Ben Kavanagh's Parallel Universe

There are just a few days to go before The Convert opens at Above the Stage in a full production, following a sell-out run last year as part of the theatre’s CONTACT season.

Torture, anguish, and devastation are a delicate business

Editor-in-Chief, Richard Beck, fills in some background to this challenging play about conversion therapy in an interview with its author, Ben Kavanagh.

Ben, let’s start with a word about the theatre. What attracted you to working at Above the Stag?

I’ve been lucky enough to work at the Stag as an actor a couple of times previously in Party. It’s a great venue with lots of great work and artists passing through it. The new bar refit has also made it a social hub and it’s one of the most impressive arts spaces in London - no doubt.

The play is directed by Gene David Kirk. Have you worked together before and what attracted you to him as a director?

Yes, we worked together on Party at the Stag and then previously on Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street and Closer To Heaven at the Union Theatre. Gene has a very methodical way of working and loves to mine the text - making him a great director when it comes to detail and nuance. I know also he is very passionate about LGBTQ+ political work, especially with his previous shows like Haram Iran and Holding the Man which were powerful and deeply touching in equal measure.

There’s a cast of three in the play, one of whom is you, along with Nick Mower and Sam Goodchild. Did you always intend to be in it and how do you think that will work out?

I think the Arbiter would be an amazing part for somebody like Mark Rylance or Simon Russell Beale but for now, the budget doesn’t stretch that far, so me it is! In all seriousness, I’ve worked with Sam before and we’ve always had great chemistry on stage. Nick too is a thrilling young actor making his debut so I’m excited to be on stage with them.

We’re told the play ‘portrays real techniques’, which I assume involved a lot of research on methods and motives relating to conversion therapy. How did you go about translating that into a play?

Research was of course an important element, but I think more important was rooting through it to decide what was theatrical and what was palatable for an audience. There are many techniques but some lent themselves to staging and believability more than others. I was certainly very conscious that you want the audience to watch every moment of the play - if you give them too much in extremis then they will look away and you will lose them. Peter Hall used to call it the crying child effect. A crying child covered in snot and tears coming towards you is not as affecting as the child quietly trying to hold back tears, regardless of the fact that the first child is in greater pain. Torture, anguish, and devastation are a delicate business.

Obviously, it’s a work of fiction but it’s rooted in reality. How is that balance conveyed in the production?

It’s set in a parallel universe precisely because I wanted it to be relatable. If it’s set in the future it becomes too far removed for the audience to attach themselves to it, to imagine it. If it’s set now, well, it’s just as effective as what is actually going on in the real world - possibly less interesting. I think the world we’ve created has more resonance - a world not far away, hurtling towards us in the distance.

That’s the practical side of the play, but what themes and messages are you hoping to put across within that context.

At its heart, and like all good theatre, it’s a love story. I hope people come for an entertaining and exposing night in the theatre. Our job isn’t to educate the audience or to patronise them with overly political messages. Our job is to present the play and for them to absorb it and if they want to, to consider it when it’s passed. If they want to pick up the cause then that’s great but from there - the rest is up to them.

Many thanks, Ben, and we wish you every success with the run.

The Convert can be seen at Above the Stag from 8 June - 3 July 2022

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