There’s a wealth of LGBTQ+ material in the world of theatre, but BUFF, which is being performed as part of the Vault Festival, takes on a very particular challenge in presenting a side of the genre which is almost never explored. We put together playwright Ben Fensome, director Scott Le Crasse and actor David O’Reilly to find out more.
Ultimately the play is about self-acceptance and being kind to yourself and others
Let’s start with what the play is about.
Ben: BUFF is about a 30-something, plus-sized, gay primary school teacher who has recently had a bad breakup and is now newly dating in a community rife with body-shaming, ghosting culture, and unrealistic body expectations. On top of that, he has to sublet his flat to an Instagram model. Slowly his feelings of jealousy and longing start to bubble over. It’s a solo show and whilst funny it touches on subject matter which urgently needs exploring. Ultimately the play is about self-acceptance and being kind to yourself and others.
What inspired you to write BUFF?
Ben: Scott and I were having a catch-up and were discussing the 'gay plays' that were being produced at the time, what they looked like, who was cast in them and how they were marketed etc. We wanted to explore who was being left off the stage or who was being sidelined. Plus-sized characters came to the fore in that discussion and we found that when they do appear they are often used as comic relief in supporting roles. To help redress this balance I wanted to create a character who was centre-stage, complex, flawed, and relatable.
David: That’s what makes BUFF so appealing. It’s very rare that a play comes your way that you immediately relate to and has within it so many of your own lived realities. I’ve never really known plus-size gay men at the forefront of a play. As Ben said, we are usually the comedic relief or supporting characters. Don’t get me wrong. I love comedy and most of my work has been in that genre; it’s where I feel most comfortable. One of the exciting things about BUFF is that it’s going to take me out of my comfort zone and push me in personal ways and as an actor.
So BUFF in some ways is a new type of venture that’s in contrast to your previous performances.
David: Like I said I have primarily worked in comedy; it’s my home, it’s where I can make people laugh and there’s no better feeling than making someone laugh. There is a lot of comedy and humour in Buff, but there is also a real and brutal look at being plus-sized and navigating your way through the dating scene of now.
And, Ben, the monologue form you’ve chosen presumably adds to the immediacy of the material?
Ben: Absolutely, although there is a version of this play that has Jamie (the Instagram model flatmate) as an onstage character, with a very 'buff' actor cast in the role and, of course, it contains the inevitable scenes with him with his top off, or more. Nothing wrong with that. However, with this play, I wanted to have our protagonist fully at the centre with no distractions so that we see everything from his experience. I also chose to make the audience the other characters, so we ourselves are Jamie and all the other people the solo performer interacts with. It’s then up to the audience to decide what is being said (or not said) in response to the protagonist's comments.
David, you mentioned the ease with which you are able to relate to this play. How personal is it?
David: The character comes out of a long-term relationship and he learns that his ex is in a new relationship. This happened to me and it was an incredibly hard and cruel time. You begin to doubt every fibre of your being and self-worth and don’t realise the extent to which it has a profound effect on everything in your life; how you treat others, how you try to protect yourself and so much more. So revising those times in the play is incredibly personal but something I really need to draw on if I want to do the piece any sort of justice.
Scott, what was the appeal of this play to you as a director?
Scott: Ben’s writing has a huge heart. He knows how to write an engaging story with layers and nuance. The central character is full of warmth, but also pain. BUFF is very witty, but also poignant. It’s a gay voice I’ve never seen at the forefront of a play and I was excited to present it.
And in doing so what are the major points you want to draw out of it?
Scott: I’d highlight three. That plus-sized people should not be a punching bag for abuse online or in person. That the gay community needs to seriously address and unpick their obsession and judgement around body image.That those of us in the LGBTQ+ world need to be more inclusive of each other, before we ask for inclusivity from others.
Ben, there is no shortage of LGBTQ+ theatre out there, but if BUFF encompasses the areas Scott has mentioned do you feel it’s making a very specific contribution to the genre?
Ben: One thing that has been fascinating is hearing people who have read the play comment on how they have not read or seen anything like this onstage before. The subject of body image pressures or even self-loathing is a common theme in LGBTQ+ theatre, however, it is more unusual to explore it from this perspective. You hope with any play you write that it brings something new to the table, and in terms of the "canon" of LGBTQ+ theatre, this is a character who urgently needs to have their story told.
Obviously you all want to convey that story and its messages as powerfully and effectively as possible so what’s the working relationship between you like?
Scott: Ben and I have previously collaborated and I was keen to work with him again. He’s a dream to work with. I've not worked with David before but he is brilliant: very playful and really great at offering ideas. Working with him is effortless. Also our sound designer/composer, Julian Starr is someone I've collaborated with a few times- we have a short-hand and very open way of working.
Ben: I am not writer who is overly precious and so for the most part I have handed the reins over to Scott and David. The exciting thing that is happening in the early stages of rehearsals is tailoring the script to David who not only is an incredible actor and makes really interesting and surprising choices, but also has a wealth of experience in comedy, and so little things like changing words around to best suit a gag, for example, is really valuable. Scott is also a director who I really trust and watching the play develop towards our first performance has been so incredible and thrilling.
David: The working relationship has been a joy. When I first met Scott and Ben they were open to hearing my life experiences and how I could relate to the piece. Ben has written a fantastic, unique and pacy script. My accent is so very different from his so he has been very open to suggestions of words that best suit the Irish phrasing etc. In the rehearsal room, Scott has made me so comfortable and created a space in which I feel safe to make bold suggestions that we can look at. Some work and some don’t but listening to him navigate through the play is extraordinary. He has a wonderful way with actors and really understands the art form of solo performance. With both Ben and Scott, the word respect rings out. Everything discussed is done with respect, love and the intention to make the play the very best it can be. So I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to work with these brilliant creatives.
Many thanks to the three of you and we wish you every success with your run of BUFF at the Vault Festival and thereafter.