Following the success of their debut show Flood (review here), Paper Creatures Theatre are back! Show number two for the company founded by Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen sees them explore the topical and vital subject of mental health from an angle more authentic and hard-hitting than might usually be found on our stages. Through the personal experiences of writer Peter Imms and a part-verbatim style, the production centres on what will no doubt prove to be at the core of every Paper Creatures production: human connections and bold stories. Section 2 will play at The Bunker Theatre as part of the new season on Tuesdays and Fridays from to June 11th to July 7th 2018 and tickets can be found here.
So first of all, Flood was quite the hit, wasn’t it? Congrats! How was it for you – what were the highlights?
NC: I think with it just being our first show, it was really exciting. Being able to sell out was a also really exciting and unexpected result. It was also just really really delightful to have met a bunch of new creatives like Georgie Staight, our director, who’s now directing this show; the lighting designer, set designer, sound designer – and all the actors. We’ve now met other theatre companies who came to see the show and we’ve started talking to them about potential collaborations so I think it was just the beginning of something special and we’re kind of riding that wave now. We’re here!
JT: Yeah – it was lovely to feel that the work that we put on had an audience and had a place in the theatre world. It was great to feel that we weren’t just ‘putting on a play’ – the audiences responded to it; talking to people afterwards and reading the reviews just proved to us that we’ve got a good thing going here, and now we can continue which was lovely. Then we had a much needed respite for about two weeks and then back on with the next one!
It was an impressive launch and it was one of the loudest audiences I’d been in for some time. I need you to tell me what the line about the Freddo was though because it cracked me up and I can’t remember it!
JT: God you’re testing our knowledge now! The line was about why is it so expensive still? So it was like ‘Oh 10p for a Freddo – 30p for a Freddo now, it’s fucking ridiculous isn’t it?’
No, that’s not it! Someone called the frog something using an expletive…
JT: Oh Yeah, that’s Adam’s line – ‘Oh I hate that froggy little wanker’.
(Cue Nathan’s appreciative laughter – clearly a fond memory for both).
JT: What was really nice was that someone came up to me after the show and said it didn’t feel like a fringe production and I kind of went that’s great because it proves to the theatre world that fringe theatre doesn’t have to have a look. It can look just as high standard and quality just by a high quality cast and team and everything technical about it to make it look like that. It doesn’t have to be two chairs with a throw over it – and that’s what people think fringe theatre is but you can, with a limited budget, make things look good and you can make a high quality production. So that was really lovely.
You could very easily see Flood on a larger stage with very few embellishments – it could easily be transferred, and who knows, maybe it will!
JT: Well, the set is stored at the back of my garden now, so you never know…
Has the path or vision of the company shifted at all after Flood or are you still very much focused on bold stories for and about millennials?
NC: Yeah, I think the company hasn’t shifted in that sense. I think what’s maybe slightly evolved for us in taking on this new project is that we’re now really interested in stories that perhaps might have an immediate impact in terms of a topic which needs to be talked about. So this new play we’re doing, Section 2, deals directly with sectioning – being sectioned under the mental health act. It’s a topic which when we first came across it – when the writer first proposed the idea to us – we didn’t really have much of an idea about it, and when we asked friends, they didn’t have much of an idea about it and when we started researching it we realised that it’s quite a common occurrence in the UK, particularly with 18-35 year olds – which is the millennial generation. And it’s increasing and yet there’s a stigma about it; people don’t feel when they have been sectioned necessarily comfortable to talk about it because they think it might hinder their careers or if they’re an actor, they might feel like it would stop them from getting jobs. We thought okay, well, we’ll be able to tell a simple, bold, compelling story about that and create more awareness – hopefully not just in the theatre community but also the outside community in order to make an impact and get rid of that stigma.
