One of the great challenges for any actor is the constant need to know and immerse yourself in new and exciting works for theatre. Unlike screen—where the best scripts, directors and actors are a click away on streaming services and blogged about online—finding the major works and players in contemporary theatre can require a little more leg-work. If you are lucky enough to live in one of the major western theatre hubs like London or New York, you can read reviews and duck down to the theatre to catch the most exciting new shows in real time! For the most of us, however, we have to hope these works trickle down to our stages in our hometowns, where Pulitzer- or Tony-award-winning plays seldom get produced (let alone the really good or provocative stuff). Although we might not be able to see these works, with a little bit of research we can enjoy these incredible stories and characters by finding the scripts and giving them a read. Today we are covering a contemporary giant in the art form you should take the time to know, wherever you’re reading this: the legendary Simon Stephens.
This article is about the theatre practitioner Simon Stephens. Simon Stephens is a prolific English playwright whose work is widely performed in his native country, Europe and in the United States. In addition to his writing, Stephens has taught his craft at a number of schools and theatre companies—most famously heading up the Young Writers’ Programme at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Given the importance of Simon Stephens’ voice in the contemporary theatre landscape, he remains an invaluable artist to know and follow as his career continues to progress.
If you are like me and you feel the draw of the stage more than the draw of the screen, knowing about contemporary playwrights can provide huge benefits. Outside of enriching your artist’s soul with new drama, characters and storylines, being across the current major players in theatre can also help you enrich your career as an actor. Think about the audition process: does the panel really want to hear Biff whine to his father one more time in that same excerpt from Salesman? Or do they want to experience something totally new? Having been a part of many auditions (on both sides of the panel), I know which I prefer to see. Exhibiting knowledge of current trends, current authors and recently acclaimed productions demonstrates a passion for the craft that reaches beyond the plays you were asked to read in high school. And passion recognises passion.
An Overview of Simon Stephens
Simon Stephens is a prolific playwright who has continued the tradition of theatre into the 21st Century with a run of gritty tragedies. Working in the UK and Europe, Stephens has been a significant champion of new work, and has written over 20 works—including adaptations of novels and classics—since his first play Bluebird premiered at the Royal Court in 1998. His work is a mainstay of modern British theatre, with his plays being staged at iconic venues in the UK such as the National Theatre, The Royal Court, The Bush, the Young Vic and the Lyric Hammersmith. His most critically acclaimed play, an adaptation of Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the best new play category at the Olivier Awards in 2013 and Tony Awards in 2015. Other accolades include Olivier Award for best new play for On the Shore of the Wide World in 2006 and the Theatre Heute Award for Motortown in 2007, Pornography in 2008 and Wastewater in 2011.
As well as his impressive catalogue of works, Stephens’s influence as a 21st Century playwright is amplified by his enthusiastic collaborations with directors. It is through these collaborations, (notably with Sebastian Nubling, Sean Holmes and Ivo Van Hove) that his writing has evolved and shifted constantly throughout his career. His works range from dirty realism like Motortown and Herons, to poetic fragmentation like Pornography, to storytelling like Seawall and even dream-like (or more appropriately nightmare-like) neo-noir in Three Kingdoms. This fluidity of style and genre is borne from a forward-looking attitude towards theatre and an appetite for experimentation and theatrical exploration. It would be fair to suggest that part of his continued acclaim and relevance comes from his work ethic: the man averages a professional production per year since Bluebird in 1998. Impressive. Exhausting.
Simon Stephens For Actors
You may be wondering: “Michael, this is great, but I am just an actor. I don’t need a history lesson. What do I really need to know if I was to work with his texts?” Don’t worry, we are getting to that. (As I am a lecturer in theatre, I can’t help but give the full picture.) Even though his work is largely a continuation of realism—a style we are all aware of and have tools for (targeting, given circumstances, objectives, inner monologue etc etc.)—there are some aspects of his work you should be aware of so you can make the best choices possible when tackling monologues or scenes from his catalogue.
Tragedy and Comedy: Light and Dark.
Stephens is not afraid of blending form and genre. Although his works lean largely toward tragedy (like most of his British contemporaries), he is not afraid to sprinkle lightness through his plays as well as some laughs. More often than not, this is not through a set-up/punchline style of writing, but through exploring the absurd reality of the situation he has placed his characters in. The awkwardness of strange bedfellows, the good natured ribbing by teenagers, the joys of unexpected success or the head-butting of characters with conflicting world views can create some hilarious moments. Don’t be fooled, all these situations can also lead to painful tension, harrowing moments and an air of danger, but it is the unpredictable nature of how the story unfolds which makes his work so compelling.
What is most important for the actor to remember is to play the objective and the moment in front of you right now. ‘End gaming’—a term used to describe acting for the outcome of the story—flattens the story and eliminates the beautiful nuance littered throughout his work. Playing the story how you know it will end robs us the audience of the journey. So don’t worry about playing it like a tragedy or playing it like a comedy: play it for real and allow the audience to decide.
Characters: Best and Worst.
