Interview: Thomas Ryalls

Soon to graduate from Mountview's MA writing musicals course, Thomas Ryalls has been working on numerous things of late, his piece BETH will be performed as a site specific piece next month as part of MOSAIC, a showcase of work by Mountview's MA students. It's a reimagined version of Macbeth, in which the title characters becomes Beth, who lives at The Dunsinane, an underloved gay bar in Scarborough. This week I caught up with Thomas to find out more about his work.

Interview by @AmieAmieTay

AT: Tell us a little about you and how you came to write for theatre...

TR: I grew up in Doncaster and didn't really see theatre except Pantomime until my GCSEs, our teacher took us to see a lot of devised work and new writing instead of big productions. After that I thought I might want to write but I didn't know what, it wasn't until the end of my first year of uni that I had a go at writing a play and I realised I quite liked making theatre. Because I didn't grow up seeing a lot of theatre, a lot of the things I write tend to be inspired by other types of performance (anything from Drag acts to people singing in local pubs to pantomime). York University has a great Drama Society and I also got to go to NSDF which was a big part of me becoming a writer, I remember listening to people like Chris Thorpe and Alan Lane talking about theatre in a way that made a lot of sense and it was one of the first times that happened. After my undergraduate degree I came to London to do the MA Writing Musicals at Mountview Academy and now I write Musicals / plays / hybrids of the two like BETH.

AT: What are your key interests as a writer?

TR: I'm really interested in identity I guess, I think that our exposure to narratives can have a massive influence on our identity, especially when we're young. When we see characters make certain choices on stage, it makes us feel less lonely if we ever have to make those choices and justifies certain parts of ourselves. Part of this is looking at identities that are often under-represented in theatre like queer identities or people that don't have what most people would call a "typical" psychology. I'm also really interested in inter-disciplinary work, I think there's amazing potential in working with other art-forms like film, music and drag and I think that's why I wanted to study writing musicals and not straight theatre (And because I cried the first time I saw Wicked).

AT: Beth is described as Macbeth rewritten for a Queer audience and an attempt to expose the ways in which our addiction to masculinity has influenced our narratives - which sounds fabulous, where did the idea come from?

TR: Macbeth is a text addicted to masculinity, what happens in a surprising amount of scenes is that a character doesn't want to kill someone, then they are told to "be a man" and suddenly they're back on the killing spree agenda. There's even one point where Macbeth says to Lady Macbeth that she must only be able to give birth to male children because she's so brave like a man. I think Macbeth is an incredibly exciting text but I always struggled with that central drive in it because it made it difficult for me to identify with a lot of the characters. The only one I ever really liked was Lady Macduff and she is in one scene and then gets killed. So, I decided to write a version that explored what would happen if we began to unpick this whole addiction to masculinity. The way we think of narrative as a set of rules has been massively influenced by patriarchal constructions of masculinity since Aristotle began writing Poetics so I guess what I'm trying to do is unpick that out of narrative as a concept as well as out of Macbeth.

AT: What has been the timeline form the initial idea to getting it on to a stage?

TR: It's been really quick actually. I wrote the first draft in about 10 weeks I think, it was earlier this year as part of the course at Mountview and then we did a reading of it. After that I neatened it up a bit but didn't do any major rewrites. Before we even did that first reading I knew it was going to be part of the Mosaic festival and I knew this would be a great workshop opportunity so I wanted to leave it raw. I think there's a big difference between workshopping a text and staging a text, what we're trying to do is clarify all the decisions that have gone into the text so I can begin controlling those decisions and realising what the intentions of the text are. All together it's been about 6 months form the initial idea to the workshop. And there's no stage, the entire thing is performed site-specific (with Gin encouraged).

AT: You say it's for a queer audience, are you attempting to target a wider audience as well?

TR: Of course. I think it's really important to recognise that queer people are not just queer, there are also other aspects to us too, intersectionality is really important. The show is set in Scarborough and looks at the intersection of class, regional voices, gender, sexuality as well as general human things like loneliness, not being listened to, dealing with high expectations and lying. A lot of the work I make does make room for "marginalised" audiences but in such a way that a general theatre audience will get something form it too, in the same way I have watched predominantly "straight" characters on stage all my life and still enjoyed theatre as a gay man.

AT: What do you hope people will take away form watching?

TR: I hope people listen to the characters that are speaking. These characters are saying some really important things. I also really hope people take a sense of fun, we're so used to hearing northern voices as maids / fools / comedy characters but here the characters that are usually in the background get to have fun all around the audience. There's also a drag queen called The Wicked Bitch in the show so I'm hoping the audience take away their dignity because I have no idea what she might get up to once the doors are locked (joking). Other than that, I'm really interested to see what the audience take away form it, it's a really early piece of work so part of what we want to learn is how the audience reacts.

AT: What are you working on next?

TR: I'm working on quite a few shows right now. One show is a play about how close we might be to creating artificial intelligence and another is a musical about female celebrity and how we might reclaim that without looking through the male-gaze. I guess they're my main projects but I have a few concepts and ideas lying around that are still waiting for the right collaborators so anything could happen really. I'm really keen to get working on some more musical projects, I think we're about to move into a really exciting period for musical theatre in the UK.

AT: When can we follow you on social media?

TR: I'm @BoyAndPen and
My twitter feed tends to be mainly musicals and pictures of my Labrador: Eric. If you want to know more about the show itself then there's some blogs on my website or you can find us somewhere on #BETH #MosaicMV. Go to here for tickets:

Author's review: