Chris Thompson’s play Dungeness is being performed across the UK as part of the National Theatre’s NT Connections programme. He tells Ruth Comerford about keeping the flame of self belief alive…
Tell me about the play…
Dungeness is one of 10 plays and is part of the National Theatre’s NT Connections portfolio this year. It’s going to be performed across the country by 23 different [youth groups], which is exciting. It is a story about a group of LGBT+ young people who are living in a safe house. They’ve been kicked out of their family homes and they’re living in Dungeness, discussing how they will commemorate two minutes’ silence for an assault that happened against an LGBT+ community – similar to the Orlando shootings. It’s a play about commemoration, protest, falling in love and who does the washing up.
What inspired Dungeness?
I was asked to write something for the Connections programme and I wanted to write something I would have liked to have seen in school. I was born the year Thatcher came to power, she of section 28 fame [the 1988 law that prohibited homosexuality promotion by local authorities]. There was no discussion of LGBT+ lives or stories. We were effectively erased, and teachers didn’t feel confident talking about it. There was no reflection of my life. We are a generation of people raised in shame.
How have things moved on since then?
Legally things have improved, but we still have to be vigilant, we still have to check it’s safe to hold our partners’ hands. There was an outpouring of gratitude after the play premiered. I received messages from teachers and parents saying their children felt able to come out to them after seeing the show. I’m always quite cynical when people say theatre can change lives, but the power of good definitely can.
How did you become a playwright?
I was a social worker for 12 years in Croydon, working with young offenders. I’ve seen it all. When I was in school I was that gay kid who wanted to be everything – I was awful. I wanted to write the school play, I wanted to be in the school play, I wanted to produce – I wanted the school play to be about me. It’s been a long route into theatre. But I’m so glad I’ve lived a life and experienced these things – it really informs my writing.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
For the first two or three years in this industry I apologised for being here, and I still have to check myself and [accept] I am allowed to be [in theatre]. I had to learn to separate my professional accomplishments from my worth as a human being. It’s a brutal industry. Learning to accept that rejection of my work is not a rejection of me as a person has taken a long time. I have this flame inside me that no theatre critic, no gatekeeper, no artistic director gets to blow out. It’s a sense of worth that I keep safe now.
What is your advice to aspiring playwrights?
Live bravely, live loudly, fall in love, experience loss. Just live your life and pour it all into your plays, and fuck what the industry says about what you can or can’t do.
First professional role: Carthage at Finborough Theatre (2014)
Agent: Ikenna Obiekwe at Independent Talent
Dungeness is touring across the UK until May 9. Please check with individual venues as some programming may have been suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak. Chris Thompson will also premiere a new play called Burn at the Roxy Assembly Rooms at Edinburgh Festival Fringe