Playwright Chris Bush: ‘With social media, it’s like we’re learning a new language’
In her new musical The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, Chris Bush explores the polarising effect of Twitter and Facebook on public debate. She tells Natasha Tripney why theatre must embrace the language of online forums
If you spend much time on social media, as playwright and theatremaker Chris Bush admits she has of late – partly out of habit and partly in the name of research – the world can seem like an angrier place than it really is.
Everyone is so confident in their opinions, she says, and those opinions tend towards the extreme. People don’t tend to send tweets acknowledging that there are valid points on both sides. “The distillation of opinion online doesn’t do anyone any favours,” she says. “It’s dehumanising. We make this distinction between online and real life – but it’s all real life.”
The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, the new musical by Bush and her co-writer Matt Winkworth, is an attempt to explore the politics of outrage in the age of social media. Before it has even opened at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, it’s been a source of controversy, with Hopkins herself wading into the debate. “As a straight, white, conservative I am an acceptable target,” she tweeted after the work was announced.
It’s satisfyingly circular that this is exactly this kind of controversy that Bush and Winkworth have set out to explore. Their show is about the “dehumanisation of figures in the public eye, particularly contentious figures. We think that we know these people but we only have a very small idea of who they are.”
The musical uses Hopkins’ death as the basis of a satire on outrage and how it can be fuelled by social media. Early in the process, they decided to make it in the style of verbatim theatre. “Verbatim as a form is problematic because it presents itself as absolute truth.” In this way, she explains, the form and the subject of the show are well suited.
Bush grew up in Sheffield, “in the glory days of Michael Grandage”, and theatre was part of her upbringing. “In a very precocious way, I wrote my first play when I was 13.” Her work was selected by the National Young Playwrights’ Festival. “At that age seeing your work done by real actors in a real theatre was formative and I thought that’s what I’m going to do.”
She attended the University of York because of its drama department’s reputation. There she wrote Tony! The Blair Musical with composer Ian McCluskey. They took the show to Edinburgh just after Bush graduated and the show opened just as Blair stepped down. “We rode this insane wave of publicity and I thought my career was made.” It didn’t quite work out this way. She adds: “For five years I felt I was treading water.”
As part of the Pearson Playwrights’ Scheme, Bush contributed to the show 20 Tiny Plays About Sheffield in 2013. Following that, Daniel Evans, then artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, approached her to work on the Sheffield Mysteries, an ambitious community project for Sheffield People’s Theatre. Bush speaks passionately about community theatre.
Q&A: Chris Bush
What was your first non-theatre job?
A short-lived temp job picking shoe boxes in a warehouse.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Working front of house at the Grand Opera House, York. My first full commission was The Sheffield Mysteries for the Crucible in 2014.
What is your next job?
Pericles at the National Theatre in August.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’ll take time. I had, and still have, no patience.
Who is your biggest influence?
Probably Caryl Churchill, for her constant need to innovate. Also Alice Birch, Elinor Cook, David Greig, Caroline Horton, Mark O’Rowe and TEAM.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really, although I try to avoid saying ‘good luck’ as I’m aware some people don’t like it.
“It’s vital for any theatre that considers itself to be serving its community to be doing work like this. If community work is to have value then the community needs to be front and centre,” she says, adding that Sheffield People’s Theatre is “setting the bar for large-scale community work”.
Bush followed the Mysteries with A Dream, a Shakespearean mash-up performed by a cast of 80 local residents. Last year’s People’s Theatre production, What We Wished For, took characters from myth and legend and placed them in a contemporary setting. “Part of me is heartbroken I’m not doing it this summer,” she says. This is because she’s been commissioned by the National Theatre to create its first Public Acts production, an adaptation of Pericles for the Olivier, employing a large community ensemble alongside a small cast of professional actors.
The polarisation of public debate clearly fascinates Bush. Earlier this year, Bush contributed a short play to The Words Are Coming Now, Theatre503’s season exploring consent and power.
“It’s brilliant that we are starting to have conversations in a slightly more public forum than we have in the past,” she says. “It’s like we’re learning a new language, though. There’s a caginess around the debate. We all have a voice at the back of our heads saying: ‘Is my opinion acceptable in this space?’ But I absolutely resist and am infuriated by talk of things going too far. It’s a vital discussion. If it results in a burning of idols that’s arguably a necessary thing.”
Bush met Winkworth through the Perfect Pitch awards, an initiative to develop new contemporary British musicals. They won the award for Odd, a contemporary adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Though Bush doesn’t “like Sondheim as much as [Winkworth] thinks is necessary, other than that we’re on the same level. We want to make the same kind of work and tell the same kind of stories.”
Bush has had no direct communication with Hopkins in the run-up to the opening of the musical. “We made the choice early on that we didn’t want to ask permission.” And she is aware that the musical is generating more publicity for Hopkins, but “we’ve made our peace with that”.
“She’s not stupid. She’s wilfully misinterpreting what we’ve clearly stated the show is about.” Bush says: “If the show ends up humanising her and makes people think about her differently, I wonder if that might infuriate her the most. She is not someone who trades on nuance – nuance is what might defeat her.”
CV: Chris Bush
Born: Sheffield, 1986
Training: BA English/writing and Performance, University of York (2004-07)
• Tony! The Blair Musical (2007)
• The Sheffield Mysteries (2014)
• A Dream (2016)
• What We Wish For (2017)