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"Theatre has always been about community" - An interview with Ben Wilson

Ben Wilson watching a rehearsal
Playwright Ben Wilson.
Poster of Homemade Takeaways.
We sat down with Ben Wilson, playwright of the upcoming Homemade Takeaways. Shortlisted for the 2021 Adam NZ Play Award & winner of Playwrights b4 25 2020, Homemade Takeaways opens at BATS on Tuesday.

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We sat down with Ben Wilson, playwright of the upcoming Homemade Takeaways. Shortlisted for the 2021 Adam NZ Play Award & winner of Playwrights b4 25 2020, Homemade Takeaways opens at BATS on Tuesday.

What inspired you to write 'Homemade Takeaways'?

I wrote the play in 2020 during the first national lockdown. I’d gone through some pretty major shifts in my life and personal values over the last couple years or so and I guess I wanted to articulate them into something. I knew I really wanted to make a work that prioritized empathy before anything else. I always seek out empathy from other people’s creative work – films, plays, music etc. More than anything it is other people’s creative work that inspires and helps me to understand my feelings, experiences, and how I see the world. And I always wanna strive to try do the same for others.

I’m really passionate about mental health and trauma-based content and I knew I wanted to make a work in that space too, but I didn’t want to just make a work that would be defined by its mental health and trauma elements. I was feeling a lot at that time in my life, and I knew a lot of people in my life were too, and so I wanted to write something that might make myself and the people I love feel less alone, and through that I hoped that it might have the capacity to help others too.

Going right back to the beginning though, the initial concept for Homemade started with a friend of mine, Mark Whittet, in late 2019. The two of us really wanted to write a play together and we spent a couple nights at espressoholic trying to come up with one, the seeds for Homemade really began with those conversations. But we quickly stopped working on that concept to prioritize another project, it wasn’t until early 2020 that the bones of what Mark and I talked about came back to haunt me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I knew I really want to turn dem bones into something myself.

You've worked in a variety of mediums, what is it about the stage that you enjoy?

I feel like theatre is the ultimate form of communal storytelling. Like the campfire. Theatre has always been about community, a place where people are told a story together. When it’s at its best we sit in a room together and are shown truths, we are articulated things we may have never had articulated to us, we have our world shown to us in a new way – our empathy is tapped into and we leave seeing the world a little differently. A room like that is such an incredible opportunity to make people feel less alone. To get people laughing together and crying together, where you can feel the energy off the person sitting next to you – how they are feeling, how they are listening. It’s such a special and specific feeling to listen together and laugh together and cry together and to suspend disbelief together and all the other temporal goodness of theatre. And it’s magic made by humans! Theatre, by design, makes people feel less alone and it’s magical and that’s my absolute favourite.

I also just love what the form offers when it comes to investigating, exploring, and being curious about people. Which is what we should do in life too, I think. I like people not plot (generally) and I love the part of playwriting that lets you put complicated people in a space and have them reveal themselves through their words, their relationships with others, and what they do in silences. That’s absolutely my favourite shit, watching people reveal themselves.

What other writers do you enjoy/are you influenced by?

I love Annie Baker. Her work has always inspired me with its tonal balance, and she’s always working with empathy for her characters. I love Kenneth Lonergan, Duncan Macmillan, and Ella Hickson for similar reasons to Annie Baker. They work with realism and magic realism in a way that rise it above the humdrum of other stuff. It’s balanced in its realism and balanced in its magic. I feel like their work is theatre with heart and brain in equal measure – it’s not pretentious and it is accessible to all people, it talks down to no one but assumes and expects an emotionally intelligent and empathetic engagement from its audience. My least favourite theatre is theatre only an isolated demographic can enjoy – and theatre that preaches to the choir. Theatre should push the boundaries and my favourite writers do this with empathy and the representation of underrepresented ideas at the forefront of its storytelling. I’m also really really influenced by film and T.V. The Sopranos, and the kind of scriptwriting shift that was spawned from that show, is a massive influence on me. I saw that show really young and it completely changed my life, I credit it in a lot of ways with why I write. It just went way beyond what was expected of it on its surface – not just a mob story and not even just an anti-hero story - but a story about mental health, rage, family, empathy and apathy, sex, dreams, surrealism, violence, culture, how we see ourselves and how we project ourselves in to the world and our relationships. Just everything. But at its core that show is about people and it always prioritized it’s characters before anything else and it really paved the way for other long form series to do the same. And T.V really has the opportunity to be tangential, it has time on its hand so it doesn’t have to subscribe to that silly screenwriting ‘rule’ of ‘every scene in your script must push your story forward’ – T.V gets to go on tangents and just watch it’s characters do (for lack-of-a-better-word) stuff. I love to put that in my work. I feel like I really wear my influences on my sleeve and I try to that with a lot of pride. Being a fan is fun.

