Second Summer of Love was recently produced by Pants on Fire Theatre at the Omnibus Theatre. We interviewed writer; performer Emmy Happisburgh and Director, Peter Bramley who gave us an insight in to how the piece was created…
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the piece?
I had seen a few TV shows and films based in the same era and I would think “they’re getting it all wrong” it was clear to me that fiction was not being created by people who had actually experienced the initial rave scene. There were documentaries being made about it but I hadn’t seen much fiction which was true to life. I wanted to see it represented and eventually I was driven by that to make something authentic! For example you would see scenes in shows where people would place ecstasy tablets on each other’s tongues and swallow straight down… anyone who has taken ecstasy knows it tastes disgusting, strong chemicals, and you need to knock it back with a bottle of water. Also shows would get the music wrong and I would be shouting at my TV – “but this tune was 1994 not 1990” like some middle-aged DJ! I wanted to create a piece that was true, a bit gritty. At the same time the teenage years, with all the angst, are a ripe ground for comedy so I wanted it to also be funny. At the same time as I was having these feelings I started running to playlists of some of my favourite house tracks and as I ran stories and flashbacks from the era, and particularly a club called Sterns would drop into my head and they started to weave themselves into stories. Some of those stories wove themselves together into SECOND SUMMER OF LOVE. It has been an idea that has been 10 years to come to fruition but, like Lou the main protagonist, sometimes life gets in the way of an arts career.
It’s based on your own experiences and memories – were there any considerations you had to make when writing about real-life events?
This story is fictional but it is inspired by past events. For example, I went to my first rave when I was 16 in 1990. We were in a car with older boys who were more experienced ravers and one of them asked me to sit out of the window to listen for the bass from the speakers and look for the lasers while my friend held onto my legs. We had no mobile phones or GPS… if you wanted to find a rave you had to find the other ravers looking for it or listen out for it… usually whilst hanging out of the window of a hatchback driving around country lanes in the dark. We found that rave, it was in a field in Alfold (Surrey) near where the play is set. This experience is written into the play but in real life within an hour the police showed up and the sound system was shut down so it wasn’t the amazing night my lead character had. A couple of years later I discovered Sterns, the legendary underground club held in an old Manor House in Worthing. The feeling of inclusivity in this club was the same as the atmosphere that ran through the whole original scene. An atmosphere of love that enveloped us; and EVERYBODY was dancing. This is what I wanted to represent, and do justice to, on stage. When writing about other real-life experiences I have sometimes altered or dramatised elements to fit the story I wanted to tell and the play’s overarching optimistic message. However, I will admit, several of the situations happened to me or other people. I didn’t know any of the exact characters in the play I have written but most have large elements of people I met or knew well or loved. I “magpie-ed” from real people to create the characters who would fit the story I wanted to tell which is one of recovery, our last great youth movement, loyalty and disloyalty with a sprinkling of my favourite house music and a splash of being anti-Tory.
How did you shape this into a play?
Two thirds of the play is set in the present day. I decided that I wanted the character to have a flashback to her 90’s life which would be a stark contrast to her mid-life existence. I remember at school being fascinated by “Time and the Conways” by JB Priestly because it didn’t have a linear timeframe. The middle act is set in the present and it highlighted the tragedy of the piece – especially when you got back to the jovial parts of the past in Acts 1 and 3. I knew I wanted a non-linear timeframe so we start in the present and peel off “time layers” like an onion and then put them back on again to come back to the present and beyond. I also knew I wanted an optimistic message – the answer to the lead protagonist’s “yearning” – and I wanted that to come from an unlikely character. In one of his plays’ forewards Simon Stephens mentions that it is always great to have a message from the least likely “sage” in the play. The lead character in Second Summer of Love receives advice from an unlikely source which resonates becomes the answer for her, personally, is what she has been yearning for throughout the play. I think, in the end, I have written a “quest” story. I really like the last scene of the play I went for an “American ending” full of hope and tied up ends as opposed to a “French ending” full of ambiguity and sadness – although I did toy with that for a while. At the very end the protagonist sings her daughter to sleep… as she does this she sings the play to rest too. It was important to me that in dealing with the rave scene I had to get the balance with the drugs element which is a thread which runs through the play from past to present. I was determined not to feed the audience the “just say no/Zammo” stuff my generation were fed about drugs but to use my own personal experience as a recovered addict and I also researched systems of recovery. I read Gabor Matte’s “In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts”; he is a doctor with prolific ideas whom I admire. I also read Russell Brand’s “Recovery” and an Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step book. It was important to me that although my play was to be a comedy, which celebrated Rave Culture, I wanted to represent the drugs element sensitively. There are a couple of poignant moments among the comedy. I have always been inspired by the writing of Simon Stephens – his writing is like this – there is tragedy among the comedy and that, to me, is what life is like.
As you’re the writer and performer, did you write the script in the traditional sense, or devise it?
I would sit and write scenes and then once I got on my feet I would find that the words sat differently in the characters’ mouths or scenes found a better shape so I would rewrite after rehearsing alone. Then I would take it to Peter Bramley, the director, and we found I had written nearly half an hour of extra material so we decided together what to cut. This work is not wasted though because each character has a back story that we know which has given extra richness to the story the audience sees.
How does it feel performing your own work?
