The Big Interview: Playwright Jeff Young
To celebrate the Everyman Theatre’s new commission Bright Phoenix, Jennifer Tsai speaks to its playwright, the award-winning Jeff Young, about Liverpool, misfits and the “chaos” of writing…
Jeff Young lives in Liverpool and has been writing for nearly 30 years. He has been nominated for Prix Europa, Prix Italia and Sony Radio Awards. He has created 35 radio plays and counting for the BBC and others — including four autobiographical drama documentaries and the site-specific drama documentary Carandiru, recorded in a prison in San Paulo, Brazil, and comic drama Highgate Letters. He is eclectic in regularly collaborating with artists, musicians, choreographers and filmmakers. His work has been performed in diverse and abandoned locations, such as a drained submarine dock, a disused power station, parks, gardens, a derelict school, billboards, a bus station in Holland, ferry terminals and haunted buildings.
In addition, Jeff is an established writer for TV, and has written for BBC dramas Eastenders, Doctors, Casualty and Holby City. His CBBC children’s drama Download was included in the RTS North Award winning series Stepping up. In theatre, Jeff’s enchanting and lyrical work has been produced by renowned theatres such Bristol Old Vic, Northern Stage, Kaboodle, Kneehigh, Liverpool Everyman and Unity. He works in many different mediums including opera, puppet theatre, site specific and installation, public art projects, lantern parades, musicals, poetry, sound art and spoken word.
Expecting to meet an exhausted polymath, I met Jeff in the street café of the Everyman to discuss his new play, Bright Phoenix: a wonderfully apt title symbolising renewal and transformation.
Jennie: Bright Phoenix has been described as ‘a wild play about the carnival of the city at night’. I’m interested in the idea that you are presenting a side of Liverpool that is unseen and centred around marginal characters, or misfits. Could you say a bit more about your inspiration behind this idea?
Jeff: The commission from the Everyman was to write a play about my version of the city, my version of Liverpool.
So, a subjective account?
Yes, most of the work I do is city-based, it’s very urban and my favourite people are people who live on the margins, in the shadows that might get overlooked, as you said, misfits, who are kind of forgotten. The play is about all these kinds of people. There are homeless characters in it, people who are rejected by the educational system. The characters of the play, when they were children, were really wild and rebellious. When we meet them as adults; we meet them three times: as kids, teenagers and grown-ups. When they are grown-ups, they’re still as wild and rebellious as when they were kids. They still don’t fit in, they still don’t belong. There’s a sense about it that they don’t want to. They deliberately live outside the system. It’s a celebration of that spirit, a celebration of that wild, anarchic spirit. They are non-conformist, they’re anti-establishment, and quite happy to cause trouble!
So it’s quite riotous really, sounds as though there’s a spirit of defiance. Have you based them on people that you know?
Yes, all of the characters are based upon people from my childhood. It’s trying to imagine what those people grew up to be. I don’t know these people anymore, but I knew them when I was an eight year old and a teenager and that rebellious spirit, when you could get on your bicycle and go cycling for days on end and get into all kinds of mischief, terrible things happen as well and you get into scrapes.
It’s partly trying to imagine what happened to those kids when they grew up and wanting to imagine would they have changed, hoping that they’d still be wild and rebellious and that they haven’t lost that spirit. That’s exactly the way the play is. When they re-group in their 40s, they’re troubled, they’re wounded in different ways, they’re damaged but they’ve still got that fire inside them. The fire is to resist.
Are you talking about characters who have fulfilled their potential?
No, they kind of haven’t fulfilled their potential, but when we do meet them as grown-ups in the play, they kind of do. We see them transform and change but they transform and change through the spirit of resistance and rebellion. They find a cause, they find something to fight for and so they come to terms with the tragedies that happened to them when they were kids, but they also realise how much they love each other and they are transformed through love.
Without giving too much away, through the adult phases of the play, one of the characters begins to learn to read, he couldn’t read as a kid; he begins to learn to read and write. There’s a homeless woman character who always wanted to sing and she transforms through realising that she has a voice. So they find their voice really and they also become politicised. The cause that they fight is something that mattered to them when they were kids and now they’re grown-ups, they get it together.
