Behind the Scenes at NNT – Rotterdam

Katie sat down to chat with the Director and Producer of NNT's latest in-house show...

Although it fits in comfortably with the other gender-based NNT shows this term, Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam is bound to stand out. Following the experience of transgender character Adrian, formerly known as Fiona, the play is as much about self-acceptance and gender identity as it is about finding acceptance. In a world where there doesn’t seem to be a place for those seen as “in between”, it deals with the reality of the hardships that transgender people face and the struggles of those around them when trying to understand. In a comedic and engaging way, Brittain puts into question the ideas of love, sexuality and gendered experience. Ahead of their opening night, Impact spoke to director, Andrew Houghton, and producer, Tara Phillips, to get to the heart of the story and discuss their experience of working with such a significant play.

Director Houghton wasn’t always certain about directing Rotterdam as it is a play that he wouldn’t normally choose, but it didn’t take long for him to come around to it. When he started reading Brittain’s work, he was immediately enticed: “After literally the first scene, I was like, I have to direct this! This is so good because it’s so funny even though it’s such an important play”. Producer Phillips had a similar approach to getting involved with the play, deciding to produce it because “Andrew asked me to and I thought, why not?” and, despite the long rehearsals, has “loved it”. Both Houghton and Phillips recognise the power of the play and the subject matter it addresses, with Houghton explaining that “it’s about a topic that doesn’t get talked about that often and I think it’s so important to talk about it”.

Three years on from the premier of Rotterdam at Theatre 503 in London, transgender experience is talked about more openly now, but is still seen in some instances as an unapproachable and alien topic. It is this that Houghton hopes to change with his production of Rotterdam. Despite the largely unrelatable situation that Adrian finds himself in, he said “I just love how real it is” and how “you connect to it so much”. Phillips agreed, adding “I personally have no experience, I don’t know many transgender people or anything, so it’s been really nice to learn about it. You can learn from the play because the script is so easy to follow […] it’s just clean cut”.

When asked about the research behind making the show and the process of creating a realistic and sensitive representation of a transgender person, Houghton explained that they “got some representatives from the LGBTQ+ network” who “watched a full run of it. It was really nice actually talking to them because obviously I knew that the subject matter would be relevant, but one of them actually said the plot of the show mimics something that pretty much happened to them.”

He continued “it’s a real situation, it does happen and I think that makes it even more important to see. What makes it so real is the combination of raw suffering and humour, and Houghton agrees that “Adrian has some of the most heart-breaking scenes, but also most of the humour comes from Adrian […] Adrian’s so sarcastic and witty”.

In presenting this realism, Lara Cowler, playing Fiona/Adrian, has been faced with a lot of challenges and Houghton believes “Lara took it on really well, she’s been really sensitive to it and she was really involved when we spoke to the people from the LGBTQ+ society”.

“She’s a fantastic actress anyway and I think she’s really embodied the role. She’s taken it on and she’s so dedicated to just getting it right which is the best you can do, just trying the best to be respectful.”

 “Despite the challenges this thought-provoking play has created, the learning experience and the final outcome has been very worthwhile for Houghton”

Phillips added that “She [Cowler] made sure she asked loads of questions just to make sure that everything was in tune”. But talking to members of the LGBTQ+ society didn’t just aid the cast of Rotterdam, as Phillips explained that as producer “I’ve learnt a lot… I hadn’t really experienced it or known much about it. It’s made me become aware of issues which I never really thought about before”.

There seems to be an overarching feeling that : “I learnt a lot from it, I think, that’s one of the reasons I want to put it on. There’s a particular scene that I love in Act 2 where Adrian is talking to his brother and is saying ‘I just want to be seen the way that I am’ and Josh, who is his cis-gender brother is trying to help so much and he’s saying things that, before reading the play, I probably would have tried to say”.

Phillips says “You can kind of relate to Josh” and Houghton agrees saying “He’s naïve in his statements”, which is how we all feel if we have little understanding of what it means to be transgender. “It’s really great to see Adrian’s retaliation to those statements in that it’s not that easy Josh, it’s not like black and white”.

Rotterdam is an eye-opening play in many ways and Houghton believes that “some people might come and have their perceptions of the world questioned” and “some people might just see it and be like ‘that was a really funny and heart-warming piece of theatre’” but whichever reaction people have, it is a story that everyone can learn something from. Houghton hopes that “there are people from the LGBTQ+ network who can come and see a story that they don’t get to see in mainstream media” and he is “really proud of it”.

With all this in mind, the only thing left to say is go and experience the story of Rotterdam yourself and see if your world changes.

Rotterdam showings can be found here!

Katie Moncur

Featured Image courtesy of NNT. 

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