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Playwright Eli Kent on All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever - interview

Playwright Eli Kent on All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever - interview

Photo by Sarah Graham.

The PlayGround Collective’s All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever began life as a modern adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Written by award-winning Auckland-based playwright and actor Eli Kent, a year’s worth of development, coinciding with a season in Wellington and at La Mama festival in New York, have helped shape the work into a modern masterpiece.

It tells the story of pop culture-obsessed Simon Simon (played in the Auckland season by Kent himself) whose father has recently passed away from motor neurone disease.

To the audience, Simon lives in a three-sided, glossy white box, outside of which are three producers who manipulate the arc of Simon’s life via orders from a Siri-esq talking lightbulb. Simon thinks he lives in the real world, one that appears as a dystopian present where screens dominate existence and relationships are plastic (sometimes literally).

In thematic terms, it’s a tightly packed Rubik’s cube of a show. It’s the kind of play that simultaneously makes you feel uniquely enlightened and uniquely stupid: you can read into it as much as you like, but it’s also easy to feel like you’re missing the point.

I wanted to find out what Kent’s intentions were with the show, so we managed to find time in between his producing a short film and performing the play to have a chat.

The resulting interview is mainly for those who have already seen the play and felt the same way as I did; as though they needed to press pause between scenes to digest their brilliance. It contains spoilers.

One last thing – and Kent mentions this throughout – it’s important to acknowledge the quality of every element of this show – the script, Gareth Hobbs’ soundtrack, Sam Trubridges’ highly-detailed set design, the no-weak-link support cast of Victoria Abbott, Joel Baxendale and Hamish Parkinson – who I didn’t get a chance to give voice to here.

 

Alice Harbourne: This is the kind of play that is so layered with meaning it can either make you feel like a genius or an idiot. Has it been quite a dividing play in that respect?

Eli Kent: I think a lot of people approach works of art in different ways.  There are people who feel like they don’t necessarily understand it, but I think they’re maybe looking for a very literal interpretation of it.

A lot of people approach art expecting to take what they want from it and those people seem to really respond to it; that’s what we wanted, was to make a show that had its own kind of internal logic. It’s more about what’s underneath what it’s about than trying to necessarily decipher all the literal plot points that are happening.

We have all that kind of figured out now in our own way. We wanted it to be kind of like a song. Finding out that, for instance, that the Leonard Cohen song Chelsea Hotel #2 is about Janis Joplin, is not helpful for the understanding of what that song’s about if you know what I mean?

AH: It just adds an layer for the listener of “oh okay, now I can really picture who he’s singing about”

EK: Some people really want to know the literal thing of,”oh the Heart-shaped Box is about Courtney Love”. That helps them in how they read the song, but other people don’t want to know that stuff. So I think we want the show to be like a song in that respect. You could decipher all that stuff if you wanted to, you could also sit back and think more what it’s about on a broader sense, letting what it means to you wash over you.

We want the show to be like a song: you could decipher as much as you want, or you could sit back and let it wash over you

AH:  For someone that hasn’t seen it, how would you describe the play?

EK: I always have trouble doing this.

It’s about a guy called Simon Simon whose father recently passed away and he’s dealing with that, or failing to deal with that. He’s obsessed with pop culture; he writes online think pieces about everything he watches and ingests.

One night, he’s watching TV and sees an infomercial for a mysterious box, for which very little information is given. He orders it and the box shows up and changes his life in “mysterious ways”.

At the same time in the show, there are three people on the outside manipulating him, trying to move his story to a satisfying conclusion. They have agendas and sinister ways of manipulating him. Their boss, who’s telling the story – who wants it to go well – is a talking lightbulb above the stage.

Eli Kent photographed by Sarah Graham
Eli Kent. Photo by Sarah Graham

AH: It’s obviously really deeply layered, is that a result of it being developed over three seasons of the show?

EK: It was odd. We started a long time ago, years ago now, with the show called The Tinderbox which was an adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale about a soldier returning from the war. He finds three dogs and a cave, then gets a tinderbox which makes the dogs come and do his bidding.

