Do you often go to the theater?
As often as possible – which means about once a fortnight. But I also go to playwriting and drama groups, so I spend a lot of my free time focusing on theatre.
What play would you never write?
A play where the message is more important than the story.
There are so many issues in our lives – about politics, relationships, society, technology etc. – that playwrights are always writing about them. But the result is a constant diet of plays that make statements rather than telling stories. If I want to form an opinion about a topical issue, I’d rather watch a TV debate or read the newspapers. For me, theatre exists to tell fascinating and original stories, not echo the messages we hear in the media every day.
Tell us about your first play. What motivated you to write it?
I think it was my 10-minute comedy Home News. It takes the form of a TV news bulletin, with two newsreaders reporting on their own turbulent private lives. I’d recently performed with my daughter in a local drama production involving wacky physical theatre, and it inspired me to write something myself. I submitted two short plays to the theatre and was thrilled when they agreed to put them on.
Did you learn to write plays?
I studied plays at school and university, but didn’t formally learn how to write them. I started writing drama much later, under my own steam. A few years ago I did playwriting courses at Arvon and the Royal Court Theatre. They were fascinating, led by some brilliant tutors, and gave me many insights. I also kept in touch with some fellow students, and we’ve co-produced new writing shows in London.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a 60-minute play about a man with a hedgehog in his brain. I started working on it years ago, after seeing a newspaper photo of a brain scan and (for some reason) thinking there was a hedgehog inside the brain! I completed a first draft three years ago, but the general feedback was that the protagonist was too passive and there were too many sub-plots and minor characters. I started rewriting it last summer and feel that the new version works better.
Can you recall the brightest episode from your childhood?
Perhaps building model gliders and launching them in the countryside with my father. Nothing matched the thrill of watching them fly – even though they usually crashed! I did this as a hobby for a few years, before my interest in music and girls took over.
Tell us about the plays and playwrights you like.
My favourite playwright is the great absurdist Eugиne Ionesco. Instead of reflecting the real world he turned it upside down, while always making his characters sympathetic. In his best-known play, Rhinoceros, he imagines a town whose people gradually turn into rhinos. The characters’ reactions to this transformation are tragicomic and strangely believable. And in The Bald Prima Donna (inspired by an English textbook) and The Lesson, he creates strong human drama while totally subverting language and meaning.
In my opinion, no modern playwright has matched Ionesco’s blend of originality, tragic depth and humour. Other absurdist writers have come close, and I love such classics as Genet’s The Maids, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, N.F. Simpson’s One Way Pendulum, Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
But I’m keen on plays of every genre, ancient and modern. I love satirical comedies, particularly Moliиre’s The Misanthrope, Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party; serious dramas such as Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Sam Shepard’s True West; and experimental plays like Alan Bennett’s Enjoy, Caryl Churchill’s Blue Kettle and Robin French’s Bear Hug.
What do you think of Shakespeare?
Unfortunately my first contact with the Bard was reading his plays as set texts rather than seeing them on stage. I understood them intellectually but never felt the vibrancy that comes from live performances. When I later saw films like Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and staged productions such as As You Like It at university, I started to appreciate them fully. For a long time Shakespeare in the UK has been associated with a social elite, and many productions feel out of touch with ordinary people’s lives. Thankfully this is changing. The full vitality of Shakespeare’s writing needs to be restored, so that everyone can relate to it.
Talk about the main problems, difficulties and obstacles facing modern playwrights in the UK.
I can’t speak on behalf of other UK playwrights. But I know that many struggle with arts funding cuts, risk aversion by theatres, the London-centric nature of the industry, and the fact that it’s male-dominated.
For me, the key difficulty is what people expect of the theatre. In the age of Netflix, Youtube and cinema blockbusters, playwrights are under increasing pressure to create naturalistic stories. While surrealism and abstraction do exist on screen, the dominant form is realism. UK theatre reflects this, and absurdist plays are often not taken seriously.