It sounds wonderful; I love the title of the play too – Bright Phoenix.
It’s about rising from the ashes. Every character in the play does that. And it also echoes with this theatre; this theatre was demolished and came back to life. Ultimately, the play is about transformation.
The play really is a eulogy to your favourite building, the derelict Futurist cinema on Lime Street. I remember going there as a child with my brother and sister so I do remember it personally. Can you tell us about how this building features in your play and why it is important to you?
The reason why it’s important is my parents used to go there when they were young. Lime Street was full of cinemas then.
It seems such a waste that it’s been left derelict for so long.
Yes, you’ve got three cinemas on that street and I went there as a child, a teenager and a young adult until it closed down. I’ve kind of got this passionate love/hate relationship with the city. I love it: it’s in my bones; it’s part of who I am. There are things about it that make me angry and one of the things that makes me angry is that you could let… I call the Futurist cinema, a palace of dreams, it’s a place where people come together, there’s a real spirit. It wasn’t mindless entertainment. It was a beautiful place where you could go and for two hours, be lost in this beautiful world of film. There’s nothing cynical about it. You look at multiplexes these days and they’re purely to get people in and get them to spend money. They don’t have any character; but the Futurist was a really beautiful building and historical and to let it die, is a tragedy. It’s an absolute disgrace to sacrifice those kinds of buildings, which wouldn’t have taken too much financial investment. The longer you leave them, the more they die. They’re like old people who are abandoned.
So what the characters in the play do, is when they were kids, they used to sneak in there and watch films through the fire exit on the front row until they were discovered or kicked out. When they are grown-ups, they’re appalled because the Futurist cinema represents so much of who they are and who they were that they occupy the Futurist and start to bring it back to life, another transformation. The Futurist becomes the Bright Phoenix, rising through the ashes, rising from the rubble. Through that cause, they realise the phoenix within themselves. They grow in strength and confidence and belief. It’s just a very important building. It probably will die. There is a campaign to try and save it but the longer that building is left in ruin, the more likely it will collapse.
So in a sense your play is a campaign for it?
Yes it is to a degree, but it’s not a polemical play. It tries to use that as a symbol.
It’s more of a metaphor.
It’s a metaphor for believing in certain values and those values are cultural and about community and that collective spirit. That kind of place is about bringing people together and the importance of the crowd, instead of living in isolation. What makes places like that really powerful is not just the films that are being shown on the screen. It’s the fact that there are 50 or 100 people collectively gathered in there and that matters. The energy of the people together in that room. That’s why gigs are good, when you go to see a band.
As a writer, who do you consider to be your main influences?
To be honest, most of my influences are more likely to be painters and artists. I’m very inspired by German Expressionist painters, people like Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. There’s a certain grotesque-ness to their work, very poetic as well. If anyone sees the play, they’ll see that kind of aspect to the characters.
Quite strong, bold characters?
Yes, absolutely. Ted Hughes is a huge influence on me. There’s a darkness to his imagery. There’s a lot of animals in Bright Phoenix; crows, birds.
There’s a lot of violence in the natural world in Hughes.
Exactly, and the violence of the world in Bright Phoenix is an echo of that. It’s a cruel world and animals in Bright Phoenix get killed. Ted Hughes Crow is very important. Certain novelists are important: a brilliant Glaswegian novelist called Alisdair Gray. He wrote Lanark, an epic, a kind of fantasy: an imaginary Glasgow. He’s turned Glasgow into a poetic symbol, a bit like what we’ve done in Bright Phoenix. It’s an imagined Liverpool. If you know Liverpool really well, you’ll get it. I’m interested in art and painters. Things like that are a different way of using your imagination. In terms of playwrights, Jim Cartwright’s Road was a very important play and my hero was Samuel Beckett. He just completely re-imagined how you could tell a story on the stage… And with incredible symbolism and incredible use of symbol and metaphor, putting people in dustbins!
