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Sam Steiner: I wanted to write a hopeful play about the end of the world

You Stupid Darkness! opens at Southwark Playhouse on 16 January

Sam Steiner
(© Rebecca Need-Menear)

For those who read our top 10 reviewed shows for 2019, the name Sam Steiner ought to ring one or two bells. He is a young British playwright who has built a reputation for himself over the last five years with a string of successful shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. Previous work such as Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, Kanye the First and A Table Tennis Play have cemented his status as a playwright of imagination and humour.

Steiner is currently writing a new play for the Almeida theatre as part of their New Playwrights, Big Plays programme but, before then, his hit play You Stupid Darkness! begins its run at Southwark Playhouse. The play was first produced at Theatre Royal Plymouth in early 2019 and is now playing in London until 22 February. We caught up with Steiner to discuss how rehearsals had been going and how a failed career as a musician led him to start writing plays.

How does it feel to be returning to You Stupid Darkness!?

Really great – we haven't had loads of time to rehearse but the progress everyone has made is unbelievable, particularly two of our new cast members. It is interesting for me to return to something that I wrote a couple of years ago. The play is set in a mid-apocalyptic society based on the fact that our world felt loosely like that when I wrote it but it has become increasingly tangible in the last few years. The natural disaster part of the play was not intended to be overly realistic but in 2020 feels a bit on the nose.

Despite the bleak setting, would you say it is a hopeful play?

There is a lot of dystopian fiction around at the moment, populated by the success of things like Black Mirror, and whilst I really like those books and plays, some of it doesn't chime with my experience of people in the world. In a lot of dystopian work, people behave horribly to each other and I am an optimistic person – most people are kinder than we give them credit for. In hard situations throughout history human beings have clubbed together and I wanted to write a hopeful play about the end of the world, as strange as that sounds.

A little bit like kindness as an act of resistance?

Absolutely, because that felt truer for me and something that isn't discussed. The play does touch on dark material but it is about asking whether we can counter that with compassion. It is an attempt at positivity in a world that acknowledges everything has turned awful.

You Stupid Darkness!
© Ali Wright

How important is music to the play?

There is a lot of '60s and '70s rock and soul. Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster, our movement director, asked me why I felt this type of music was appropriate because you don't normally associate comfortable folk rock from the 70s with an apocalyptic landscape. With that particular style of music, you can really feel a yearning to keep going which is basically what the story is about.

Is music important to your creative process in general?

This is so cliched but honestly I only write plays because I'm not good enough to be in a band. Music was my way into writing originally and is sometimes the starting point even now. Some of the music in You Stupid Darkness! is so good that I had to earn the right to play specific songs because you don't want the audience to come out and say the song was better than the play. My approach to writing plays is coming up with moments I think could be powerful and then doing loads of structural work to earn them.

One of the reasons I like the Fringe is because it feels like the closest thing to being in a band. A lot of a writer's work is solitary and removed from practicality, so doing Edinburgh is much more direct. There is a community of people trying things that they don't necessarily have the money, experience or skills for but they try anyway. Most people are reaching for something that they don't know how to do and I find that really inspiring.