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Brief Encounter With... Adam Szymkowicz

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Barons Court Theatre has enjoyed its fastest ever advance ticket sales for the UK premiere of Nerve by Adam Szymkowicz. The inaugural production of Prestige Theatre Company, it stars Olivier award-winning Benjamin Davies as Elliot, a man on his first internet date, and Ambrosine Falck (The Inbetweeners) as Susan, a woman who has been on too many. Eduardo Barreto directs.

Szymkowicz, 33, is one of New York's most exciting young voices and a two-time Lecomte du Nouy Prize winner. He trained at U.Mass, Columbia University and The Juilliard School and now lives in Connecticut with his wife, fellow playwright Kristen Palmer. Fresh off the red-eye, he caught up with us about writing, dating and love.

Have you always written plays?

I wasn't a child who said: I am going to be writer. Really the reason I write for theatre is that I acted a lot as a student, but my personality wasn't such that I wanted to be an actor for real. I fell in love with theatre at a young age but I wasn't putting myself into it the way I wanted to. Somewhere along the line, I figured the way to do it, the thing that I really wanted to be, was a playwright.

When did that epiphany come?

At college. When I was doing college applications, I thought I was going to be an engineer. I had a good friend who used to act too. He went to undergrad to study acting. and now he's in real estate. I'm the one who didn't follow my dream right away, or even know what I was doing. But I started writing plays at college, in my sophomore year, discovered that's what I wanted to do and basically haven't stopped writing plays since.

How many have you now written?

At the last count, 27. There's ones that I don't talk about. My first play was very Beckett inspired. Nothing really happened in it. Then I wrote a play about art and artists, then one about theatre. In my senior year, I wrote a play that was actually directed and produced. I don't talk about this play. I don't want anyone to ever see this play again - it ended up in New York where they did a terrible production and it was even done at a festival in the south of England.

You must have liked it at the time.

At the time it went over very well. The college kids liked it and my advisors were very complimentary. But you read it five years later - and wow! You learn how to write, I guess. It was a comedy about suicide and was very influenced by the plays of Chris Durang and Marsha Norman. I was using his structure and her content. Come 2006, I get into Juilliard and those two are the twin heads of the playwriting programme. I had no idea they even knew each other, let alone worked together.

Nerve was your 2003 Columbia thesis piece. What was the thinking behind it?

The idea was to write one last play: I'm leaving school, theatre people from all sorts of places are coming to hear my reading so I want to write the kind of play I'd like to see, about people I'm interested in, that's off kilter and a good time. And about something that's important to me.

Was internet dating something you were doing?

I went on some internet dates back in the day, yes, and it's very loosely based on some of my own experiences. But I was more interested in investigating the phenomenon, that speeding up of the dating process. Before you go on your first internet date, you might already know the person very well. So I was trying to represent theatrically the course of a whole relationship over just one night.

Why did you call the play Nerve?

The title comes from Paul Simon lyrics: 'Ask somebody to love you / Takes a lot of nerve / Ask someboy to love you / You got a lot of nerve.' In the play, Susan says: 'A good kiss is like a knife ... A kiss, a real kiss severs nerves and cuts through you and that’s an injury you’ll never recover from.' It's also the name of a dating website. 

And the dance and puppetry element?

I knew it was going to be a single-set piece, just two characters in a bar talking, and I wanted to find a way into their inner life. I couldn't do a lot of the visual stuff that I can do in a film like jump locations but I didn't want it to be just monologue and dialogue. I wanted to get at these characters in a theatrical way, to explore the boundaries of the play and theatre in general - to figure out how to make it interesting.

You write for the screen, too. Does the process differ?

Playwriting and screenwriting are very different animals. A lot of times, TV writing is about problem solving. You're more of a mechanic than an artist. Or at least you put in some art but then you've got to go back and make it fit. It's why I sometimes feel like TV doesn't always work. You can see the mechanic take over and the art disappear. The greatest thing is when structure and art are working in tandem and there are some good shows doing that: Mad Men, Bored to Death. I actually watch a great deal of TV, most of all because I'm trying to figure out how to do it!

How is it being married to another writer?

Hard sometimes but it's mostly really awesome. Dating is not fun. For some people it is, perhaps. Or at least, people have told me it is but I don't know if I believe them. A lot of people come up to me after this play and tell me stories about their own experiences. I like that it still seems to be relevant to younger theatre-goers today.

And can it happen? Falling in love at first sight?

I don't know. We can ask people. Do you believe in love at first sight? I think it could happen and I think it's what happens in this play.

Nerve runs at Barons Court Theatre until 24 October. For more details, see prestigetheatrecompany.com


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