend 60 minutes in a Hull bedsit with Lad and Lass, you can find out more and nab tickets for ‘Starved’ from the Bread and Roses site here