We did this weird Western war adaptation, it was very fantastical with puppets and stuff. Then that changed a lot, we did a second workshop of it, then the cast of the second workshop became the cast of All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever. We didn’t know it was going to be called that, we got money to redevelop it from Tinderbox, but we knew that we wanted to ditch the fairytale –

AH: But keep the box!

EK: – yeah the box still ended up in there which is cool, it wasn’t necessarily going to.

I think it’s the only thing left over, and also the dance with the mannequin which we re-contextualized and it makes more sense now. We kind of thought we’re clinging to this fairytale thing, which isn’t actually saying the thing we want to say. We were interested in entitlement – the story is about this guy who gets this box, which gives him dogs that give him whatever he wants.

In the end he nearly gets punished, but makes the dogs kill everyone and then gets everything he wanted. So we thought that was really weird, and it spoke to us about entitlement.

AH: And that totally comes through in the play, the fact that you’re passively fed through a hamster bottle, for example.

EK: Yeah, and the male hero being supposedly a leader and very important, but at the same time very coddled and nurtured and very special. It’s this weird perverted thing of why is that? Like Luke Skywalker isn’t any more special than Princess Leia but he just gets the “oh you’re special!” treatment.

AH: But it’s lovely that there’s a commentary on that. The main female character outside the box (Victoria Abbott) is allowed to voice all of your concerns about having that kind of protagonist. That must be really fun for you to have as a device as a playwright.

EK: All of those sorts of things came out really gradually. We started with this idea around dismantling heroes, and our sense that we deserve things. It started with the This is Water speech by David Foster-Wallace about the subjectivity of human experience and trying to see inside other people’s heads, and having to make a conscious effort to be empathetic. That’s all we really started with.

We didn’t set out to create something as meta as we did, I think it’s just something about how we were making it, all of these layers just kept falling on top of each other.

We were all devising from the beginning. And so all that stuff with Victoria’s character really came out of her being in the show and devising, improvising together and playing with stuff. We didn’t set out to create something as meta as we did, I think it’s just something about how we were making it, all of these layers just kept falling on top of each other. It was really natural and felt right.

AH: How did the lightbulb idea come about?  What’s the audience meant to think about it?

EK: For me he represents quite a few different things.

We started with just a voice, we didn’t know we were going to have a lightbulb, but the voice came from my dad who had motor neuron disease, and he would type on a little iPad and had this voice.

I can’t remember if it’s the exact same voice we ended up using – the Apple speech thing – but I was always fascinated by it because it had this odd humour to it. People would be having a discussion and he would be there quietly typing. This joke would come out that was five minutes old in response to something someone had said ages ago but everyone would get it and laugh and it was actually funnier because you had to go back to it.

AH: Kind of like when he said, “whaaat?” in the play. I was wondering what you’d have you type to get that exact sound…

EK: We just started playing with it. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, you have an idea that “this will be a funny line” and then you type it in and it just really doesn’t work, and then other times you type something in and it’s unexpectedly awesome. I’ve got a bit better with knowing what kind of stuff works better with him.

But he’s cool, he’s kind of like an actor in that sense; the voice always surprises you and never quite does what you expect. So that was where we started, just this idea of this talking voice being kind of omnipotent.

We were aware we could be quite overt emotionally, because he removes earnestness and has this really interesting objective feel to him where we can just talk about the themes of the play in a really bold way.

AH: Whereas if it was two people talking it could feel like a school drama?

EK: Yeah. Or the character of Simon doing a monologue about his dad or something, it just felt like part of that is myself being very repressed generally about emotion and stuff.

I remember reading some quote about William H. Macy, who really hates seeing people crying on film and finds it really awkward. I feel like that sometimes. I like that the lightbulb can just say it, and the audience can still feel the thing because it’s surprisingly emotional.

I remember reading some quote about William H. Macy, who really hates seeing people crying on film and finds it really awkward. I feel like that sometimes.

