Ben Ockrent’s play Breeders explores what it means for same-sex couples to become parents. Laura Macdougall talks to him about the nature of modern families, the genesis of the play, and the state of under-funded British theatre.
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In the last week, two landmark rulings concerning so-called ‘alternative families’ have been passed in Italy and Switzerland. In the former, the first same-sex adoption has taken place in Rome, when a woman was legally allowed to adopt her partner’s daughter. In the latter, two men were recognised as the legal parents of a child born to them through surrogacy. There are now many options available to those who want to have children, whatever their gender or sexual orientation – though we should remember that in the UK we have certain advantages that those living in other countries do not – and it is arguably getting easier (yet not necessarily cheaper) to have a family by non-conventional means. We are questioning the hitherto accepted norm of two-parent families, made up of two adults of different sexes, and discovering many ways in which different types relationships can come together to create what we would describe as a family.
In his latest play, Breeders, the writer Ben Ockrent explores this question of modern parenthood and what it’s like for same-sex couples who want to start a family. The inspiration for the play came from his best friend, a lesbian, asking him a few years ago if he would donate sperm so that she and her partner could conceive a child. I met with Ben a week before the play opened, during a break in rehearsals, to talk about the nature of modern families, the genesis and development of Breeders through writing and rehearsal, the state of British theatre in face of massive cuts in the arts sector, and much more.
How did you approach the idea of families and parenthood in the twenty-first century, when prospective parents of all genders and sexual orientations now have many more options in how they choose to conceive a child or create a family?
Are we the first generation to question the assumption that we should have kids and start families? It’s not true of everybody, but certainly this generation is questioning whether that’s right for them. It’s less of a taboo to not want kids than it once was. I watched a TED podcast recently in which they were saying that whereas we once needed kids to work the land and look after us in our old age, there isn’t that practical need anymore. We just want them, which is funny in itself given the damage they wreak on the planet, how expensive they are, how hard they can be to come by and how biologically difficult they can be.
I think it’s interesting to interrogate why we have kids now, and what the situation of the play does – given how difficult it is for lesbian couples to have kids and the specific challenges that situation poses – is create a great shorthand to asking the bigger questions about family and pose different questions about the responsibilities of parenthood.
I spoke to some lesbian friends about the issues they’ve been grappling with in thinking about parenthood. There’s a challenge between what would be easiest for them and what would be fairest on the child. It would be easiest for them to use an anonymous sperm donor; there wouldn’t be a man over-involved and complicating the upbringing of that child. Yet they were also concerned over a selfishness of denying a child the opportunity to know its father and have a relationship with its father.
This leads to the question of how we identify ourselves, how much we associate with our parents and how important that is to us. It asks much bigger questions about how we self-identify.
Ben Ockrent – photograph © Anton Belmonte
Do you think that’s because it’s not particularly easy for same-sex couples to have children, they ask these bigger questions? Heterosexual couples can get pregnant easily, or by accident. There’s also a sense of growing up in a society where marriage and kids is still very much the accepted progression that heterosexual couples perhaps don’t often question.
Yes, historically the taboo in a straight relationship has been to not have kids. But we’re breaking that taboo now.
At one point in the play the lesbian couple explores whether it’s right or wrong to have kids. But there’s a difficulty in assuming that you shouldn’t because of the environmental issues; the extremity of that argument is the human race should stop. The play raises lots of very different challenges, which is really fun. In fact, it’s most important to address those questions in a humorous kind of way so there’s some humanity to it, and it’s not abstract or intellectual.
Breeders is described as ‘a hilarious new comedy.’ Was it your intention from the outset that the play would be a comedy, or did that humour develop as you were writing?
I think when we interrogate a subject with humour it’s more accessible. People lower their defences a bit more when they’re laughing and are able to engage with something more effortlessly. I also enjoy watching comedy, and it’s much more fun to write and rehearse.
The idea actually came about when I imagined donating sperm myself, and what the practical implications would be for me. Maybe I’m immature, but I found it inherently funny, trying to do something as profound as creating human life through the action of going into a room and masturbating. It’s a funny existential idea that you can create life and interrogate such profound questions about what we’re here for through something as socially awkward as the rigmarole involved. But if you push that too far in one direction, it becomes not funny at all. It becomes quite unpleasant.
