We caught up with British playright, director and dramaturg Joel Horwood ahead of his new theatre production (an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel) The Ocean at the End of the Lane which is playing in London’s West End at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Horwood explains that the one factor that has never changed when staging a new production is the simultaneous epic buzz and plunging shame of seeing your work with an audience for the first time.
“The highs of feeling like you’re communicating your inner life and deepest workings with clarity. The sense that you’re taking people along with you on a ride that you began to conceive of sat on your own… hearing gasps, sobs, laughs, those really are the best highs around. The shame comes from all the same sounds happening in all of the wrong places!”
He recalls how through his English Literature degree, he quickly developed the belief that every work of art arrives fully formed and perfect. The thought that once the words had been written and someone had gone to trouble of printing them, no one should change a thing. “I remember my mind being completely blown the moment an actor suggested we rewrite a line in rehearsals. Not in a Samuel Beckett / Harold Pinter fit of rage but because I had literally not realised that it was ‘allowed’.”
Today, the director considers rewriting during rehearsals and previews to be an essential part of the writing process. Admitting that this does not mean that he always agrees with every suggested change. Instead viewing it as an opportunity to see the play more easily when it’s being performed and that the ‘worms-eye’ perspective of actors is often incredibly useful for ensuring he is not being lazy with logic or character for the sake of story or meaning.
Delighted at being able to see the opening night of the The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Horwood places immense credit in his team who have managed to keep the show alive through their dedication, deft skill and ingenuity. In addition to the audiences who have come back to live theatre in their masses! Supporting an industry when it has needed it the most!
Horwood humbly credits the idea of turning the book into a theatre production with Sam Wyer and Katy Rudd. He explains how he always saw himself as an audience member, which first led him to writing his first play. Recalling his time at university living in what can be best described as a sink estate. He highlights how if it weren’t for exploring the Uni’s Drama Society, his route into theatre may have been quite different. A run which saw his vision (alongside a close group of friends) realized when they managed to bring their first production to the National Student Drama Festival.
Fast forward to today, and his credit related to Katy Rudd cannot be understated. “Katy had grafted as a director in her own right and assistant and had finally managed to bend the ear of Ben Power who was at The National Theatre at the time. I’d recently adapted ‘I Want My Hat Back’ (by Jon Klassen) for the NT which was (arguably) an even less ‘simple feat’ and I think is probably the reason Ben thought of me as an appropriate choice for Katy and Sam to work with”.
He goes onto point out how his own personal inspiration and furious desire to be part of the project came in part from Katy. “To be specific, there is a moment when the protagonist is asked to step into a bucket. He’s told that, in doing so, he’ll be stepping into the synovial fluid between the multiverses. And this moment leapt off the page for me as an intensely theatrical one – it made sense both as a child’s game (all theatre is effectively a game of ‘let’s pretend’) and as a brilliantly climactic moment in a narrative”.
Further highlighting the essence that live performance brings, describing it as a “leap of faith”, as it offers the audience a multitude of realities from whereby each individual is drawing their own conclusions of what is taking place in front of them. “This, according to Horwood, was a chance to play with those, to keep them alive and have them inform one another. It was a moment that I really wanted to experience with an audience”.
Horwood opens up about the reality of playwriting. Highlighting how when you consider how long they take to write, or that they might never be produced. The pay by it’s own reflection does not reflect the hours and dedication put in. Pointing to one of his biggest challenges over the first chunk of his career as working through a confidence game.
“The ‘struggling artist’ idea is in no way romantic when you’re living the reality. And that hasn’t changed, I have kids now and absolutely no skills or savings! And Covid (and the government’s clear under funding of the cultural sector in response) just went to show how precarious a career in theatre really is”.
He makes a note of referencing another challenge worth talking about. When a show does not go as well as hoped. Opening up about the heartbreak that occurs when the alchemy of a show is off and it is not what you wanted it to be. The confusion, pain and frustration that comes with opening something you fiercely believe in and have worked on for years only to have it panned by critics.
Highlighting that even a lukewarm response can be crushing. “I’ve learned to accept that part of the work – perhaps part of the lived process of making art – is to recognise that you cannot control everything. If you are a writer, you will ALWAYS happen to sit next to an audience member at your own show sometime who hates it. And that’s fine”.
Having said the above, Horwood highlights how there is nothing like a rapturous response at a curtain call. Pointing to the most rewarding element from the relationships you build. He explains that when you find the right collaborators, you work on an incredibly deep level.
Even making a panto. For Horwood, the work necessitates vulnerability, passion, a sharing and exchange of philosophies… the friends he has made through making theatre are the people he will grow old with.