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!?


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.


Interview with Chip Shop Chips playwright Becky Prestwich

Becky Prestwich

What is Chip Shop Chips about?

After his father’s death, Eric, a 60 something drifter, has come home to re-open the family Chip Shop. He wants to re-vamp the place and turn it into the kind of trendy chippy that serves Halloumi as the veggie option. On the restaurant’s opening night, Eric’s childhood sweetheart, Christine, turns up. They haven’t seen each other in over 40 years. Christine’s a Grandma – and a widow now. Neither she nor Eric has lived the life they imagined they would, and she’s wondering if there’s still time for one last big romance… Alongside Christine and Eric, we see Lee and Jasmine – two eighteen year olds who may or may not be about to kiss for the first time. So, really it’s a play about memory and possibility and first love and nostalgia.

 Why Fish and Chips?

I think fish and chips are brilliant. They manage to be both totally ordinary and a treat at the same time – I guess because they’re cheap but bad for you. They’re also strangely wholesome – I feel much less guilty feeding my kids fish and chips than I would giving them a McDonalds. For most British people, fish and chips are rich in memories – sharing a bag of chips with your first boyfriend because you can’t afford to actually eat out or windswept, rainy holidays in the Lake District or the first night in a new house before you’ve unpacked the pots and pans. Fish and chips are about comfort and family. They conjure a kind of instant nostalgia – and that kind of nostalgia seems to be everywhere at the moment from retro beards to vintage everything. I thought a Chippy might be an interesting world through which to explore ideas about tradition and family, nostalgia and aspiration and how the world has changed (and how its stayed the same).

What inspired you to write this play?

The idea first came to me when I was pregnant. For the first few months of the pregnancy, I could only stomach chips and the occasional cheese sandwich. So, I was spending a lot of time in chip shops. And one night – before a Box of Tricks production actually – my husband and I ate at the Olympus Fish and Chip Shop opposite Bolton Octagon. I was immediately struck by what a fantastic place for people watching it was. It was a place where people come together. I liked the idea of the story playing out while the audience ate. And straight away, I knew it would be a story about family and falling in love.

 How does the play fit in with your previous work?

I write about food a lot. I come from the kind of family where if someone is feeling low, you offer them a sandwich. So, this play definitely connects with that. I’m also really interested in every day drama, stories that seem small but which are somehow exploring what it means to be alive and part of society. Also, I used to work in the participation team of a theatre and I think this play connects to that – I wanted to write something that anyone could come and see and enjoy, including people who might never normally dream of stepping inside a theatre. It was important to me that the play felt truthful and was about lots of memories of fish and chips, not just my own, so we worked with community groups and youth theatres from both the Bolton Octagon and the Royal Exchange as part of the development of the play.

 What do you hope audiences will get from watching the play?

Well, Eric fancies himself as a bit of a showman and he is determined that everyone is going to have a good night. So, there’s a quiz, a bit of Northern Soul and some terrible fish puns. Alongside that, you’ll have these two love stories unfolding, which will hopefully capture something of what it feels like to be young and falling in love for the first time. I hope audiences have a good night out and come away with a full heart. And you get to eat chips.

How did you get into writing?

My Mum’s a writer and for years, that made me very determined not to be one. I saw myself as a creative person and just doing what my Mum did for a living didn’t seem to be a very creative choice. I worked for a long time as the Young People’s Programme Leader at the Royal Exchange. It was an absolutely brilliant job. It was incredibly rewarding and creative and I learnt a lot about how theatre works from my time there. But I couldn’t resist writing. I wrote bits for the young people I worked with and in my spare time, I wrote for myself too. I sent my first full length play to Box of Tricks Theatre and loved the experience of seeing something I’d written come to life on stage. So, I kept writing. I did more theatre projects, including more work with Box of Tricks and I also started engaging with the Writersroom at the BBC which got me into writing for radio and then TV. Eventually, I realised it was time to leave my job and admit that I was a writer whether I liked it or not.

