Saved in drafts

10 April 2020

Following his workshop, Louisa Doyle interviews playwright Sam Steiner on drafting

L: In your workshop on story structure this week, you talked about ‘tent poles’ as scenes or moments in plays that hold the whole thing up. For Table Tennis Play, how did those tent poles change from early drafts to the final show? 

S: Table Tennis went on a bit of a weird journey. We got the slot in Edinburgh and then we did a reading in March and – it didn’t work. I just sat there thinking: I don’t think this is right. So I just scrapped it and wrote a new play with the same title. 

L: Wow, that’s insane – but also reassuring to hear that stuff can go out the window that late?

S: I think it was something we had to go through, as painful as it was, to get loads of character and thematic stuff from it. There are a couple of things that remained, but the original play was about two brothers and the missing sister. There’s one moment that lasted the transition – the bit at the end when they play table tennis whilst this absolutely glorious live Bruce Springsteen song blares out. For no particular reason we were kind of addicted to that idea. 

L: How much of the parallel universe Table Tennis Play is still about trying to block the world out? 

S: Well I had this other idea – and I still might use it in another play because I quite like it – that an entire play could take place in real time but actually only over the course of one song. Plays like Lemons Lemons Lemons... condense time because it’s set over years in one hour. But what if we experience time like one scene straight through but reveal at the end that we’ve actually only watched three minutes in expanded time – so we thought that was cool and weird – a play about how we use music to escape the world. 

L: It must have been such a huge shift from following two brothers to following a couple on the rocks, Cath and Callum.

S: There are some things about the brothers that re-emerged in the final play. Something about the way they related to each other which is in Cath and Mia’s relationship. How they feel that they know each other really well but they also kind of are strangers with really different lives. But it felt instantly more interesting when we figured out these characters were male. I wanted to write two great parts for great actresses. 

L: And what about for You Stupid Darkness, was it always kind of set in a mid-apocalyptic world?

S: Yes. I think that was just a way of – it was a way of literalizing how I think it felt emotionally to be in that time. I felt for a while like we were losing our grip on the world and nothing could go right – existential not personal. As in the world isn’t the one I want it to be and I can’t see it getting there. Although that idea already feels dated,  these things feel so small fry compared to what we’re going through now. But rather than writing a play about Brexit or climate change, I'm interested in the emotional experience of despair. How we tackle that feeling. Is there any point being optimistic in a world that constantly gives you reasons not to be. 

L: And setting it in a call-centre like Samaritans, was that a choice from the beginning?

S: It was quite early on. My mum worked for Childline and I had friends who worked for Samaritans. So a lot was about hearing her experiences and the interesting, weird atmospheres working there. The proximity of real genuine crises in that room when people are having really horrible times and yet also talking about biscuits. The juxtaposition between the profound and the mundane which is funny and weirdly moving. 

L: What were some of your ideas for the play that stuck from the beginning? 

S: Okay – big one, Frances lighting the candles close to the end so the call centre can still run, when the lights don’t work anymore and the floor was flooded. In the script it happens whilst Suzanne by Leonard Cohen plays and that moment was in my head from the start. In You Stupid Darkness the play is so much about the courage of carrying on – to get up and make a cup of tea and how noble that was. Lighting candles is a huge, gargantuan task and it summed up the themes of the play. Also the moment John plays ‘Ode to Joy’ on the trombone – his husband's been making him learn it and he hates it and he’s this big pessimist-realist character and Frances makes him play it in the office. The idea is that it starts off funny but then it becomes kind of hopeless and desolate.

L: That’s so interesting that all these ideas you start with aren’t text heavy. They’re kind of games or gestures. 

S: Absolutely. I think I’ve become less interested in things that are driven by pact dialogue and more in sharing a room with someone and what that feels like. The job as a dramatist it to try to make those moments sing and endow them with meaning. The dramatic moments in our lives aren’t usually the ones when we’re shouting at each other but the ones where communication is in some way different. I don't think they are ones of high drama in the traditional sense, in my experience anyway.

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Photograph: Giulia Delprato, Beth Holmes performs in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at the National Student Drama Festival, 2015