Behind the Scenes at NNT: ‘Esse SA Essay’ by Callum Walker

Hannah interviews director/writer Callum Walker and the cast of the upcoming production of 'Esse SA Essay'.

This week I had the privilege of sitting in on one of the rehearsals for the new NNT production of Esse SA Essay, written and directed by Callum Walker.

The play draws on many sensitive issues and after reading the synopsis for Esse SA Essay, I was unsure what to expect in the rehearsal. On arrival, however, I soon embraced the warm atmosphere that the cast and crew emitted. There were various light-hearted discussions whilst props were being set up (one chat was based around the tastiness of sweet potato chips, for example!) until the stage was set for the rehearsal.

The crew and I were told to leave the room, whilst the only actor of the play, Jake Levy, was getting into the character of troubled Skipper. Upon our return, there was a whole different atmosphere. I felt on-edge, suspenseful, and tense. Skipper told his story, and he had myself and the crew gripped.

“Skipper told his story, and he had myself and the crew gripped.”

I was amazed by Jake’s performance, who ran the whole script in the rehearsal. Skipper’s story is emotional, thought-provoking, and incredibly tragic. I was left shaken and in awe by the end of the rehearsal, having been confronted by his sensitive and raw story; a story that everyone needs to hear.

After the rehearsal, I had a sit down with the brains behind the play: Callum, Jake, and producer Sophie Curtis. The interview was incredibly moving from my perspective, and I thank all three individuals, especially Callum for being so honest when discussing some of the issues surrounding the play.

“Skipper’s story is emotional, thought-provoking, and incredibly tragic.”

What does the title refer to?

Callum: Oh, should we answer this one?! […] It makes sense within the context of the play, and it is explained, but I don’t want to reveal too much for the sake of spoilers.

What are the main themes of the play?

Jake: Vulnerability I’d say is a big one.

Callum: Masculinity is another big one.

Sophie: Masculinity was going to be mine, but I will add to masculinity. When Callum first went through the script, I […] was very struck by the fact that it was really different from traditional male roles in theatre. It was incredibly vulnerable and tender, which you don’t get from male characters and you often don’t get from male writers.

Callum: [So] the main themes: sexual assault, masculinity, vulnerability, tenderness…

Sophie: …memory.

Callum: Memory! That’s a big one, make sure that’s in there!

I was very taken back; it was a great performance.

Callum: I’m aiming to make as many people cry as possible; I want to see blubbing!

“A story that everyone needs to hear…”

So this next question is just for you, Callum. What inspired you to write the play?

Callum: So the play is somewhat based on my own experiences dealing with sexual assault. The character of Skipper is not me, […] but there are elements of Skipper’s experiences that I feel qualified to write about, because I, myself, have gone through it. I originally started writing it as a means of catharsis. I struggle a lot with having lots of thoughts racing round my head too quickly to actually process them. So being able to write things down and have a written, ink on paper record saying “this is what happened, this is what I’m worried about,” was really useful for me. It originally started off as a series of journal entries that I kept, […] and the play grew from there. It was almost like I was looking back at it and I was able to develop that to what it is today.

I’m sorry to hear about that.

Callum: Ah, it’s ok. [Jokingly] I got a play out of it.

“It was incredibly vulnerable and tender, which you don’t get from male characters and you often don’t get from male writers.”

Do you think there are a lot of men who have been through the same thing? Do you think [sexual assault] needs to be talked about more?

Callum: As a topic it is being discussed more now than it was five years ago, which I am delighted about. But rather unfortunately, it is being discussed more because more people are experiencing it, I feel. But also [the discussion is] not seeing an increase in men. I think the high-profile celebrity men involved in sexual assault in general are often much more likely to be in the media as the perpetrators rather than the victims. I think of the big celebrities that I can think of, like Terry Crews is one of them who has said “I’ve been sexually assaulted and I’m dealing with that”. […] This is the kind of play that I would have liked to have seen myself when I was still trying to work out what was going on. Have someone else say “no, this is fine, […] it is normal, and there are other people who are dealing with it and you’re not alone”.

Hopefully people will come to the play and realise that it’s OK to speak about these things. Was it a challenge writing the play?

Callum: It was a challenge. There’s bits of it that are quite poetic I’d like to think, which is something that I’ve not really done before. […] But it was a difficult process to sort of transcribe what was written in journal and think “right, I need to make a narrative out of this, and I need to make a character out of this and work out how I can put this on as a performance.” If I didn’t have the intention of it being performed I wouldn’t have written it as a play; I would have kept it as a series of journal entries just for myself. It was rough initially, it was quite emotionally draining writing it because having to write about experiences are traumatic itself because you’re reliving those experiences. But being able to see the end result today I can sit back and say “that was OK, it was good to do that”; it sort of got it out of my system almost.

“It originally started off as a series of journal entries that I kept, […] and the play grew from there.”

[To Jake and Sophie] Do you think it was a challenge for you both to be confronted with these ideas as actor and producer?

Sophie: I think definitely more so for Jake being the one who has to actually perform it, but it was a big consideration. Callum’s always looked out for my welfare as well, just as much as we are looking out for the cast and crew. At the start we didn’t know each other that well and we had some discussions about it, and we were like “hey, we’re not best friends, but I’m here if you need to talk to.” Now we are best friends! […] I think it was challenging in terms of, as Skipper says in the play, sometimes you want to close your eyes to things around you and I know so many men that don’t talk about things that have happened to them in their pasts that they can’t confront or they can’t talk about, or don’t want other people to know about. It hurts to think about them not being able to express themselves, and it is a difficult story to hear. I think it’s one that really needs to be told; one that needs to be heard, and I’m so happy to have a hand in doing it.

Jake: I think the most challenging thing about it is trying to put myself in the mind-set of somebody who has been sexually assaulted. I have no prior experience of that, and you have to dig really deep to try and be able to bring out those kind of emotions, which has been tough.

What would you like the audience to take away from the production?

Sophie: I’d say the main thing I want people to take away from it is being able to really see Skipper. […] I want them to be able to laugh at the jokes he makes, I want people to cry with him, [to] feel awful for him, and be horrified and amazed. I want them to really feel what he feels, go through it with him.

Jake: From an actor’s point of view, if [the audience] watches it and sees Skipper rather than Jake, and look at the character and see him as someone they could potentially meet, then it’ll be great.

Callum: I’d like men to talk about it, about the play (yes please!), but also about the themes it deals with. Because if it can make one person, male or otherwise, open up and say “man, I went through that, and now I am able to get help,” I would be absolutely delighted; I’d be able to die happy.

Hannah Pickard

This show is fully reserved for the 26th and 27th. A limited number of tickets may be available on the door.

Featured image courtesy of Yifei Wang. 

Image use licence here.

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