‘Procreational comedy’, it’s hardly a familiar genre, but look up the word ‘procreational’ in the dictionary – well, online at least – and you’ll see it’s defined as ‘having the potential to procreate’, which couldn’t better sum up the themes of St James Theatre’s all-star comedy Breeders.
In rising star writer Ben Ockrent’s topical family drama the four characters – played by Tamzin Outhwaite, Angela Griffin, Jemima Rooper and Nicholas Burns – are more than a bit preoccupied by who has it and who doesn’t. When Outhwaite and Griffin’s Andrea and Caroline decide to start a family, they turn to their brother Jimmy for his ‘potential’, while girlfriend Sharon struggles to come to terms with exactly how the arrangement will work.
Inspired to write the four-hander after he was asked to donate sperm to friends looking to start a family, Ockrent and one of London theatre’s most exciting emerging directors Tamara Harvey met with me during rehearsals to discuss the process of working together from the play’s very conception to its arrival on stage as part of the One Stage Season at the St James Theatre.
Where did the idea for Breeders come from?
Ockrent: Quite a few years ago a lesbian friend of mine asked me if I’d consider donating my sperm for her and her partner to have a child. I told her I needed time to think and that time turned into years without me ever giving them a decision. They then separated so it took the pressure off, but the other day my friend came round for dinner to talk about the fact that [Breeders] was happening and to talk more about what it might have entailed and their feelings on it, and her and her new partner raised the question again.
Do you think you’ve written this play to help you make the decision?
Ockrent: [laughs] It’s a sort of therapy! It’s certainly made me appreciate how difficult it is for a gay couple to have a child. It’s complicated by so many different considerations and options; it’s not just like you can do it by accident or you can finally get around to it, it takes planning and that’s really hard, I think. I certainly want to help them if I can.
I probably do want kids at some point, so I think it may be foolish to give them or anyone else a child before I’ve managed to have one in case I then struggle and end up knowing that a child that I’d quite like to have is actually living in someone else’s family. There’s all those sort of selfish things that I think would stop me now. But this play is by no means based on me or my experience. It’s his [character Jimmy’s] sibling that asks him and that in itself creates a whole other story.
Harvey: The sibling relationship allows some of the conversations in the play to be excruciating. Ben’s decision to make the genetic proximity that close between the potential sperm donor and those trying to have the baby gives the situation such comedic potential. Certainly part of what drew me to the script was the feeling that I haven’t seen this story on stage before and that’s always exciting as a director.
Are rehearsals more difficult when it’s a comedy? Are you worried it won’t be funny?
Harvey: It’s difficult when people come into the rehearsal room because you feel yourself being acutely aware of whether they’re laughing or not! It’s tricky as well keeping a properly fresh eye on it; there are moments when you’ll be watching something and thinking ‘Why isn’t that funny anymore?’ and then you have to check yourself and go ‘Because I’ve heard it 17 times, it’s okay for it to have lost some of its comedy the 17th time!’
Ockrent: …and then you sense the actors acknowledging that you’re not laughing anymore and they become worried about it or they start to change how they’re doing. I’ve heard of other rehearsal rooms where they forbid anyone to laugh in the room – maybe for that reason – but that just doesn’t strike me as a very enjoyable way to pass your time!
How does your relationship work as writer and director?
Harvey: It’s been disastrous.
Ockrent: I’m glad Tamara’s said that because I’ve certainly found it unpleasant [laughs].
Harvey: Well, when did we start working on the script together?
So even before rehearsals you were working together on the script?
Harvey: Yes, quite a lot of work happened before rehearsals. Ben’s an extraordinarily swift rewriter, which is joyous actually because we were able to really go through in detail and go through several drafts before even getting in the room.
Ockrent: When we first met to discuss potentially working on this together, we gave Tamara a version of the play – the draft we then had – but then we met to discuss it and I basically said to her ‘I want to rewrite the play from scratch’ so it was like me saying ‘Here’s an example of my writing that at least addresses this subject, but I’d actually like to tell the story this way!’ So it took quite a leap of faith from Tamara.
Ben, have you been in rehearsals the whole time?
Ockrent: Pretty much, they’ve let me stay for most of it so far.
Harvey: I love having the writer in the room for the first bit of rehearsals, when you’re first going through the script, because things happen and ideas crop up and there are bits that don’t quite work when you’re actually in the space. It’s amazingly useful to be able to turn round and go ‘Can you write this extra line?’ or ‘What if we did this?’ And then I think it’s equally important that there’s a time when the writer goes away and the actors and I can f*ck it up for a bit, because you have to feel like you can make mistakes and that you can try stuff.
Ockrent: It’s about everyone discovering it themselves and feeling like they’ve found it too, because it’s their performance and the words on the page are one thing, but that’s not the thing that’s going to be seen.
My girlfriend [Rooper] is actually in the play and I wasn’t there last Friday for the whole day; I spoke to her that night and said ‘How was it?’ She said ‘Oh it was brilliant, it was so much more fun without you there!’ I asked ‘Why?’ and she said ‘Because everyone just felt they could do whatever they wanted rather than trying to do it in the right way with you there!’
Did you have actors in mind, such as Jemima, to play the roles when you were working on the script?
Ockrent: It’s helpful to picture actors when writing, because obviously there is that shorthand of seeing that character, but the danger in that is you really invest in the idea of a certain actor playing the part and if they can’t then do it you feel like it’s harder to reimagine it in the hands of the person who is.
Harvey: All four of our actors walk that line of having fantastically funny bones but also having a nose for the truth. Authenticity is the thing that drives through rehearsals of a comedy, because things are funny when they’re truthful and when they’re honest; once you figure out the truth of a moment, then the comedy will hopefully emerge.
It’s lovely being in a rehearsal room where the majority of the actors are women as well, for me. It’s a play with four parts, three of whom are women, all of whom have cracking roles and drive the plot as much as the man does.
Have you banned talking about the play at home Ben?
Ockrent: No, we’d have nothing else to talk about! I’ve tried to ban talking about things like how it should be done or lines or anything like that, but [breaks down into laughter] because we’re so insecure we get home and go ‘Oh did that scene work?’, ‘Did I do that okay?’; it’s really just general reassurance we give each other rather than talking from any informed perspective about the play!
Harvey: My husband is the composer and Musical Director on it as well, and it’s actually really useful to be able to decompress by just doing a bit of debriefing at the end of the day.
Ben, the script includes very detailed design notes. Is that important to the story?
Ockrent: It is. James [Perkins] has done a brilliant job with it and it’s surpassed what I was hoping we could achieve. If you’re going to stage a play about people trying to build a family together, a family lives at home so that home had to tell a story too, and it does. It moves from being an empty space to a detailed home, and a home that we’ve seen them build throughout the course of the play, so that’s a big part of the journey of the play as well. I’m sure it will look amazing and I think it hosts the characters and play really beautifully.
Harvey: It’s great that we have an organisation that recognises the difficulties faced by young theatre producers and offers them support and mentorship. Our theatre ecology is enriched by brave producers who champion new writing, so the fact that Vicky Graham is a young commercial producer who has chosen to commission a new play, by a relatively unknown writer, and produce it without the safety net of subsidised theatre is an extraordinary thing.
Ockrent: And about a potentially provocative subject matter, which I think we all keep forgetting because we’re all of a [certain] state of mind about gay rights. I’ve been trying to write some programme notes talking about the idea coming from my own dilemma about whether or not to do it for my friends, and at no point was the question ever ‘Should gay people have kids?’. The fact that Vicky’s really relished the fact that it’s got an interesting, original story behind it is really great as well. It’s not safe.