Interview: Paper Creatures Theatre’s Jon Tozzie & Nathan Coenen

Paper Creatures Theatre are a new company on the London fringe scene; focusing on new writing, millennials and ‘simple, compelling, bold stories’, they are making their debut with the comedy drama ‘Flood’, by Tom Hartwell. The production will run at the Tristan Bates Theatre from July 31- August 5 as part of the Camden Fringe (tickets and more information here). I had a chat with co-founders and Co-Artistic Directors Jon Tozzie and Nathan Coenen recently about all things Paper Creatures Theatre and ‘Flood’…

IMG_5724.PNGFirst of all, let’s talk about the company name. Paper Creatures Theatre made me think of puppetry, but that’s clearly not the focus of your company- where did the name come from?

JT: It’s all very symbolic and representative really; you’ve got the paper, which is the script, with creatures being the characters that come from that – as we’re all creatures to some extent. Theatre is the place we like to perform in and so it kind of symbolises the story, the characters and the theatre and those are the three things we like to focus on when it comes to our work.

According to your website, you’ve both been acting before Paper Creatures, so what’s it been like to be in control of a company? Have you enjoyed the autonomy?

NC: It’s been okay – it’s been fantastic. I kind of like it to happen in two different hats. The actor hat and the producer hat – and you know, they’re two very different hats. The actor hat is obviously when you’re in a room; you’re rehearsing, devising, creating and then with the producer hat you’re kind of getting all the other creatives in a room, from the director, to the sound designer, to the costume designer – having them all meet and you kind of take a step back and say ‘Okay you guys, figure it out’. It’s very gratifying in a very different way, I’ve found, in that you’re bringing people together as opposed to being in the room.

JT: In an industry where you’re giving up control over to someone else – you know – you turn up and do your best – this is lovely for us because we get to have creative control in something that we feel makes good theatre.

London is bursting at the seams with shows of all shapes and sizes. What can you tell us about your first production, Flood – why should we come and see you?

JT: Okay, you should come and see Flood because it’s a new play – it’s a world premiere essentially. It’s never been seen before and it’s written by an emerging playwright (Tom Hartwell). Our mission statement is that we like to tell millennial stories, so telling stories about our generation and what impacts us; we kind of wanted to move away from the whole idea of Facebook and technology and actually look deeper and go ‘we still feel, we still laugh – we feel things’, and that’s what we want to keep pushing and promoting with our work. So it’s a play that we think everyone who comes to see it, no matter what age, will find something in there that you can connect to.

It’s set in a flooded Somerset village and it’s the day of two of the characters’ mum’s funeral, and a bunch of friends come back to their home town. We were kind of fascinated with this idea of why our generation feels that need to leave home – where is this fascination coming from where people feel the need to leave – when is that seed implanted in their mind? So we have one character who has never left their home town – his whole life, he’s been there and it’s perhaps not until everyone else comes back that we realise what effect that’s had on him and them as people.

We think that’s a big universal theme – especially in London as you’ve got so many people from all over the world and it’s such a welcoming city to come to – that’s something people can really hone in on I think. So yeah, I hope that’s exciting enough for people to want to come!

camdenfringetwxtnewFlood is billed as a comedy drama. The storyline seems to promise complexity in all the advertising and it seems sobering in what you’ve said here. Is there hope too?

NC: Definitely. 100%. I think that’s what makes a good story – having that little bit of hope at the end. I think the characters go through a lot through the sixty minute play over the course of a day. I think there’s a lot of different themes that they come across; self-identity – should you be ambitious or should you stick to your roots? And also how that affects your relationships with your friends with feelings of abandonment. I think when it comes down to it, it’s a really wonderful display of humans – especially in our generation – overcoming those problems and finding the good in the situation.

Essentially, the town’s flooded and I think that’s an incredible metaphor for what they’re all going through in their lives – when they feel absolutely submerged through the 21st century problems that we go through which feel very real to us – sure we’re not standing somewhere in a third world country, but there are very real issues that people of our generation deal with every day. But what’s great is that by the end of it you see them kind of float to the top to just get that little bit of fresh air.

JT: Also Tom is a great comic writer – I mean, we wouldn’t have asked Tom to take this play on and start writing it if we didn’t think we would get comedy in it because he’s such a great writer. His past plays, Contactless and You Tweet My Face Space, are very much plays about society and technology and about how it disconnects us from people. We kind of approached him and asked him if he’d like to maybe have a look a play which has a full narrative thread as opposed to comedy sketch kind of style and he was so up for it – he’s really done something really beautiful with it.

