“I really want people to have better conversations” – Samuel Ross talks with writer and performer Chris Thorpe on nationhood, privilege, and the B word…
One of the highlights of this spring’s EnableUS festival at the Drama Studio is the fringe play Status, written and performed by renowned theatre-maker Chris Thorpe, and created in collaboration with acclaimed director Rachel Chavkin. It explores what it means to be a member of a country, how people feel about this, and what happens when someone tries to reject this identity. The show was the subject of much discussion at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was awarded a Scotsman Fringe First Award. Ahead of its upcoming UK tour, I sat down with Chris to talk about how he created the piece and how the show resonates against the backdrop of a certain political climate…
How did the idea for Status come about?
I guess I started thinking about it around the end of 2015 – so it was pre-Brexit referendum – and originally the idea for the show was about what it actually means to be from somewhere, from a country, and how that country judges loyalty to itself. But obviously as the referendum loomed closer, I started to think more generally about what Britain judged to be British because there was a lot of talk about what we mean when we say we’re British.
To a white liberal like me, who is inherently suspicious about any talk about nationality, it was something that I wanted to walk away from. This conversation about what British values were and what the values of a theoretically more independent UK might be, I found really problematic and distasteful.
I started thinking about the psychology of nationality, and actually the necessity of having conversations about what it means to be somewhere. Because it is absolutely true, in that classic kind of woolly liberal way, that nationality is arbitrary, that borders are arbitrary – it is an attractive idea to live in a world without them. But it’s also undeniable that they might be made up, but they’re actually real. And if we don’t have a conversation about what it means to be from the places within those borders, then we’re leaving that conversation to people who are going to do terrible and exclusionary things with it. So I guess the show is about my attempt to force myself to have a conversation with myself about what my Britishness actually meant.
The central narrative of the show follows someone called ‘Chris’ as he tries to get rid of his nationality, and ends up travelling to places all across the globe. How did you go about creating this narrative?
Every place that I go to and every person that ‘Chris’ speaks to in the show is based on somewhere I’ve been, someone I’ve spoken to. I spoke to a lot of people, particularly in the UK, in Germany, but also globally, about their feelings about their nationality. Sometimes I kind of smash those things together – people appear in impossible ways, or they appear in places that they wouldn’t be. But those conversations, even though sometimes they might be in the mouth of an animal or happening in a different place, are all based on truth.
The reason it came out as a kind of global journey was because it felt like a fun challenge to do a show that is a kind of impossible journey – there’s a kind of magic realism to it. Having to plausibly explain how we get from one point to another.
The reason why I’m talking about a guy called ‘Chris’ instead of me is because it sets up a nice thing during the show – of course that guy’s me. He has my name, he’s doing things that I did, he’s talking to people I talked to. He is also an idiot, and I think there’s something really useful in that little suggestion in the show that I can’t quite admit he’s me, because I’m ashamed at the kind of naivety of the things that I think. So there’s a whole thing there about really consciously and publicly disavowing responsibility for the stupidest side of myself.
There’s something interesting in this idea of how a white privileged person can feel this sense of embarrassment.
Yeah, there is a way in which that is about embarrassment. But also there’s a way in which that has to go beyond that, because embarrassment isn’t useful for anyone. Me, or anyone, standing on a stage and saying that, yes, I recognise the problematic things about what I am in the context of the world, has to go further than me saying I am embarrassed about that. Because what does anyone gain [from that]? It’s much more useful to think about, given that this is the real situation, what is the most positive thing to do. Otherwise you’re asking people to recognise that you recognise that you’re a problem – but that doesn’t help anyone.
How did the show develop in the rehearsal room? What was the rehearsal process like?
It was similar to the way in which I’ve worked with Rachel Chavkin before – we’ve got a collaborative relationship that goes back over a number of years now. She’s very good at guiding the rehearsal process by setting assignments. Certainly the early stages of the rehearsal process we don’t put any pressure on ourselves to come up with the overall arc of the piece. What we do is really instinctively go towards the bits of our research that feel interesting, and then Rachel is really good at setting homework. We will talk in the morning; she will set me some assignments. I will then write all day, and then she’ll come back in the evening. I will share what I’ve written, we will do some editing and we’ll talk about what happens on the next day, until we kind of get the thing on its feet in the room. That’s how the script is developed.
And with this show, there was the extra element of having song-writing in it, which is something that I’ve used in shows before, but in a much more limited way. So we have the extra dimension of her being able to set assignments about me writing songs about various things, which was really good. And then we end up with this huge bank of material that somehow suggests a journey through it.
In terms of rehearsal, one of the things that Rachel is really good at is not letting you get away with stuff – she doesn’t allow me to feel comfortable in a rehearsal room, in a really good way. I never get to fall back on the kind of lazy default of just doing the things I know I’m good at, so it’s always a challenge.
What has the response been like to the show so far – anything surprising or notable?
I haven’t done the show since Edinburgh, so I’ll be really interested to see what the answer to that question is. It’s always a real learning experience the first time you take something out on the road, after it has been at a festival. What I’m gonna learn, I don’t know.
Finally, why should people come and see Status?
I think that the show opens up conversations that are even more vital for people who are at that earlier stage in their political lives. I am really fucked off with the way that people of my generation and older are having these conversations, and in a really selfish way I really want people to have better conversations that lead to better situations than we’re in at the moment.
But mainly because I think they’ll have fun. They’re not coming along to be lectured about the best way to do things or for me to lay out my carefully researched political conclusions; they’re coming to be part of an ongoing and open conversation about what we are going to do with the fact of our nationality now.
Image Credit: The Other Richard