“I thought, there’s got to be a play in that.”
The third performance part of the New Writers’ Festival is When John Met Joseph. I spoke to the writer and director Chris Field all about directing his first play and his historical influences.
So, let’s start by summarising the play!
Essentially it’s what could have happened in 1949 if Stalin decided not to kill John Wayne and instead watched ‘Rocky IV’. The only solution would be to have a boxing match where the winner wins the Cold War. Stalin and Wayne meet before this match and realise they have some things in common and they fall in love. That’s pretty much the plot!
This is such a crazy idea – where did it come from?
I studied A-Level History where we looked at propaganda and Soviet Russia. Stalin has a love of films, for instance, he loved Tarzan. Stalin hated John Wayne because Wayne attacked Stalin in speeches, and it’s famously reported Stalin drunkenly shouted “I want John Wayne dead” so there were actually assassins sent out to kill Wayne. It took fifteen years for that order to be taken back. I read that and I thought: ‘there’s got to be a play in that’.
As it’s gone along I have veered from natural history – I can’t say without spoiling. I tried to get as many real facts into the play as possible…as you do the research you start to realise how mad they both are in their personalities; so many stories! It’s a bit educational. For the kids, you know.
I wanted to do something Golden-era Hollywood, though I’m not sure where Rocky comes from. But it’s iconic, it’s showy and everyone knows it. The play uses a lot of music and dance/movement pieces. It’s really physical and energetic.
Did you always set out for it to be fast-paced?
I don’t think I’m very good at writing comedic dialogue, so it was a struggle to work out how I wanted it to run – funnily enough, this is the only play in the festival which is a straight comedy. I always wanted limited dialogue, with snappy scenes and movement to break it up. The cast is made up of Stalin, Wayne, their lackeys, and the ensemble who multi-role. One minute they’re assassins and the next they’re people on the film set. And I knew I wanted to have a lot of music in it; with Western films you have these iconic soundtracks, and I want to create that atmosphere in the Pinter like an ‘80s boxing film or Western, and play around with it. Music immediately transports you into that world and mindset so there’s three different genres used: Soviet choir music, Western film songs, and a mixture of Hollywood show tunes.
How was the writing process for you?
I wanted the play to run in a three-act state: the prologue, the love, and the boxing match itself. I knew in advance what I wanted: the scenes [Hollywood and Russia] to mirror each other in the prologue, maybe conversations having very similar lines, so I spent a lot of time planning that.
I reference other plays and films…there’s euphemisms. It’s a very raunchy play! But there are moments I want where I want it to be serious. The last scene is heart-breaking.
I’m curious as to how you’re going to show both Hollywood and Soviet Russia…
I did have big dreams of the set which distinctly shows Hollywood and Moscow and blends the two together. So it starts with the two places being very different, and as the play goes along you start to be less sure of where you are. It’s like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the forest where anything could happen. There is a lot of red and yellow for Russia and blue and white for the USA. I realised this wasn’t achievable with colour though, as some pieces of set are rolled on and off within minutes, so it is hard to fit an obvious colour scheme in with time and budget, and there are a lot of props to keep an eye on.
What has directing been like?
It’s my first-time directing, and it has become easier as I’ve gone along. I didn’t really know what to do at the beginning so I used drama games. We spend around half an hour at the beginning of every rehearsal playing games, so by the end of that we are out of breath, sweaty, a bit exhausted. That’s the state I want them in for rehearsals – the best improvisation comes out during those moments. I’m very open with improvisation with the cast and they’ve all jumped straight ahead and thrown stuff out, taking the script and running with it, so it’s less about the script and more about directing the movement.
I’ve also only been giving the cast the script for each scene as we go along (partly because I want them to focus, and partly because I’m rewriting bits). Because of this, there’s a sense of eagerness from the cast in rehearsals because they get to read a new part of the play, which makes me feel confident. It’s has been stressful, but the most fun!
‘When John Met Joseph’ will be performed on Saturday 4th March at 5:30pm in the Pinter Studio. The cast includes Andrew Bourne, Cameron Szerdy, Beth Graham, Danny Santos, Alice Wilson, Lydia Williams, Rebecca Sangs, Rhea Doshi, Melissa Rutnagur, and Cora Katz.
Tickets can be booked now at www.qmtc.co.uk