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Playwright Simon Stephens on maths, music and ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’

Last week, Simon Stephens, 46, was on Melbourne public radio station, Triple R chatting about music and his ‘90s youth spent Dj-ing and in the Scottish art-punk band, Country Teasers. (The band’s albums include Satan Is Real Again, or Feeling Good About Bad Thoughts and Destroy All Human Life).

The program also took time to include mention of Stephen’s career as playwright. The Manchester-born writer just happens to be one of the most prominent, and produced, playwrights in the world.

Among his output of 33 plays since the late ‘90s are his West End and Broadway hits, the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Heisenberg.

Audiences in Melbourne saw his play Birdland about a rock band in an underestimated production at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2015. It’s one of the few stage stories about a fictional rock star that is actually convincing.

Not surprisingly, music is a common thread in his playwriting. His earlier plays include Punk Rock (2009) and his first ever play, Frank Wild’s Years was a monologue based on the Tom Waits song, written as a police interview.

“When you study maths at school, you’re studying arithmetic; you don’t realise its beauty.’’

But mathematics is a constant in his work too – hence the title of his play Heisenberg, while The Curious Incident, now playing in Melbourne in a UK National Theatre production, is the story of a 15 year-old autistic boy with a rare talent for maths.

Simons dropped maths at school at 16 but it’s in his family DNA. Two of his great-uncles worked on “Baby”, the world’s first stored-program computer in the late 1940s and were WWII code breakers. His 19 year-old son has just started studying mathematics at Oxford.

“When you study maths at school, you’re studying arithmetic; you don’t realise its beauty,’’ he says.

“But mathematics is about making sense of the universe – it’s a series of poems. Poetry is a series of similes, like in maths, where two and two equals four.”

Stephens came to adapt Haddon’s novel when he and the author struck up a rapport when they both were working on separate projects at the National Theatre in London.

Haddon, like many others, initially thought the book was unadaptable. It tells the story of the interior world of the 15-year-old narrator, Christopher, and what propels him to run away from home so he can solve the mystery of who murdered his neighbour’s dog.

“Maths is central to the stage design and the music –Adrian Sutton’s music is entirely based around prime numbers.”

But Stephens says getting inside Christopher’s head was relatively easy; finding how to tell his story “like a road movie” was more of a problem.

Mathematics helped answer both challenges.

“Like all mathematicians Christopher sees the world with analytic clarity and he sees it as most other people don’t. (And) maths is central to the stage design and the music –Adrian Sutton’s music is entirely based around prime numbers.”

The main task fell to one of Stephen’s oldest friends and constant collaborator, his director Marianne Elliott.

“She didn’t know this, but when I was writing it, I was writing it with her (as its director) in my head.”

He doesn’t think he was second-guessing what she might do with the play when he worked on its first draft, but does admit he enjoyed the idea of throwing her a challenge. “I suppose I was thinking, ‘Hey, see what you can do with this’.”

She did a lot with it. Elliott won a Tony and an Olivier award for her hyper-inventive direction of Curious Dog, which harnesses performance, lighting, sound and movement with a kineticism that communicates both Christopher’s interior and exterior worlds with dazzling theatricality.

“She also gives a gift to those in the cheapest seats who will see something no-one else can,’’ Stephens says.

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While the writer has been in Melbourne he has been working on two new plays while living in an historic pile in leafy, suburban Melbourne – a long way from his art punk roots.

“I’ve got 20,000 words done for two play commissions’’ – a payoff for the slightly Blue Velvet streets outside.

He has seven plays on the go for production over the next two to three years.

“I project manage them. I know when each draft has to be delivered and I work on them chronologically. “

One of them, naturally, is a musical.

“My sense of self has been defined by music. You know, I started off sceptical of musical theatre but now I think Rogers and Hammerstein were geniuses.”

“Television is written for a market but theatre is written for the audience.”

Given his prominence in theatre, it’s surprising that HBO or Netflix hasn’t sequestered him, but he says the success of his stage plays means he doesn’t have to chase down screen projects as most writers are forced to do.

“Actually I did write the first episode for six or seven television series ideas and all were rejected over the last decade.”

That rejection has made him a bit jaundiced, but he says his TV experience occurred just before the revolution in television drama, which now has producers scurrying to find playwrights to mine their ideas.

He has no regrets on the course of his writing career.

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“Television is written for a market but theatre is written for the audience.”

His favourite television show, he says, is “Match of the Day”.

READ OUR REVIEW OF THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME HERE 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is presented by the MTC at Arts Centre, Melbourne until February 25.

Photo of Simon Stephens by Alex Rumford

One response to “Playwright Simon Stephens on maths, music and ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’

  1. What a mind, when I heard about THE CURIOUS INCIDENT I went into overdrive, attempting to acquire seats, there is something that has moved me greatly and I MUST SEE this, sadly for me the show is BOOKED, but only two months? oh if it had been three perhaps I could have gotten a ticket. My family both sides love to see Theatre also and as I am on the Gold Coast it simply does NOT have really great theatre. congratulations on this and please keep writing, i love your work. just love the way you think and maybe that is because I am really bad at maths. its all so curious to me. its a TALENT.

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