It feels amazing to have had Peter and Heather of Pants on Fire believe in me. It has helped me believe in my work and there is an element of fulfilment in telling a story I know, love and created myself that I have never had from acting other people’s words. Maybe the novelty will wear off but for now I am absolutely loving it! It has been much easier to learn the lines too. I also, always, as an actor have a determination to mine out the playwright’s intention before I take my performance to a director in rehearsal. That can be a lengthy process and I could find myself worrying that I wasn’t being true to the author’s intent so this has been a dream because I know exactly what the author’s intent is.
How did the script get produced?
I initially wrote a 20 minute version for Pants on Fire Shorts Festival. There were 14 short solo stories in the festival. I wrote it to see if the subject “had legs” and to test my rusty playwriting skills on a supportive audience. I also wanted to see if I could hold the stage on my own. I was thrilled when my idea was accepted because I knew Peter Bramley from university and had worked with him a couple of times there. He had gone on to train at Jacques Le Coq and I had been following his work on socials and coveting(!) a place under his direction learning his incredible physical theatre techniques for telling stories. All my expectations were exceeded because not only was working with Peter and Heather a truly joyful experience but my piece really did “have legs”; it had a great audience reaction at the festival and afterwards I had lots of people I didn’t know wanting to talk to me about it. The audience feedback was truly overwhelming. It was such a positive experience and then Peter called me to say that he and Heather had had a chat and would I be interested in developing it into an hour for Edinburgh Festival! I decided to co-produce it with Heather at Pants on Fire being the production lead, Contentment (my theatre company) producing the creative elements for print and instagram, Peter directing/collaborating and me writing and performing. All our different skill sets compliment each other perfectly. Peter and Heather are exceptionally talented in their roles. I feel so very lucky. It has been the best rehearsal and pre-production experience I have ever had.
Do you have any advice for writers wanting to do a solo show?
Just do it. Just start scribbling and devising and if you do the work and play with your ideas the story will weave itself. Don’t listen to the inner critics, just do your best to stay inspired and the story will come. Do a short version at a festival like “Shorts” with Pants on Fire to test out an idea. It took me 8 years from my initial idea to put something down on paper and then 2 further years to develop that 20 minute script into an hour so I am definitely not a person to ask about speed but I have written something I am really happy with and I hope others like it too. It has really appealed to those in Generation Z and millennials who’ve seen it but, really, I wrote it for my generation; Gen X. That was a very important piece of direction I gave myself, Knowing exactly who I was writing for. I wrote it for my fellow old school ravers, those who were there in the Seoncd Summer of Love and who are now mid-lifers – some of whom are trying to help their kids with anti-drugs homework at the kitchen table like me and marvelling at how they are still alive! It’s for them. One love.
What were your first thoughts on the play?
Emmy took part in a solo festival we run called SHORTS, early in 2020, just before the pandemic hit. Her original piece, along with another 11 writer-performers, was only 15 minutes long (a 15 minute time limit is a rule of the festival). I could see right away the potential for this one to be a longer, more developed piece. For me, the theme of processing middle age, and saying goodbye to a past version of one’s self really hit a chord, probably more than the theme of 90s rave. I could see that Emmy had a natural flare for writing and for comedy, and I loved her acting and her ability to draw the audience in. The piece had a really great response from the festival audience. I was keen to play a part in developing it and encouraged Emmy to work with Pants on Fire.
What ‘s it like directing a piece which is based on the writer/ performer’s personal experience?
I felt it was my job to encourage objectivity, and to approach the story and the characters as separate entities with their own truths. Emmy wrote from her own, and others, experience, but creating the show had not been a process of re-living things. The central character of Lou is not Emmy, but several people rolled into one. As a director, my primary concern is always the audience. What journey are they being taken on? Is it clear? Are they going to be able to invest in the story? Do the ends tie up? Are the characters relatable? Truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good story. So we weren’t conserved with what actually happened, but what would make the best story. The play is born out of personal experiences and witnessed events, that played a crucial informed part of the writing, but now it stands up as it’s own world.
You knew Emmy back from your University days, do you share any of the memories drawn upon in the play?
Since we graduated, we did not see each other until working together in the SHORTS festival two years ago. What has been most interesting is to see someone you vividly remember as young, with the naïveté we all had then, now with a whole life experience of having trained, worked professionally, been a parent etc. There is so much richness in the experience we bring to the table as grown up professionals. I had a very different experience of the 90s to Emmy. I wasn’t involved in the rave scene, I was fairly oblivious to the drug culture that surrounded me, and wasn’t a participant. I remember the music and the grungy fashion. But I remember the drive we all had, and the promise, as we parted into the big world from college. The thing I share mostly with Emmy about this play is ‘mid-life’. The play is set between the 90s when we were students together, and present day, and having known each other on both of those periods of life, has definitely enriched our work.
How did you approach capturing the particular time period of the 90’s?
We see all of the characters as both idealist positive teenagers and then the disillusioned grown ups they turn into. The music has been very carefully and thoughtfully curated by Emmy, and this plays a big part in evoking the time period. The sound design also plays a part, we hear these tracks booming in the distance from a disused aerodrome, playing from a car cassette player, or coming from outside a ladies loo, and they evoke the pre-smart phone world of clubs and people dancing in fields. In one of the characters, Brian, we have really tried to embody the essence of rave. Brian is a ‘quintessential’, bucket hat wearing raver, inspired by the likes of Mr. C from The Shaman. The 90s is in part captured in contrast to the present day. A 22 year old ‘ravercise’ instructor earnestly calls vinyl a ‘relic’, Louise’s 13 year old, TikToking daughter describes her mum’s Nike Airmax trainers as ‘proper vintage’.
Find out more about the play and Pants On Fire Theatre here.