A new play produced by Katie Jenkins of Exeter’s own Theatre With Teeth, written and co-directed with Niamh Smith by Will Jarvis, Sealed is an original play that opened to animated reviews in Exeter about seven strangers who find themselves invited to a house under dubious circumstances, knowing nothing of each other or why exactly they have been brought together.
Following the play’s success at venues like Exeter’s Boston Tea Party last year, Theatre With Teeth are taking Sealed to the OSO Arts Centre in London this June with performances on Monday 12th, Tuesday 13th and Wednesday 14th in Barnes.
I interviewed the play’s creator, Will Jarvis, about the play itself — his first serious project, and a successful one at that — his creative process, and more.
I began: ‘Have you been writing plays for a while now, with Theatre With Teeth or is this a new thing?’ ‘This is a relatively new thing,’ he said. ‘I’ve always been interested in writing and I’ve always written little short stories, and comic books and little screenplays, but just for fun. When I got to university I did a creative writing module which I really enjoyed but there was a definite emphasis on poetry.’ Will explained that while he loves reading poetry, he’s never been so good at writing it, and he was frustrated that there ‘wasn’t more of an emphasis on screenplays’, so he started writing experimental screenplays, scripts and shows. On Sealed’s conception, Will said ‘Sealed actually started as a sort of writing exercise — it started as having seven strangers interact in a room in a comedic way. I was never intending to put it on or develop it seriously; it was just a writing exercise for me, but it sort of transformed into something completely new. It is the first extended piece of theatre that I’ve written, yes.’
Being a new play and also Will’s first serious project and seemingly, created by way of something of a happy accident, I was particularly interested in Will’s creative process. ‘So there was no vision at first, this was simply a practice exercise in your own time?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, about last January, I was just doing it as a practice exercise in my own time and it was a bit like a snowball rolling down a hill. The more I started to write, the more characters started to come out of these experimental stereotypes and they evolved from one dimensional characters that would just say text trying to be funny to more fully fledged characters.’
Knowing relatively little of the work myself, I asked about Sealed now, about what it is trying to do. ‘So, there are seven characters who have all come together in this house. They know nothing about each other bar the fact that they have all been invited by somebody they don’t know and that they don’t know what their purpose in the house is. What’s it about, what’s it trying to do?’ Will replied: ‘It opens a mystery-led comedy really. It begins with six characters coming into a house an interacting as you’d expect them to interact — as six strangers — they all begin as stereotypes, sort of like The Breakfast Club … as the play evolves, we learn more about these characters, about their flaws, and how they contradict themselves as human beings. If I was to say the play was about one thing it would really be about human connection. At first, it looks at the small things.’
That the characters began as stereotypes interested me. I ventured: ‘So the play almost embodies the form, as it were, of the creative process itself? The characters develop before the audience as they did during the writing process as opposed to entering fully formed.’ ‘Yeah that’s the hope,’ Will said, ‘though it does start as a sort of character study, once the characters start questioning why they’re in the house in the first place — having been invited under such dubious circumstances — they begin to analyse themselves and those around them, and that gets really interesting.’
It’s an art form where people are put before everything else
I’m quite interested in writing myself but much more so in prose — screenplay and script seem to me quite daunting. I asked Will whether screenwriting and script were the forms he felt most comfortable with. ‘I suppose, when it comes to creating, writing scripts and screenplays is definitely where I am at my best,’ he said, ‘because I think it’s a very direct reflection of the real world. You might overhear two people having a conversation or you remember a conversation you had and you can very easily translate that into a script as it’s how we interact in the real world: one person says one thing, one person says another thing. I think in a lot of ways script is very close to the real world and I find it easiest to use that closeness and tweak it to create stories using this very direct form of communication between characters.’
While not a view I personally agree with (but then I have my own heavy prose-centric biases), I followed up asking: ‘So you think screenplay is the most unfiltered, as it were, transfer of human experience to form?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, definitely,’ Will replied, ‘which I think is why— with especially TV and Film [or the stage] — it’s so easy to become invested in characters. It’s an art form where people are put before everything else, I think, which, in terms of empathy, brings the audience on side very quickly.’ Will believes script and screenplay inspire the closest connection with character owing to their ascendancy on stage or screen relative to their environment and the directness of dialogue compared to, say, the focus on environmental description or internal monologue in prose.
Considering character, and the difficulties that must come with representing seven unique characters on stage, I asked: ‘Having seven distinct characters on stage who are properly different without overlapping qualities and having seven actors who are able to embody these unique identities must be challenging. How have you worked with the actors?’ Will explains that as director and writer, he was able to draw up two timelines for every character. One an immensely detailed general timeline of that character’s life, ‘from the minute they were born, until they enter the stage,’ which included ‘their upbringing, their education, their sort of social class’, in essence, all of their given circumstances, and another which tracks their actions throughout the play which ‘looks at their arcs, how they interact with other people, their various motives and what they think of everyone else there.’ Himself and Niamh, Will explains, would explain these timelines to each actor one-and-one, and they did this with the whole cast. ‘I think it’s important to have a one-on-one relationship with all the cast,’ he said. Will described his favourite aspect of the play as ‘the moment when the characters start noticing their similarities and differences, those moments when you start noticing “oh, Charlie just looked at Felicity in a way that he couldn’t look at Amy”,’ or “both of these characters would find that joke funny”.’
I was curious as to how the play progressed narratively, that is, what was the driving force? Was it simply the complexities of character? Will explained: ‘In Act I they try to find out who invited them together, and this is them interacting as people and we really start to see their characters flesh out. Without spoiling much, the seventh character arrives, and drops a hint about why they’re all there and suddenly that becomes the motive for a lot of the characters. Some of the characters become very focussed on this end goal, whereas other characters are more about having fun, and they don’t really care why they’re here.’ Sounds an apt reflection of life indeed.
With the view to informing and encouraging prospective writers, I asked Will for a summary of how Sealed went from ideas to the page to the stage. He recollected how he told his friend Simon Marshall, who is on the Theatre with Teeth committee, about how he was just writing a ‘little passion project’ and Simon encouraged him to polish it up and submit it. Sure enough, Theatre With Teeth accepted the proposal and Will asked for a co-director, Niamh, ‘because I knew that I had to have a co-director,’ Will said, as ‘having a second eye is very useful throughout the rehearsal process.’
Feeling genuinely curious, I asked: ‘What would be your advice to somebody that’s never done anything like this but would like to try? To somebody (like me) who’s not even sure where stage directions go on the page relative to dialogue or how any of this works?’ Will said: ‘I would literally just say, and it sounds so obvious, but just start. Because I didn’t have training. I’d read about writing and kind of watched tutorials and videos and only really learnt properly after I’d started. The first thing that I wrote — I barely knew how to write at all — I’d just written random things throughout my life. I think everyone should try and write. It doesn’t have to be a play; just creating something is so important so I’d say start. Another piece of advice I’d give is, say you’ve written something and want to propose it, distance yourself from that piece. If it gets rejected it can feel quite easy for you to feel rejected but remember, that’s not what’s happened at all. It’s very easy to become quite personally and passionately attached to project like that so I think it is healthy to distance yourself and think “my work is not me, I wrote it, but it doesn’t represent me”.’
Lastly, Will said that if you feel at all creative, that it’s very important to grasp those moments. You might be on a train journey late at night or tired of working on some dreary afternoon in a coffee shop, it doesn’t matter where or when. If you feel impelled to create — then do.