Living Newspaper Clippings: Transcript of Ruby Thomas and Chris Thorpe in conversation

This is the transcript of the recorded conversation between writers Ruby Thomas and Chris Thorpe, recorded as part of the Royal Court Living Newspaper Clippings series. This conversation was recorded in February 2021. 

Chris Thorpe: Hi, my name’s Chris and I was one of the writers on Living Newspaper Edition #1.

Ruby Thomas: I’m Ruby and I was a writer on Living Newspaper Edition #2.

Chris: Hi Ruby.

Ruby: Hello Chris, how are you doing?

Chris: I’m doing all right, how are you?!

Ruby: Not bad, you know, not bad, just very much still locked down, like we all are!

Chris: Nice to see into each other’s houses, though, isn’t it? Occasionally?

Ruby: Yeah, I always forget that people…I don’t spend enough time thinking about the weird insight that people are getting into my bedroom!

Chris: Well, I can see that you’ve got pictures on the wall but because of the lighting I can’t see what the content of any of those pictures are. 

Ruby: That’s lucky! Good I’m doing some self-censoring through my lighting!

Chris: So how was it for you then, the Living Newspaper? You were week two weren’t you?

Ruby: Yes exactly, I was week two. I don’t know how you found it, but it was sort of unlike any other writing experience because of the way that it happened…I remember the first time I heard about the whole concept – I think it was in an email from Vicky Featherstone just outlining where it had come from. And then I think there was a first Zoom where she showed us what the design collective had come up with in terms of the space and all the different ideas they’d had about the building. And it was a unique way to be introduced to a project you were maybe going to take part in because it really felt like it came from the design in lots of ways. I was really inspired and excited by the way they were seeing all the different spaces and thinking about subculture and the sub-stage, and dates and the bar and horoscopes and I hadn’t…I didn’t think I would have conceptualised it exactly as they did without that stimulus. What about you? How did you come to it?

Chris: No, I remember that really clearly as well. It was kind of a weird mixture, wasn’t it? I mean, because I was part of the group for Edition #1, I guess there was an additional layer of, like, not quite knowing if any of it would work in terms of…it’s not like you can come to something like this (which hasn’t really been done before in this way) with a  preconceived system that, you know, is workable 100%, and then everyone just picks up their bit and goes with it. I mean, I’m sure for Edition #2 as well, there was that added little buzz of like “Is any of this even going to work?!” Well, I fully agree that for me, the thing that made me eventually go “Ah, yeah, I think we’ve got this” was the design collective, and the way that they had obviously done such an incredible amount of work and the team at the Royal Court who are kind of realising that and arranging everything. 

Ruby: Yeah. 

Chris: I mean…being part of a group of writers, some of whom I knew, and some of whom I didn’t know at all, there was also a kind of brilliant tension we had to negotiate between, (I’ll be interested to hear what your experience of this was) but for me it was between wanting to be yourself, and having to be yourself, and actually being given really specific things to do (because you and I did the weather room). So obviously we’re focusing very much on the climate crisis in that room. But having to balance your own voice…your own writing voice and your own thoughts about how the thing as a whole could be done, against allowing everyone else their autonomy, so everyone could be as autonomous as possible but find a way to speak with a single voice across the whole thing as well. Because the writing wasn’t really collaborative because we were all doing our own bits, but the experience was completely collaborative. And I just absolutely…I was all at sea to start with but I was absolutely fascinated with (and loved) the process of, as a group, kind of allowing each other autonomy while finding that voice across the whole piece…while at the same time, actually, not meeting in the middle, like not doing that thing of “compromise”, where we all ended up speaking with this unified voice that was just a bland version of a combination of who we all were, which I think would have been the least engaging outcome.

Ruby: Yeah, of course, of course! Would you say that’s the first time you’ve collaborated as a writer, beyond obviously the collaboration that you do all the time with everybody – the directors and the stage managers and people who are building sets and acting and things. Is that the first time you’ve collaborated in a writing sense, or not? Is it really different to collaborations you’ve done before? Because, like you say, it’s a different thing, isn’t it?

Chris: I mean I was never really a “Playwright” playwright, and I’m still not. As in, I write text for theatre, but I came from a devising background. I didn’t come from a kind of playwrights-group background or a huge desire to write my own stand alone things so I guess…my original introduction to everything was being a writer as part of a collective, and then subsequent to that, I’d co-write with people all the time, and I make work with people all the time. I’ve just co-written the show, with Javaad Alipoor, I mean, we had to be on Zoom even though we live a mile apart, but we we sat down and we wrote that together for a theatre that asked us to do it. So it’s not like the writing isn’t a solo process for me, but this felt like a new combination of being asked to do it, specifically because of who you are in the mix of other people that they wanted to put together but also having to take account of other people in a way that wasn’t necessarily about meshing your artistic voice and theirs together as individuals. So it was a new thing, actually. Do you collaborate a lot? Do you do a lot of co-writing, or devising?

