Roy Smiles talks about his play The Funny Girls
Sarah Day spoke to Roy Smiles about her new play The Funny Girls which will perform at New Wimbledon Studio and Upstairs at the Gatehouse.
What was the first show you saw at the theater?
It was TITUS ANDRONICUS at the Bristol Old Vic with Gabrielle Drake surprising in it.
I come from a working-class background and had never been to the theater until I went to university in Bristol. It was in 1979 and the memory has stuck with me ever since. I saw Peter O’Toole do MACBETH around the same time and he was fantastic despite the criticism that backfired on him.
Do you remember how it made you feel?
I felt like I was at home. I wanted to be a playwright as soon as I set foot in the Bristol Old Vic. I love the sound of the applause and the sights and smells backstage. I was at the bottom of every English class I’ve been in, so it’s like a surreal dream that I can be a playwright. I never thought I would survive writing one. But now I’m about to stage my twenty-seventh play and I’ve had over fifty productions in UK, USA, Sweden, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, in South Africa and the Czech Republic. So I live the dream. If a threadbare.
Why is theater important to you?
My literary agent tried to turn me into a sitcom writer in the 90s, but I found the censorship overwhelming. It was like writing in a straitjacket. When I write for the theater, I am free to say what I think. I wrote a play about Jesus in Northern Ireland called JESUS OF DERRY which could never have been shown on television due to the mockery of religion and bigotry. And my Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious play – KURT & SID – would never see the light of day on TV because of the excessive language. The theater is the freest of all art forms.
What made you want to become a writer?
I grew up with a grandmother Geordie who was obsessed with westerns. I must have seen 3.10 TO YUMA and SHANE at least twenty times before I was ten. So originally I was going to be a Western writer. But that all changed once I went to the theater. I spent the 80s in Brighton leading a theater group after college. Wrote many comedy sketches that played Edinburgh. And was in a double act comedy called Smiles & Kemp which was active from 1985 to 1989. We did movie parodies and hour-long shows on the historical theme. I was responsible for all the material for this. I was writing plays all this time but was rejected by the usual suspects. I then took part in a two year series of the musical A SLICE OF SATURDAY NIGHT at the Arts Theater which gave me the income and time to write during the day and wrote SCHMUCKS about the encounter of Groucho Marx with Lenny Bruce at this time. Artistic Director Paul Blackman gave me my first big chance by staging it at the Battersea Arts Center in a brilliant production. I haven’t looked back since.
Your first Schmucks play was staged in 1992. How has your writing evolved since then? What / what inspires you?
Playwright and director Terry Johnson was my mentor when I did my writing work at the National Theater. So he had a great influence. He suggested that I write a play about The Goons which ended up being produced by Michael Codron at the Ambassadors Theater (YING TONG – A WALK WITH THE GOONS). I have been obsessed with Joe Orton since I can remember. I spoke of him in my ORTONIC play. Oscar Wilde has become one of my all-time heroes. I wrote about him and George Bernard Shaw in my play READING GAOL. Alan Bennett makes me cry with laughter. I particularly like his piece GETTING ON. So he definitely has an influence. I wrote about him, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller in my post on the Beyond The Fringe team: BEHIND THE BEYOND. What was broadcast on Radio 4. Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller would be my most serious influences. I wrote about Miller and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe in my play MARILYN / MILLER which was staged at the Brighton Festival. Modern writers I bow to David Mamet, Martin McDonagh and Patrick Marber. I had known Patrick from his stand-up comedy days and he was always very supportive. I think my writing may have gotten a lot darker over the years. Because of the course of my life. I walked into dark places while writing my play about Kurt Cobain. THE FUNNY GIRLS was written soon after in an effort to clear up my sadness. I had two cancer operations that went wrong last year leading to a stroke and lost my memory and the ability to spell for several months. I was afraid I would never write again. I had to undergo speech and memory therapy. Everything is fine now and I used my recovery time to write a piece about Christopher Hitchens called HITCHENS: A RAGE TO SPEAK. My son pointed out that only I could write a play about someone dying of cancer while recovering from cancer. It’s a pretty dark room to be honest. So funny. I am not sure to write again. Currently awaiting another one last operation and confined to the house. Hope the write bug will come back once I’m healthy again. But I wrote over fifty plays, so maybe I exhausted my literary skills.