AH: It really is surprisingly emotional. The scene where the motor neurone “robot”, I suppose – that you built out of a plastic bag and a ventilation pipe – that really caught me off guard and I was in floods of tears out of nowhere. There was something really beautiful about the simplicity of it all, it just being a breathing box and a lamp.

EK: I’m so happy that people say they were affected by it, because we ask people to make so many leaps of the imagination. So yeah, that was to connect the light bulb with the father so there’s a connection there.

AH: And then, of course, the robot is allowed to speak in a way that humans never really can; he voices some deep dark thoughts that everyone has in those situations. It’s basic instinct to be scared of death, to wonder what quality of life means to someone in that situation, you don’t know those innermost thoughts of someone when they might actually feel like their time is up.

In the original version the actor was called Simon, and he played Simon, and now you’ve kept Simon Simon, but you’re playing it. Some of it seems autobiographical, but some of it doesn’t. Did you feel like you put yourself in any of the scenes?

EK: Yeah, it’s definitely partly autobiographical so that stuff is fairly like wish fulfillment, very dark kind of euthanasia fantasy which is in relation to my dad, because he was really interested in that stuff, kind of entertained that thought. Ultimately he just wanted to stick around for us and for life, he still really had a love of life towards the end, as hard as it got for him.

It’s definitely that feeling of seeing someone in pain and wondering how at home you can be with – like he says in the play – the notion of an ending. The idea that he did seem kind of ready towards the end but it’s always so hard to know, again the subjectivity thing; what he was actually feeling in his last moments. But there are whole other parts of the play that aren’t autobiographical at all, like the stuff with the girlfriend character.

That scene with the lamp is very much my scene. I initially wrote it for Simon – the actor Simon – for him to play, but it is a very personal scene for me.

We kept Simon Simon partly because I think Eli Eli just doesn’t work, it sounds weird. It sounds like a Jewish mantra or something. Being the writer as well as being in it, keeping it Simon Simon, distances that a little bit because it’s not all me it’s other people as well.

AH: With the female characters, did you actually have a crisis of “I can’t write this dialogue from a female point of view” as the meta narrative suggests?

EK: I can’t remember how it started but in the early days we were a group of mostly guys, Victoria being the only women in the whole company.

Usually we have Eleanor Bishop too, but she’s living in New York at the moment. She’s awesome and very feminist and inspiring to us. We always want to make her proud of what we’re doing. I can’t remember when the initial discussion came out but we were wary of it from an early stage, because it’s very hard to get right, you have to really work to get it right. We got it wrong a little bit for the New York and Wellington seasons, I think.

AH: In what way?

EK: Hard to describe. When you’re talking about a show that is very much still about a male protagonist, even if it is a male protagonist learning how to dismantle the concept of the hero and become one of a group of people, it’s still very much that two-thirds of the other people are male. It gets tricky if you talk about objectification and trying to create a proper female character who is still a supporting character in the end.

Just being a man trying to write for a women about feminism is tricky. We tried to work with Victoria, although trying to put all of that on her, “you are the voice of women in this play!” – that’s a whole other tricky thing. So Eleanor saw it in New York and gave it some really good points on it.

AH: What were some of the things that you changed?

EK: Her notes mostly were “we need to rethink it”. I can’t remember, she said a lot. It was really helpful as for this run we had producer Molly O’Shae.

We just did a lot of thinking around it, a lot of trial and error. This time it was something we really wanted to get right, so we went over the scripts over and over trying to find something that was right.

It is interesting with some of the stuff written with two women. Victoria does a big speech at the end which she wrote the majority of, well she wrote it really, I just tinkered with it a little bit.

AH: I loved the scene where she was playing Simon Simon’s girlfriend, but was asked by the lightbulb to step-aside so a man could do it better. It was so infuriatingly funny.

