Ben SantaMaria is the writer and director of Really Want To Hurt Me. A new piece on at The Edinburgh Fringe taking a frank look at homophobia whilst growing up in the 1980s, along with a fabulous soundtrack. It’s based around Ben’s own story and fictionalised for the stage, we were delighted to catch up with Ben to find out more.
Interview © Amie Taylor 2018
Amie: Tell us a bit about you and your journey in to working in theatre…
Ben: I started out directing and thought that was all I would ever want to do, so I did that for a number of years, working mainly on queer work, including a lot of gender-swapping in lead roles. I was always fascinated with subverting sexuality and gender in a variety of different ways. I was doing that with existing plays, new writing and some devising. One day I hit a wall and realised I wasn’t satisfied with directing anymore, it didn’t stimulate me enough. So I took a long time out, figuring out what I wanted to do creatively, and then I moved in to writing and realised I wanted to do that. So I now work largely as a playwright, occasionally directing.
Amie: And did you direct Really Want to Hurt Me?
Ben: Yes, it was so personal I felt I had to. I never thought I’d write anything that autobiographical, but it just came out and when it did it felt right that I was directing it.
Amie: In your own words what is it about?
Ben: It’s rooted in autobiography, but also fictionalised, and is focussed around growing up gay from 1984-86, in the period before Section 28, and before you could even think of yourself as being queer or outside of the gender norms, it was completely taboo. Especially somewhere as distant from London and metropolitan life as Devon. So I wanted to take a look at what that was like compared to now. It explores a schoolboy struggling to make sense of himself and struggling to have enough of an urge to carry on, his experiences of bullying and having to hide his identity. So as the play progresses and he reads George Orwell’s 1984, he starts to draw links from that and the idea of the thought-police to the existence that he’s living in.
Amie: What inspired you to write this piece and why, at this point in your life did it feel important to tell this story?
Ben: It’s very much unfinished business, some traumas and unresolved emotions and confusions from my adolescence, that were whirling around. I’m not entirely sure why it came up at this point, but I think part of it was wanting to reconnect with Devon, where I had my formative years. I’ve become very distant from that area for a number of reasons, which is very sad for me, but this was a way to reconnect.
Amie: And what was your process in getting this piece on its feet?
Ben: Around a year ago, the Monday Club, an artist collective in London invited me to write a short piece for their LGBT evening, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, and they had a really great, diverse night at the Rosemary Branch theatre, a real mix of work. So I wrote a short, scratch version of this and found the actor Ryan Price to perform it, and we developed it from there.
Amie: How has it been creating work which is so personal and putting it in front of an audience?
Ben: I think that the cliche is true, it’s in someways more powerful than therapy to actually make alchemy out of that really hidden stuff in your head. All of that stuff we hide away. The process requires you to really sift through and think ‘what did happen’ ‘what didn’t happen’ and ‘how truthful am I being?’ It creates a space for you to really examine your past and is hugely cathartic, very moving and powerful, but very exposing. My first concern was to be honest with this, and not always go for the most dramatic thing but instead with the most truthful. So it’s very different for an audience in that respect because they have to meet it on its own terms.
Amie: What do you think an audience will take away from this?
Ben: Audience response from LGBTQ+ people and allies seems to suggest that through a very specific story, people are taken back to where they were during that point in their lives, if they were alive in the 80s. Or if not, then how it connects to now, because these struggles are still happening in someways for anyone who is LGBTQ+. So we want people to take away something that’s relevant to them. Or to hopefully realise on an emotional level what their LGBTQ+ friends may have gone through quite quietly. I also hope audiences will enjoy the music, there are dance sequences – I hope they’ll enjoy it on different levels.
Really Want to Hurt Me is showing at Assembly Hall (35), 15:00, until 27th August (Excluding 20th)