This July, Falling Pennies will stage a new show which brings a lesser played and even lesser discussed subject to audiences. Beetles from the West is an exploration of men’s health and the stigma so often attached to it. Writer James Hartnell took some time to talk to me about the show, approaching this sensitive topic, and what this project means to him.
How did you become involved in this project? What attracted you to it?
Ryan [Penny, Artistic Director] and I trained at Mountview together and remained close friends after leaving. He told me how his father had Prostate Cancer and that he wanted to raise awareness and help others. I was amazed at how Ryan was able to turn a difficult situation into a positive, and as usual he was thinking of others before himself. He spoke to me about his idea for Falling Pennies, a theatre company that made a difference and looked at issues that not everyone always looked at. He asked if I would be a part of the company and come on board with him as Creative Associate and write a play for him. I jumped at the chance!
What is the premise of the show?
To me it’s about how different people deal with losing their father. I didn’t want the play to be all about cancer, it can be a daunting subject and I wanted to look at it in the periphery not centre stage. I wanted an audience to learn about the characters, to see them in happy moments and go on a journey with them. To me, the most cathartic theatre is that which allows the audience to connect and engage with the character, not the subject. The subject should be second, the emotions of the character at that moment should be first.
What did you draw on when writing about this subject?
The first thing I saw when thinking about the piece was the end. I saw the moment the crescendo of the play hits, a still image almost of where each character was on stage and what they were feeling. It was then pretty easy to work back and place the story. I’ve been incredibly lucky and haven’t experience the effects of cancer directly or through family, and it was always a worry I wouldn’t show the intricacies of such a devastating disease, so I focused on loss. How losing someone affects you and how the process of losing someone is more unbearable than the eventual break. It was always about bringing it back to the moment, following the momentum of the characters as they learnt more and the condition progressed.
The show deals with cancer, a subject which unfortunately everyone is likely to be affected by at some point. No one person’s experience is ever the same with it. How did you find writing on this subject?
It was a challenge, mainly because I’ve always written about what’s affected me directly. In each play there is always a little bit of “me” in there. We were lucky enough to have a talk with a representive from Prostate UK, his facts and thoughts were so helpful in understanding more about the subject. It was tough to balance the need for action with the need for facts, I didn’t want the play to be a lecture but a real moment in someones life.
Whose point of view is the story primarily told from: the person affected by it or the family affected by it? Why have you chosen to frame it in this way?
We see the point of view of the family. I wanted to show how the effects of such a nasty disease affect people, even the doctors that are charged with treating it. It was important for me to see how the family reacted to each stage, each new bit of information. I almost wanted the play to feel like a cardiogram, a moments piece hit by news, a cycle of frustration that keeps going round. As the play takes place in real time over one night in a waiting room it meant there was ample opportunity to really see how difficult the situation was.
What do you hope people will take away from this production?
I hope people understand that sometimes men are fragile too. I think we do live in a world where masculinity is valued as being strong and powerful, when in reality every man has their own style and way of being masculine. I want men to feel comfortable opening up and also see the positive effects that being open can bring.
Beetles from the West will play from 5th – 23rd July 2016 at the Hope Theatre. To book tickets, visit the Hope Theatre website. Follow Fallen Pennies on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest updates and information.