Ruby: I haven’t really, to be honest. I mean, I was an actor for quite a long time, so in that sense, I’ve been on the other side of the process – so just receiving from a writer and a director, and then collaborating as an actor. Because acting always feels collaborative, because it’s about (unless you’re doing a one person show…and even then you’re reacting to an audience, aren’t you) but you’re always reacting to somebody else and taking part in a team effort, for the most part. Whereas with writing, a lot of it can feel a bit more solitary. But I’m co-writing a play with Simon Stephens at the moment, which is the first time that I’ve sat down at the beginning of the process with a person and in that case, we are sort of, as you’re describing, we’re doing more of a “merging”. I mean, again, maybe there’s always a feeling that you don’t want to merge, you don’t want to “iron out each other’s creases”, as you say, and make something that’s bland. You’re always trying to put a sort of semi-explosive combination of your two voices together, aren’t you, as much as you can retain that sense of a sort of, chemical reaction. 

Chris: But I think in that co-writing process that you’re talking about with Simon, for me it’s different with Javaad, it’s different with Hannah Jane Walker, or Rachel Chavkin, or any of the people who I’ve been in that situation with. You have to have the relationship that fits the two people that are in the relationship. But I think the difference is you have a shared aim there, don’t you? You’ve kind of agreed on what the thing you’re making is for, and you’re both…I mean, if you’re looking at it as Living Newspaper, you’d both be having to write for the same room.

Ruby: Yeah, exactly.

Chris: Yeah. How’s it going with Simon? Does it feel…like are there points of, kind of, tension or conflicts, and are they useful? 

Ruby: We just handed in our first draft actually, so right now I feel that combination of euphoria and trepidation that comes from sharing something when you haven’t shared it yet, but it’s been really great. I mean, if anything, my temperament (I think) is such that I’m almost trying to hold on to any points of tension because I think I have the tendency to probably to try and agree, to try and be like “mmmh” based on what somebody else is saying, so I could use a bit more tension in my collaborating process! But I think what’s been really interesting is that we didn’t start, for example, with the Living Newspaper, (I don’t know about you), but I pitched, as it were, for the weather room. So I said, “I’m interested in writing for that space, this is what I’m interested in writing for it”. Whereas with Simon and I, we had an open commission, so it’s really totally come from a process of communication back and forth. What we ended up doing was writing to each other over quite a long period of time, back and forth, using some stimuli that we’d given each other. We gave each other a film to watch and music to listen to, and art to look at, and then wrote back and forth about what we thought of it. And then from there we’ve organically come up with a play that we totally didn’t plan to write or get asked to write. So that’s been fun. Because I think often when you’re writing any kind of commission you’re told what you should write. And I guess in both of these processes it’s been a bit more open. Probably the one with Simon, it’s been completely open so something totally organic has formed, which is probably also helped the tension to dissipate, because it is just more interesting that you –

Chris: You feel like…there’s a level below which tension can’t form though…

Ruby: What do you mean?

Chris: Well, the thing that you said about feeling like you’re kind of an enabler and a support in that relationship…that’s your natural, kind of, place to go? And feeling like you need to step up and not be that. 

Ruby: Mmmh.

Chris: It’s really interesting. It makes me think about the Living Newspaper and about the way that we managed in big group discussions when there were different ideas about what direction the thing should go in generally. You know, if tension…if the potential for conflict (and useful productive conflict, not arguments), but if the potential for conflict falls below a certain threshold in a collaboration, then perhaps you do need to…you don’t need to deliberately create conflict, but you do need to kind of revisit the idea that you are allowed to disagree with each other.

Ruby: Yeah, absolutely. 

Chris: And sometimes that’s an active process. You have to actively say, “are we….. …or agreeing, because we’re…because we’ve made a good decision?

Ruby: Yeah.

Chris: So it feels really familiar, both in individual terms and in that group dynamic that we’ve both been through. Can I ask you about your piece?

Ruby: Yes.

Chris: Because I loved it, and it was really interesting to see the same tools used in such a different way. 

Ruby: Yeah.

Chris: It’s a bit like going to a house that you used to live in and seeing that someone’s done something incredibly cool with your old bedroom, do you know what I mean?! 

Ruby: Yeah yeah, exactly!

Chris: Your piece was very much like a single narrative, and we don’t need to explain (we’ve been told not to explain) because people can actually access it. It’s a really obvious question, but I’m curious to know to what extent it was autobiographical? And I know that’s an awful question to ask a writer, and I know that because when I get asked that about my own work it makes me want to literally pull my own eyes out, but there you go!

