Interview: Paper Creatures Theatre

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.

…so that’s Part 1, check out the blog later this week for Part 2, the quick-fire round, in which Jon And Nathan spill the beans on theatre etiquette, the challenges of outdoor productions and…the dijeriedo! I’m definitely looking forward to seeing ‘Flood’ in August.

You can get yourself some tickets here and don’t forget to check out the trailer below!

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