From a scratch-night sketch to full-length play and baptism by fire on the fringe… Writer, performer and producer Tom Stocks gives an in-depth and honest account of his journey to date with new comedy Netflix & Chill and Actor Awareness, the company he set up to put the spotlight on working-class talent. The premiere production, directed by Luke Adamson, is at Drayton Arms Theatre 11 to 29 February 2020. Time to get booking!
Have you ever wondered what goes through people’s head in certain situations? What do you think about during a date? Or the random thoughts that go through your head during sex? What about when someone’s mental health is deteriorating?
Ben is a working-class chef whose life spirals out of control after trying to rekindle a relationship with his mum. His work, friendships and love life are all tested as his week goes from bad to worse. In this dark comedy exploring mental health and toxic masculinity, you’ll get a glimpse into Ben’s inner monologue when he’s “Netflix & Chilling”, including stories of tragic sexual conquests, Magaluf prostitutes, and ejaculating into a bus tray.
Stocks is joined in the cast by Emily Ellis, Julie Binysh, Charlotte Price and Joseph Lindoe (who also co-produces). Directed by Luke Adamson and co-produced by Actor Awareness and JLA Productions, Netflix & Chill is supported by and raise funds for The Mental Health Foundation.
Talking to… Tom Stocks
Author Tom Stocks plays Ben in Netflix & Chill. A working-class actor, director and producer, Stocks is also the founder of Actor Awareness, which campaigns for more equality, diversity and working-class talent in the arts and aims to provide a community and voice for these disenfranchised groups.
Two of your uncles committed suicide. How did this affect you?
I was quite young when it happened so I don’t think I completely understood at the time, especially with mental health never mentioned when I was growing up. It was a very hard time for the family. You never want to lose family members in any circumstances, but due to the nature of how it happened, the shock was horrible. I know the suicides had a huge effect on my cousins – losing your dad at such a young age is unimaginable so I must pay tribute to them.
However, the biggest effect I saw personally was on my Nan and Grandpa. I cannot imagine how they coped with having both their sons taking their own lives. They are two of the strong people I know, with typical Northern grit and an attitude of not really showing how much it affected them, but through the cracks, you know it did. I was so young, maybe I suppressed the impact for quite a while, but writing this play brought up feelings I never thought about.
Parts of Netflix & Chill are based on a true story. Can you tell us about this?
I don’t want to give too much away, but a lot of the comical stories in the play are true. I worked as a chef for a few years and some of the inner monologues expressed through voiceover are things I have thought about, especially during the “Netflix and chilling” scenes. So, all in all, it is very loosely based on events in my life.
Did you always intend to perform in the play as well?
I first wrote Netflix & Chill as a sketch for our first-ever Actor Awareness scratch night five years ago, purely because we didn’t have enough submissions so I decided to write something based on class. I wanted to challenge myself in writing and directing something but never had the intention to perform it myself. After getting a few actors to do the piece in various events and getting good feedback, I got a buzz for writing, so went onto writing sketch comedy for a while, creating a show called Brittle Britain.
Later, I reached a bit of a low point in my acting career. Auditions weren’t rolling in and felt a little static in my own career in the arts. I decided to practice what I preach with Actor Awareness by making my own work to drag myself out of a rut. After not touching the script for a couple of years, I revisited it and sent it to a producer and writer friend, Michael Head. He was very complimentary so I asked advice on how I could extend it. In initial drafts, the issue of mental health had a far smaller role in the piece. Michael suggested bringing it to the forefront could help create a theme that really resonates with people.
I had never written a full-length play before or taken any writing classes so I did what I have always advised others: write about what you know first and then add other elements as you go along. I wrote about different events in my own life and added the element of mental health by doing a lot of research and applied how those events would impact on someone’s mental health. After finishing the piece, I thought I would perform the role of Ben as a lot of Ben’s story is my own. Who better to play me than me?
What did you learn from runs at Baron’s Court & Canal Café?
It was a rollercoaster of a journey with those runs, a lot of highs and lows. The biggest thing I learnt was that there needs to be a lot more support for emerging producers. Most creatives these days have to produce their own work, but nobody really teaches you how to produce – you’re just thrown into it. You have to get as much help and advice as possible from others and then wing it and find your own way through trial and error.
I think fringe venues and Equity should work together on a support scheme for producers. The fringe is a playground to test work and experiment so shouldn’t ridicule inexperience. The Canal Cafe and Barons Court both offer fantastic support for emerging companies. I am so thankful to those two venues for offering constant aid throughout my career.
The highlights was not only having such a talented cast and crew, but a company who offered me huge support through the entire process. I cannot thank them all enough for getting me through quite a tough time. Now we’ve had those previews, which went down amazingly, we’re ready to push onto Drayton Arms and get this show the wider response it deserves.
Why did you want Luke Adamson to direct Netflix & Chill?
Because of Actor Awareness and always taking an interest in working-class talent, I had been following Luke’s progress in the industry for a couple of years and always heard he was amazing to work with. I saw his journey from strength to strength and his reputation growing. I met Luke after he came to see a show I was in called The Greater Game. We had a pint afterwards and knew from then on I wanted to work with him. Also being a fellow working-class northerner helped!
I put a callout on social media for directors for Netflix & Chill just to see who was interested at first and couldn’t believe Luke messaged me. We had a few email exchanges and, with this being a subject very close to his heart, we went ahead.
I am so thankful to have him on board, his experience navigating through the fringe minefield has been a huge help and has taught me so much already. His attention to detail is exquisite. He brings ideas that I never even thought of when writing the piece. In my opinion, he has created the most powerful scene in the play – when Ben’s inner thoughts overcome him, which wasn’t in the original script.
Luke himself has experienced mental health issues; bringing his background to his directing was really honest and refreshing. I can’t compliment Luke enough and can’t express how grateful I am to have him on board, because the play wouldn’t be where it is now without him.
Why did you found Actor Awareness?
I founded Actor Awareness because I constantly found financial barriers throughout the industry. I wanted to speak out about it and also offer support and a voice to other working-class creatives. We’ve been going strong now for five years. Our partnership with Spotlight, Backstage, StarNow and Adam Morley has given us the capacity to offer opportunities to actors, writers and directors and to become one of the only scratch nights in the UK to pay our creatives.
What’s next for the company? And you personally?
For Actor Awareness, we have our first new writing night of the year on 10 February at Spotlight under the theme of class. We will also carry on doing our new writing nights throughout the year and revive our festival that we do every year as well. For myself, I have just been in a film called Blinded By The Light so, hopefully, something may come from that. And I have just signed with an amazing new agent at Narrow Road. I am hoping 2020 will be a great year.
Why should audiences see Netflix & Chill?
Apart from the amazing talent we have in it, if audiences like dark comedy, stories of prostitutes in Magaluf, coming in a bus tray and what goes through everyone’s inner monologue when they’re Netflix and chilling, then this is the show to see. More seriously, we want to create a discussion around and raise awareness of mental health, particularly in men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 and 75% of suicides are by males. With this show, we hope audiences are entertained but also come away thinking about that. Through the form of comedy, we think the message will be even more hard-hitting.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We are producing this show with the support of The Mental Health Foundation. After every show we will be raising money for this charity and help people to thrive through understanding, protecting, and sustaining their mental health.
Netflix & Chill runs from 11 to 29 February 2020 at the Drayton Arms Theatre, 153 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0LJ, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm. Tickets are priced £14-16. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!