Brief Encounter With ... Stefan Golaszewski
A former president of the Cambridge University Footlights (and part of its latest export of precocious comedy talent), Golaszewski made his name as one quarter of cult Edinburgh sketch group Cowards, enjoying two Radio 4 runs and a six-part series on BBC3 with his co-stars Tim Key, Tom Basden and Lloyd Woolf.
Latterly, however, Golaszewski has been going it alone and successfully so, with Esquire naming him among their 60 Brilliant Young Brits this year. The two plays being staged at the Bush are 2008 Fringe First winner Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved, a tale of being 18, in Walthamstow and in love. The second is Stefan Golaszewski Is A Widower, which flashed forward a 76-year-old Stefan struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife in the year 2054.
Fresh from a trip to Poland with his girlfriend, Stefan sat down to talk about going solo, his new sitcom and why everyone wants to be Ricky Gervais.
Why the move from comedy to theatre with these plays, Stefan?
When I wrote the first one, I wasn’t initially writing a play. But after directing other people, I thought I should probably take my own show to Edinburgh so I sat down to write a comedy show. It soon became a more personal story and as it took shape, I realised that it was a play. And that I could do different things with it because of that.
Was it frightening going solo after performing as part of a sketch group?
It was a big decision and I dithered for ages. There’s the inevitable self-doubt and fear and terror. I’ve never been very confident. But I realised that if I was going to earn some money, I needed to try and do something new. The other guys are so talented; I always thought I was the worst one. I think we’re all like that. Or maybe it’s just me!
This will be the first time the plays are performed back-to-back. Do they fit together?
The first play is based in truth, though some things have been changed to make it a better story. But the second one is pretty much entirely made up. It’s more shape-shifting and deliberately so, a bit more elyptical. What I was interested in was getting the same kind of emotional reaction as the first show but with something set so far in the future. Here is a character that isn’t that likeable. At 18, you can forgive his slightly odd approach to women. But the guy is 76 and he’s still like that. That 18-year-old dreamer has become this 76-year-old monster. By putting the two together, you bring out new elements in both.
You moved from the Pleasance Courtyard to the Traverse this summer. How was that?
The Traverse is an absolutely amazing place. I’d only been there once before in my entire life. But it was physically and mentally exhausting. I’m used to doing a show at 3.30pm every day at the Pleasance. You do the show, stay up till five or six in the morning getting drunk and then you’re up at two to start again. This year, I couldn’t do that. I’d have a show at eight in the evening and then another at ten the next morning. I was going to bed at 10.30pm. In Edinburgh! It turned from essentially a holiday to being this weird, gruelling task.
And yet 2009 was an amazing year for your group, with Tim Key and Jonny Sweet both taking top prizes at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.
I was so pleased for both of them. For Tim it’s been a long journey. When he first started doing his poems, people were saying: “That’s not funny.” I directed the first show he did and loved it. I thought: “Why isn’t the world absolutely clinging onto this guy?” With Jonny, I’d said: “You should really do an Edinburgh show” and ended up directing it. They are both tortured comedians. But Tim less so now that he’s found his feet. And Jonny, well he’s only 24. He’s got so much time.
Individually, the Cowards perform in rather different ways: Tim writes poems, Tom performs songs, you have your plays. But what unites your comedy?
We come from a similar place of loving what we do not just to please ourselves, but to please an audience too. With that comes a real attention to detail in writing and performing. We like trying to be artful and a bit more interesting and clever, rather than just relying on flimsy sketches. What we always used to say in Cowards is that audiences are adults. And adults don’t like people wearing wigs and doing accents and wearing fake noses. There’s an essential respect that you should have for an audience. They’ve paid however much they’ve paid and they deserve something more exciting.
You’ve just had a new sitcom, Young Unemployed and Lazy, commissioned. Tell us more.
Yes. I actually found out that it had been commissioned the night of the comedy awards! I wrote the script two years ago for my own sake. It’s about a couple and all they want to do is have sex and eat and take the piss out of each other and never see anyone. So barely anything happens and I thought: “This will never get made. It’s too filthy.” I then met with Kenton Allen at Big Talk who said I should send it into the BBC and I thought: “No, don’t do that. They’ll never want to talk to me again.” But the head of BBC3 liked it and they've helped me shape it into a bit more of a TV show and less a half hour of stillness. Russell Tovey (The History Boys, Being Human) and Sarah Solemani are playing the leads and now when I’m writing the other five episodes, I can write for them, knowing they get it. It's great.
What else do you enjoy watching on television?
Curb Your Enthusiasm is just brilliant of course. And I’ve started ploughing my way through Seinfeld. But do you know what I just watched? Peep Show. It’s amazing and now I’m thinking: “God I could have been into this all this time!”
You're lucky enough to write, direct and perform, but if you could only do one, which would it be?
I like them all. The person that everyone wants to be is Ricky Gervais: to be free to write, direct and star in their own things. I just want to create funny and beautiful things for the rest of my life and I’m kind of hoping that someone will let me.
The Stefan Golaszewski Plays open at the Bush Theatre on 4 December 2009 (previews from 2 December), and continue until 9 January 2010.