In the play the couple end up finding it quite difficult to conceive, and going about having a kid in this way is physically quite gruelling; injecting a syringe into your uterus is quite painful. It’s definitely not sexy. I thought it was a potentially interesting context for a play, and one that could develop tonally from profound to embarrassing to unpleasant. There’s an emotional range you want the audience to go through when they’re engaging with something like this.
Given that you also write for a lot for television and have also written short films, as well as plays, did you know that you always wanted to explore this particular question through theatre?
Yes, that was always my assumption for it. Because of the nature of the story it was so focused on the relationships between these four characters and, once I came round to the idea of setting it in this new home they’re building together it became very intimate. So I concentrated on that. This lent itself really well to the stage and to the kind of focused work you can do there. The stage affords you some room to really let a situation breathe and to draw out a moment or an experience. Television and film tend to be faster paced and dispersed physically and geographically. Part of the joy and the humour of this idea is the awkwardness of this set-up. The audience needs to feel present and share in that sense of humour and fun, but there’s a degree of detachment that comes from looking through a screen. I felt this idea might have lost something through that. It felt like all the elements were right for a play and I wanted to explore that first.
Recently there have been quite a few brilliant plays showing in London dealing with important questions relating to the lives of LGBT people: last year’s revival of Beautiful Thing, My Night With Reg which is currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse, and the absolutely brilliant new play Di and Viv and Rose which played twice at the Hampstead Theatre. Have you ever had any second thoughts about how the LGBT subject-matter of the play might be received?
Only recently did it occur to me that at no point does the play question the issue of gay parenting. It’s about a gay couple having a kid but at no point in the play is the issue should gay people have kids; instead it’s how and what is the best way. I’m aware that there are potentially conservative audience members out there who might object to it. You have to be aware when you’re staging any theatre that you probably have a relatively older audience who may have slightly more conservative sensibilities, but you can’t write for a specific theatre’s audience, you have to write what moves you and what you’re interested in and hope that you do a sufficiently good job to bring audience along the journey with you, whatever their background or sensibilities.
Angela Griffin, Tamzin Outhwaite, Jemima Rooper & Nicholas Burns – photograph © Anton Belmonte
I noticed recently some amusing twitter exchanges recently between you and the plays’ director, Tamara Harvey, referring to quite a few script changes. How much has Breeders developed during rehearsals?
Theatre is a very collaborative process. The play is completely unrecognisable from the first draft. I think we’re now on draft nine or ten! There have been a number of total rewrites followed by detailed work looking at lines. The priority is always clarity, humour and a truthfulness. Once you have story shaped there, you can focus on character and relationships, which are the tools you have to engage an audience: people want to respond to what they see and on the whole that happens through recognition and surprise.
Tamara is a generous and gracious director and she has been running all proposed changes past me. Writers are very defensive of their work; we choose every particular word. But the actors also have loads to bring to the script. As a writer you’re trying to maintain an overview of all the characters, but the actors are just focussed on their character and are able to interrogate it better than you as a writer; they’re able to ask more complex questions through inhabiting that role. It’s not just words on the page for them, and different kinds of emotions come out than you might have anticipated yourself while writing it. It can be challenging if you feel ill-prepared to answer questions; you want to always feel like you’ve interrogated it all yourself and you’re in control, but it’s kind of exciting. Trust and humility are necessary in the rehearsal room, and you need to be able to respond and be flexible.
Speaking of the actors, the cast of Breeders is incredible; a real wealth of talent, with Nicholas Burns, Angela Griffin, Tamzin Outhwaite (excellent in Di and Viv and Rose) and Jemima Rooper, Were you at all involved in the casting process?
In theatre the writer is often slightly more involved in casting than television – unless you’ve also created the show. The cast of Breeders are people who were on my wish-list. I feel really blessed that they responded to the text and were free and up for it. But even then you don’t know what the chemistries will be like. In some auditions you get people together in a room to see what the chemistry is like before casting. But not this time. But we felt so fortunate to have them on board, and with that level of talent you assume you’d be able to make it work in one way or another! But you can’t anticipate how well it will work until you’re there. In this case that wasn’t until the first day of rehearsal when the cast sat down and read through the parts.