How does it feel to see your work on the stage?

I write a bit for telly and for radio too and it is always a revelation to see what actors can bring to a script. But there is something uniquely brilliant about being in an audience, and seeing and feeling people around you respond to something you’ve created. It’s magical when the audience laugh in places you hadn’t anticipated or gasp at something you didn’t realise was quite that shocking. It’s also completely and utterly terrifying and with theatre the fear never quite lifts because even if the audience clapped last night, tonight they might hate it. But that’s the risk you have to take. My favourite bit is afterwards if you overhear the audience talking about what they’d have done in that situation or reminiscing about a similar story from their own lives – that’s what you’re looking for, to create something that connects.

 How involved are you in your plays?

This was a fantastic process because it was very collaborative from the outset. I went to Box of Tricks with the seed of an idea and we worked on building the world together. Even so, I still feel that when the final draft is in – you are kind of done. I like to be around rehearsals, partly because it is a genuine joy to watch actors work their magic, but I think there’s a point where you have to step back and let other people own your script. It’s good to be there to facilitate the process – to tweak anything that isn’t working and to answer any questions but often I think the answers I have are less interesting than the answers the rest of the creative team go on to discover for themselves.

Which playwrights inspired you?

I saw my first Chekhov’s The Seagull as a teenager and have never got over it –Chekhov writes real people who are funny and flawed and heart-breaking and for me, that’s the holy grail. It’s also difficult to be a Mancunian playwright and not be inspired by Simon Stephens.

 What do you hope Box of Tricks will bring to your play?

I love working with Box of Tricks. Adam directed the first full length play that I wrote and they’re a fantastic company for new writers. They care about every word of your play as much as you do.  They’re also a company who care deeply about their audiences –and about finding the right way for an audience to experience each play. When I first talked to them about Chip Shop Chips I didn’t know quite what I wanted the play to be, they immediately saw the potential for a tour to unusual venues, engaging new audiences.  They also have a real knack for bringing together talented people – they always find the actors and creatives who will really get your play.

What was the best bit of advice you were given when you started out?

It isn’t really advice about writing directly but… As a person, I’m not great at going outside of my comfort zone and as I got older and started having to take part in more grown up, social activities against my will, my Mum would say to me, ‘it’s all good copy, darling’. I think there is something in that… We get a bit obsessed with this idea of writers as reclusive artists – tucked away reading plays and working on their craft, but really for me being a writer isn’t about language, it’s about understanding and empathising with people – trying to get inside what makes them tick. To do that you have to properly engage with the world – even if on one level, you’d rather be at home reading a book.

Why should people come and see the play

People should come and see the play for a good night out. Hopefully there are moments which will make you think but ultimately this is a warm-hearted play which will leave you with a full belly and a bit of a smile.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a new theatre project called the Girl from Ward Four. It’s about a teenage girl who is in recovery from anorexia, who falls in love with a boy she meets at a Child and Adolescent Mental Health unit. So, another love story – and in a way another play about food too.

Finally two very important questions –

 Where is your favourite fish and chip shop?

It has to be the chip shop down the end of my road – it’s less than 2 minutes from my front door. Life-saver.

What is your favourite sauce to go on your chips?

I like chips with salt, vinegar, mushy peas and absolutely nothing else. For me, putting ketchup on proper chip shop chips is sacrilegious.

Playwright Emma Reeves – Snow Child

Emma Reeves headshot (1)

Q&A with playwright and television writer Emma Reeves.

How did you get involved in writing Snow Child for tutti frutti?

Wendy Harris, the director, very kindly asked me – I was thrilled to be involved. I’ve seen some of Tutti Frutti’s shows and they’re delightful.


If you have to sum up the play in 3 words what would they be?