I love Stephens’ characters because they are extremely difficult to like. Its not because they do not have admirable qualities, they often have many, but because he makes sure to show us their worst traits as well. He then leaves it up to us, the audience, to decide how they should be judged. In Birdland, we can’t help but fall in love with the brutally honest yet charismatic rock star. But then he is tricked into sleeping with a 14 year old. Now, he didn’t know how old she was, but we see him make the choice not to check. The ex-soldier in Motortown could be a sufferer of PTSD and military bullying culture, but when he tortures and kills someone, are we still willing to call him a victim?
I have coined the term ‘victim as perpetrator’ to explain this character dynamic in his works. Everybody is a victim. Everybody is a perpetrator. Being a victim might explain certain behaviour, but does it excuse it when the line is crossed? These are the questions Stephens is forcing us to wrestle with. Sometimes people do the right thing, sometimes they don’t. What’s most important for the actor is to make sure you do not judge your characters. Do not think of their actions in hindsight. Every single one of them is doing what they think is the right thing in any given moment.
By showing the best and worst of everybody he is creating a world of people, not archetypes. Flawed, helpless, people trying to get through life as best they can. Do not make villains, do not make heroes. These are not Greek myths, these are studies of modern life, and by allowing your characters to be just people, warts and all, you are allowing the audience to hold a mirror to themselves. The world as it is, not as it should be. This can be challenging because, as actors, we like to be liked. So when acting in Stephens’ works, be prepared to be unlikeable in your character but respected for your honesty.
And a Note on Motivation…
My least favourite thing for an actor to say is: “My character wouldn’t do that”. Who says? You? We do things that surprise ourselves all the time when put into new situations and we are ourselves! So don’t think for a second you can sum up these characters in a sentence or predict their behaviour. Simon Stephens makes sure to put his characters into situations they are not used to. Situations they have never come up against before. Situations where they must act out of character. As a result, they don’t know how they are going to act. Do not lock your character down into simple statements: “My character is this or that”. No. Your character is just responding and reacting to these circumstances they have never encountered. Every option is on the table, and the only situation you must deal with is the one right in front of you at any given moment.
Secrets and Lies.
Every protagonist I have seen in a Simon Stephens play has a secret. Sometimes it comes out. Sometimes it doesn’t. If it does come out, it usually comes out at the end of the play, and knowing the secret changes our perspective of the events we have just watched. They serve a purpose for story, but it’s also important to know as the actor playing the character.
Stephens’ characters often lie to keep their secrets. This means you can not believe everything they say. You will also get conflicting truths—one character will believe what their truth is, which might contradict what another character believes is the truth. This does not necessarily mean they are lying, it just means they believe something different to be true. Sound muddy and confusing? Well that’s life, and that’s what he is trying to write!
What the objective truth can take some investigating and, in the end, you yourself must make the choices about truth in the play. You must decide what that secret is. Stephens writes in a way that demands interpretation from directors, actors and audience. He understands there is a deep well of subconscious and conscious behaviour that we as people have no control over and often have no awareness of. You will not necessarily find a straight, objective answer handed to you in the text, but you must decide on your characters truth and what your characters secret is. Once you have them, that will provide depth, nuance and allow your characters world view to be fully informed and enriched.
Who am I talking to, and what do I feel about them?
Stephens is all about text. Words. What people say and how they react. He often asks directors to have no set, or abstraction. He believes the actors can hold the world in between them, we don’t need to be spoon-fed through a naturalistic set. This is exciting, but it also means, as actors, we must invest fully into the relationship we have with all the characters on stage, because often our action/reaction/interaction is the only thing that is actually on stage.
He can often drop us in mid-conversation with very little information. He is not one for page long stage directions, so we must again make choices to decide what the relationship is between people. For the actor, this means making choices about what our character thinks about the other characters on stage. What is between them? What is the power dynamic? Are we familiar? How much ‘fronting’ is going on? Are we being genuine or not? Are we trying to impress them, or couldn’t we care less? Really we can boil it down to one question: What do we want from them? Keep thinking about this question and the world will exist between you.
Check out our article on script analysis for more information on extracting a writer’s hidden meaning.
Find Your Ten.
I use this phrase a lot when directing, and it boils down to this: pick your moments. We cannot stay at a ‘level ten’ of intensity for too long, and we should only get there once in a scene otherwise it becomes boring (not matter how ‘emotional’ you think it is). Even in extreme moments, we need to find range, nuance and multiple tactics to achieving our objective. A lot of Stephens work has extended moments of high tension. Seawall is a 35 minute monologue about a man losing his child. Three Kingdoms has a scene where they are trying to decapitate a corpse with a hacksaw and it’s harder than they think it will be. These extended moments have the potential to be extraordinarily powerful, but can be drowned out if we sit in extremity for too long. We need to make sure we structure these moments carefully and don’t wash them out through trying to make
Remember, emotion is a by-product, not a goal. Units, beats, actioning and objectives are your best friend in these moments. Do not get swept away by trying to ‘get there’ emotionally. Instead, lean on your units/beats and your objective, and trust the emotion will come.
Simon Stephens’ work is written in a way to challenge not just the audience, but the director and actors working on it. He asks everybody to make choices about the characters without boxing them in to a trope or archetype. It requires work, and the answers are not easy to find. The thing to remember is that doing such work will always make you a better actor and collaborator. You’ll improve your craft ten-fold if you immerse yourself in Stephens’ incredible body of work—and once you’re all caught up, you can follow along with him in his next exploit, lock-step in the same creative journey.