Interview: Daniel Foxsmith

Daniel Foxsmith is an actor, writer and founder / co-director of Snuff Box Theatre. His new play ‘Weald’ is on at The Finborough Theatre in February, described as ‘a terse and delicate dissection of male emotions from a rural perspective: fathers and sons, honour and legacy, molasses and mud’, I caught up with him to talk about the themes of familial relationships,  gender roles and contemporary masculinity.

Interview by Amie Taylor (@spoonsparkle)

1. Hi Daniel, could you just tell us a little about your career and how you became a playwright?

I trained as an actor on the Contemporary Theatre course at East 15 Acting School. The course is a blinder – you’re encouraged to taste all of the pies should you wish to – I had experience of acting, directing, producing and writing (all with varying degrees of success). From there I founded Snuff Box Theatre, and have worked with Charlotte and Bryony to create stories we’d like to tell people. Weald is the fourth play I’ve managed to squeeze in alongside acting gigs and other bits and bobs. It sounds big and grand, and we’ve had some amazing experiences, but to be honest a lot of the time I can be found working bar jobs and giving out leaflets at Liverpool Street Station! It’s nice to be straddling both worlds simultaneously, and mad to think Snuff Box has been going for four years now!

2. Your new play ‘Weald’ explores male gender roles and mental health issues – what inspired you to write this piece?

I find it hard to communicate my feelings of inadequacy and frustration as a man. But beyond that, I feel that men in particular are unwilling to entertain and listen to other men who express these feelings, for reasons unclear to me. I can’t say categorically the play is about mental health – it’s probably in there somewhere, but I’m no expert – the play was never about the things we can label or put neatly in a box; it’s more about a feeling that grows in your guts, that you know is affecting you silently. That was my inspiration. The focus, for me, is about two men’s experiences. The play is about fathers and sons. It’s about where you grew up and why that’s not always ‘home’. It’s about the pressures of heritage, legacy and what that means to you and to society and why those aren’t always the same thing. These two men aren’t able to reach out when they need to most. Why? I’ve tried to examine how masculinity is relevant in a modern world, and how the ideals woven into the fabric of what it means to ‘be a man’ affect us in everyday life. What began as an exercise to write personally developed into something that contains a lot of my experiences and my childhood. I worked on a livery yard as a teenager, and I’ve tried to capture that world; a world full of tradition, superstition and knowing mysticism.

3. What do you hope audiences will take away from watching?

I hope audiences will come away well fed on a good story. If that happens, we’ve done our job on the most basic of levels. I hope they get a sense of the world, the sights, the sounds and the smells. There’s a real mystique surrounding horse and man, almost as old as the bond between dog and man, and it carries, like a bullet, right through to today. It transcends gender and politics. It has it’s own, simple language, it’s mud, it’s graft. I thought that would be a great challenge to put on stage. Beyond that, it’d be cracking if some of them got angry about it, or asked the same questions I’m asking of myself, of our society, questions about how we’re packaging and commodifying shame and humiliation. That sounds like an invite to come and shout at me after the show, and…maybe it is. Come and shout with me!

4. International Men’s Day in 2015 was criticised by some members of the feminist movement. I am sympathetic of this, though am in support of IMD as I noticed it was commendably used as a platform to discuss men’s mental health- to me though, one day a year isn’t enough. Do you think enough is being done the rest of the year to raise awareness surrounding mental health issues faced by men?

It’s an incendiary topic; the arguments for and against, no matter how black and white people would like to suggest them to be, are not only complex but also steeped in emotional and cultural bias on all sides. That said, I’m a simple human being really; I like tea and cake, cheese sandwiches, and stuff like really wanting mental health stigmas to be busted wide open across all platforms. With that in mind, it feels to me that, as you say, if a gathering of that kind can prompt an open dialogue about gender imbalances and the shortcomings within a particular gender (or with the people that identify with that gender) then that’s positive. As the gender imbalance starts to shift (albeit incredibly, painfully slowly), men will need to adjust. We have to in order to grow alongside the change. And there is huge resistance to that. I believe one of the ways to begin the process of adjustment is by learning more about what you’re a part of, to practice openness, to try to understand, to replace cynicism with empathy and to exchange true dialogue about how we feel. So these gatherings, like IMD and Being A Man (which I love because it interweaves with Women of the World and takes place over three days) need time and space to find their place and their voice in the discussion, just as we all do.

5. Your play explores male gender roles – which is unquestionably linked to mental health. Going in to 2016 – what do you think is it to be male in the UK today and what pressures / limitations / problems do they face in terms of gender roles?

I think the modern world can be an incredibly lonely and unforgiving place to be for a man. And let me add that I’m in no way stating that it isn’t for other genders. It feels like we’re generally being pushed in a more selfish, individualist and impatient direction. For men, it’s like there’s this silent, worldwide blood-pact that men don’t discuss their anxieties, their fears, their insecurities or their need for help for fear of being shamed. I think when combined with the incredible pressure born of distorted and abstracted old-world values, plus a new-age mentality of everyone being entitled to their moment in the spotlight, the silence is deafening and destructive.

6. Do you think things are beginning to change?

In the UK, this silence really is a blood-pact. The stats describe it as such: suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 19-49. There’s a deep, fundamental need to tackle old-fashioned mindsets and interrogate what we mean by ‘gender-roles’. Our language as well as our thinking needs to catch up. That’s what Weald explores – like a wrench on a valve screwed tight; it has to be undone bit by bit. Are things beginning to change? I think they are, slowly. The stats, along with the fact that something is emotionally crippling men in modern society needs to be drilled home to people until they’re sick of it. Organizations like CALM are doing fantastic work to put this stuff in front of us where we can’t choose to scroll down or swipe it away. With Weald I’m trying to do something similar – two characters who have a story people feel compelled to stay with – and in return I hope it will stay with them.

7. Where can we find out more about the play online?

More information about the play can be found online at – http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2015/weald.php

8. Where can we book tickets?

Tickets are available from the Finborough Theatre Box Office: 0844 847 1652, http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

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