A new play from Grin Theatre, Stepping Out, is coming to 81 Renshaw on 23-24 January. We sat down with playwright (and Grin Associate Writer) Will Cooper to find out how he is bringing dysfunctional step-siblings Kevin and Toby to the stage.
What’s the play about, in a nutshell?
It’s about stepbrothers-to-be Kevin – quiet, devout and struggling to find his feet in life – and Toby – loud, proud and as heathen as they come. When they find themselves locked in the church together on the morning of their parents’ wedding, secrets begin to emerge…
When did you first have the idea that became Stepping Out?
It was in the back of my mind for a year or so before sitting down to write it in 2016. Feuding step-siblings is a device I’ve used previously in my writing: it can have a lot of mileage dramatically speaking, as it offers lots of opportunities for humour, pathos and conflict. Thematically, I was keen to explore the ways that sexuality and religion can intersect and clash, as well as differing ideas of self-identity and masculinity. A dysfunctional step-family unit seemed like the perfect medium.
How easy was it to transform the initial idea into a full script?
Usually I begin writing by locking two characters in a room together and having them argue, then seeing what happens. On this occasion, that turned out to be the whole play!
What stages did the script go through?
There were several drafts during which the boys’ histories evolved significantly, but the overarching present-day narrative remained pretty consistent. In the final draft, the roles of Kevin’s mum Maxine and Toby’s dad Graham – who help flesh out the boys’ backstory via ‘flashback’ sequences – have expanded, becoming more rounded characters in their own right.
What were the most rewarding parts of writing the script?
The most rewarding part of writing any play is creating characters you find difficult to leave behind when the curtain goes down, and that will certainly be the case with Toby and Kevin.
How involved have you been with the rehearsal process?
I’m directing this performance, so it’s been very hands-on – but I’ve been trying my best not to be too prescriptive or precious about my ‘vision’ of the play. As a writer, it’s always an enormous privilege to watch actors bring your work to life with all their own nuances and subtleties that you’d never get just from reading (or writing) the script. We’re lucky to have four hugely talented actors from our repertory company in the Stepping Out cast: they’ve been a lot of fun to work with, and have imbued the characters with real wit and soul.
The themes of religion, family and self-acceptance appear throughout the play. How closely does the play reflect your own thoughts on these?
Kevin and Toby are polar opposites in many respects, but both characters’ approaches to topics like religion and self-identity are reflective in some ways of a younger, cruder me – and I hope that my own position can now be found somewhere in the space between the two.
I think tolerance of others’ religions and sexualities is fundamental in a free society – but at the same time it would be disingenuous to pretend that those two things never come into conflict with one another. One of the characters in the play is trying to square that circle in a journey towards self-acceptance. For the other, moral and self-certainty are the default outward appearance – but in fact he’s suppressing self-doubt in quite a damaging way in order to achieve that.
As for writing families, my rule of thumb is usually to make them as dysfunctional as possible – but that’s a far cry from my own experience!
Was it a challenge dealing with these themes through comedy? How did you make sure you struck the right tone?
A sense of humour is probably the best way of dealing with most kinds of adversity that the universe can throw your way. Significantly for stepbrothers-to-be, it’s also a great ice-breaker. Humour in private conversation, particularly between teenage boys, can often be rather risqué and off-colour, so I think it’s important to reflect that for authenticity – at the same time as not being gratuitous. Whether the right tone has been struck will really be a question for the audience!
What has it been like mentoring new writing on Grin Theatre’s The Play’s The Thing course?
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with so many talented writers on The Play’s The Thing. What strikes me most is the diversity of ideas, stories, characters and themes we’ve seen coming out of the groups. Everyone ended the 2016-17 course with a half-hour play under their belts – and this year, we’ve stepped things up with a focus on writing full-length plays. Creating a finished piece of theatre from scratch is a huge achievement, whatever the length – and sitting back to read the final scripts from our course writers is always a real pleasure.
What advice do you have for new writers?
Although it may seem daunting at first, don’t be afraid to share your work with others: criticism is gold-dust. Go to evening classes or writing groups: they offer inspiration, support and most importantly, deadlines! And most of all, keep reading – and do it widely. Pick up a book you wouldn’t normally read – see a play you’d usually avoid. The worst-case scenario is you’ll learn how not to write!
Starring members of Grin Theatre’s repertory company, Stepping Out kicks off at 7.30pm on Tuesday 23rd and Wednesday 24th January – doors open at 7pm. Venue: 81 Renshaw Street, Liverpool, L1 2SJ. Tickets £6 on the door. Contains strong language throughout. Visit our Facebook event to find out more.