Common Distractions: An Interview with Simon Stephens

Simon Stephens' play Carmen Disruption deals with themes of technology, social isolation, and fragmented relationships. The Almeida's Simone Finney talked to him about inspiration, isolation and his complicated relationship with his iPhone.

Carmen Disruption was born out of a connection. Playwright Simon Stephens’ long-time friend and collaborator Sebastian Nübling, a German director who has helmed seven productions of Stephens’ plays, had met Rinat Shaham, an internationally-acclaimed mezzosoprano, while working on a production of Bizet’s Carmen in Bochum, Germany.

“Sebastian became fascinated by her bravery and her talent,” said Stephens, “but also by her lifestyle, which is unlike the lifestyle of most theatre performers. A lot of us are familiar with the work of actors where you go into rehearsals for four weeks, then perform for six, but the financial structure is different in opera.”

Instead, many opera singers have one role they commit to: when Stephens met Shaham, the Israeli performer had played Carmen 400 times in 43 different productions. “Rather than a lengthy rehearsal period followed by a lengthy run, she’s given 12 hours’notice, then has one rehearsal when she’s told where to stand and what to do,” said Stephens. “Sebastian became fascinated by that lifestyle and wanted to make some theatre about her life.”

In 2011, Stephens found himself in an anonymous hotel in Cologne, Germany where he spent four days interviewing Shaham. The singer later wrote of Stephens on her blog, “I am not sure he knows me any less than my own oldest best friend.”

“She was very frank and open,” said Stephens. “I became fascinated by the technology and dislocation and atomization of her life. She would describe herself as living more on Skype or Twitter or Facebook than anywhere else, and I recognised the pernicious addictive nature of Twitter that defines a lot of my existence now.”

The potential of media to alienate and disconnect human relationships echoed an anxiety Stephens was already harbouring.

“There’s a narcissism in our addiction to technology,” he said. “What happens to iPhones when you turn them off is that they become little black mirrors. We’re always looking back at ourselves. I mean, how many truly fascinating conversations have you been part of, then pulled out of when you get a text message? We start to split ourselves off from other people.”

And, like Shaham, Stephens also felt his life becoming dominated by anonymous spaces: hotel rooms, airports, meeting rooms. “I wanted to write about that,” he said. “And I wanted to write about Europe – the extent to which European cities are coming to ghost or echo one another: the extent to which London feels like Paris, which feels like Vienna, which feels like Hamburg. The shops are all the same, the architecture is all the same, the football teams are all the same. There’s a sadness to that.”

Between Shaham’s experience with opera and with social media at a time when he really began to worry about his own addiction to it, Stephens knew there was a play—but the challenge was choosing a dramatic form. It was on the Piccadilly Line on the way to Heathrow Airport that Stephens found the framework for his play, listening to the music from Carmen on his iPod.

“I started to see the people sitting opposite me filtered through the prism of the music,” he said. “The guy in the hi-vis security vest looked like he could be Don José. The one in the suit could be Escamillo. The secretary down the carriage looked like she could be Micaëla. I became fascinated by the extent to which the lives of people have these innate operatic qualities to them, and I wanted to try and capture that.”

Nübling encouraged Stephens to write in ways he hadn’t previously written, to move away from what Stephens terms “Anglo-Saxon naturalism—to be more poetic, more discursive, to write too many words so he could cut and shape them. To have characters that didn’t always speak the way ‘characters’ speak. To write a chorus. It was kind of like learning how to write a play again.”

And writing, for Stephens, means wandering. Years ago, his wife bought him a Dictaphone; nowadays, he uses an app on his phone. “We write differently when we wander,” he said. “If the play has a languorous, lyrical quality to it, it comes from the fact it was written on my feet.”

Nübling directed the World Premiere production of Carmen Disruption in Germany in 2014 with Shaham in the role of The Singer. A year later, Stephens found himself at the Almeida, surrounded by a new cast of British actors.

“It is such a joy to return to Carmen Disruption,” he said. “Listening to the play in rehearsals in London, it’s a more optimistic play than I thought it was in Hamburg. In the face of all this difficulty, we continue to find human contact possible, and there’s something heroic about that.”

Carmen Disruption plays at the Almeida from 10 April – 23 May 2015. For more information or to book tickets, click here.