The Machine Stops- Interview with director Juliet Forster and composer John Foxx

Caroline Gruber (Vashti) -Pilot_Theatre-The_Machine_Stops-Dress_Rehearsal-Photo by Ben Bentley -Pilot_Theatre-The_Machine_Stops-Dress_Rehearsal-12.05.16-Web_Res-68

Juliet Forster – Director

How did you first find The Machine Stops?

I came across the story in 1998 and the truth is it came from the fact that my husband used to read to me and still does at bedtime. He might not be happy with me for telling you that, but it’s true. He would find short stories to read to me. This one particular night he had a book of British short stories and he was asking me which one I’d like, he said he’d read out the first line of each of the stories that look interesting and I could choose which one I wanted to hear. He read the first line of The Machine Stops: “Imagine, if you can, a room which is hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee.” It was just so – my imagination caught fire. I didn’t even know it was EM Forster but straight away I was saying ‘that one that one’.

So it was love at first sight – and it’s stayed with you?

It settled in my mind. I thought it was an excellent and dramatic story anyway, but in 1998, 99, it was well before the internet was such a part of our lives and before we all had personal computers in our homes, but it was so prescient. It was the time everyone was thinking about the Millennium Bug and I started to think it would be the perfect story for the time, looking at our reliance on technology. I never got a production off the ground, but it was one of those things that hovered in the background of my mind. Then when I came to York I remember mentioning at the time that I thought it might be a good piece to do for the studio. I began investigating the rights and having conversations but it was just getting pushed back.

It has become a more relevant story year on year, the way that technology has grown and all the things that are in different formats, with skype and twitter and multi-channel conversations, all these things have become more and more every day for us. The idea that people are glued to their screens and we are becoming more isolated from each other – even in the world of theatre – makes it more relevant, the fact of increasing pollution in the world – in the story people have moved underground to escape pollution – makes it more relevant.

It just kept becoming more relevant and I kept pulling it out of the desk drawer and thinking that this is the one I really want to do. Eventually it all came together at the right point. The EM Forster estate came back and said that others were interested – which I did know – but they said because I had been so consistently in touch, they asked did I want to do it or not, because now was the time. I said ‘yes, let’s do it, let’s get on with it’.

It’s not one of his best known works is it?

People are surprised it’s E.M. Forster. I think this is his only foray into sci-fi. Although there are the hallmarks of his writing in this work, it is still very different in terms of its imaginative leap. It’s much closer to the work of HG Wells and writers of that ilk. People are surprised that they have never heard of it, I think that’s really interesting. In the auditions I asked every actor who came in if they knew the story before they had been called to the audition and I saw about 50 actors. There were only two who had. One who was quite young and she had studied it at school and the actor who is playing Vashti had read it at school many years before and it had really changed her relationship to literature. So it was only two out of the 50 actors that we auditioned who had actually heard of it before. Everybody was saying they couldn’t believe they hadn’t come across it before.

I think people think they should have heard about it.

Science Fiction. E.M. Forster. Shouldn’t it be unstageable?

Don’t say that! I think it’s a really dramatic story. In my career as a director I have done a number of adaptations and I read all the time. I’m a real reader. I very rarely come across something that makes me think ‘that would make a great stage play’. So when I do come across something and I do feel it, there’s usually something significant in it.

I know what you mean, from the description it ought to be essentially unstageable but it is really focussed on this one person’s room, Vashti, the woman who lives in her room on her own, so in terms of the story and initially staging it there is an easy solution – and actually every other room across the entire world is identical so it does work in terms of the simplicity of the staging.

Also the story hinges on a relationship between a mother and son – although it’s not quite how we might imagine a mother-son relationship might be, because it is so affected by the fact that they haven’t really grown up with each other and he’s not really been mothered by his mother . So you have those two things where you have a really strong relationship and a conflict at the centre, and the continuity of the staging means it’s actually not too big a challenge. It’s really stageable.

Have there been any complications in bringing it to the stage?

