Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When and how did you decide to become a playwright?
Mike Bartlett: I was born in a small town called Abingdon, just south of Oxford. I was very lucky in that my secondary school had a big theatre and a really good drama teacher. I started off by acting in school plays, then directed a play or two. I went to Leeds University, studying English and Theatre Studies, and it was a fantastic course that allowed us to really experiment and explore the possibilities of making all sorts of work. By the time I left I was pretty sure I wanted to be a director, but I found I would write brilliant cover letters to get me the interview for the assistant director job, then get an interview and mess it up. There’s a skill a young director must have: to be able to communicate your vision in person, without actually having any work to prove what you can do. I wasn’t great at that, so when I wasn’t doing any directing, I started writing instead and found I was much happier. I wrote some short plays, and I went into the Young Writers Program at the Royal Court Theatre, taught by Simon Stephens. I had my first play produced in 2007 at the Royal Court Theatre, entitled My Child. The Royal Court did a brilliant thing. They said, even before My Child was staged, “We’re also going to commission another play from you straight away.” That was a turning point for me, being able to just focus on writing. From then on, I’ve written plays and, more recently, television.
TS: What inspired you to write Love, Love, Love?
MB: I was feeling that my generation — I was born in 1980 — was scrambling around in London, not able to make ends meet, living in terrible flats, struggling to pay rent, trying and often failing to do what they wanted in life, but at the same time being hit over the head all the time with stories about how great things used to be. Stories of the ‘60s and early ‘70s and the amazing lifestyles that young people had then. My generation would go back home from their tiny flats to visit their parents, who were living in huge houses with big empty rooms and lots of money. And it occurred to me that so many aspects of the culture in Britain preferred that particular generation over young people now -- and because there are more of them and more of them vote, it’s going further and further that way. And then, the other side, which I think is equally important to the play, are the criticisms of the older generation towards my generation: If you care so much, why aren’t you more politically active? Why don’t you do what we did? Why don’t you fight for these rights? Why don’t you protest and vote, and get involved and change things? And they’ve got a point. Are we the generation that moans, but does nothing? Those two opposing views made me think that it’s a great subject to explore through a family over time.
TS: This play spans the years 1967 through 2011. What type of research did you have to do on the time period in which you weren’t yet alive?
MB: I remember as a child my grandmother’s flat felt like it was still in the ‘60s. My parents and grandparents would talk about what it was like in 1967. For instance, one thing that surprised me was that very few people had telephones in 1967. More people had televisions than telephones, and that sort of thing makes a huge difference to what it feels like to be in a room or how you would meet someone. I think all those details are fascinating. A bit of that 1967 scene is my own experience, in terms of the places I’ve been. And importantly a lot of it is imagination.
TS: In the early 1990s, you were just coming into the tween years. You must be an astute observer of behavior.
MB: I think most 12-year-olds are very astute observers of behavior. Many parents underestimate how much their children know and see, and how much they remember. I think that’s why childhood memories are so vivid. You’re just like a sponge. You soak up places and smells, and definitely behavior as well. I think, as a child, you’re particularly fascinated by what adults are doing and why they do it. The trick is actually maintaining that as you get older. It’s being as open, observant, and sponge-like as you can into adulthood.
TS: I listened to a BBC interview you did, and you said once you have an idea for a play and you’ve decided it is worth writing about, you put yourself in hibernation. Is that true?
MB: It depends on what it is. But, yes, broadly speaking, I think that’s the case. I’m not like a monk. I don’t lock the door and not see anyone. But I do try and stay in the zone as much as I can, until I’ve got to the end of that first draft. With this play, I wrote the first draft very quickly in a week or two. Because once you have a sense of the setup, what you want to do is let the characters loose. The state I want to be in with the characters, if I get it right, is that I’m not in full control of them. They are driving the drama forward, through what they want to do - through their emotions and psychology and desires. All I’m doing is transcribing what they tell me. I know perhaps that sounds a little unhinged, but it’s a bit like when you dream. Everyone creates stories and characters who want things and have goals and overcome obstacles when they dream.
TS: Many of our audience members are Baby Boomers, and they’ve lived through the very years portrayed in the first act of your play. What is it about that generation that intrigues you?
MB: You can’t deny the cultural, social, and economic impact the Boomers have had in Britain and, I suspect, in America. As young people, they completely revolutionized the culture. Then in middle-age, they revolutionized the economy and the entire country that they lived in. Now, they continue to change the dynamic and to define where their countries are politically and economically. As part of a younger generation, I can criticize that and I do find fault with many things that happened, but what I can’t do is deny that they are an unusually influential generation. If you look at what it was like in the mid-‘60s, in terms of the establishment and the country, when that generation came through, to where we are now, it’s an astonishing story. There’s nothing more boring than a one-sided play. And that’s not my aim with this — it’s an honest and sincere exploration of the dreams that that generation had, which ones came true and what they managed to achieve. And, also exploring the ways in which this generation has been a failure. The best audience members for this play are Baby Boomer parents coming with their adult children.
TS: Are there specific things in the text that you have to change for an American audience?
MB: We are making some changes, but they’re more changes that I’ve wanted to make since the play was last on. I’ve got unfinished business with some sections. I found with King Charles III, when we brought it across to Broadway, I made all sorts of changes, because I was advised to be concerned about, in quotation marks, the American audience. Once we were on, I found the audience understood everything easily, and all the changes reverted back to the original version because I didn’t need to spell things out or explain things. The audience was just really smart and got it.
TS: What do you look for from a director? What type of actors do you need for this specific play?
MB: The main thing I look for in a director is a real collaborator, because I come from a background of making theatre, not just writing for it. I love to be part of everything: design, performance, rehearsals. I need a director who understands that we’re making this all together. I love a director who is engaged with the text. And I don’t mind them questioning lines or pushing to make the play as good as possible. And then with actors, I think my work has a rhythm to it. I love the sound of a line. I love punctuation. I like hitting the full stop. And I love using dashes, ellipses, interruption points, all to convey intention. Rhythm conveys intention in English. So, I need actors who are really up for that.
TS: What advice do you have for a young writer?
MB: The main thing that I found is if you worry about quality, you’ll just get stuck. You’ll write three lines and say, “Oh, God, it’s not as good as Shakespeare!” Whereas, really what you need to do is let yourself go and give yourself permission to write absolute rubbish. Just write, write, write. See lots of plays and read lots of plays, but write huge amounts, because you’ve got to get the practice in. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And if you’re tempted to start chasing agents and networking in theatre bars and going to lots of play development type things, question whether you’d be better off spending those hours writing something new, rewriting what you’ve got, or just practicing. What I have discovered is, all the time I spent trying to artificially further my career or “networking” was a complete waste of time. As soon as I could actually write something of any worth, it did the work for me. That’s how you get a career as a writer, by writing something that means something to an audience.
Love, Love, Love is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Love Love Love, Upstage