Ruby: No I think it’s inherent, isn’t it? It’s like that curiosity is so natural. And also I brought it on myself because I did it in the first person and read it myself…but yeah, it was pretty much entirely autobiographical, I would say, which is not something I’ve ever done before. And it really just came from, like I say, I think it actually came from the design in a way, from looking at the space and thinking about the idea of it being an enclosed space and there being that perspex or glass box in the middle of the room and people being able to examine it from all different sides in the live context, or online, seeing it through the lens of a camera. But that idea of enclosure I suppose immediately chimed with me because we were all in lockdown, and then just before lockdown I’d been arrested at this climate protest, and my sister had been pregnant for most of lockdown and then gave birth just before the Living Newspaper happened, although when I first started writing it she was still pregnant, which was funny. So I just left a little gap for the date of birth and the baby’s name (which was in the first draft). I mean it’s funny, isn’t it? I don’t know if…I’ve seen some of your work, but I don’t know if you write autobiographically as a kind of tendency, or if you’ve explored that, but it was funny to me because even on the day of being arrested, I just was thinking “this is such a theatrical experience”. Like “police”…It’s such a strange, like, performance of the law, and then in that room, you’re like, “this is mad! This is ridiculous that this is happening”. And there’s something so present tense about it and so surreal and there’s funny little lines that people say that you’re like, “Yes, I know about that. I’ve seen that before!” And so really, I think I wanted to write about it but I hadn’t thought that I would. It hadn’t been my intention until this project happened. 

Chris: Only when the circumstances and the context allow you to revisit something that you kind of observed that you wouldn’t…naturally have written about. But then someone says, “here’s this room with a glass box, and we need you to write about the fact that the global climate is screwed”, and you think, “I’m really glad I…” Yeah, I had a similar experience recently with a piece that I’m writing. It was about a chapter in my life that I always said I’d never make any theatre about or perform about myself, but I had the opportunity to think about telling the story in a different medium. And suddenly, I thought, “Ah!” That discomfort from talking about myself was that theatre didn’t give me the distance from it, and this other way of talking about this probably does. So I totally relate to that. I mean, did you feel any…I mean, the pieces are really different, but I suppose one thing that connected them both in my head was like…there’s a very definite attempt to come to grips with the fact that we might all be fucked, in both of them, and is that something that I’ve seen in it that isn’t there, or do you recognise that as well?

Ruby: Definitely, definitely. I think you can’t really write about the climate crisis without engaging with that thought. I’m interested to know how you found…I’ve really enjoyed listening to your piece as well, and it was funny because I went in the other order, so I was like “Oh, this is the house, I’m gonna move into! What will I do?”

Chris: Haha…like “Why is he putting the sofa there?”

Ruby: Ha, yeah, like “It needs to go over there!” But I didn’t know how you found…because always my fear is: A) sounding a bit pathetic, or B) sounding a bit worthy, when engaging with these subjects. Because with the environment, it feels a bit like, “yeah, we all know what we should be doing, but none of us are doing it” and you’re a bit like, “well, that feels a bit inert.” I mean, how did you find approaching the subject matter? Was there anything you found difficult to approach about it? 

Chris: I understand that feeling about not wanting to seem, did you say “pathetic”? Yeah, “pathetic” or “worthy”. I totally understand that fear, particularly around subject matter like this…and obviously the thing that I did for the climate room was an extract of a much larger piece that deals with the psychology of how we’re thinking about the climate crisis as individuals. 

Ruby: Maybe…Yeah. Great.

Chris: But I totally recognise that fear, and I think my way of getting through it is, like, “worthy”. I’m gonna leave aside “pathetic”, because I think that’s our deep secret fear isn’t it, as writers, is that…but in terms of the worthiness, which we probably can do something about (and I don’t think existed in your piece at all) I think you…you swerved that really beautifully. But for me, it feels like it’s one of a series of shells that you have to strip away. There are so many pieces that try to be about a personal experience or put the person who experiences it in a particular situation, but what they don’t get past is that shell of kind of acknowledging “I am a person telling you this situation, and I understand the limitations of this process.” 

Ruby: Mmmh!

Chris: And sometimes that’s really useful and I do use that in shows but at other times… that comes across I think a little bit as “worthy”, that kind of acknowledgement of the potential value or the potential pitfalls of what you’re saying….And I think it’s just another layer you have to strip away and when you stop worrying about that maybe you’re (just in that moment) you’re telling the truth a little bit.

Ruby: What you just said, I think that’s really true. Maybe we were done a favour because we didn’t have to be in the room! When you’re doing an audio piece, that’s useful for stripping away layers.

Chris: I mean, I had a massive favour having Jasmine Lee-Jones as the voice in mine, which is gonna make anything sound good! So we’ve got about 30 seconds. We said we’d end on a song didn’t we? Do you wanna choose a song?

Ruby: Yeah. Ha! I insist on you choosing…we can harmonise.

Chris: Alright. I mean, I don’t know what your taste is so let’s just do…let’s do ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’! 

Ruby: Ha!

Chris: Okay. 

Ruby: How does it start?

Chris: I’ll start and you join in…

Ruby: [Singing with Chris] “All things bright and beauuutiful, all creatures great and smaaaall!” 

Chris: It’s hard with the delay, isn’t it?! [Singing with Ruby] “All things wise and wooonderful, the Lord God made them aaall”…It’s really nice to talk to you, mate.

Ruby: You too, Chris. 

Chris: I hope we get to meet in real life at some point!

Ruby: Me too!

Chris: And have a cup of tea.

Ruby: Let’s do it.