Q&A: Ben Ellis

Ben Ellis is an Australian playwright currently living in the UK.

His plays include Poet No 7 and The Final Shot, both of which were staged at Battersea’s Theatre 503.

His current project is 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, a commission for this year’s Latitude Festival.

Tell us about 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. How did you get involved with the project?

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover is a silly, sometimes serious, theatrical catalogue of break-ups, written by five playwrights. Including me. The others are Leah Chillery, Stacey Gregg, Ben Schiffer and Lucy Kirkwood. We’ve each written plays that people at the Bush have found exciting, and so Anthea Williams, our director, decided to invite us all in to get a taste of writing for and at the Bush. They also dangled the very juicy carrot of Latitude tickets.

Part of the process of writing our scenes included people submitting tales of their own break-ups to the Latitude Festival site. People get very funny – ha-ha as well as peculiar – about their break-ups. I think we’ve done a lot of riffing on that awkward side of it. Some people try unsuccessfully to leave their lover, too, but that still counts as a way. Simply an unsuccessful way.

How collaborative was the writing process?

We met for an afternoon every fortnight to read each other’s material. You’d get to bounce ideas off one another. Test out things or talk through problems. Anthea, the director, and Jane, the dramaturg, would then set us writing tasks for the next fortnight. Some of us wrote a couple of things together, but we mostly wrote alone with the knowledge that our first audience was each other. Each of us has quite an individual voice, but there’s a kind of dynamic of the whole group lurking beneath every line of this project.

50 Ways To Leave Your Lover is a commission for the Latitude Festival. Are you much of a festival-goer? Any good festival stories?

Went to the Wireless Festival mainly to see the White Stripes in Hyde Park last year, which makes me sound like an urban wimp. Before that, it was the ATP festival in Minehead that The Dirty Three curated. That was brilliant, all in a Butlins holiday camp, too. Okay. So I am an urban wimp. I like showering. But at ATP last year, coming back from a quick trip into Minehead, I was heading back to the main tent through a very silly fairground that was pumping the Cheeky Girls out of speakers disguised as toadstools. Bobby Gillespie (who was performing with Grinderman) was there with three small children, who insisted on making him bop along. Watching Bobby Gillespie dance sheepishly to the Cheeky Girls amongst toadstools still brings a smile to my face. I swear I hadn’t eaten any toadstools. Or licked any.

How does the theatre scene in Melbourne compare to London?

It’s a bit like comparing apples to a quince tree. The Melbourne scene, as with Australian theatre in general, suffers from chronic underfunding and there’s very little support for producing premieres of plays. Because of this, the fringe in Melbourne is the pointy end, where a lot of the interesting things happen, often quite radical in terms of direction and design. That’s really promising and vibrant.

The London scene isn’t so much the Big Apple but the Big Orchard. Its size reflects something of the prominence of the city itself, and yet smaller theatres like the Bush manage to punch above their weight. I can’t think of another city that would have a theatre like the Bush producing plays like Tinderbox followed by 2000 Feet Away and then bringing a show like 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover back from a festival like Latitude. So along with the Bush, you’ve got companies like the Royal Court, paines plough, Theatre503, nabakov, simultaneously generating and attracting fantastic artists. It’s a huge, hopeful, diverse place.

Any other future plans or projects you want to share with us?

I’ve got a show coming up in Melbourne called THE ZOMBIE STATE in September, a combination of political theatre and zombie horror film conventions originally commissioned by a company called Melbourne Workers Theatre. That’s been boiling away for about four years, so that’s going to be great. There are some other plays I’m getting desperate to write about British politics but I need to find the time and cash and the usual yada-yada-yada…

On another, unrelated, note I’m running in the British 10K London Run on July 6 to help raise funds for Diabetes UK. Anybody like to sponsor me? We people with type one diabetes need all the research help we can get.

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