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Neil LaBute: 'It is always important to remind the next generation of real issues'

We chat to the playwright about his latest project, Mouthful, at the Trafalgar Studios

(© Aaron Eckhart)

What is Mouthful?

Mouthful is a series of short plays concerning the world food crisis by Metta Theatre, which is now playing at the Trafalgar Studios in London. Each writer worked with a scientist to help inspire and explore various subjects relating to the theme of 'world hunger.' It's a unique and clever response to something that should concern everyone today and is being filtered through that great art form and educational platform: the theatre.

How did you get involved?

I was asked to participate by the director, Poppy Burton-Morgan, like the rest of the writers and scientists. I love working in the short form on projects like this. I've done a few recently with 'theatre uncut' and others that take a thematic idea and create an evening of works that look at the various issues from a variety of angles. It's nice to be asked to work with new people and on subjects that you wouldn't normally tackle by yourself, and the results have been really rewarding.

Tell us more about your play within Mouthful.

I wrote a play called 16 pounds which is what two gallons of water would weigh. I wanted to approach the subject in a novel way and so I went after thirst rather than hunger, since people can live without food much longer than they can without water. I then placed two people into the world of my play - one person in control of the water and one person in desperate need of water and waited to see what happened. That's often how I write things, by creating worthy adversaries and seeing what happens when you throw them together, whether by accident or design.

What was it like collaborating with scientists for this project?

It was really great and rewarding to have someone so wise and useful giving you ideas about your given subject and/or anything to do with the umbrella subject. It feels nice to get notes from someone who isn't just stealing a few facts from Wikipedia but instead have devoted their lives to the world that you're writing about. I think this entire idea was wonderfully clever and quite effective in drawing good work out of me as a writer.

One cast will perform all six plays? Did this affect your writing process?

No it didn't and I'm glad. I rarely, if ever, write for anyone, even if it's an actor/actress whom I know well. In this case I simply wrote the work and let Poppy and her company do the rest. I love when actors get a chance to play several characters over the course of a performance and I think it's that fact that often draws them to this kind of work. Actors love to create and bring their own talents to the table and watching some of that happen even during this process was very rewarding.


What is the aim of the production?

Like all good theatre, I think the dual aim of the evening is to enlighten and entertain. Those two things can happen in tandem and I love that we are working as writers and directors and actors on this project to fill the head and the heart with images, words and ideas.

Who is it aimed at?

This show is aimed at anybody with a conscience and a desire to see good work on the stage that should make it appeal to just about everybody. Truthfully, I think children would learn as much (or more) than their parents watching this collection of short plays. Why not? It is always important to remind the next generation of real issues and also how the world of make-believe can be used in telling a story.

There have been several plays with scientific topics in the West End recently. To what would you attribute this increase in popularity/interest?

I think audiences like to be challenged and to feel smart. To learn a little something while laughing or crying is not such a bad idea and it feels to me that Poppy Burton-Morgan really understands this dynamic and is putting it to good use in this situation. Audiences generally don't want to work too hard but they do appreciate when something can happen, be explained, move them to tears (of laughter or grief) in an honest and simple way. This evening of shorts allows you to think heady thoughts and enjoy yourself at the same time because each topic has been thoughtfully researched and artistically written in a way that makes them both insightful and fun. I think that's a bargain.

Why should people come to Mouthful?

Because theatre is still the arena in which topics like this (or anything else) can and should be tackled and held up and scrutinized. It's also one of our oldest art forms for a reason because it's very successful at telling stories to a large group of people. It's a very intimate practice that can reach one person or a thousand people all at the same time.

What is next for you?

I'll continue to write and direct, no matter what the medium. I've been doing more and more television lately while continuing to do theatre. I still want to make movies but the process has gotten more and more difficult, even in my lifetime. I now do whatever work that moves me without waiting for it to come to me. Specifically, I hope to bring a few more of my newer plays over to London very soon (even within the next few months).

Mouthful runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 3 October.