Enter the Anthropocene - An Interview with Skot Wilson

Sleeping on the floor, turning a blue whale pink, dealing with organisms and anthropomorphism, handling budgets and traveling between London and Bristol are just a few of the things that keep Skot Wilson occupied.

Skot joined the reviewing team at Broadway Baby last year after he sent me an email seeking another outlet for his writing and the opportunity to see more theatre. He’s since written several vivid and discerning reviews while he continues with his full-time job at the Natural History Museum and his own playwriting in conjunction with the Bristol Old Vic.

His first play, Kingdom (Or, the Anthropocene) will be his writing debut, running at Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio in March, as part of the new Plays In Rep season.

Skot, you’re about to have your first play go onstage in the Weston Studio at the Bristol Old Vic. Before we talk about the play itself I’d like to hear about your relationship with the Old Vic and how you came to write this piece.

In 2016 I was sleeping on my mate Stan’s floor whilst I looked for a job in London. I moved in on Valentine’s Day, so he was, technically, my Valentine.

A month later, I was still on Stan’s floor. Bristol Old Vic announced they were looking for new plays from writers from the South West. Stan is an amazing actor and had been reading my first play, written from his floor (it was a very creative space). He recommended I apply. Three months later, I was still on Stan’s floor, and I received an email from Bristol Old Vic’s literary manager telling me I’d been selected as a writer-on-attachment. I couldn’t really believe it.

Now I visit Bristol Old Vic’s theatre school a few times each year to work with actors and the MA Directors on scripts I’ve written. Normally it’s when I’ve gotten stuck with a play and need a room of actors and directors to tear it up. The literary manager, James, he’s also helped me out with getting read-throughs and industry readings of my work in London – things I could never have done on my own.

You eventually made the move to London and you are currently employed at the Natural History Museum, so let’s cut to what you do there, for a moment, before we get down to the play.

Yeah, I got a job as a visitor assistant. Stan has a lovely floor, but there was only so long I could live on it with a clean conscience.

After a year of being a visitor assistant, I started working in their Life Sciences department and that’s when things got colourful and I spent more time than you can imagine around indescribable things in jars.

I’ve done a lot of different jobs at the NHM, but they all largely hinge around the collection. Highlights include carrying a male dolphin up a flight of stairs, being dunked in a massive fixing tank with a blue marlin (now on display), carrying Roman British remains up yet more stairs, and working on a collections project called ‘Join the Dots’, a responsive, one-method way of assessing a collection, whatever that collection might be. That might sound a bit dry, but just imagine the challenge of having 80 million items in your care, and knowing that each of them contains information – information which might help us understand, prepare for, and maybe even change, future environmental crises. It helps to be able to visualise it all.

Now I coordinate research grants, so I get to see the guts of how science projects are managed. Like theatre funding, science funding is a game of collaboration, knowing your audience, and occasionally doing odd things with lights and laser beams.

Your undergraduate studies were not in science or natural history, so how did that transition come about?

Writing, really. I’ve always used natural imagery to prop up my writing – be it plays, poetry, and even essays at school. When I was a kid I told people I was going to be a marine biologist a long time before I told them I wanted to be a writer.

I think a fun way to think about science is as a discipline which loves evidence, but needs narratives. Research proposals are statements of invention, scientists have to convince each other (and then usually big funders) that a project is worth supporting. The ability to describe things and excite others is at the heart of that process. Theatre is like that too - as a writer you have to convince everyone your idea is worth funding and worth the space.

I think in the UK we tend to divide science and the arts quite starkly, in a way that other countries don’t. And although I’ve stumbled into a science environment, it turns out that museum exhibitions and research proposals have narratives too. Literature is not unique, it’s not the only place where creative writing happens.

I have a friend who lives near the Museum who enthusiastically told me that it was recently bathed in vivid pink light. Was that down to you?

Aha, yes, I probably can’t say too much. But we have a blue whale hanging from the main hall. I helped put together an event at the Museum, and I was asked ‘what colour I’d like the whale’. I asked if it came in hot pink. Apparently it does. Apparently the outside of the Museum does, too. It looked wonderful.

