Ideastap Underbelly Award winner Ben Norris Speaks to Theatrefullstop about his latest work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family!

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With Ideastap sadly closing its doors on July 8th this year, it’s fair to say that the arts charity has changed the artistic landscape for the better. One of its greatest legacies is the Ideastap Underbelly Award, an award that affords for 4 writers and performers to stage, market, develop and perform their work to theatre loving crowds. Ahead of his run of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family, Theatrefullstop speaks to award recipient Ben Norris about the process of writing poetry and plays, themes tackled within the play and the emotional aspect of creating and performing the piece.


Hi Ben! You’re set to perform your latest work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family at this year’s Edinburgh Festival (Underbelly Cowgate). How are you feeling ahead of the performance?

I’m feeling good. I mean, I’m also exhausted and drowning in Edinburgh admin but, when I get a second to think about the fringe itself and performing the show there it’s incredibly exciting. I’ve wanted to take a show to Edinburgh for a long time and I’m delighted that it’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family – it’s immensely personal to me, so the prospect of performing it to (hopefully) thousands of people is really invigorating.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family is the winner of the Ideastap Underbelly Award. How does it feel to have won?

It’s a huge honour. At past fringes, I’ve seen one or two shows that have previously won the Award and really enjoyed them so I’m in excellent, humbling, company. And, it’s an especially massive honour – albeit one tinged with sadness – to have won the Award in its, and IdeasTap’s, final Edinburgh season. I hope I do them proud.

Your show tackles themes such as identity, masculinity, love and loss. What inspired you to create a piece containing these themes?

It all stems from my relationship with my dad. He isn’t much of a talker, particularly about matters of the heart, whereas I write bloody poetry! So, when exploring how and why it is that we’re so different, I inevitably started considering our relationship with our feelings as a society, particularly what relationship men have with their feelings and how they articulate them – what are the cultural expectations across generations? etc. – and whether this is a healthy thing. Love is a fairly self-explanatory one; my love for my dad, and my desire to get to know him better, are what drove me to make this piece. Loss is slightly less obviously present as a surface theme (nobody dies!) but it’s still hugely important; various things are lost – relationships, sanity, senses of direction in Bedford town centre – and it’s through these losses that greater gains are made. Potentially. No spoilers.

How did you approach the writing process for the show?

It was almost entirely based on the hitchhike I went on to each of the places my dad lived when he was growing up. So I kept a notebook while I was on this journey, as well as filming a lot of it, and then when I got back I wrote the show inspired by the ‘characters’ I’d met (in every sense), the things I’d discovered, and I incorporated some of the footage from the hitchhike as projections in the final show.

Your show draws from real life experiences, placing an emphasis on a father/son relationship. Has the process of bringing the page to the stage been an emotional one?

Hugely. This stuff is so important to me and, writing about it, let alone performing it to a room full of (mostly) strangers necessitates a certain amount of vulnerability. But, that vulnerability is generally rewarded because it turns out that a lot of people have similar questions about their relationships. I’ve found that by sharing my thoughts and feelings on me and my dad with an audience that they, in some subtle, obviously non-verbal way, tend to make themselves vulnerable too. That softening, a mutually openness, is a beautiful thing, and I aspire to it every time I perform.

You’re a poet as well as a playwright. Do you approach creating poetry and plays differently or the same?

Very differently. A poem is often a moment, distilled and explored – usually there is only one central idea running through it, and one principal metaphor. Whereas a play takes a moment as its impetus and builds a much bigger narrative from that in a series of new moments. Essentially, one takes a lot more planning and work than the other! I often write poems – or at least a first draft – in one sitting, whereas that would almost never happen with a good play, unless the idea had been brewing for a while and you found yourself in a particularly Beethovian fury! Which isn’t to say writing poems is easier than plays, it’s just a different skill.

What shows are you looking forward to seeing at this year’s festival?

Antler are back up there with a new piece, which I’ll definitely see. Their Where The White Stops which won the IT/UB Award in 2013 was beautiful. I want to see Jack Rooke‘s show Good Grief, and Rob Auton‘s stuff is always lovely. Daniel Kitson is a must, and I’ll also be going (again) to see Iphigenia in Splott which I saw in its original run at the Sherman in Cardiff in May. It is staggeringly good.

What advice would you give to aspiring poets and playwrights?

Do it. Don’t talk about doing it. Do it. Write stuff, write more, edit it, perform it, or get actors to read it aloud, and send it to people: theatres, publishers, individuals whose advice and feedback you can solicit. You have to make yourself vulnerable and give yourself the opportunity to fail in order ever to have the opportunity to succeed. You might be the best writer on earth, but if no one’s ever read or heard or seen your work, how will you win your Pulitzer Prize? C’mon. Also, read a lot yourself / see a lot of theatre. I don’t know a single good writer, in any genre, who isn’t also a voracious reader/watcher. Write what you would want to read/see, not what you think others want to read/see, because it will reek of disingenuousness and artificiality, falling in to a no man’s land between the two, and end up something that truly speaks to no one.

Interview by Lucy Basaba.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family will be shown at the Underbelly Cowgate (Big Belly), 56 Cowgate, Edinburgh, EH1 1EG from Thursday 6th to Sunday 30th August 2015 (not 18th), 4.40pm. For more information on the production, visit here…

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