EK: That was the one thing we got right early on I think, just that sense that happens so often. I was watching a thing about Matt Damon, talking about Project Greenlight. He was talking to a black woman about diversity, about the fact that they chose the best people for it, it’s got nothing to do with gender or race. Then why is everyone a white? I can’t honestly believe that they happened to be the best people.

Sure, you may think to yourself that they’re the best people, but ask yourself why you think that, maybe there’s something else at work there, it’s not just that they’re objectively the best people for the job, because you relate to them.

AH: I like the way Victoria never apologises though.

EK: It’s hard for me to see the show because I’m so in it, but the big thing was that we can do our best to make the female characters as three dimensional as possible, and the thing that will save that is by making Victoria be herself with her own character, her own agendas and her own arc that actually lands herself somewhere interesting in the end.

That’s actually completely divorced from whatever Simon’s going through.

AH: When the plot starts to take a wrong turn, what was the outcome meant to be for the lightbulb?

EK: It’s somewhat subjective. I want people to be able to find their own meaning. He’s a lot of things, but one of the things he is is a storyteller. It’s a very human trait to want to tell stories and find some kind of meaning out of it, out of the semi-meaninglessness of everything. Whatever is in the box will solve that, it’s the elixir, it’s the thing that stories are meant to solve and help us with the meaning of life really.

It’s a very human trait to want to tell stories and find some kind of meaning out of it, out of the semi-meaninglessness of everything.

In many ways when we’re doing that stuff it’s looking for the antidote to death. There’s a lot of stuff in there with subtle allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which to me is that thing of something affecting these apes at some point really early on, they suddenly wake up and are conscious of their own death, and the only way to make sense of it is to look to the gods in the sky and think I won’t actually die, I’ll live forever.

At some point that isn’t enough for some and we get atheists who need to find some other way of explaining death and all there really is is storytelling, it’s all we’ve ever had. Can it make it so we’re not afraid of death? We can’t, really.

AH: You mention 2001: A Space Oyssey. I’ve known you for a while for being a complete film buff, so the final act must be a joy to perform?

EK: Oh it’s so much fun, so much fun. The last act of the play is a wild ride. I think it’s cool to have a show that ramps up towards the end energy-wise.

AH: How many films are referenced in that short space of time do you think?

EK: I guess Die Hard is the big one, but Die Hard is very violent, there are weird ones recently like Taken. But even those ones are becoming like the eighties and nineties films like Rambo and the Jean Claude Van Damm, with hardly any plot. Steven Segal stuff which is insanely, needlessly violent, where the stunts aren’t even that good with lots of unneccessary blood and gore.

AH: And the video game element as well, there are so many screens that come into the play.

EK: Totally. We wanted to mix in a whole bunch of metaphors, like Pacman being the rat in a maze, and the rat on the wheel is like the hero’s dream circle.

AH: Then there’s Hamlet and the Truman Show.

EK: They all kind of blend in. There was a time when we thought this was too much, but then there was a time when it all clicked and blended together. Because it’s all the same story, and we liked the juxtaposition of the arcade games.

Mario Bros is just as sinister as Die Hard; Die Hard’s about a guy killing a bunch of supposed terrorists in this highrise in LA ultimately so he can reconnect with his wife. Super Mario Bros is about a dude who kills a bunch of mushrooms and turtles so he can rescue a princess which is gross really. What is this tale that we’re telling all the time?

AH: What are some of the reactions you’ve had for the play?

EK: It’s been so overwhelming, the reaction. I really want to know what other people will get from it. I can talk forever about the thinking behind it and what we’ve done, and the connections that I always make, but it’s designed so that people have their own interpretations and that’s always really satisfying to hear that they do. New York was scary because Americans are scary. I have a complex about that, but it was just a relief that they liked it, nothing but really great feedback.

AH: What’s next for the Playground Collective?

EK: Hopefully getting to take the show elsewhere, either New Zealand or overseas again. There are a few shows in the pipeline, but we haven’t thought that far ahead. I have my own screen stuff, and various writing projects coming up.

All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever runs until 19th September. qtheatre.com.

Theatre