JT: We do feel as well that we’re keeping with the idea that we don’t put on fully written plays, so this play came to us from Peter as ten pages of text and he said this is what I’m going with, I want to work on it and as a company we’ve been able to do research and through the people we’ve met, we’ve been able to make this play what it is now, which is a 47 page really incredible hard hitting script. That’s something as a company that we’re going to stick with – the idea that if writers write to us, we want to have a very small seed planted of a play with some text to back it up, so we can then facilitate that and help the writer by getting a team together and developing it through R&Ds, read-throughs and getting it to a performance platform. So that’s something that we’re going to keep doing, it’s a really lovely thing for us as well because on the producing side, we’re still creators and actors – people who want to keep our juices flowing; sometimes the producing part becomes very much sitting at a laptop getting emails done, which is a good part and needs to be done but we still want to keep that creative fuel going.
JT: I think we’ve got in our inbox now something like 180 plays, with most at around 25 pages tops, and it’s just so lovely to see all the topics people are talking about and want to address. For us, mental health is always on the radar isn’t it? It’s really topical and it’s always in the arts and on the news but sectioning itself felt like something that hadn’t been addressed head-on. There’s a lot of talk about anxiety, depression and suicide which do need be talked about but the actual process of sectioning and the road to recovery – there’s many documentaries on TV and films to find out about it – but ultimately we thought the theatre needs to do it as well. And with Pete having personal experience of it, it meant there was something really truthful and heartfelt about the text which we could then work on from there. So it has part of his experience of it but it also looks at it (mental health) theatrically.
So what is Section 2 all about?
NC: So it centres on a character called Cam who is in high school and who is the absolute golden boy; really good score, y’know, really popular, plays rugby and then about six years on, he’s been sectioned and nobody has any idea why. Then his former high school best friend, Peter, is called and asked to visit Cam in hospital. We pretty much then follow the day visits of Peter in hospital and the audience through Peter’s eyes get to see what this process is like and what Cam goes through. It focuses not just on the patient experience but also what it’s like to be a carer; you have the nurse there, the key worker and Cam’s girlfriend so it turns into this really fascinating journey of Cam on his road to recovery and these three other characters almost battling it out for the burden of care; who has more of a right to be there and all of the different problems that come with that.
JT: The tension also comes from the fact that it’s the 28th day – so when you’re sectioned, you’re in there for 28 days and on the 28th day, it’s decided whether Cam needs to be kept on or not so that’s where the kind of hot pressure cooker situation comes from; you’ve got the friend that comes in for the first time and you’ve got people who’ve been in there for 28 days – it’s all just a massive learning curve for everyone and it’s all pretty much in real time which is great. The audience should kind of feel like they’re a fly on the wall, watching this pan out because the text is so naturalistic it really makes you feel like you’re just watching people going about their normal day.
What do you see as the value or impact of the verbatim element as opposed to other approaches?
JT: It’s something that I’m personally really excited about. When Peter showed us the first ten pages of the script that was written in kind of a part verbatim-esque way and partly from his own experience, what was so impactful I think was that it came with this incredible realism and truthfulness that I hadn’t really seen before in other plays about mental health. I think there are plays that deal with mental health really really poignantly and interestingly in terms of making it seem surreal or abstract but this was just a glaringly truthful portrayal of what it’s like visiting this patient in a mental health facility. That’s really what sets it apart for us – the fact that when we read it, it felt like it could happen to any of us. There’s no ‘well, he’s a bit insane or kooky and we’re not kooky’; the things that he was saying were only just slightly off and it was so close to home and so close to it just being a normal conversation, but then something very odd would be said or come out –
JT: – It’s very harrowing isn’t it?
NC: Yeah, it’s very realistic and very on the money.
JT: It’s not that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest style at all – it’s portraying mental health as a thing that happens to millions of people. Everyone to some extent has a mental health issue going on – there’s a spectrum, a complete spectrum and that’s what we’re really excited about; portraying this person who’s been sectioned not as someone rocking to and forth knocking their head against a wall, it’s not that – it’s just that some people actually happen to need help and that’s what’s really intrigued me about it.