It does have that lovely balance between a character’s finding their way through hardships while using humour, so that’s something that I think everyone would like. Heart and humour are the two things that fall into place beautifully within this play.

NC: – and there’s a nice arc – Emily, one of our cast members, says that each character has a really lovely arc when you look at them individually away from the actual production of the play.

JT: Yeah, there’s no device character. There’s no character who’s just in the play to be the comic relief. Every character is very fleshy and has all their layers to them – it’s really dynamic in that sense.

If an audience takes just one thing away from seeing Flood, what would you like that to be?

JT: That it’s okay to feel the way you do. I think that’s a big thing in society at the moment, I mean, I’m a teacher and I teach teenagers – it’s so funny; if you look at the way they deal with emotions now compared to when we were teenagers – I mean I’m twenty four but when I was a teenager, I never had that help and support that I probably could have had as a teenager. I think that’s what this play addresses; this idea that there is always help, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel and no matter how much you feel stuck there are things that will get you through it.

It’s funny how you were talking about hope – I’d not really thought too much about hope, I kind of took it for granted but actually, as a play it’s about that. It really is just about our lives and why we do what we do – and it’s a lovely way to say to audiences that it’s okay to feel scared at times – that’s an okay feeling. We’re allowed to feel.

NC: I think I’d want people to kind of walk away and just be more fascinated with how they relate to where they come from, wherever that is, you know? Just to be a little more curious next time they’re sitting in a pub with people from high school and just take a little pause and go ‘okay, right, this is how I’m feeling, this is what this is.’

Some people are really obsessed with their roots and where they come from and other people try to push them away so I think in a city like London, which is all about go-go-go-go-go – forward-forward, even if it’s just a pause for five minutes to go ‘oh yeah, I remember those days, I remember what that was like.’

JT: Nostalgia’s a nice thing – it helps you learn who you are. Nathan has a really good saying which he uses which I use all the time now – he thinks that you go to the theatre and it’s almost like you’re holding up a mirror to yourself. There’s a term you (Nathan) say : I am that or I know that. When you go to the theatre, you either feel like you are like a character because you relate to them or you know that – you know someone like that character.

…and if you don’t, the play’s a failure?

NC: It’s never a failure, (Nathan is knowingly wagging a finger here) it’s always a learning process – we’re learning every day.

IMG_5720You clearly have a shared passion for new writing. Which subjects appeal to you, what is it that you want to see new writers writing about?

JT: Well, one of the things we always say is there’s never too many voices in theatre. That’s one of the things we stand by completely. We never wanted to lead this company with any gimmicks or something to set us aside just for the sake of it, so we’re not like an all female or all male company, we want to be able to just tell simple, bold and compelling stories that we think will be able to open up a window to another path.

We don’t know what those will be in the future, we just always ask for submissions of plays because we love to read new plays and we hope that one day we’ll just pick one up and say ‘wow, that’s a story we need to tell’. The important thing is that there’s never too many voices and there’s always a story to be told.

So you’re waiting for a story to grab you rather than hunting for something on say, mental health issues, which is very current?

JT: Yeah, well with this first play what we wanted to look at was grief because it’s just something that our generation is not really seen dealing with I think, so we wanted to look at that and we kind of branched out from there.

NC: I think for me, I wouldn’t want to ever pigeon hole writers these days, in terms of I wouldn’t want to say to them ‘you should write about this’ or ‘you should write about that’. I think the beauty of new writing is that people can write about anything. I just encourage them to kind of reveal something about the human condition, in whatever way that is, you know, you could do that as an absolute farce – just something that goes ‘this is what humans are like’.

JT: And it’s a real luxury in London as well to have all these Fringe venues – it’s almost like it’s a revolution at the moment in London with all these lovely new theatres – pub theatres – coming to fruition and being able to tell the stories when they probably wouldn’t have been able to tell those stories ten years ago. It’s really lovely.

You mention millennials quite a lot in your answers. What defines millennials for you and why are they your current focus? Why have you chosen to place yourself as a mirror for them, which is an interesting line on your website?

JT: I think we are part of that demographic so we can relate to and help support those stories. It’s almost that saying ‘write what you know’; for us it’s ‘produce what you know’. We want to give as truthful and as open a performance and production as we can as a creative team and effort. I think that’s something we take quite seriously, we don’t want to tell a story about something we have no idea about ; being a ninety year old man? I wouldn’t be able to tell you what that’s like, not having looked ninety years ahead of me.