One thing has cropped up in the last few years: I thought initially I could tell the story with just the two main characters, Vashti and her son, but the more I got into it the more I thought the machine itself was such a massive and dominant and important part of the world that I felt it had to be more than two actors and there had to be something that gave you some of that sense of scale. It has become a cast of four, so that was something that did develop over the past few years about how best to put it on stage.

Tell me about working with John Foxx.

I was a massive fan of his back in the early eighties when I was very young and just loved his music.

I also picked up on the work he did later on. I had always felt like his music would really fit this piece. His music is so amazing and he’s such a pioneer of this electronic sound. He kind of paints pictures in your mind with his music, he really builds worlds for me. And he’s really inspired by that sense of dystopia and a predominance of the machine in his work and that dehumanising effect. I suppose he was just such a perfect fit – but I also thought it was a long shot to actually get him. Very fortunately a very old friend of mine had made contact with John’s son which meant we had a way through to his manager. I was able to get in touch with him, he read it when he was at school then re-read it when I put the proposal in and he hadn’t realised just how more relevant it had become so he said yes. It was really up his street then he brought Benge in so we could have a completely analogue score which is the real advantage of the two of them working together. Having both of them is exciting in itself and feels really appropriate to the piece.

It must feel like you’re really finding your feet with this piece.

I do feel like I’m coming into my own again because in the early part of my career when i ran my own company I was able to take my own ideas from scratch and work them up rather than produce established texts – which I also really love doing – it’s that thing of being able to take something and really make it your own. It’s also great to bring in a really multi-disciplinary approach to best deal with the form that you want and the content you want on stage, it feels really nice to be getting back to grips with the centre of my own creative process.

It must be an exciting time to be at York Theatre Royal?

We’ve got the secret bank holiday play which I’m one of the directors on at the end of May and in autumn I’m preparing for 2017 season which has been curated by a group of women including myself, with some interesting work coming up. I’ll be preparing and getting that in place.

 

It is a really exciting time. We do a range of work at York, but I think sometimes you have to push a bit to get the things you really want to do. Sometimes you can rely on being a bit too safe. We are heavily reliant on our box office income as a theatre, so we want to do things that we think people will want to see and things that are a bit more experimental, but I think something like The Machine Stops fits really nicely between those two things. So it is quite experimental and it is a fascinating story and a really strong writer.

 

JOHN FOXX – Composer

In some ways your involvement in a theatre show is a surprise, in others – it makes perfect sense! Why have you decided to be involved?

Well – I like the people involved in the project. Juliet is a true straight arrow. Firm but fair. She gets things done. I also like York and Yorkshire, having lived in Leeds for a while, when I lectured at the Art College there.

You’ve long been known as a musical innovator. Is that something we’ll hear when we come to the show?

Oh I hope so – Working with Benge again was a treat -we used some truly merciless electronica, as well as some fairly delicate treatments – The intention is for the music to feel like some shape-shifting 3D presence in the theatre.

I’m guessing you’re a fan of the book? I also assume that’s why you’ve said yes to the project?

That’s right – I read it when I was at school in 1964 – long before the internet arrived  You read it again now and it’s still so incredibly prescient – foretelling the web and its effects from 1909 is quite an achievement. Forster got it right.

Given your long musical career, is there a particular highlight for you?

Oh, I guess making Metamatic in a tiny studio in London and feeling completely alone and isolated. Then everything changing shortly afterwards, it all opened up like magic – electronics inexorably going from eccentricity to mainstream dominance. And it’s still going – everything is made like that now.

The great challenge now is how to maintain the humanity in there. I guess that’s always the problem with technology.

How does it feel to be a cult figure!?

Perilous.

With Ultravox and with your solo career and other projects, you’ve provided the background to a lot of lives. Is that particularly gratifying?

Well – given that so much luck and chance is inevitably involved,  things do seem to have worked out just fine for everyone. I like situations where there are no losers. That’s the only true satisfaction..

How involved are you hoping to be with the production?

Oh, Benge and I will need to do some fine tuning – but all with Juliet’s guiding hand.

Looking forward to seeing it on stage?

Very much.  And Mr Forster will be watching in the wings.
Ends

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