They really are remarkable together; so funny and utterly truthful. I’m buying into all their relationships entirely. It’s really exciting to watch. You reach a point as a writer where you have to step away and let them get on with it. It’s a bit like empty nest syndrome, being sat at home knowing they’re rehearsing without you, exploring and discovering new things within the play that you’re not a part of anymore. It’s hard to remove yourself from it.
Speaking of your role as the writer, and having to eventually create some space from the finished work, what is your attitude to reviewers and critics? Do you read your own reviews?
I wish I could say that I wouldn’t let a bad review affect my experience of the work I’ve done. You don’t set out to have any of your creative output denigrated or disliked. So to that extent I wouldn’t want a bad review. You hope that, so long as your work is moving people in one way or another, critics can either take it or leave it. But of course from a business perspective, good reviews help bring in an audience so to that end it’s vital to get good reviews if you want to raise attention for the project. The actors work so hard and are so brilliant that I would hate for them not to get an audience.
I actually really respect the opinion of a lot of reviewers; there are some out there who are very insightful. Some reviewers are a real authority on theatre, they really respect and love it, I really value their opinion and insights. It’s a massive skill. It’s hard to write a decent short, condensed informative interesting piece. I think that, if you’re going to have your work analysed, and a criticism of your work broadcast, that the person doing so has the experience to do it properly and sensitively. When criticism becomes very personal then something’s wrong. Artists in whatever medium should feel free to create work without feeling that they’re being personally attacked for it.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment of ‘new writing’ and there are some young writers around – including yourself – who are having some really exciting work produced, to great critical acclaim. Would you agree that British theatre, despite government funding cuts, seems to be in particularly good health at the moment?
There has been a brilliant run of plays this past year. I don’t remember ever having such a consistently great time at the theatre. There have been so many good plays by young writers and new writers. Annoyingly it should have been the case that with the arts funding cuts the arts should have suffered. They have suffered, it’s just that the talent isn’t lessened with those cuts. People find a way. It’s frustrating because you don’t want Osborne thinking it’s all fine and that British culture has benefited from these cuts. I’m not sure why theatre is particularly good at the moment. Maybe it is the threat of lost funding, encouraging people to raise their game, work harder and prove something more.
There’s also a great community of young writers who know each other and support each other. I’m not aware of any jealousies or petty rivalries; it’s so subjective and personal. You simply can’t have the output another writer’s had. It does seem to be a good time for new writing, but credit for that must also go to theatres taking a punt on new writing or young writers: investing in them, giving them the commissions and dramaturgical support, nurturing relationships. It can be really hard when you’re sat alone at home, trying to reach out to people, trying to find the impetus or reason to write when it’s so hard to get work produced. Theatre really needs to keep providing those opportunities for experimentation.
Finally, what is your main motivation when writing a play? Is it simply to entertain the audience, or do you also want to encourage them to think?
It depends on the project, but ultimately both. Though there’s an arrogance in assuming that you have any new insights that will challenge the audience to question what they really think. I wouldn’t presume to make them revaluate how they figure out the world. All I can do is be interested in things myself and create a context for people to engage with things. Entertainment is what it is. It’s not a lecture. I want people to have a good time and to leave thinking.
I remember seeing Habeus Corpus starring Jim Broadbent at the Donmar Warehouse [staged in 1996]. It was absurd, diverting, ridiculous. It was then that I appreciated what the magic of the theatre was like, being in a darkened room with other people. Someone once said that when you go to see a piece of live entertainment you go as an individual and leave as a member of a shared group of experience. It’s incredible. Just as if you’re at home on your own watching television you laugh less than when you’re with other people. There’s something delightful about sharing laughter with people. I don’t know what else we should aspire more to in life than just enjoying an experience with other people. To be able to live in a culture where we can access that and to do a job where I can at least aspire to be a part of that experience for other people, that’s the inspiration or the dream.
Breeders opens at the St James Theatre on 3rd September, and plays until 4th October. You can book tickets on the website here.
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