Give him time to realise your crime
WE MEET WRITER & DIRECTOR
only 90s kids who were openly gay in high school would REMEMBER their survival kits of glee, lady gaga and MSN MESSAGING NUDGES.
But for Ben SantaMaria, it was the background beats of Culture Club, Eurythmics and Tears for Fears that dulled the pain of crushing on the cute guy in the changing rooms.
The director and writer staged this raw, awkward confession of what it was like to be a gay man growing up in 80s Exeter on the stage of the From Devon With Love Festival at the Bike Shed Theatre Exeter in late January. Carting the actor Ryan Price and a lot of figurative Walkman's and Top of the Pop tape recordings to The Old Red Lion Theatre in London in February.
We spoke to SantaMaria to sound off about his new play, 'Really Want to Hurt Me', collective trauma and how the one-man semi-autobiographical play is the ultimate throwback.
What were your inspirations behind 'Really Want to Hurt Me'?
I never thought I'd write an autobiographical play - there are so many minefields to step through to make it original and there are so many autobiographical one-person shows out there. But something in me just felt the need to do it at a certain point in my life. From talking to people who didn't grow-up in their teens in the 80s as I did that so much of what I experienced still relevant. Writing it was interesting to see what has and has not changed for LGBT+ people since that time.
Last year, Stonewall did a school report on the extent of queerphobia in education. I remember when I was growing up and hearing the bullying, the negative language you internalise and turn against yourself and your identity, self-harm, feeling suicidal; I wanted an outlet to express all of that in a way that was personal to me.
What would you say has and has not changed in terms of being a young gay man in education?
What was fascinating was this London-based art-collective The Monday Club invited me to write a short 15-minute piece for a showcase they hosted that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the UK. Everyone from film-makers and clowns was in attendance, and so many came about with the same topics of school such as enforced masculinity, the pressure to be heterosexual, anxiety surrounding sports; none of us had talked prior to this showcase yet we all commented on the same things with our art. In some respects, not very much has changed in schooling systems in its accommodation of queerness. There was a collectiveness to our trauma.
My play was set in 1984-86, and as much as we can say that things have changed since then, the actor in his early 20s who stars in my place, Ryan Price, has experienced or witnessed the things in my play growing up. There are differences in culture, but we cannot generalise.
The play is semi-autobiographical which is a specific creative decision on your part, but why did you choose to set the play in the 80s? Are you aiming to respond to a particular experience that resonates today? Or did you set it then for the awesome tunes?
The music was way better back then! It was a major incentive, but I wanted to exorcise some personal demons of the past that brings about a personal connection to my work. It's also a play set in a non-London setting, an alternative to the large-city narrative of queer and 80s life. Exeter is the setting and it gives audience members unfamiliar with this a space for a fresh location of these issues.
I wanted to look, via looking at my own personal purview, at what connects with other people. It's almost like stepping into the pages of someone's diary with all the honest yet awkward accounts detailed in the play! People will hopefully reflect on their own experiences of school through this play as specific as it may be, it works to open up space for people to think for themselves regardless of who they are.
Some argue that music can be treated as a historical document. What kind of history do the tracks you've picked for the play? Why Culture Club's, 'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me'?
It's my absolute adoration of Boy George on all fronts. There's also an anecdote related to Culture Club and the early fandom that in the play is tied into it, rather than simply acting as background music. They have personal meaning to characters, as well as the title of the track having multiple meanings in how we've re-purposed it. 'Really Want to Hurt Me' is all about how the character is treated and how he internalises that and repress himself. Wanting to annihilate a part of himself that he feels bring shame but that he doesn't understand.
Also, as the play fast-forwards across '84 and '86, the play is about how we all change and how music charts and documents those changes.
The play is suitable for ages 14/15+. Picture yourself being 14 again; what would 14-year-old Ben think of the play?
There's an answer to that within the play. One of the moments in the play is the young boy being exposed to a queer narrative - a rare one at the time - and how that shows him things he didn't previously think were possible. 14-year-old me would feel extremely hopeful as the play is partly about pop music and theatre - in terms of playing characters instead of the fake self you're forced to play in the real world - and how these rescue you. Seeing a character do this in a play would make 14-year-old me feel that it's not going to be easy, but I will get through these suicidal and obscene feelings. Doing this has been like years of therapy!
You have a strong background in queer theatre work. What are you hoping to stage in 'Really Want to Hurt Me' that your past plays did not?
This is the first full-length play that I've written and directed that has been funded by the arts council so it really is a marker for me. I have a few other plays that touch the same concerns but haven't had full productions. What is unique to this? Because I wanted to make it as honest as possible, despite it being fictional for many reasons, I had to examine my memories and decide how specific I want to be. How much can I trust my memory? You want to be honest and not overstate. This is just about this one actor sustaining an entire performance of fictionalised memories. It's more pressure to be coherent and to make it enjoyable for the actor.