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Interview with Al Smith writer of the Bird

14 January 2009


Conducted by Carrie Klypchak Dramaturg/Literary Manager for Capital T

> Could you discuss a bit about the inspiration for writing THE BIRD, the developmental process of play, and the history of the production?

I’d been leafing through a newspaper and had my eye drawn to an article about a spate of teenage suicides in Bridgend, a small town in rural Wales. The article was trying to figure out what specifically it was about this particular region that drove these poor young folk to take their own lives. It was as if some terrible spirit had infected the hope in these teenagers. I finished the article and turned over, and on the next page I found a completely different piece about Colony Collapse Disorder – this mysterious decline in american worker bee populations in hives across the US. For some reason, these bees seemed to up sticks in groups and leave their hives never to return. I like to think that good ideas are built on bridges between disconnected subjects and  immediately thought it’d be interesting to apply this mysterious colony collapse disorder to these poor teenagers in Wales. Meanwhile, I’d been a big fan of Matt’s work for quite some time, but hadn’t had the opportunity to work with him until these two plays came about. I’d produced a bunch of plays at the Edinburgh Fringe through the Kandinsky Theatre Company, and I knew Matt was keen on doing some work up there, so I pitched him the idea of us both taking our own shots at this colony collapse / teenage suicide link, and figure out a quirky double bill. I was delighted that Matt jumped at the project, and together we disappeared for a while and constructed a broken love story between two disillusioned young people with the simple proviso that Matt take the girl’s journey, and I take the boy’s.

> What have you found most challenging and most rewarding about collaborating with another playwright in putting together one theatrical viewing experience with THE BIRD and THE BEE?

Matt’s a great guy, so for me the rewards of working with him were many. I’d never worked collaboratively with another writer before, so it was interesting to see how much leeway we gave each other. At times it was a challenge, in that in compromising your choices you can sometimes feel like you’re blunting dramatic edge, but overall I think it was a fruitful, and successful experiment.

> What playwrights do you feel have been most influential in your playwriting style?  Why?

I’m pretty sure I’m influenced by everything I see or read – be it for better or worse. You’ll have to ask Matt who he rates, but for me, I’m a big fan of Robert Lepage – his plays and collaborative works blow my mind. I wish I had the punch of Dennis Kelly, the playfulness of Adriano Shaplin, and the poetry of Enda Walsh. There’s so much to learn.

>The suicides seem to be mostly implied in the pieces (although more obviously in THE BEE) rather than thrust in the audience’s faces – which leaves many questions for the viewer to ponder.  What do you hope to achieve in the piece by leaving elements more open to interpretation?

I don’t think Matt and I ever really wanted for these plays to be ‘about suicide’…From a writing perspective, Matt and I were keen to analyze what it was about British culture that drove these folk to hopeless ends. With the Bee, Matt wanted to dig into the emotional guts of that territory, and with the Bird, I wanted to present a character for whom British culture inflicts a sense of societal invisibility and psychological suicide, if you like, even if Jakob’s demise isn’t physical. Narratively, we wanted to leave our audience questioning where the rot lies in Britain, just as we wanted our audience to feel a touch culpable.

>Were THE BIRD and THE BEE planned to be performed together from the beginning?  Although they are obviously very connected in character and thematic quality, the styles of the play are very different in tone.  Was this choice for these two pieces to be very different intentionally made in order to highlight different aspects of the plays?

Yes, the plays were conceived as a double bill from the word go. Whilst we were brainstorming the project, it became clear that, for The Bee, Matt wanted to invent a character, give her a flaw, and see which way she roamed. I watched from afar as he finished his story and handed over a first draft, at which point I took hold of his Chloe, and recontextualised (if that’s a word) her journey through her online lover’s choices. I suppose, in that sense, The Bird’s a top-down, retrospective, piece of work, whereas The Bee is a bottom-up, prospective play. In tone, I suppose that’s why Matt’s play feel’s hopeful, whereas the Bird’s a smidge embittered. It was kind of an experiment!