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Tom Wells on... Penguins and Playwriting

Tom Wells is a young playwright from Hull, whose first full length play Me, As A Penguin is currently on tour after playing at the Arcola in London this April and May, following its world premiere at West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Northern Exposure showcase in 2009.

He was selected for West Yorkshire Playhouse’s scheme So You Want to be a Writer in 2007, and in 2009 he was chosen for Paines Plough’s Future Perfect, a year-long attachment to the new writing theatre company.

Other theatre credits include: About A Goth for Oran Mor (Glasgow) and Notes for First Time Astronauts for Later (Soho Theatre).

Tom grew up in Kilnsea, East Yorkshire.

So tell us, who is Tom Wells?

Before I wrote Me, As a Penguin, I had finished Uni and was just working in a café. I studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. I then did the 5-week So You Want to be a Writer course at the West Yorkshire Playhouse - you don’t have to have written anything before, you just write a letter of application. The Playhouse read everyone’s letters and try to choose a good mix of people. They’re keen to encourage people who haven’t had a great deal of experience in writing, but have interesting stories that they want to tell. I’d written a few poems, and that was it really.

What did the course entail?

We all wrote short plays - around 5 minutes or so. Some of us wrote 10 minute plays that were performed as part of Light Night in Leeds, so we had six site-specific performances across the city; one of which I wrote. From that we did some workshops at the Playhouse with Playwright Colin Teevan (currently Associate Artist at WYP). I wrote Me, As a Penguin… and now it has its own little tour.

What did you hope to achieve when you started the course at West Yorkshire Playhouse?

I wanted to be a writer, eventually. I hadn’t really written anything involved with theatre before. It’s quite hard when you’re at school and drama is such a boisterous subject, and if that’s not the kind of thing you enjoy then it’s hard to get into. As a playwright it’s fine not to be really boisterous.

The more work that I do in theatre the more I think that theatre’s a really brilliant way of looking at things… You start off with a script, then the director brings their ideas and the actors bring theirs, and it just ends up being bigger than it started off as…

Everyone's worked really hard and got to the heart of it which is really hard because it's funny and it's sad, which is quite a hard balance, but they've done it really beautifully. It has a great spirit and I hope that people will respond to that. They're a great bunch of actors, funny and charismatic, and (the director) Chris Hill has done a wonderful job; really true to the heart of the play…

It’s more of a team effort, and it’s friendly and not at all lonely; I imagine novelists get quite lonely just sitting on their own.

In a nutshell, what is Me, As a Penguin about?

It’s about a young man from a small seaside town, who goes to stay with his sister and her husband in Hull to try and sample the Hull gay scene. It’s about what happens when you’re outside your comfort zone. Obviously there’s a penguin involved…

The main character Stitch has a bit of a relationship with someone who works in an aquarium and ends up rashly stealing a baby penguin in a moment of impulse. The theft takes place before the play starts, so the narrative is the fallout of that. Stitch is already openly gay, and I think his family is really supportive but the town where he’s from, Withernsea, is really rural and he wouldn’t be likely to meet anyone there. It’s right on the east coast of Yorkshire, underneath Hornsea. It used to be quite a vibrant seaside town and now it’s like a lot of seaside towns; a bit dingy, full of retired people and amusement arcades. Not a great place to grow up. Right at the start of the play, Stitch won’t let anyone in the bathroom and you don’t know why.

The first reveal is that of the baby penguin he stole and things fall apart a bit from there, but hopefully comically. Things with Dave (the Aquarium worker) are not quite what he’d hoped and his sister goes into labour which makes things more complicated. Then ending is a good one for Stitch, but it’s not happy. It’s not tragedy, but he ends up going home with his tail between his legs. It’s a play about disappointment, but that it’s ok to be disappointed. It’s not like a Disney ending....

So that’s penguins covered, but where do Battenberg cake and knitting come into the story?

His sister is pregnant and is craving Battenberg cake. It crops up quite a lot. Stitch works in a knitting shop. There’s a shop in Withernsea called The Remnant Shop (I don’t know if it’s still there but it was when I was writing this) where he works selling wool and knitting patterns and other handicrafts.

What was your inspiration for the play?

My friend Sarah told me a story about a school trip where someone had got all the way back to school from the zoo before someone noticed there was a bit of a funny smell. They looked in all the kids’ rucksacks and one of them had stolen a penguin and I just thought that was quite a nice narrative for what I wanted to say; the play is about someone unravelling a little bit. The knitting inspiration comes from my Mum, who gave me this knitting magazine from the 60s full of patterns. Something about it was really funny; the tone of it was that knitting is a way to solve all your problems - for example, knit this cardigan and your husband will be really happy with you. Just looking at the magazine and seeing that gentle world of crafts made me think that would be a nice contrast with what happens whilst he’s in Hull with Dave, who is not a good match and seems to think he’s a bit of a rock star (as much as you can be when you’re dressed as a giant penguin!)

How is the play staged?

It's very simple; all it really needs is someone's front room, a sofa and a CD player. It's very bare-boned; the simpler the better I think.

Is there any music in the play?

There're little clips of pop music in between the scenes and then there's two songs which are part of the play. The Sound Designer, Andrew Thompson, mixed it all up really nicely. We thought Stitch would be into sort of twee ‘indie’ like Noah and the Whale.

What does the title Me, As a Penguin mean?

There’s a little speech in the play where Stitch is explaining why he stole the penguin. Originally, that phrase "Me, As a Penguin" was part of the speech but it’s been cut now! It’s about how he sees this little baby penguin that’s a bit scruffy and looks like it’s struggling a bit whilst all the other penguins are doing really well and this one’s having a bit of a hard time, so he sort of identifies with it. That bit of the speech was cut because sometimes when audiences hear the title of a play within the performance it seems really big and important and it wasn’t. I didn’t want people to think “Oh, that’s why the play means,” because it doesn’t, the play means lots of different things. Titles are funny things but when you think of one and it feels right then that’s what it should be.

So where is Me, As a Penguin going on its tour?

It was on at at the Arcola in London until May 22nd, then at The Octagon in Hull for just one night on May 24th. As the play is set in Hull we thought it’d be really nice for it to go to Hull. Then we’re at The Lowry in Manchester for three nights before coming home to the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 10-12 June.

How do you think Hull residents will react? Do you feel you’ve been complimentary about their town?

I hope they’ll enjoy it! It’s where I’m from too. I haven’t been completely complimentary but I think I’ve been quite fair. I think it’s the sort of place that can take a joke. I think it’ll be alright… I hope so! I might not go to that performance as a lot of my friends from home will be there and I think it might be funny watching them watch it as it's quite heartfelt. It's nice when a play is a bit like the person who wrote it but at the same time that has it's awkward moments; just little jokes that are from your life…

Things are better when they're from a real place. I'm a bit of a people watcher so it'd be hard not to put things in that I've seen or I've noticed. So the play is not directly true but it's from a world that I recognise, with the odd bit of Tom Wells in maybe.

What are you working on next?

I'm writing a play for the Hampstead Youth Theatre in the next few months which will be performed early next year. This is what I really love doing; there's nothing quite like it.

- Tom Wells was speaking to Ruth Kilner

Me, As a Penguin is at West Yorkshire Playhouse 10-12 June, for more information and tickets visit www.wyp.org.uk