Is there a moment in your career that you consider to be the one that you are most proud of?
Seeing Sean Evans as Kurt Cobain and Danny Dyer as Sid Vicious in KURT & SID at Trafalgar Studios blew me away. The best actors I’ve ever worked with and it was a dream to watch. If the opinions were mixed. Actor Sean Patterson played Bobby Kennedy in my play THE LAST PILGRIM which was a magnificent performance. I played opposite Sally Lindsey in my play on my brief stand-up comedy attempt in my play THE HO HO CLUB at the Kings Head Theater and it was amazing. Her truth as an actress took the play to another level. Just like Hugo Speer playing Orwell in my play YEAR OF THE RAT at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The collective cast of my piece on Team Python: PYTHONESQUE at the Edinburgh Festival was a brilliant overall effort. So it also stays in the memory. But probably Sean Evans as Kurt Cobain is the highlight. He plays the young Morse in ENDEVOUR of course. He made me cry almost every night.
You’ve now written over 40 shows, which brings us to your last show The Funny Girls. Tell us about the show and what inspired you to write it.
I am a huge fan of New York Jewish comedy. My twin gods in the 1970s were Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. I spent my childhood making impressions of Marx Brothers with my brother. And an uncle gave me a Lenny Bruce album when I was fourteen that literally changed my life. I’m a crazy fan of Neil Simon: BRIGHTON BEACH MEMORIES, THE ODD COUPLE, PRISONER OF 2ND AVENUE and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK etc. So I wanted to write something very Jewish and cute New York. I was reading Joan Rivers’ autobiography and found the story of her as Streisand’s lesbian stalker in a Broadway play hilarious. So I thought I might get a piece out of it. Like I said above, I was trying to get away from the dark time in my life by researching Kurt Cobain, so it’s a deliberately light and frothy piece. So very funny. He was hoping. I’ve always loved Streisand ever since I saw WHAT’S UP DOC as a kid and it’s a pleasure to write with his voice of course.
Without giving too much away, why should our britishtheater.com community book a ticket to see The Funny Girls?
Well, you will laugh! It’s very funny and the girls in the cast are perfect. If you like Streisand and Rivers and you like New York comedy, you will have fun.
The Funny Girls is part of the New Writing season at the New Wimbledon Theater. What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Avoid writing biographical pieces. It led to my long life of rejection and poverty. No, seriously, try to find your own voice. I might be a bad writer, as several reviewers have pointed out, but at least I’m bad on my own terms. In fact, overall the reviews were pretty fair with me. You shouldn’t be afraid to fail as a writer. Mama Cass said it all when she sang “Make Your Own Kind Of Music”. The world is full of Dreamslayers. Most of the teachers I’ve ever had, and I’ve been to three synthesis classes, sneered wildly when I said I wanted to be a writer. But here I am. Staged for thirty years. Be a Don Quixote. Tilt your spear at all of the Dreamslayers. Dream the impossible dream. It can happen.
Finally, if your life was a spectacle, what would it be called and why?
The title of the play in my own life would be GOD LOVES A TRIER. Almost all of my plays have been gleefully dismissed over the past thirty years with giggles by the Big Four: The Royal Court, The National, Hampstead Theater and The RSC. Still, I keep plugging in. Try to be a competitor. Avoid the last train to Palookaville. If anyone would like to read any of the plays mentioned on my website can be found here. The parts are available for free download. Please be nice to have read some of the ones that haven’t been staged yet.
Come see THE FUNNY GIRLS if you can. It’s a hoot. It’s at the Wimbledon Theater Studio from 17e September.