Family, magic, snow. It’s for families, obviously, but it’s also about family and what having a family means, for children and for parents. Magic is an important element too – I want the show to feel magical, in the way that it feels magical when you wake up the morning after a snowfall and the world has changed. And yes, snow’s the third word. I know it’s obvious but I just can’t miss out the snow! It’s what the story’s all about…


How does Snow Child stand out in a crowded children’s show market?

I know there are a lot of brilliant children’s shows out there but Tutti Frutti are a very special company. They really want to encourage children to develop their imaginations. It’s not about massive sets and budgets or Hollywood names, it’s about brilliantly talented actor-musicians telling a story with loads of charm and heart. 


Why should audiences come and see the production?

I hope that it will encourage children to see the enormous potential of story-telling, and inspire them to play and tell their own stories. And I hope adults will enjoy the clever theatricality of it all – seeing the story told by a small cast of actor-musicians on a simple but brilliant set.



Why did you mainly write for children and not adults?

I was a fanatical reader as a child, and I’ve never forgotten how important my favourite stories and characters were to me – well, they still are! So getting to write for children is the greatest privilege, really.


What are the challenges of writing for children?

I know a lot of children’s writers say this, but when I’m writing I’m thinking about myself as an audience member – what would entertain me, what’s funny, what’s dramatic, what’s interesting, what’s boring? Obviously there are strong rules about appropriate content, especially when you’re writing for children’s TV, but in general the challenges are the same as writing for adults – keeping stories and characters feeling fresh, meaningful and engaging. Giving people a reason to keep watching!


What are the difference  between writing for television and theatre and which do you prefer?

Theatre is much more immediate – you have a lot more contact with the actors and you can try things out on the spot to see if they work. You also get to experience audiences’ reactions, night after night. It’s very visceral and in the moment but when it’s gone, it’s gone. Which is part of the joy but also a bit heartbreaking – recordings of a theatre performance are never quite the same. TV exists forever and you also have the fun of writing lots of episodes for the same characters and seeing the actors develop their characters over many years and different stories.


How important is theatre for young children?

I think it’s really important. Getting the experience of seeing live performers is something that stays with you all your life. I still remember when theatre companies came into my school to perform when I was young. I remember seeing a show called “Smash and Grab” when I was about 7 and being entranced. We had to bring in 50p each to pay for it, but nobody was excluded from the show so I guess there must have been provision made for the kids whose parents couldn’t afford it. So it was affordable for all the children to watch. With all the cuts to arts funding, I’ve heard that theatre in schools is happening less and less and that’s a real shame.


Who do you feel are the more difficult audiences to please – children or adults?

I don’t know which are more difficult to please, but children are very discerning and very honest.


How did you get into writing plays?

I used to be in drama groups as a teenager and then I acted in loads of plays at university and was an actor for a short time. I wanted to act, but writing was always calling me – I loved working on the group projects we devised for GCSE and A level drama. I wrote an adaptation of one of my favourite children’s books, Little Women, and put it on with a group of friends. I also sent a script to BBC Wales, which eventually led to a job writing for The Story of Tracy Beaker, the first of many jobs I’ve done with CBBC.


What have been the highlights of your career?

Adapting Jacqueline Wilson’s “Hetty Feather” was a definite highlight – I worked on the stage adaptation, devising it with director Sally Cookson and a group of brilliant actors and musicians, and have also been lucky enough to write a few episodes of the TV version. I also loved working on an adaptation of “Carrie’s War” which played in the West End and on tour. And I’m very proud of “Eve”, a TV show about a robot which I co-created for CBBC.


What is the most important piece of advice you could give someone who is thinking of starting to write plays?

I know everyone says this, but it’s true. Read loads, listen and watch as much as you can. Try to get to the theatre as much as you can but if you can’t afford it, get books from the library, watch TV, listen to radio, watch stuff on the internet. Join a drama group if you can, acting really teaches you how a play works. And write as much as you can, all the time – writers are lucky in that it’s something you can do on your own and it’s free…


What are you working on next?

 A new adaptation of “The Worst Witch” for CBBC.  And series 2 of “Eve”.