NC: At the end of the day, we’ve done some R&D work on it, and we’ve realised that this is a play in which everyone needs some kind of connection and some kind of help in finding that connection.
JT: And something as drastic as sectioning can happen to anyone and that’s what we always come back to. That’s the scary thought, that this can happen to anyone.
I’m surprised that this is such a big thing now – it seems so Victorian, right back to getting rid of ‘troublesome’ women.
JT: That’s what our director Georgie said – she said the whole idea of sectioning is so Victorian, y’know you get sent away and kept away from society. Even the term ‘sectioning’ is very scary – it makes you feel like you’re being kept separate to everyone else.
NC: But actually, a lot of the people we spoke to who have been sectioned – majority of them have said that ‘it’s exactly what I needed; I didn’t know it at the time but I didn’t know it at the time to become better’.
So it’s more of a healing thing now, whereas before it was more of a punishment?
NC: Yeah, I think that’s it. Something someone said to us who had been sectioned before was that they learnt a lot just by being around other sectioned patients, because you get to talk about your experiences. It’s not so much the one on one therapy – you get that feeling of being around other people who are in your situation. That’s a whole other debate too; about whether that’s healthy or not but ultimately, it’s a good thing and needs to happen – people need help. Essentially, we all do.
So with this being such a prominent and delicate topic, are you very conscious of treading carefully with such a hard-hitting and delicate subject matter?
JT: I think with the way Pete’s written the play, he’s done it in an absolutely beautifully crafted and sensitive manner. I think ultimately he does pack a punch with his writing but theatre needs to, that’s how you get a ripple effect. But then again, we don’t want it to be a taboo subject, that’s why doing a play that is hard-hitting and of this ilk needs to be done. It’s always in the back of your mind but the people who’ve read the script have had nothing but great things to say about it and they’re really happy that it’s being put on. We were really overwhelmed by the amount of people when we announced we were doing the show who just messaged to say ‘oh I was sectioned two years ago’ or ‘I was in a unit a year ago’ and you go wow – that amount of people don’t feel they can talk about it, and it’s people you would never even imagine have been sectioned, and they’re just so grateful that a play like this is coming about, which is a reassurance for us.
The last time we spoke, you told me that theatre needed the following: more opportunities for BAME performers, more new writing in large theatres and more schemes to allow younger and new audiences to get to the theatre. Has any progress been made in what is slightly less than a year?
JT: I think in terms of schemes, I’m getting scared because I’m vastly approaching the age when we are no longer deemed young and cool enough to get cheap theatre tickets. There are some theatres that venture to 26 and 30, but for me I’m still a bit worried because I feel
like my life when I hit 26 is going to be very different because I won’t be able to go to the theatre as much. I think BAME performances are definitely making some progress now.
NC: I think that’s made a lot of progress. Having seen between the two of us a lot of theatre since we last spoke, gender-blind casting has become almost the norm which I think is a really really positive step –
JT: – and theatre should be – theatre is obviously a place where you should use your imagination and should be open minded. Looking at what’s in the West End as well as fringe theatre at the moment, it’s definitely getting there with diversity.
JT: The Royal Court are smashing it at the moment.
NC: Since we last spoke, I saw every play at The Royal Court – the only one I missed was The Fall, and that’s because I was stuck in traffic. They’ve been absolutely killing it – they’d probably never have to but I’d love to see them transfer some of the plays for a longer run maybe in the West End. That being said, just a month or two ago, we saw James Crane have two plays on literally opposite each other, which is great.
JT: There’s going to be some misses I think, but that’s the joy of new writing, because it forms your opinion. There have been some pieces of new writing that we’ve seen that we’re maybe not so keen on but we don’t see that as a waste of time; that’s your moment to say well why didn’t I like it? What’s the reason why? I think we’re definitely making developments, especially at the Bush Theatre and at The National – the Dorfman, is putting on some absolute belters of plays at the moment and it’s great to see them getting a platform. It seems to be that the bigger venues are not reaching as well but that will change with time I’m sure.
