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"The inciting idea was: let's put a toilet on stage and see what happens"

Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a newsletter about theatre written by Fergus Morgan.

This is the free, Friday issue, which usually contains a Q&A with an exciting theatremaker or an essay on a theatre-related topic. This week, there is an interview with Sam Grabiner, who won the Verity Bargate Award in 2022 for his play Boys On The Verge Of Tears, which runs until May 18. After that, there are your usual three show recommendations for next week.

In case you missed it, here is Tuesday’s issue of Shouts And Murmurs, which is a weekly, silly round-up of the most interesting reviews, interviews and articles on theatre elsewhere…

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Sam Grabiner.

Sam Grabiner has spent fifteen years writing plays. At 30, he is finally having one produced.

He started playwriting as a theatre-obsessed teenager, began taking it more seriously as a student at the University of Cambridge – alongside co-founding comedy sketch trio Pelican with Jordan Mitchell and Guy Emanuel – then trained under two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage at New York City’s Columbia University. In 2019, his play Neptune was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize. In 2022, his play Boys On The Verge Of Tears won the Verity Bargate Award, and is now premiering at Soho Theatre in a production directed by James Macdonald, a regular interpreter of the work of two of Grabiner’s playwriting heroes: Caryl Churchill and Annie Baker.

Tell me about Boys On The Verge Of Tears.

It’s set in a men’s public toilet. Five actors play loads of different parts as a variety of boys and men come into the space. It’s kind of plotless. It suppose it comes from a tradition of plays like Love and Information. Caryl Churchill is a big influence on me. At this point I find it impossible to describe the play. Stuff just happens. The inciting idea for it all was: let’s put a toilet on stage and see what happens.

Who do we meet in this toilet?

We meet all sorts of people, young and old. A young boy who is being taught how to piss into a urinal by his dad. We meet some kids getting changed before a school disco. We meet some teenagers skipping a lesson at school. We meet a man who has just been beaten up in a club. We meet an old man changing his colostomy bag.

How did the play come together?

I had the idea of setting a play in a toilet, then I just started writing loads of scenes set in toilets. I tried to write about things I was scared of. I had about 100 scenes at one point. I took four or five of them and built the play from there. Usually my writing process is very chaotic and impulsive, but this was quite architectural.

What were you scared to write about?

Masculinity. Men’s bodies. Men’s strange, shameful, violent ways of moving through the world. I suppose it felt scary because I was also writing about my own relationship to that. It felt very vulnerable. A few playwright friends of mine told me I would reach a moment when I would think: ‘What have I done? People are coming to see this? You’re a fucking moron.’ I can feel that coming.

Was winning the Verity Bargate Award a big deal for you?

It was incredible. I’ve been plugging away writing plays since I was a teenager. Winning the award completely changed my writing life. It guaranteed this production and other kinds of work came out of it. It has transformed how people interact with me. Basically, it has allowed me to make a living out of writing.

Boys On The Verge Of Tears at Soho Theatre.

Let’s rewind. What is your origin story as a playwright?

I was born in 1994 and grew up in north-west London. I was in a library one day and picked up a book at random. It was Jim Cartwright’s play Road. That blew me away. Theatre felt like a portal to another world. I have been obsessed ever since.

My family are not artsy people but we did go to pantos and to see stuff at the Tricycle, now the Kiln. I’m Jewish, too, and I grew up in an observant Jewish family. Theatre was always very linked to that for me. Going to synagogue is a deeply strange, theatrical ritual. Your Bar Mitzvah is this kind of performance you prepare for. I was also aware of a Jewish literary tradition. I felt an affinity with Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter. I know Pinter buried his Jewishness very deeply, but to me his plays stink of it. Not that I think you have to be Jewish to stage his plays. I don’t buy that. I think that limits what a play can be. A play’s a play. It doesn’t belong to anyone. It can be whatever you want it to be.

When did you start writing?

I wrote a play in secret when I was about 14 or 15. It was so bad. I’m not going to tell you what it was called. It is too embarrassing. Okay, it was called All’s Fair In Love And War. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time. I loved Simon McBurney so I went to Phillipe Gaulier school in Paris to study clowning for a year. When I came back, I went to Cambridge University and started writing seriously.

I spent a year in London, doing surreal sketch comedy with Pelican. Then I went to Colombia to do an MFA in playwriting. I had a teaching job out there, which made it possible. I was one of nine or ten playwrights and the course was run by Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang. It was an amazing time. I fell in love with a lot of aspects of American theatre. I was just writing and writing and writing. It was supposed to finish in the summer of 2020, but lockdown happened and it kind of petered out over the following two years. I moved back to London in 2020.

How did you support yourself financially?

I paid my bills through teaching, pub work, and a lot of copywriting for vegan supermarkets. If you’ve ever ordered oat milk online, then I might well have written the description of it. I worked at a pub for four years, too. I only quit that job six months ago. And, in the spirit of transparency, my parents live in London and they are very supportive. Without that, I can’t imagine any of this happening.

I read in another interview that you are big fan of the American playwright Richard Nelson and his Rhinebeck Panorama cycle of plays: The Apple Family Plays, The Gabriels, and The Michaels. I saw The Gabriels at Brighton Festival in 2017 and it remains one of the best theatre experiences of my life. They are great, aren’t they?