Would you say that there are any interlinking themes connecting your work?
Yes. I’m not remotely interested in people who are successful! I’m interested in the marginalised and my stories tend to be about working class characters or even under-class characters, although I’m not that keen on that word. They will be invariably about cities and draw on stories from my family, from my grandfather, my uncles and my father.
There’s a recurring character from my childhood, and she’s in this, and she’s been in at least five other theatre plays or radio dramas; you don’t realise it at first but then here she is again. Her name is Elsie, Elsie crops up again and again. They’re the recurring themes and hallucinatory dreams from childhood. Bright Phoenix is full of them. They’re very potent. And the potency and power of particular memories is a short cut to getting across a particular emotion or mental state. A lot of the characters are a repertory company in my head. Elsie keeps cropping up because she’s useful to help me tell stories about old age.
That’s interesting. So are these characters almost like archetypes?
Your own personal archetypes. I think childhood memories are where it all comes from for a writer, the vividness of certain emotions and memories.
Absolutely, and I’ve got a really strong sense that the child I used to be is still somewhere inside me. And I’ve often had the feeling that you have to do the right thing for that child. When you are an adult, that child is still there. You don’t want to let that child down. You do, because you make mistakes but hopefully it balances out and you do something more positive to make up for the mistakes that you’ve made, because you don’t want to let him or her down.
Could you tell me about your writing process?
Chaos! I carry a notebook, tiny pocket notebook. I make all kinds of notes in it, scribble in it, and sometimes doodle in it. And stick bits of newspaper, cuttings, envelopes, all kinds of stuff. As that starts to fill up and everything becomes clearer, everything goes into a bigger notebook. I start to map out dialogue, character ideas or character descriptions and then in parallel to that, I keep scrapbooks. Scrapbooks become these big pasting in of images, pictures, drawings that I do, collages; and as that starts to grow and grow, it kind of filters into my imagination and the imagination is fuelled by all this stuff and becomes incredibly chaotic.
Over the years, I’ve learnt to trust the chaos. Chaos is quite a good mental place for me. Other people would be more formal and ordered. I like the mess! Out of that mess, strange ideas grow. That’s the way I work. And I do all of that before I sit down to a computer. A lot of walking around. Walking is important. I like to do my research by going to places. So if I’m telling a story that is set down in the Liverpool docks, I’ll go and walk and walk around the docks. I won’t sit in my office. I’ll get a feel of the place. And do some thinking as I walk. When you get stuck on an idea, the best thing to do is to go for a walk. Something happens and starts to trigger off. The energy changes. And then you think, I know what, I’ve got it!
If I’m up against a deadline, I’ll do office hours but a lot of the time, I’m out and about and talking to people. And eavesdropping. I like to sit on buses and listen to the strange and wonderful things that people say. In a city like Liverpool, you don’t really have to make dialogue up because you hear it around you all the time. People like to talk and you get great stories from them.
Did you find it an easy play to write?
No! Sometimes easy, and sometimes lost in the enormity of it. It’s quite a big story, and there’s a lot of darkness in it, so sometimes you don’t necessarily want to spend much time there. It’s quite nice to go off and have an ice cream! Or go and play with the kids; but as it gets closer and closer to going on stage, it gets more and more intense. I’ve probably done about 20 drafts of the script and it changes every time. And sometimes it grows and sometimes it shrinks again.
How long did it take to write Bright Phoenix?
Two years. Every so often, I’ll go away on my own, get out of the city and rent a cottage in the Lake District and sit in the cottage on my own and won’t speak to anybody. Most of the time, I like the action and excitement, and then it’s time to go away. When you go away for a week like that, you’ve got no choice because the only diversions are nature. I come back to Liverpool after a week of silence and then you get immersed back in the chaos!
We’d love to hear about any future projects you’ve got planned…
I am doing a radio drama series about young women in Mexico who are kidnapped by drug traffickers, a five episode radio drama. There’s always stuff to do. I work across the mediums. I’m probably going to do some spoken word stuff soon, keep busy.
This interview originally featured in The Double Negative on 7 October 2014