It’s about living in the now, being able to tell those stories – it’s like history – I always say theatre is reflected history. We have the classics, and that’s why they are how they are, but ultimately, for us in the future, we’ll be able to look at a Mike Barnett or a Lucy Caldwell play and call it a classic because they mirrored our time and what it was like to be a human at that point in history. So these published plays that are out now will be able to reflect to future generations what is was like for us, particularly when it comes to the millennial demographic because we’ve been stamped with this term for some reason and we’re still trying to figure out what that means.

NC: Well that’s the interesting thing – that it means so many different things to so many different people, you know? It’s used as a derogative term sometimes like ‘oh, millennials with their phones’, and then sometimes it’s used as praise in terms of ‘the millennials are the forward thinkers and the progressives’. I think we just wanted to shake off any kind of labels and just show something that was truthful and honest about what it was like to be someone our age in today’s society.

We felt that it was a generation that wasn’t really being represented in the way that we thought it should be in mainstream theatre. You know, you see in mainstream theatre the kid with the mobile phone and that was the millennial, kind of being rude to their parents or something like that and we’re like well hang on, let’s see them laugh and enjoy or experience real, proper things, not just being the stereotypical chick on her phone, you know?

IMG_5722.PNGYou must have some weighty goals as up and coming theatre makers right at the centre of things in London. What are they at this stage and Is there a core element of inspiring others as you say you were inspired by friends who took the leap to start new companies?

JT: Yes, like you say, we were inspired by so many of our friends and people who’ve done it. The fringe circuit here in London is one of the friendliest places in London. When you’re performing it can be a case of people keeping themselves to themselves but we’ve asked so many questions of so many people and they’ve been incredible.

NC: It’s a really vibrant community.

JT: – which we didn’t really know about until we started asking questions. Our aim is always to make our company and our creatives feel happy and to feel like they get the best out of their job. If any stress needs to be going on, they need to let us do that and they can actually be the actors, directors and creatives.

NC: At the moment we’ve got ideas for the future, we have things we’d like to be doing, however right now we’ve given ourselves plenty of time for this project and Flood because we want to be able to learn as much as we can and make this show the biggest success it can be. I think that’s our primary focus at the minute.

JT: There’s always ideas – were always jotting down ideas.

NC: – and I think it’s worth saying, imploring everyone from all walks of the creative industry to get in touch with us because I think that’s what we’re very excited about; adding to that community with our own network and creating a platform on which the next generation of actors, directors and writers can work together, create together and work their way up.

JT: I highly recommend that people set one (a company) up – to go with it and if you want to set one up, set one up. I mean, if someone had said to me four/ five years ago that ‘you’ll have your own new writing company’ I would have gone ‘yeah, whatever’, but you just have to get on with it and once the wheels are in motion they’re in motion and you kind of just roll off of that.

IMG_5727.PNGFinally, to close, sell your show to readers in just one sentence…

JT: It’s a world premiere, never seen before. (Note: Jon actually specified the punctuation here, for maximum impact with his single line).

NC: I think no matter what, if you come and see Flood, there will be one moment that every single audience member will be able to relate to and I think that’s a really special thing, and quite rare.

Okay, Quick fire! (Okay, okay, this kind of turned out to be quick-ish fire, but the answers are good so I’ve left them un-edited!)
Who or what has inspired you most in theatre?

NC: Mark Rylance. I was in New York, living in America for a bit and I was kind of a bit lost and a bit bored – and I saw Jerusalem. I ended up spending all my money to see it five times and he was the one who got me into theatre and particularly new writing, and that made me move to London. I’m not originally from here, I’m from Australia. I think his approach to the acting community and in supporting new writers is something I very much aspire to.

JT: (Jon is at this point feeling the pressure and is sporting a remarkable likeness to a rabbit in headlights) Okay, okay – what’s inspired me? I would have to say my teachers because I started doing all the acting stuff when I was about nine maybe. I had acting tutors – there were three of them, one of whom I work with now actually – they just opened my eyes to things. I don’t know, I guess you don’t realise how much potential and how much more world is out there. Actually there’s this whole industry – people that if it wasn’t for them being open minded, I’d never go to the theatre or opened my eyes to these lovely schemes we have – if you’re under 25, to go to the theatre cheaper, all these things that aren’t common knowledge but I know about them now.

IMG_5761.PNGDo you have any hidden talents that may find their way into a future Paper Creatures Show?

JT: Um, I’m not talented at all. I can ripple my tongue – I don’t know, if I’m doing a talent show…

NC: Can you do it now?

JT: Yes but it’s a bit gross and not really in an interview – that’s not professional in any shape or form! You go first, I can’t think.

NC: Um, I play a bit of music – I play piano and guitar, so maybe one day – and the dijeriedo as well!