You’ve made a fascinating link between your arts background and the work you are now doing around scientists. It clearly excites you and knocks on the head the idea that the two are incompatible. Are there connections between what you’re doing at the Natural History Museum and the content of Kingdom?

So I think that as a species, our relationship with nature has probably always been a totemic one. As a species, we anthropomorphise everything we touch – be it the Garden of Eden or the Easter Bunny. We can’t help it, we’re convinced by nature, we like its variety and its otherness.

The Museum offers that as a space. The old building, the terracotta architecture, is covered in intricate natural designs, the pillars are modelled on natural textures – the list goes on. And that’s in Kingdom a lot as a play: nature as architecture, as a scaffold for human stories.

I like that dichotomy, the problem of our trying to depict nature, to frame it somehow, but never entirely losing the contrivance of our own design. The narrative of climate change, of environments collapsing – I’m sorry, but it’s still a story about us. It’s the story of one species, which I think adores nature, but isn’t the best keeper of it. We’re getting better, but maybe we have reached critical mass – a problem loaded into the word ‘Anthropocene.’

So nature is a creative focus for you, then. Let’s bring all this together now and have some explanation of the title, Kingdom (Or, the Anthropocene) - and the play itself.

Sure. To put it bluntly, ‘the Anthropocene’ – that’s the age we’re currently living in. Scientists are still arguing about when the Anthropocene started – for some it’s the Industrial Revolution, to others it’s far more ancient or recent.

But what it means, is that we have changed the planet so drastically, we’ve entered a new age. And in a way that’s kind of terrifying. The sky above us has changed. So has the sea, and the land, and even the ground beneath. We’ve created our own fossil record, a layer of litter, buildings, chemical residue. That’s the Anthropocene. We have changed the very makeup of the planet, we’ve changed the rules.

And I’m not a scientist so don’t quote me on that. I’m a writer, so I misquote other people habitually. But it’s all, basically, true.

So how does all this fit in with the play?

The play itself is actually a suite of short plays, tied together by a whale stranding on a beach - that was another job; I used to work on the whale strandings team. Each scene explores a different habitat and natural event, but is firmly rooted in two or three characters trying to live with each other. I believe that our relationship with nature is not expansive, it’s domestic. That’s why I’ve written small domestic plays rather than big apocalyptic ones. Sometimes we do the dishes and things go well, sometimes we smash them by accident and it’s a bit of a mess.

That’s why the full title is Kingdom (Or, the Anthropocene). It’s a play about dysfunctional relationships, about people struggling to communicate and live with each other, which is unfortunately the very same problem that we have between us and the natural world.

Your publicity for the play certainly hints at some dysfunctionality. You mention ‘Kangaroo boxing, how a sea wall may affect your sex life, how to use insects to hide a murder, and whales thrown off course by a sea full of digital noise’. Is the play really as weird and bizarre as it sounds?

Yes, but I’m not to blame. I’m an innocent bystander in all of this. Nature is weird and bizarre, and so are we. In Kingdom, there’s a fight between a man and a kangaroo. We actually do use insects to solve (or hide) murders. The crisis might drive the cost of living even higher, and we may soon be paying sea-wall tax to keep the sea out of our homes. We’re looking at a new social demographic - the Anthropocene renter, who can’t afford a long-term home because their environmental situation is too precarious. That’s in Kingdom too.

I think the narrative of environmental collapse is very doom-and-gloom right now. Yes, things are bad. But we really are developing and designing better ways to live alongside our planet. I think the larger challenge is just communicating it all.

That sounds refreshingly optimistic. Is optimism your natural inclination?

I’m optimistic about the environment not falling to pieces, partly because I've seen many of the scientists and policy makers at work and they are brilliant. On that front, we are in very safe hands. But communicating it to a global public audience... that’s tricky and it will be a bumpy road.

Well plays are clearly about communicating. It’s one thing to write a play, it’s something else to put it on stage. How has the experience been, translating it from page to performance - a smooth or bumpy road?

Smooth with bumps. The main struggle is editing. As you can probably tell, I talk too much. My writing is the same. Plays have to be so punchy and short.

This probably sounds stupid - but I always forget that theatre can be theatrical. Like, there are huge visual things you can do, lighting and sound. I’m so excited to work on the sound design for this one, I think we’re doing it in a recording studio they’ve used for BBC Radio.