This is a really dangerous question cause I wanna keep naming people and things I love but I’ll stop.

This play has won and been shortlisted for a number of awards, how does it feel to be recognised in that way?

It just means the world. It’s really humbling. I was raised in Aotearoa and so to be amongst the New Zealand awards with New Zealand artists I admire is just so special, being amongst peers who are making such inspiring work is just so dope. This stuff is really cool when you’re young too because it feels like the ‘gatekeepers’ are acknowledging you as a peer and as someone they take seriously, whose work has merit beyond just being young. And it’s special to have people treat your writing like it’s not just a hobby. There isn’t a lot of places and opportunities for New Zealand artists to be recognized in a ‘formal’ kinda way, especially young ones, and so it’s just really meaningful to me to be anywhere that sort of stuff at all. And Playmarket in particular are such champions of this sort of thing, they do amazing work and we wouldn’t have half the playwrights we have if it wasn’t for them. Honestly though, the best part of the recognition is that it’s just helped the thing get made. A lot of the time I really feel like I just write so that I can get to make things with other people on the floor and the awards have meant the script got some traction in a really tumultuous time for our industry and I am just so beyond grateful for that and I will never forget how lucky I am that it happened this way.

The character of Paul loves Emma Thompson. What about Emma felt right for Paul's obsession?

I mean she’s just the best, right? She gives such a warm vibe and such a classy vibe and I reckon she’s so underrated despite the fact that I know she’s very highly rated – it’s not enough! And she can do anything! Her work is so funny and so honest but also her filmography is quite the rollercoaster… There is some baaaaaaad stuff in there amongst the great but I just think there is so much worth in being a fan of stuff unconditionally sometimes. And that’s what I wanted for Paul. She’s also just weirdly iconic for someone with a filmography like hers. And I love that and I think Paul would too.

Carol is writing a children's book that she wants to be scary. What about scary stories as a child appeal to you?

As a kid I think they made me braver. Like I was always so scared as a kid, of everything. And I’d get really bad night terrors up until I was quite old. My first memory is a nightmare. And scary stories were like such an achievement, to get through one was like winning an award. So scary stories helped me build not just a strong resilience to fear but also like a healthy relationship with fear. I also just loved the aesthetic of them, they made me feel like the ugly things in my dreams at night weren’t just me being crazy. Things like the Goosebumps book covers, gothic style imagery, Tim Burton's artwork, over-the-top gore, DVD covers in the horror section at the video store – just the look and feeling of those sorts of things were so interesting to me. I particularly loved haunted house stories as a kid, I still do. And ghosts. Haunted house and ghost stories are fun and camp and aesthetically rich and thematically sprawling and bloody scary all at once and I just loved and love them. As a kid haunted house stories admitted that home is complicated, and as a kid that felt so frickin profound to me. Also they’re just so silly in the best way.

What do you hope audiences will 'takeaway' from the play?

I hope their empathy is tapped into and they think about people in some new ways and hopefully look at themselves in some new ways. I hope they leave feeling a little kinder too. I hope they go home and watch an Emma Thompson movie, maybe one from deep in her filmography. The rest I think I’ll leave up to them.

Written by

Red Scare Marketing

17 Nov 2022