Are there topics in the UK that are not taken up in drama?
I don’t know of any. Plays often cover topics like drugs, class, sexuality, terrorism, the monarchy, religion, the environment, technology etc. There are no taboos I’m aware of. Very occasionally writers are sued for libel or slander, but generally speaking there is considerable freedom of speech.
What do you think about Russia?
I’ve never been to Russia so all I know is what I’ve gathered from reading, the media and talking to people. It’s obviously a vast country with a long history and a huge diversity of landscapes, people and cultures. I once briefly studied Russian, and I love the fiction of Dostoyevsky, the music of composers such as Mussorgsky and paintings by artists like Chagall. But I’m not up-to-date with Russia’s contemporary arts scene.
As for politics, in my opinion Russia is going in the wrong direction. Putin behaves like a gangster at home and abroad. He stirs up people's worst instincts: nationalism, xenophobia and a hatred of progressive values, even of reason itself. Unfortunately these attitudes have spread in America and the UK, with Trump and Brexit. I think this is dangerous for the planet, and I'm extremely worried about it.
Do incentives exist for playwrights in the UK, such as competitions, scholarships or mentoring schemes?
Yes, a lot. There are countless writing competitions; I regularly submit to them, and it keeps me motivated. Few opportunities are paid but some are free. My main boost was being accepted onto the Royal Court programme, for which I paid nothing. But many others cost money, and a whole cottage industry has emerged to serve writers desperate to succeed in a crowded marketplace.
Tell us about your creative plans.
I have no plans beyond finishing my latest play. But I would like to take up painting again one day. It used to be my obsession (I hoped to pursue art as a career) and I spent many years painting in my spare time, mostly in a pseudo-surrealist style. When I turned to playwriting I started neglecting art, although I still enjoy visiting galleries and exhibitions. I’d also like to learn the piano again – but it probably won’t happen until I retire!
How do you write a play? Tell us about how it happens.
My plays always start with an idea. For example, a man with a hedgehog in his brain. Or two strangers agreeing to marry during a business meeting. I find it relatively easy to turn an idea into a 10-minute piece. But the idea must be particularly strong if I want to write a full-length play.
When I’ve had the idea, I think about how to translate it into a valid story. I invent characters, each with their own desires, and probably a specific time and place. I can never plan everything in advance, but I usually have a rough idea of what’s going to happen.
Quite often the story takes an unexpected turn. For example, I started a play about a customer taking his life back to a shop for a refund. Then I decided that, instead of a refund, the shop assistant could give birth to him. The play ends with him leaving the shop reborn and happy.
I often abandon plays half-way through, perhaps because the style is too naturalistic or the subject-matter is too painful for me personally. I may consign the script to oblivion for years, before thinking of a new approach and salvaging it.
Have you ever written a play to order?
Have you ever worked on a play together with a director or a theater?
I’ve sometimes worked with directors on my plays, providing guidance and occasionally rewriting passages. But it’s only after I’ve written the entire play. I’ve never “workshopped” an idea with a director.
Is the contemporary play in demand in the UK?
Yes, there’s a big demand for drama about life today and topical stories. Some contemporary writers like Jez Butterworth are hugely successful. There’s also a significant crossover between theatre, TV and film, with many playwrights working in other media.
Tell us about your daily life
I have a full-time job, working at a desk. In the evenings I go home or do something theatre-related. I spend weekends with family, meet friends, and try to get lots of exercise. I also listen to the radio, watch TV and read novels. Occasionally I go on holiday. My writing is squeezed in between all these activities.
Tell us a few words about your play, which will be seen in Russia.
I had the idea for Career Opportunities while thinking how children’s futures are mapped out for them at school. Instead I chose to portray a teacher giving his pupil the opposite kind of advice.
The play has had two rehearsed readings in London, and a full performance in a festival of my plays in New York.
How are you represented on the network? (links)
My website is: http://www.tomjensen.co.uk/
My Twitter account is @absurdistworld