The dijeriedo?!

NC: I do, yes. If we ever do new writing in Australia, which I’d very much love to do one day as there’s so many brilliant new Australian writers emerging right now from ‘down under’. So if we ever manage to go a bit International I’ll sneak in a bit of dijeriedo.
JT: I’ve got one for you – I’m a really good cook. If at any point there’s a play about a chef or some sous chefs in a restaurant, give me a call, I’ll make a great risotto on stage.

I’m pretty sure I saw a company fry an egg live on stage at some point…

JT: Oh yeah, if you’ve got the money for it you can anything you want. They actually had a whole play called The Kitchen –

NC: (like he’s just heard Santa’s footsteps on the roof) Really?

JT: Yeah, it was called The Kitchen and (NC gasps, he’s so impressed by this information) – and they all had stations and people were just cooking for the whole show.

NC: That’s a GREAT idea.

JT: So yeah, that can be done – we can aspire!

Favourite theatre genre and why?

JT: I think comedy dramas actually, kind of what we’re doing now because I feel like you need light and dark to get the full spectrum of things sometimes. Some highly tense drama with some lighter moments – I think it just shows what humans are like. So I’d say that that’s my favourite style but I quite like naturalistic as well; part of my drama training was rooted in naturalism and treating things as real as possible – like you say, if you’re going to fry an egg on stage, fry an egg – then I’m there with you but if I see a plastic egg I’m gonna go ‘ah, you’ve lost me a little bit.’ Obviously I am open to that stuff but when I really get connected to something, it’s when it’s got naturalism – when it’s got dark and lots of light in there as well.

NC: I think I’d say the same – I think comedy drama – I think that I love dramatic endings and dramatic turns but I think the key to people’s emotions and in helping an audience feel is through making them laugh first – it just opens them up. You know, when we’re in an audience, laughing, it’s a much stronger fall to hit them with something really impactful and dramatic, so I think comedy drama is the way that an audience is most affected.

Etiquette debates – worthwhile or futile? Where do you draw the line? It’s a hot topic right now.

JT: Hotly debated with Imelda Staunton being all (indiscernible gesture – laughs). To an extent I do agree – I think it’s always nice to have a drink, I mean you’ve got to keep hydrated – I mean alcohol dehydrates you but some form of something is always nice. But I think with food – I think: guys, a drink’s fine, but you can last two and a half hours or whatever without getting food, come on – you just eat before or eat after. So I think that’s my stance on that.

NC: I’d say turn your bloody phone off – like OFF. I was in an American theatre about six months ago and a guy put his phone on vibrate, and he must have been the most popular guy I’ve EVER known because it was an hour and a half, the first half, and he must have got about a hundred and twenty messages. It was insane – so I actually stood up and shouted at him (Nathan laughs at this memory of being a theatre etiquette hero…).

There’s a guy who loves his Whatsapp!

NC: I know, it’s just – there’s nothing – (he doesn’t finish this sentence, such is his frustration at the memory).

JT: I can’t stand it.

NC: I know, and that’s what we’re branded with!

JT: -also, I like this no interval thing at the moment. I don’t know what it is, it seems to be this trend in London and also in regional theatres that if you’re going to do a play, just do a one act job. You don’t have to have an interval because you sit through a film normally, so I quite like that idea – it keeps your attention more focused actually – whereas when you’ve got two acts you kind of drift in and out because you know you’ve got that time.

NC: But then if it’s bad…two hours and twenty minutes is looong!

IMG_5755.PNGHow do you feel about the recent hubbub surrounding celebrity casting?

JT: Ahhh. We’re coming to it from a place of fringe theatre, so we’re more appreciative of our company. Perhaps we’re more appreciative of unknown talent and to showcase that. It tends to be comedy and commercial theatre – West End theatre – and if it encourages people that don’t normally go to the theatre to go to the theatre, I’m all for it because it’s good to be educated in that sense.

Because that’s what it’s for essentially – I used to work front of house at a theatre so you can see how it all works really – it’s a way of getting bums on seats and that’s great if it does help but then I think why do people get annoyed when the celebrity’s not on and the understudy’s on? I mean, you’re going to get just as good a performance, trust me. I mean, we went to see Woyzeck earlier and John Boyega wasn’t even in it and we had no qualms about that and it was just like ‘great, let’s see what this guy does, he’ll be just as good I’m sure’ – and he was, he was absolutely amazing.

