Ella Rowdon and Felix Brown are the directors of Wasp, a play responding to the discussion of mental health at UEA after a number of suicides and student deaths at the university in the past year. The pair have invited me to the dress rehearsal of their play, which showed at the Maddermarket Theatre 23 – 25 January. We’re perched on some antique chairs strewn in a corridor adjacent to the stage. Rowdon, who graduated from UEA last year and studied English Literature with Creative Writing, tells me “there was a lot of political attention” around the approach to mental health on campus and that “everyone had a lot to say”. She wrote the play in her final year at UEA, before approaching Brown, who also graduated last year, about getting on board.
Brown tells me he “wanted to do something that was about the suicides, that was not just taking a very simplistic view.” He adds, “Somebody who we talked to previously about this said something very insightful, which is that usually when you see a play about suicide it will be about people coming together in the aftermath, and I think [Wasp] is the complete opposite.” In the play, Brown says that the characters are “disagreeing on causes, on the reasons and even what they knew about the person who died.” Brown adds this was what made him want to do the play. “It didn’t have that sort of very simplistic message, and it lets the audience make up their mind and agree or disagree with characters rather than feels like the play is a scaffold to project a single message”.
When initially writing, Rowdon put research and conversation as the focal point. She says, “I spoke to a lot of people about what they thought, what their opinions were about what was going on. I spoke to advisers, I spoke to students, I spoke to people who are directly linked to some of the suicides – that have known people. I spoke to people that themselves had struggled with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. So I managed to gain a lot of information.”
She emphasises to me the importance of portraying all elements in the most “honest and authentic” way possible. “It was hard to approach [the topic] sensitively because there are going to be people that find it controversial and that won’t like what I’ve put in my play. And there’s some things I don’t even like. But it’s not about that, it’s about being honest.”
When discussing the effect on university life on mental health, Rowdon says “University isn’t an easy time for anyone, especially the massive changes that you go through. So I think that a lot of people struggle. And I was definitely one of those people in first year. But the play is not about me. It’s hard because you don’t want to betray your own opinions.”
Brown says there have been some tough moments for the cast. “We’ve had like really interesting discussions as a cast about how or what we think ourselves about these issues, about how we’ve kind of been affected by them and while we have certainly had those moments of sadness and of back and forth between us about what exactly it is.”
Rowdon adds, “People will come into the rehearsals and they’ll have lots of energy. And then by the end of the play it’s zapped because they’ve been acting and it’s emotionally intense. It’s very exhausting to act. Some of them find it very hard to do those scenes over, and over and over again. But the actors all individually care about what their character has to say, even if they don’t necessarily agree with that. I think a lot of the audience will see a reflection of their opinions in some of the characters.”
Although the play focuses on grief and suicide, Brown says the play was still “a lot of fun to make”. He tells me, “People that make horror films are sometimes thought of in terms of like, ‘oh, was it really scary on set?’ But no, this is really different.” Brown says there is a difference in “experiencing a work of art versus making it”. He also found it easier to distance himself from the more draining elements of the play, by focusing on the play as a job. “It’s sort of just something that you that you do. It’s something that I think affects you at the beginning, and when you think about it, and we certainly hope it will affect the audience. But the play can still be really thrilling to create.”
Rowdon says it took her a year to write the play. She says her tutor, Michael Lengsfield, was “an enormous help”.
“He was encouraging and I think that’s why he’s an amazing teacher, because he does let people explore their own ideas.” Rowdon adds, “I started writing it for my final piece in third year and it’s changed so much. Felix and I had a lot of discussions about how I wanted it to be presented on stage. Originally, it wasn’t going to be in the round, but we realised because it’s not a very physical play, it’s not very visually stimulating, we wanted to create something that the audience find interesting to look at. And we realized that I think [a] therapy circle would be a very interesting way of doing that. So the characters actually act in the circle. They sit down with the audience in the circle. And then in scene six, they all act from where they are sitting, with the audience next to them around them. I think that a lot of people will hate that and a lot people will like that. It’s going to be one of those plays, it’s very up and down, very Marmite.”
Brown’s past experiences with UEA’s Drama Society helped him in to direct Waspbut admits it feels like “a further kind of step up” in his and Rowdon’s careers. The pair crafted the final play outside an academic sphere of influence, and Brown says “it is just us two essentially creating and producing as well as directing this. There’s no company, there’s no other kind of oversight. We hired them at Maddermarket, they didn’t approach us or anything.”
Brown adds, “What’s very good about this is the fact that it’s not going to be graded. We don’t really have to worry about what a professor or someone might think of this. We have a lot of creative freedom, so we can make something that we hope will appeal to the audience.”
Rowdon tells me, “I don’t necessarily agree that plays are supposed to evoke high spirits. I think a lot of plays I’ve seen have been amazing but have also made me drained to watch. I’m passionate about theatre because it’s a very personal display because you’re so close to the actors, and every single show will be different. It is not a film where we can watch over and over again. Every single show is different and that’s what makes it so unique as a medium.
“I think that the play in itself will definitely divide people up, which I’m ready for, but also I don’t think that it will necessarily make people not enjoy listening to what the characters have to say. I think it’s very thought provoking, which is what I wanted. And of course, people will leave the theatre feeling very drained and probably fairly upset depending on what it evoked for them personally. But I also think that you don’t go to the theatre just to come out feeling good. I think people go to the theatre to awaken their thought processes, to see something different. Our play is definitely different. That’s what is so good about it, is that it is different and it’s a different way of doing things.”
Brown says theatre is “one of the most intimate art forms because you’re in the audience and in there with the actors there’s no there’s no escape, there’s no pausing it. There’s no getting away from it. So it’s one of those things that can absolutely challenge you and make you think and that’s absolutely what we want to do with this.” He tells me, “It’s really not a problem if some people come out loving it and some people come out hating it. The only problem would be if people don’t feel anything.”
Rowdon says, “I don’t necessarily want to tell people how they should feel because I think that every single person that has been acting and working on this play feels something differently about the play. So I don’t want to say ‘this is the right way of feeling, this is the wrong way of feeling’ because then that would be very dependent on us having a fundamental message, which we don’t have and worked so hard to not have.”
“I think it’s going to be a very diverse reaction,” she adds.
Rowdon’s choice not to have a specific fundamental moral was down to the enormous nature of the topic. She says, “I feel like it is such a massive topic, and there are so many things to explore and we don’t necessarily have the tools or the knowledge to explore all of them. I wrote it based off the conversations I’ve had with other people and my research, but we don’t cover everything. There’s no way to do that in an hour and twenty. But as far as people’s reactions and how they are going to feel after the play, I just want them to feel like they’ve seen something worthwhile.”
Brown adds, “You will get a lot of plays about issues that are meant to give you a completely package message of ‘this is what you should think and believe’, presented via a drama, but the drama almost becomes secondary to conveying the message and that’s not something we wanted to do at all, but to make something that was entertaining as a drama but then leaves something up to the audience.”
Rowdon wants to make it clear Wasp isn’t the start of a discussion on mental health, but a continuation. She tells me, “[With] male suicide, mental health, stigma, toxic masculinity – those doors have been opened and it’s great that that discussion has started. I don’t want people to think ‘they think they started the discussion’ because we don’t. We want to continue that discussion and make it more diverse. I think a lot of people don’t really know what the right thing to think is, and we basically are just here to say there isn’t a right thing to think; you never know how you are going to feel. We don’t even know how we would feel in that situation, so I just make the point that we want to utilise what has already being given to us by the progressiveness of student thinking and social media trying to promote positive ways of conveying how you are feeling mentally.”