His first full-length play For Once I Was was developed at The Old Vic and then went on to have a run at theTristan Bates Theatre. A Lady of Substance was developed at the Manchester 24/7 Festival with director Matthew Dunster and is currently receiving its London premiere at the Tristan Bates Theatre.
Talk us through the story of A Lady of Substance
It’s about an older poet, early 40s, who has had a relatively tragic experience happen in her life and is stuck in a cycle of self-destruction. She’s left her flat and then comes back one day to find that this 16 year-old girl has broken in and has been squatting. The two of them together have loves, the young girl of hip-hop and the older woman of poetry. Over the course of a 24-hour period the two of them spend time together talking and sharing and learning and writing, while also dealing with the loses that have happened in their lives and also going on a gigantic bender!
So there are some embarrassing hip-hop and performance poetry moments in it?
Well there are a number because I wrote them all! As a young middle class white man I’ve done a sterling job! No I believe that hip-hop is a continuation of poetry in many respects. Hip-hop is the selection of words and the refinement of the English language with a beat placed underneath it to help accessibility. You can learn as much from early hip-hop about the way a particular society was dealt with by the police and what it wasto live in those social conditions as you can from Keats about love. I thought that that was an important thing to be exploring. Also it’s a nice generational thing to have an older and a younger person who are trying to describe to each other why it is that they love what they love and actually finding that they have some common ground.
That’s a bit of a mirror for this double bill isn’t it? With an older writer and a younger one showing together?
One of the reasons I wanted to be involved in this particular type of production, the reason that Sheer Drop has done this is to have another, different type of development for new writers as opposed to what’s currently going on. The Old Vic New Voices, or The Bush, or the Royal Court, these are programs that are set up to train young writers in their craft and don’t get me wrong I think that’s an amazing thing. But one of the most essential elements is not readings, it's hearing how an audience responds toyour words and hearing how they physically react to a plot point. Sitting in the dark with an audience is one of the essential aspects of being a playwright and until you’ve had that experience and have had something produced then you can’t really understand your craft and move on with it.
Sitting there in the dark with them, what is it that you want the audience to experience?
When I sit down to write something or to approach something there’s always an active question in my mind. The active question will change over the course of the actual period of time making the piece, but initially this started out with ‘why do self-destructive cycles exist’? When I lost my father I realised the question actually became ‘how do you comeout of a self-destructive cycle’? Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying that I was necessarily suffering from a self-destructive cycle, or that I was seeing it around me, but I think these cycles are within culture at the moment and are an innate part of humanity. You have to write as much about the darkness of humanity as you do about the light. I think that’s exceptionally important in art and that you have an obligation to explore that and so for me it was that question.
It’s quite a self-destructive play but also a constructive one
Out of the ashes of destruction comes the hope of what they try to create, whether they succeed or not is something you would have to come and see!
Is the inclusion and portrayal of hope, or a 'happy ending' important to you as a writer?
It’s desperately important to me as a person. I lost my father a few months ago and since then I’ve found it very difficult to be as hopeful as I was. I’ve grown up quite a bit without doing anything, the world kind of happened to me and it was more how I’ve decided to deal with those things. But even in those darkest aspects I still have to find some sort of hope because that’s the human condition. You wouldn’t carry on otherwise, because there’s no point to carrying on if you don’t have something, even if it’s just that things might get better eventually.
- Jon Cooper was speaking to Honour Bayes