After last year’s exhilarating West End debut with Sid, Leon Fleming is back in London with his new play Kicked in the Sh*tter at The Hope Theatre. Willingly outrageous and engaged in politics and LGBT rights, the Leeds-based playwright spoke with us about the importance of crowdfunding, the role of regional theatres, working again with director Scott le Crass and his profound admiration for Irvine Welsh.
Can you tell us what Kicked in the Sh*tter is about and what message you hope to send with the play?
It’s about a brother and sister who, as teenagers, had the dreams and aspirations many of us have, but as adults find themselves trapped by mental health difficulties and reliance on government benefits. It’s about co-dependency, stigma, and survival. Its sounds like a barrel of laughs, but it’s actually a very warm and funny play.
I’m not sure it’s my place to send out messages, though. My role is to ask questions and in my work I try to find entertaining ways of getting people to look at the world around them, in the hope that they might see what I’m seeing and, perhaps, come up with better answers than I do.
Your works are often charged with sex, swearing, drugs and violence. Is there anything in particular that inspires your work?Yes: sex, swearing, drugs and violence. There’s something about the unsavoury that draws me to it. It’s probably quite childish really – the need to be a bit naughty. I want to talk about the things people normally try to avoid. All those little taboos that we pretend aren’t really taboos anymore but often require us to look the hardest into our own selves.
What would your response be to a critic who compares your style with that of Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting and his other books?
I would be absolutely over the moon! It’s a weird coincidence, but I’m actually reading his book The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs at the moment. I love Welsh’s economy with language and his ability to cut the crap and throttle us until we see our own human failings in his characters. I haven’t read his other books but I’ve seen the films Trainspotting (absolutely seminal for someone, like me, who was a teenager at the peak of E-culture and Rave) and Filth. He doesn’t mess about or pussyfoot around. I want my work to be like that.
Kicked in the Sh*tter has been co-commissioned by Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill. How did the commission impact your work? Did it involve any specific guidelines that you built the play around?
Working with an artistic director like Iain Bloomfield from a hugely respected hub like Theatre in the Mill gave me a lot of confidence. When I approached him, the play was something more than just an idea and his response was ‘We can help you with that, that’s what we’re here for’. He is a gatekeeper – like any theatre or organisation that’s able to offer commissions, space or funding – but it was like he’d left the gate ajar and thrown the padlock into the mud.
In a recent interview about the LGBT History Month in Bradford, you spoke about the importance of finding your voice and connecting with an audience. What sort of audience do you think Kicked in the Sh*tter would appeal to?
It’s a play for everyone. This sounds like sales crap, but it really is for everyone. You must have been living in a very small and ironclad bubble to not have experienced something within the play in your life, like the socio-economic situation, the mental health aspects or the family relationships. I write very human plays and I believe that what goes on inside all of us is pretty much the same, irrelevant of what’s happening in our lives and our little pieces of the world.
Your collaboration with director Scott Le Crass follows last year’s amazing West End success with Sid and some previous smaller projects. Can you tell us what makes your professional partnership with him so successful?
Sid’s journey was one glorious surprise after another and I don’t take it for granted.
Before Scott and I met, I knew – just from reading one of his Facebook messages – that I’d enjoy working with him. He gets my work without me having to explain it and we’re both ambitious . . . not in a mercenary kind of way, but in a reaching up to the unknown kind of way. He’s unafraid. I enjoy writing something and knowing that there’s someone waiting to see it and how it has improved. He tells me what isn’t working and what might be worth exploring and I like not feeling alone. When he’s worked his magic with whatever I give him, its colours are going to be brighter, sounds louder, smells more pungent and it will be so much more than how it was in my head.
Both Sid and Kicked in the Sh*tter benefitted from a crowdfunding campaign. Do you think this could be an efficient solution to the lack of funding – and paid jobs – in some areas of the arts industry?
Crowdfunding is more of a necessity than a solution. It fills a gap, which is a cancerous, growing hole that shouldn’t be there. There is a lack of understanding of basic economics that convinces those with the money (i.e. governments) that you can remove the financial means by which to create art and still obtain the wealth produced by that art. Let alone the damage done to communities and future generations by the deterioration of culture. It’s fortunate for governments – though a shot in the foot for those involved – that artists are creative and always find ways of working with less.
You are actively engaged in politics and in LGBT rights. How does this impact your work? Have you written – or are you planning to write – anything on this specific matter?
I am . . . at least from my seat in front of a computer. I’m what proper activists might consider an armchair warrior. I do a lot of gobbing off on social media and shout at the telly constantly. I have written a few LGBT-related plays but most have not been overtly political. My play Boris Got Buggered is a direct response to the Russian gay propaganda law. I wrote it for Plays Rough – the platform I co-created in Jersey when I lived there – and the local ITV news were able to use it as a springboard to talk about this issue (which they wouldn’t have been able to do without having a direct link to the island). That was also my first work produced in London at the now closed Black Cap and its proceeds went to Amnesty International’s Russia Campaign.
You are currently based in Leeds and spoke in the past about the opportunities given by regional theatres. Do you think it is possible for a playwright to develop a career without regularly working in London?
Being selected by a regional theatre for one of their playwright attachment schemes could help you get noticed by other companies, but that didn’t happen to me. If you have to self-produce until you get noticed, then London is the place to be. Not only because so many theatres hire their spaces out and take chances on unknown writers and producers, but also because of all the directors, actors and other creatives living here, together with the audiences for fringe theatre, the reviewers, the agents and the gatekeepers for commissioning theatres and companies. You can present your work regionally, but the chances of moving to the next step are limited. I only know the way things have gone for me, without other experiences to compare it to, and taking my work to London always felt important for the realisation of my own aspirations and dreams.