Ben Woolhead talks to playwright Gary Owen about adapting his work in the light of Covid-19 and bringing his own parents to the stage through his two new short plays Mum & Dad brought out digitally via the Sherman Theatre.
Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention, and one of the cultural impacts of coronavirus has been to force creative types to adapt their practices to the circumstances. So, instead of playing to braying, well-oiled comedy club audiences, many stand-ups are resorting to recording podcasts or short-form videos on their mobiles and uploading them to YouTube. And, with gig venues closed for the foreseeable future, musicians are scratching their performative itch by live-streaming sets from their living rooms into ours.
For playwright Gary Owen, though, going solo is nothing novel – despite working in theatre, an arena in which so much often depends upon the interrelation of characters in physical space. His 2001 debut Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco consisted of a trio of monologues, while 2015’s widely lauded Iphigenia in Splott, which began life at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff but made it all the way to New York, was performed by a single actor. So, when it came to writing two new short pieces in aid of the shuttered Sherman (where he is an Associate Artist), he naturally turned to a familiar form.
In some respects, Owen argues, a dramatic monologue is no different to a dramatic play, in that ‘it has to have a conflict at its heart. And conflict doesn’t mean just arguing or fighting – it means some kind of struggle that costs something.’ Back in 2016, he told the Guardian’s Matt Trueman that he was inspired to try his hand at writing plays after watching Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues on TV and thinking that it looked ‘relatively easy’. Does he still feel that way, or were those first impressions deceptive? What particular challenges does the form pose? It’s very easy when writing a monologue to fall in love with the detail of a character’s voice, and just write a lot of chat. And it’s only when you read it back and you’re so bored that you struggle to reach the end you realise that nothing actually happens in the monologue – it’s just a lot of chat.’
Owen could be forgiven for falling in love with the voices of the characters in these two new plays, given that they essentially belong to his mum and dad. How does it feel, I ask, to hear your parents’ words coming out of other people’s mouths? Or have the actors (Lynn Hunter and Michael Sheen) transformed them into fictional characters? ‘Both Lynn and Michael give wonderful performances,’ he says, ‘but they are so far from my mum and dad as people that it isn’t really jarring.’ What’s more unnerving, he admits, is hearing his parents’ words come out of his own mouth: ‘Sometimes I hear my mum or my dad in something I might say and it startles me a bit.’
Mum, about the disappointments of childhood and the complex relationship between a daughter and her father, ‘is a cobbling-together of a couple of different snippets, so it’s not my mum’s voice, really. And looking at it now, what really stands out to me is how censorious I’ve been with that piece in terms of how much I’ve held back. It didn’t occur to me I was doing that when I wrote it. But I was.’
By contrast, Dad ‘is much more a direct record of a conversation – I know that because I recorded it!’ Owen suggests that he was prompted to do so because the monologue was out of character: ‘I wouldn’t say my dad’s a storyteller. He’s a fairly quiet man, but this was a tale he told me while driving back to his house in Pembroke one night. There’s something about the slight distraction of driving that makes talking more possible for people who don’t often talk.’
Dad is the account of a rational, no-nonsense man haunted by the memory of witnessing an inexplicable apparition. Both Dad and Mum owe their existence to the fact that theatre is currently going through its own profoundly unsettling encounter with an invisible, intangible foe. However, Owen feels that playhouses’ pursuit of innovative ways to connect to audiences remotely may be misguided: ‘Whatever theatres are doing during lockdown, they’re not doing theatre. I wonder if they might be better off using this time to prepare for when theatre can return. If it can return.’
As that ominous addendum implies, Owen paints a pessimistic picture of the future. ‘Theatre as an art form will exist as long as humans do,’ he observes. ‘But theatre as we’ve known it in this country – with theatres in every city and one in most big towns – that whole set-up will not survive this crisis. All theatres have mothballed and furloughed their staff, but they still have to pay the costs of keeping their buildings going. And they have no income. Most theatres in Britain will run out of money in September, and all of them will by Christmas. In normal times, of course, theatre is a huge net generator of revenue for the treasury. Just the VAT paid by the West End theatres of London is greater than Arts Council England’s subsidy for theatre in the whole of England. And theatre is the foundation on which our TV and film industries are built. But unless the government bails out the sector, then when we finally emerge from lockdown the Sherman, the New Theatre, the Wales Millennium Centre – they’ll all be gone.’ The clamour for urgent financial aid from all quarters is already deafening, and much work is needed to ensure that theatre’s pleas are amplified sufficiently to be heard.
Gary Owen is a Welsh playwright and screenwriter. His recent plays include the award winning Killology which premiered at the Sherman then played at the Royal Court, Violence and Son which had its premiere at the Royal Court, and Iphigenia in Splott for which he won the James Tait Black Prize for Drama. Mum & Dad is available to watch online at Sherman Theatre until the 30th of June 2020.