NC: It should be whoever the best person is for the job, aside from the monetary value. I don’t know – I’ve never thought about it in the sense that if it gets people into the theatre then that’s a great thing, I kind of always liken it to the fact that when you get too much money in theatre, it can lead down a – it clouds the artistic judgement, so suddenly you’re thinking about who’s the biggest star we can get in it as opposed to who would really give a great performance to entertain us. When you have too many producers at the back of the room, that’s when it kind of starts going down the toilet.

Do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ tale? (This question was greeted with surprising excitement and bottled up hysteria at the very thought of telling such tales…their responses were also thoroughly entertaining, so I’ll do my best to capture their delivery of these tales…)

JT: So we met on a play, we did a Shakespeare tour with The Lord Chamberlain’s men – (to Nathan) so you tell yours first –

NC: – Yeah, so we did Much Ado About Nothing and it was all male casting so Jon was my Hero to my Claudia, and we came out for the wedding scene in an outdoor theatre – and I was angry and you know, I was fuming – and I come over, the Friar brings us together and –

JT: – and I’m in a lovely wedding dress at this point…

NC: – Beautiful dress – he looked gorgeous – beautiful! – and I take his hand, and I look over to him for my line and this massive bumble bee just lands – with a really deep hum, like, hmmmmm (I can vouch for Nathan’s bee impersonation skills for his CV now).

JT: It lands on my chest, right here (indicating the scene of the crime, naturally).

NC: (Nathan’s tale is now punctuated heavily with laughter) – and I just see the love and hope from Hero’s earth just escape –

JT: – and you can just see my eyes like (demonstrates the wide eyed horror look beautifully here – before demonstrating the hysterical high pitched noise he was making. Nathan at this point has lost himself to fits of giggles and it’s all thoroughly entertaining for me as interviewer). I didn’t say anything, I just made these noises!

NC: – and I have to like shame her and I threw his hand away and the whole time Jon was just looking at me with this shocked face.

And in all of that neither of you corpsed at all?

In unison: No, no!

NC: Well, uh, we came pretty close. You might not be able to say it in the interview but he was kind of going like (demonstrates a wide eyed dying fish)

JT: (Mocking) Um, could you vocalise that Nathan?

NC: Ha – kind of going between smiles and shock.

JT: And another one is that we had to sing at the start of the show and one of the characters had to tune the recorder before, so we could get the idea of our first note and on that particular day he just did it the wrong way, so we couldn’t pitch ourselves right. So we sang a three part harmony song, with seven of us all singing a different harmony line, and it was the most painful two minute song ever – not one of us decided to stop it or start again and it was awful. The audience – who normally clap at the end because it’s a lovely harmonised song – they just kind of went (grimaces and slow claps)

NC: Yeah, it was a slow clap!

JT: They didn’t know whether we were doing it on purpose or we actually screwed up, which we had – the show had to go on!

NC: That was hilarious, and backstage we were just crying!

IMG_5753.PNGIf you could bring change in terms of opportunities in Theatre to London right now, what would it be? What does London need?

JT: I think when it comes to BAME acting, I feel we are making progress but we’re not there yet and I think that the joy of theatre is that you can be anything you want. Television and film is different because that’s more specific, but you have the joy with theatre to be able to completely use smoke and mirrors in the sense that you can have a brother and sister and one’s Asian and one’s Indian and you can do that and that’s okay.

I think there’s certain companies taking those risks and it really does pay off. But we’re still not there when it comes to that and I think with new writing as well, we have so many classics on in the West End and in big theatres and we have new writing at the fringe, but we tend to get adaptations at the moment – adaptations of certain plays, which are great but we’re not headlining with a new play at the big West End theatres yet. So we’re nearly there, but one day we’ll have The Old Vic having a new writing play and that’s that – it’ll be this massive sell out and everyone will really appreciate it. That’s my hope.

NC: I think there needs to be more schemes and more availability for young audiences to come to the theatre and more reasons for them to come to the theatre. I think theatre tickets are incredibly expensive and it alienates quite a lot of classes and also age groups. I think the ones who suffer are the younger generation and people our age, which is a shame because you see a lot of young people at the theatre but they normally have something to do with theatre; they’ll be actors or drama students or something like that. So I’d love to see more opportunities and more reasons as to why young people with nothing to do with theatre can be encouraged to come and see a show.

camdenfringetwxtnewFinally, to close, sell your show to readers in just one sentence…

JT: It’s a world premiere, never seen before. (Note: Jon actually specified the punctuation here, for maximum impact with his single line).

NC: I think no matter what, if you come and see Flood, there will be one moment that every single audience member will be able to relate to and I think that’s a really special thing, and quite rare.

So there you have it! You can get yourself tickets to Flood here and don’t forget to check out the trailer below! 

https://vimeo.com/222529505

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