Barry McStay: My Story of Breeding

I reviewed Barry McStay’s Breeding at the old King’s Head Theatre in May 2023 and loved it; a clear five-star winner in terms of the script, the performances and the production. He contacted me recently with the news that all of those had undergone a number of changes since and then and was now going to be on at the new King’s Head Theatre. I invited him to tell us about the process of writing and revision. What he has to say tells not just an interesting story but is a heartfelt tale that should inspire other writers to embrace the challenges of their craft and be of comfort to anyone struggling to put pen to paper.

Here’s what he has to say:

"I was talking to a friend this week about the exposing nature of presenting a play - indeed, any art - for public consumption. We agreed that there is a huge leap of faith involved whereby you bring something to the stage in the hope that people don’t look at it and think you’re completely insane.

There is a great sense of joy when your art connects with an audience, and a sense of relief too. And that gives us the confidence to go again. My play Breeding opened in 2023 at the old King’s Head Theatre, Islington, to packed houses and excellent reviews - including five stars from Broadway Baby. It was programmed as part of Tom Ratcliffe’s guest artistic director season, A Queer Interrogation, and was my first play to run outside of a festival setting: a dark romantic comedy detailing the story of Zeb and Eoin, a gay couple looking to adopt, and Beth, their social worker who meets them at a crucial time in her life. It explores queer parenthood and just how far you would go to build your perfect family.

So when a new production of Breeding was announced for 2024 in the revived King’s Head, certainly I had a right to feel some confidence. It had worked first time around - surely it would work again? But it’s not that simple - it never is. Plays are evolutionary things, never set in stone by their very nature. I began writing the play that would become Breeding in 2016, when it was a two-hander called Zeb And Eoin. It was a more route-one piece, satirising the adoption process that friends of mine had experienced and described in dark, hilarious detail to me. It was a topic that I felt was worth exploring, in a world where queer families are increasingly prevalent, but the path to making those families is less straightforward and more invasive than that taken by most heterosexual couples.

Over time, the piece evolved, with the character of Beth emerging and becoming the lynchpin. The story evolved too, becoming darker, twistier, queerer and, ultimately, more uplifting. That happened through various sharings, rewrites, notes from friends, dramaturges and readers. A rehearsed reading in 2022 in which I performed with, Nathaniel J Hall and Jessica Murrain led to Tom Ratcliffe programming it. Matthew Iliffe came on board as director with Gabriella Sills as producer and I was joined by a new cast - Aamira Challenger and Dan Nicholson. And the play gained a new name: Breeding. It took seven years from idea to production. All went well, and people started to ask, “What next?" Because, again, plays are never really finished.

Sofi Berenger at the King’s Head was keen to bring the play back in their new home and James Seabright joined as co-producer with the challenge being to scale up the work via a redesign and redraft, and bring in new audiences. As artists, we long for votes of confidence like this, for support from gatekeepers, to be welcomed in and platformed. And yet, the fear was back. Just because this had done well previously didn’t mean it would do so again. We were doing it in a new building without the buzz of the Guest Artistic Director season. What if my rewrite breaks something? What if no one comes? Or what if people do come and proclaim that Breeding 2024 isn’t as good as Breeding 2023? What if people just think I’m completely insane? The discomfort was added to by the fact that familiar faces wouldn’t be returning. The previous design team were all otherwise engaged and Aamira Challenger was unable to return as Beth. Most pivotal of all, Matthew Iliffe was directing Foam at the Finborough, which was a direct clash with our dates.

I have said many times that Matthew’s work on Breeding made the script many times better than it would have been without him, so to mount it without him felt like a loss. Matthew kindly said that, rather than having an associate director recreate his vision, he would rather we find a new director and mount a new production. So in that loss, that fear, came an opportunity. Revising the script for a new space and a new team would mean new ideas, new impetus and the chance to see things from new angles.

The source of the anxiety was also the source of inspiration. When Tom Ratcliffe was suggested as a potential director, it made sense. He had championed the play, knew the King’s Head well and has been my friend for five years. Tom immediately offered suggestions on how the script could be developed, especially finding ways to craft Beth’s journey from antagonist to protagonist. Producers James and Gabriella had already offered advice on things including clarifying plot lines and timelines. Aamira and Dan suggested scenes that they wish had been in the play, both of which have ended up in the new version. Dan’s offering gives the audience a snapshot of loving joy and Aamira’s suggestion is a gut-punch during the denouement. Rather than worrying about 'ruining' the script, their enthusiasm for this second chance was infectious. The previous draft had leant into starkness - this version could find contrasts.

This feeling was grabbed by the creative team assembled by Tom: designer Ruby Law, lighting designer Rachel Sampley and sound designer Jac Cooper. Tom’s vision for the play was quite different from Matthew’s but just as valid. He wanted to bring colour, to lean into the excitement of having a child, to explore sounds and images of childhood which could then be a counterpoint to the darker moments. All the team cohered around this concept and the design for the show is beyond anything I could have imagined. The producers, director and I all talked about wanting the set to fill the space, to show a sense of ambition beyond what casual viewers might envisage for a three-hander in a fringe theatre. Honestly, come see for yourselves - the design alone is worth the ticket. Finally, a critical new element has been Nemide May, who joined me and the returning Dan Nicholson in the role of Beth. I always felt Dan and I were cheating - we knew about 75% of the play already while Nemide had to start from scratch. And yet, from her audition, Tom and I were excited about what she was going to bring. She and Aamira are both excellent actors but their versions of Beth are very different. But Nemide’s new approach coupled with a new director have meant Dan and I are finding out new things about our characters. Our performances are not recreations - Zeb and Eoin of 2024 are different from those of 2023. The redraft and the wholehearted approach of Nemide have made Beth fly in this production.

Moving into the theatre and finally putting the new production onstage for an audience was terrifying and thrilling. I’ve never felt the same fear before a press night as I did on Monday 25th March when guests and critics packed the King’s Head to witness Breeding’s new production in all its primary-coloured glory. What if... what if... what if... And into my mind came two quotes. The first from poet Erin Hanson: “There is freedom waiting for you, on the breezes of the sky. And you ask, “What if I fall?” Oh, but my darling, “What if you fly?” And the second, from Douglas Adams’ section on How To Fly in Life, The Universe and Everything: “The trick usually lies in not thinking too hard about whatever you want to do, but just allowing it to happen as if it were going to anyway”. We were going to jump, all of us - making that leap of faith. And for all my self-centred worries about my potential to fail, around me was a team of artists and creatives all striving to ensure we would fly.

I have been blessed by a collection of humans who are as passionate about this story as I am and whose talents add up to one of the finest productions I have had the pleasure to be involved in. If I would just not think too hard about it and just allow it to happen, chances are we would take flight. And, in light of the bundles of 5-star reviews and enthusiastic audience reaction so far, it seems we are airborne. This domestic three-hander with a queer heart is reaching new audiences - more straight people, more queer women. And it’s doing so despite all my fears. Turns out they were unfounded. And now people are asking, “What next, where next?" And it starts again and the fears will doubtless be there next time, because they always are. But I know the solution now: Breathe into the fear and feel it swell into joy.

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