INTERVIEW: Ben Anderson on The Suicidal Airplane, New Zealand’s first Graphic Play!

The Suicidal Airplane by Ben Anderson
The Suicidal Airplane by Ben Anderson

Scripting Images [by James Wenley]

The Suicidal Airplane by Ben Anderson
The Suicidal Airplane by Ben Anderson

Auckland playwright Ben Anderson’s latest play is not your standard script. Published by The Play Press, The Suicidal Airplane is being claimed as New Zealand’s first published ‘Graphic Play’.

It’s part of a slowly emerging trend to make plays in graphic form, presenting ideas and scenes in images as well as words. Ben’s play, reproduced in full colour, is described as Draft One. Draft Two “is, and must be, the actual production.”

Play Press says that in reading the play “It quickly becomes clear that what at first sight might appear to be an attractive piece of whimsy about an angst-ridden plane is actually a profound, perfectly structured, hauntingly beautiful, funny, wise and magical story, with a surprisingly tough little backbone.”

Ben, who recently presented delightfully visual play This Kitchen is Not Imaginary at the Basement, answered my questions about his intriguing play, and equally intriguing format…

The Suicidal Airplane is billed as NZ’s first ‘Graphic Play’ – what does this mean?

Basically the play is written using words and also pictures. The idea is that everything on each page should be produced on stage whether that be the written text (as in a conventional script) or a comic strip or a drawing of some kind. It also means that written text may not be on the page conventionally – the layout of each bit of the page is also important to how it’s ‘read’ and how it should be interpreted.

How would a director interpret your graphic play versus a normal play text? Is there a difference?

Is there a difference in how they’re interpreted? A little bit… kinda. The director/practitioners are almost expected at times to devise parts of the show thereby making them authors of the actual production. I really enjoy the idea that whilst I am the author of the script, other people are the authors of the actual production because I feel as though if it isn’t truly OWNED by the people working on it, it isn’t as enjoyable to watch. But as with any script, a group of practitioners try to communicate the ideas and messages in the play to an audience. The Suicidal Airplane is no different in that respect. It has a very clear message, and that’s what really counts I reckon.

What is the play about and how did you come to write this play? Is ‘write’ even the right term?

Some people don’t see themselves as valuable and lovable. There is something about the idea of someone thinking they’re less (or more) valuable than another person that just offends me to my very core. As far as I’m concerned, every person is worth a lot, even if they do horrible things. I don’t think anyone can make their value as a human void – not to say that I don’t like to see justice served when people do awful things to one another. I just think we give up on people too quickly and often turn away from the people who actually need us most and often even feel ourselves that we’re not as good at life as we should be. And devaluing a human being is bullshit in my opinion. That’s what the play’s about.

As for the term ‘write’… Is ‘write’ right or is ‘wright’ right? Sometimes I go with the term ‘wright’ instead which is a verb-icised word meaning to make something. A playwright is a person who MAKES a play. Wright and write just happen to be homonyms. The past tense of wright is wrought, as in, wrought iron. So maybe I wrought the play. I literally copied and pasted in bits and pieces (with glue) into the final first draft.

I wrote/wrought the play after a conversation with Gary Henderson which turned to the topic of whether or not planes should be able to fly. Metal doesn’t float… but he made the valid point that airplanes don’t fly along and suddenly think ‘Shit. Hold on. Metal can’t fly’ and then plummet to the earth. And I began wondering… what if one did?

Were you aware of other international graphic plays when making The Suicidal Airplane? Are there any others that inspire you/can recommend?

No. Nothing. My talented playwright friend Joseph Harper had been working on a play called ‘The Boy and the Bicycle’ which had a similar form. I think we ended up doing very different things with our respective plays, but his play is actually what made me keep the images. Originally I was just going to try and turn all the pictures to words, but really… why? The pictures convey the information far more elegantly than the words at times.

I’ve actually had a hell of a time trying to find others like it. I’m beginning to think that it’s not the done thing within the playwriting world… YET.

What is it about ‘wrighting’ for theatre in this way that excites you?

It’s so freeing! You don’t have to be so reverent of the script – meaning you don’t have a strict set of words to follow. You can focus on the real core of the story and message. This sort of script lends itself really well towards visual theatre which incorporates a lot of stylised physicality, imagery and puppetry, which I really enjoy seeing onstage. This is potentially a really good way to script that kind of thing because both visual theatre and visual/graphic scripts speak in a very visual ‘language’. Scripting visual theatre using words is actually really dangerous. I’ve done it before and it just puts practitioners working on it in the completely wrong headspace – people get hung up on things that really shouldn’t be complicated and then they gloss over things which are actually incredibly poignant and important. So yeah. Headspace.

What do you hope will come from your play being published?

I hope it’ll be read and enjoyed for what it is, and be produced everywhere that it’ll help someone I guess. I am pretty passionate about its central message. I really hope someone will see it and that maybe it will change their opinion of themselves and of others. I also hope someone will see it and think… yeah… it’s okay to look for new and more appropriate ways to do things. Always gotta play with stuff. Always.

Copies of The Suicidal Airplane can be ordered/bought from Unity Bookshops, or or online at www.playmarket.org.nz/bookshop (queries to info@playmarket.org.nz), or direct from The Play Press, stuff@playpress.co.nz

More information about the Play can be discovered at The Play Press.

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