This is my first play, so I don’t think I know what to expect. Sorry if that’s a cop-out of an answer. I expect I’ll be a bundle of nervous relief at the bar afterwards.

I’m sure you won’t be alone, so who else is involved in this production?

This is part of a larger season, called New Plays in Rep. Bristol Old Vic have asked contemporary writers to make work that can fit into a larger schedule, with the students at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – actors, designers, directors – carrying the season. For Kingdom, we’ve got this amazing and sparky ensemble cast, directed by Charissa Martinkauppi. Charissa is a director and writer from Sweden, doing the Directing MA at Bristol. Her work mixes Finnish melancholia and absurd humour. And that fits so well with our own interplay with nature - it’s a melancholy, confused, and absurd relationship. There are also scenes in Kingdom about minority and isolated communities bearing the brunt of environmental hardship right now. And Charissa has worked a lot in community theatre in Swedish Lapland. So she understands.

I can say that across all the plays in the Rep season, you’re looking at work that’s had guts and everything thrown into it. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School gang are beyond impressive.

How has balancing your job in London worked out with putting on a play a couple of hours away from home?

The work/theatre balance will always be a bit of a struggle. I’m really lucky that both places are supportive of the work I do at the other. The main thing is working out time, and understanding that holiday is not really holiday – for me I use those days to meet theatre venues, producers, or take a script to Bristol. I love it, but it can feel like a slog.

My colleagues know I am really invested in theatre, and my theatre friends know I like working where I do. So with some strategic leave-taking, a lot is possible. I always wanted to keep my two career paths separate. I still don’t know if that’s entirely possible, – I mean from the point of view of just having enough time - but regarding the Museum, I turned up there for a summer job and have stayed for years. It’s a place that inspires loyalty, I think.

Do you have any other works in the pipeline?

A few. A draft of a play called Stallions is knocking around, which was shortlisted for the Nick Darke Award recently, as is a play called Kraken,which was shortlisted for HighTide’s Disruption season – a short version of which is one of the stories in Kingdom. There’s a play called Ithaca which I workshopped at Bristol Old Vic, and I really want to develop it. It’s about sexism and storytelling, and a flamingo lamp. I’m currently writing one called Suicide Boy which really isn’t as bleak as it sounds. One thing I need to get better at is sending my stuff to people, I guess. I have plenty of scripts if anyone needs to prop up a wonky table.

So what’s your dream for the next five years?

In five years’ time I’d like to still be doing this. Have one foot in the world of natural sciences, and one in the world of theatre. Maybe I’ll have a baby, too.

And - I don’t want to bring things down, but I think it’s important to discuss this as well as the excitement of the debut – trying to break through into theatreland is pretty exhausting. I’ve been doing this for almost five years now, and Kingdom is play number one rather than play number five. I realised that the other day and felt a little bit funny. Maybe this is a false equivalence, but the life-cycle of a major research grant is often four or five years, and that’s how long it’s taken me to get something on a stage. But where scientists get results and published papers and all that – a writer really has no guarantee, and often, very little in the way of fair standards either.

It’s a weird thing to push. In the last few weeks, I’ve had six rejections – two of them for funded schemes and full theatre runs, which would have transformed my writing career. It’s tough when you get shortlisted for these things because you start investing in the fantasy of what it might be like if you get them.

The other thing is Twitter – I know how ridiculous this sounds, but the emerging creatives network on Twitter can feel relentless. And that’s no one’s fault. We all deserve and require the means to promote work, to ensure others are aware of our legitimacy and unique spin on a story. But it’s an ecosystem where the success of others can have an impact on how you perceive your own. I’m bringing this up because I’d like writers and everyone else to be more open about rejections across the larger landscape of theatreland. So let’s all just try it - for five years?

So – five years’ time? I’d like to do at least one show a year, from now on. And I’d like to light up the whale again. Probably in hot pink to be honest, it really worked.

Well, we wish you every success in both careers and look forward to seeing your plays on stage, your name in lights and unusual animals bathed in many more colours.

There are currently just two opportunities to see the premiere of his first play at the Weston Studio, Bristol on 13th and 16th March.


Twitter: @Skot_Wilson , @BOVwriters

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