NC: What I’d love to see over the next year before we speak again is to find a way to make sure that new writing is marketed and thus seen by theatregoers and audiences who aren’t in the theatre community. I think new writing is a lot of the time celebrated by people of the industry and this creative world. I think some of the stories being told should and hopefully will be seen by somebody who hasn’t seen a play before or who doesn’t normally go to the theatre, who might – fortunately or unfortunately, to each their own – maybe their theatre going trip would be to go and see Wicked or Step in Time –
JT: (quickly – some might even go so far as to say urgently…) – and were not slagging off Wicked, I’ve seen it like four times…
NC: I freaking love it.
Wow – good, I mean, I was just about to hang up on you for that, but you can continue…
NC: But that being said, there is some incredible new writing that I wish a more diverse audience could see –
JT: – that’s what it is actually, yeah – the new writing is there, it’s actually just getting the audiences in.
Yes, so the kind of things that you’re working on are the kinds of things people don’t think they’ll find in theatres – they think of the old shows or the big musicals and they miss out on work that could really connect with them?
JT: Yeah, big time.
NC: – and that’s on us as producers too, just to be more creative in our marketing. We could sell this show to a lot of creatives but how can we make sure that a much more diverse audience come and see our theatre?
JT: With Flood as well, the audiences were a lot of people we knew, which we expected anyway because it was our first show and we need to get our name out there. But then again I was in Shoreditch one night and this guy that I’d never seen before was like ‘were you in that show Flood?’ And I was like yeah, and he said I saw it, and I was like oh yeah, amazing.
Did you die a little bit inside from absolute glee?
JT: (Grinning) Well there was a little moment where I was like yeeeah, that’s cool… But I asked him if he knew anyone in the cast and he said no, his friend saw it on Twitter and asked if he wanted to go along. And do you know what? That’s enough for us – to know that at least two people got reached and they came to see it because it looked cool. It’s now a case of gradually casting the net wide, hence why the season at The Bunker is very good because we’re meeting new companies and we’re getting the experience.
Will you have the same cast from Flood?
JT: We’ll be in it again, and we’ve got two new actresses who we can’t divulge at the moment. Well do a big reveal of that… It’s been cast and it’s a four hander this show; two guys and two girls.
So there are more reveals to go…
JT: So many reveals! With a show like this as well, you can’t not have an outreach element to it.
NC: As we worked on it more and more, we actually became very passionate about the subject. This isn’t just us putting on a play for the sake of it – we hope to give something positive from it, however small that might be; maybe something might change or somebody who maybe has been sectioned before might feel a bit more confident to be more open about it and less guilty or ashamed.
So the final question is the same as before…sell your show in just one sentence.
(much drama ensues as this duo channel their on the spot marketing genius – I cannot do this highly amusing process justice here but needless to say, the cogs were whirring, with my favourite comment from their back and forth being Jon asking ‘what did we say for Flood? I think we said something wanky like A WORLD PREMIER?’ followed by generous laughter – this pair are clearly a hoot in the local).
JT: A hard-hitting and new way of perceiving mental health. (More discussion of the merits of new/fresh word choice – a moment I particularly enjoyed as I got a crystal clear insight into the intense discussions at Paper Creatures HQ…)
NC: A glaringly truthful insight into the world and process of sectioning.
JT: (defeated, with a heavy look of jealousy) Oh for fuck’s sake, you did it better than me…
Oh, Jon – are you crying a little inside?
JT: I am a little bit, yeah, I’m just like errr, it’s a really good play… (more laughter…)
…and I’m sure it will be! It’s always a pleasure to chat to this pair.
So: Peter Imms’ Section 2 will play at The Bunker Theatre as part of the new season on Tuesdays and Fridays from to June 11th to July 7th 2018. Tickets can be found here. If you’re eager for more from Jon and Nathan, take a look at my first interview with them; for Part 1, on the company’s launch and debut production, Flood, click here and for Part II, featuring talk of all things theatre – including on stage mishaps – click here.