Sam Steiner on writing a ‘mid-apocalyptic play’ that finished its run at Southwark Playhouse months before lockdown.

We asked Sam Steiner some questions about what it’s like to have closed YOU STUPID DARKNESS! at Southwark Playhouse a couple of months prior to theatres being asked to shut their doors.

What have you been up to during lockdown?

I’ve been working on a play commission and a couple of film things. And bits of zoom teaching. But I’m also trying to use the time to slow down a bit. Nothing’s getting made for a while and that’s heart-breaking in so many ways but maybe, if there’s a tiny positive to come out of it, it’s that we’ve got some time to process and reflect. So I’m trying to do some reading and a bit of free writing for myself. Writing that is silly and indulgent and for no purpose other than my own enjoyment. 

What’s it like to be in lockdown after writing a play about the end of the world?

It’s so weird. The play closed on February 22nd and within a couple of weeks it had kind of changed genre. The play’s opening image is a woman walking into a run-down but fairly normal-looking office wearing a gas mask. It was designed to feel a bit jarring – to juxtapose normalcy with something more sinister, even sci-fi. Now we see similar sights on a daily basis. I’ve seen some of the exact lines and poster quotes we used in the show pasted on the insides of windows. But at the same time – and horribly, for a play that includes a description of mould growing on people’s faces – it seems almost quaint? “Look at these people who are totally unafraid of social contact; of cracking someone’s backs when they’re sore, of holding someone’s hand through a difficult call. How sweet.” 

What inspired you to write about a post-apocalyptic world?

Well, for me, the play is kind of mid-apocalyptic. Everything’s falling apart and it’s not looking great but life is still carrying on. I started writing the play in 2017. It was an attempt to make literal a particular feeling of despair that felt quite pervasive at the time. It felt like you couldn’t turn on the news or look at your phone without hearing about something world-endingly disturbing or worrying. But, as a natural optimist, I was interested in how you remain hopeful in a world that is constantly confronting you with reasons not to be. Whether optimism is even a remotely useful way of looking at the world. That was the little scab I wanted to pick away at. 

I also wanted, in some way, to redress the nihilist and individualistic world-view that dominates much of so-called Dystopian Fiction. I felt that kindness and compassion, in all their smallness, their profound and sticky difficulty, were underrepresented in those kind of stories. And maybe on our stages more generally. 

Will you write about COVID-19?

No. I think there are some writers who can fearlessly look a thing in the eye and conjure a kind of defining statement. But I’m not of one of them. My stuff is usually better when looking to the side of the thing. And personally, though I’m trying to stay open-minded, I’m also kind of dreading the swathe of pandemic plays, books and television we’re likely to see. My friend George wrote a great piece (https://medium.com/@georgeattwell/event-television-in-the-age-of-lockdown-eee883322409) on James Graham’s brilliant Quiz – itself an attempt to explore the present through an historical lens – in which he reminded me of a quote from The History Boys: “Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past.” 

When you write (or see) a play you hope, I think, to find in it some tiny truth about how it feels to be alive in the world right now. At the moment, that sensation of living is changing. But I think that if you follow the hunch or story or character that’s nagging at you, that for some weird, undefinable, illogical reason you find mysterious or funny or moving, something of your experience of being a person who exists in the present seeps into it. And that sounds a lot more meaningful to me than watching The Great Coronavirus Play. 

What are you most looking forward to in life after lockdown?

Oh, mainly going to the pub and getting embarrassingly drunk on cheap drinks.  

Watching the continuing agony and ecstasy of Manchester United’s progress under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Sitting in a dark, cramped room with a bunch of strangers and listening to a story. Deleting the Zoom app from my laptop.

YOU STUPID DARKNESS! was a co-production with Theatre Royal Plymouth, directed by former Paines Plough Joint Artistic Director James Grieve, which premiered in Plymouth in February 2019 and transferred to London’s Southwark Playhouse in January 2020.

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