Playwright Interview: Nick Payne
Nick is a playwright and screenwriter who won the prestigious George Devine Award in 2009 with his play If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet. He made his debut at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010 with his comedy Wanderlust, followed in 20120 by his play Constellations, which transferred to the West End and won the Evening Standard Best Play Award. Constellations transferred to Broadway in 2015 to critical acclaim.
What is it about telling stories through theatre that really excites you?
I think, selfishly, there is probably a greater sense of immediate creative freedom and authorial autonomy than in film and TV. Also, you get to watch it happen, live, in the moment, with an audience. And you can make changes depending on the reactions, and those reactions can change you.
Scientific and philosophical theories often feature in your work, from quantum multiverse theory in Constellations to neuroscience in Incognito. Where does research fit into your creative process, and how do you balance the two?
When I had a lot of time on my hands (such as when I wasn’t making a living through my writing), I used to really take my time with research and luxuriate in it. Meeting people from a variety of interesting and eclectic professions is one of my favourite bits of the writing process. I like talking to people about their work.
In contrast to developing your own ideas for plays, what was the experience like of working with an existing text, when adapting Sophocles’ Electra?
Making the show was fun – I just can’t quite remember the writing of it all these years later. I read a lot of Greek plays, I enjoyed that. My knowledge of the canon is a bit lacking, so that was interesting. But also – who cares about the canon.
The structure of Constellations is highly complex and innovative. Can you share an insight into how you went about writing the play?
Lots of research. The form – or the structure – what is the difference exactly? – came from one of the central concerns, or ideas, of the play itself, that multiple versions of us exist across an array of universes. I therefore tried to make the form – or the structure – what is the difference exactly? – the shape? – embody that idea. I wanted to try and give the audience the giddy feeling of never-ending possibilities co-existing simultaneously, while also delivering the crushing realisation that all life is finite.
Also, I was bored of furniture on stage at this point (both seeing, and working with, it) and wanted to write a play which could, theoretically, be done with nothing.
One of the powerful things that all of connects your plays – whether we’re following ambulance chasers in The Same Deep Water As Me or a poignant wartime romance in One Day When We Were Young – is that they take your audiences on highly emotional journeys, as well as intellectually challenging ones. Do you have any advice for companies who are looking to perform your work?
I’m not sure I do. I’m inclined to say, have fun. But that sounds a bit unoriginal. I think I would probably say something like, try everything. As in, when you’re rehearsing, don’t be afraid, or feel self-conscious, about trying a version of a scene, or a moment, which feels completely opposite or counter-intuitive. Weird, odd, strange ideas – or ‘takes’ – on scenes can often reveal interesting things, or elements, about the scenes themselves, maybe even the play as a whole.
Don’t worry about what the play(s) mean – concern yourself with what your character(s) are doing to each other – and what you want the play to do to your audience(s).
What have been some of your favourite moments in seeing your work on stage?
The final performance of Constellations Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre was pretty special. I was sat behind ex-New Yorker critic John Lahr, and I spent the whole show nervously-as-fuck watching him scribble away on his New Yorker-branded notepad (at least, that is my memory of it now).
The production design for many of your professionally staged plays have been really memorable, from the use of water in Michael Longhurst’s Broadway production of If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and the use of balloons in Longhurst’s Royal Court production of Constellations. Do you have any suggestions for designers and directors about how to make productions of your plays their own?
Do whatever you want. Don’t think literally. Be as imaginative as your imagination allows (which I’ve no doubt is vast).
Who are your favourite writers?
Right now at this very moment in time, some of my favourite writers are… Bernard Maclaverty, Sally Rooney, Josh Cohen, Annie Baker, debbie tucker green, Rachel Cusk, Paul Broks, Alice Birch…
Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
Making sure I get to bed nice and early at 9.30pm or thereabouts.
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