I’m so happy to hear you say that. I’ve hardly spoken to anyone in England that knows Richard Nelson’s plays. Or even knows who Richard Nelson is. I’m very jealous. If I could be present at any theatrical event in history, aside from, like, the first night of the Oresteia, then I would want to see that trilogy of Richard Nelson’s plays. They are masterpieces. Nothing happens but they are unbelievably moving.

I would put Annie Baker in the same tradition of contemporary playwriting. I would put some of Alexander Zeldin’s early work in there, too. They do this focused, truthful naturalism. David Storey is a playwright like that, too. Have you read The Contractor? The whole play is two acts. The first is a group of people putting up a marquee. The second is them disassembling it. It is a gorgeous play. I wrote Boys On The Verge Of Tears three years ago and have moved on since then. The stuff I am writing now skews a bit more towards that kind of naturalism.

How difficult is it to build a career as a playwright?

It certainly feels precarious. I know that theatres are in a difficult position, though. Their economic model has collapsed over the last fourteen years. It has been decimated and that is a crime. My frustration is directed at the Tories and what they have done to theatre. That said, I tend to romanticise the 1970s and 1990s in my head as if they were some paradise where you could just go from commission to commission. I think the truth is that it has probably always been hard to be a writer.

I think there is a version of this country that could sustain more playwrights. I think we should never give up on a utopian vision of the arts in England, where all sorts of people can sustain all sorts of creative careers. And I think that is possible.

How do you cope with the insecurity?

You have to be kind to yourself. The whole process of writing a play is long and difficult. There is no way through that does not involve loads of rejection. If you are self-flagellating along the way, then it is a disaster. When it comes down to it, I think you need to be your own best friend. You have to advocate for yourself.

I also think it is important to be attuned to what mood you’re in when you write. You have to acknowledge how you’re feeling and come to your desk with truth and honesty. You can write angry or happy or sad but you have to confront that. Writing is looking in the mirror and confronting something. Things go wrong if you don’t.

What is next for you? Your play Neptune was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize in 2019, too. Might that be produced somewhere soon?

I’m developing a feature film. I have a few television things in development, too. It feels important to me to see British Jewish stories on screen. Neptune was this sci-fi play set on a space station on Neptune. It was a bit like Alistair McDowall’s X. It was probably a bit too much like Alistair McDowall’s X. I’m very focused on the future, though. I am so happy to have written Neptune and all the other plays I have written since I was a teenager, but I have left them behind now.

Boys On The Verge Of Tears is at Soho Theatre until May 18. For more information and tickets click here.

Free subscribers to The Crush Bar receive these emails every Friday. Paid supporters also receive Shouts and Murmurs on Tuesdays.

Algorithms, The Girls Of Slender Means, English Kings Killing Foreigners.

Three shows to see next week

Algorithms – Park Theatre, until May 11

Writer, actor, improviser and stand-up comedian Sadie Clark featured in this newsletter way back in December 2021, when her semi-autobiographical, tragi-comic solo show Algorithms transferred from the Edinburgh Fringe to Soho Theatre. Since then, the show has been adapted into an audio series for Audible that starred Alison Steadman, Desiree Birch and Joe Thomas. Now, it is back for a three-week run at the Park Theatre. Directed by Madeleine Moore, it tells the story of “a bisexual Bridget Jones for the online generation.” You can get tickets via the button below.

Book tickets here

The Girls Of Slender Means – Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, until May 4

I saw the final preview of this on Tuesday evening and liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Adapted by Gabriel Quigley from Muriel Spark’s 1963 novella, it tells the story of five young, working women in a London boarding house in the immediate post-war period. The first half of Roxana Silbert’s production is frothy and funny, evoking the heady hustle-bustle of the summer after VE day. The second is slow and stirring, exploring the acute stress induced by war. Best of all, it has a phenomenal young ensemble of female actors, led by the brilliant Molly Vevers. You can read my four-star review for The Stage here and get tickets via the button below.

Book tickets here

English Kings Killing Foreigners – Camden People’s Theatre, until May 11

Nina Bowers and Philip Arditti have spent years acting in Shakespeare plays, often playing soldiers fighting for an idealised England they felt excluded from or uncomfortable with. Now, they are exploring all that in a dark, autobiographical comedy of their own, encompassing rehearsal room microaggressions, French battlefields, citizenship applications and more. English Kings Killing Foreigners runs at Camden People’s Theatre from next Tuesday until May 11. It is a timely show, coming so soon after the racist abuse directed at Francesca Amewudah-Rivers after she was announced as Juliet to Tom Holland’s Romeo. You can read Bowers’ opinion piece about that in The Guardian here and you can get tickets via the button below.

Book tickets here

Free subscribers to The Crush Bar receive these emails every Friday. Paid supporters also receive Shouts And Murmurs on Tuesdays.

That’s all for this issue

That is it for this week. If you want to get in touch about anything raised in this issue – or anything at all, really – just reply to this newsletter or email me at [email protected]. Or you can find me on Twitter/X, where I am @FergusMorgan.

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