Interview with Ben Norris

I spoke to Ben about his show, being a performer and the importance of male mental health

Interview with Ben Norris

Could you introduce yourself to the reader?

My name is Ben Norris, I am an actor and writer from the UK, and I made a one-man show called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family, which has just finished its run at Adelaide Fringe.

What’s the show about?

The show is about me and my dad, ostensibly, and how distant I felt from him for my entire childhood, and my attempts to connect with him, and get to know him better in the past in the hope that I could get to know him better in the present.
So I went on this hitchhike to everywhere he had ever lived when he was growing up. He was born in Brixton and every time he moved house he moved north, loosely in line with the M1, so I thought there's an irresistibly structural opportunity! And I set off on this journey going backwards in time, starting off in Nottingham and trying to talk to old friends of his and going to the pubs his parents used to run and meet the new pub owners there, to try and build a picture of who he is now. And then I kind of realise while I’m on this journey that that’s perhaps a slightly flawed and ironic thing to do, because the whole thing is framed with me saying I'm a millennial and a poet and a performer and all of these things are really alien to my dad, who is terribly inarticulate, and I'm incredibly articulate and good at communicating my feelings. And I think that's probably truer with my friends, but with him there was a massive cowardice still, and I went on this whole bloody convoluted journey with questionable results rather than just ringing him up and asking him about it.  
So then it becomes, I guess, a musing on fathers and sons, and how we struggle to communicate with those to whom we’re allegedly closest. And, I suppose, a musing on masculinity in general and some of our communicative hangups regarding emotional vulnerability. I guess it’s trying to contribute to positive masculinity and how we can reduce the number of men killing themselves and hitting their wives…but it’s got some jokes in it as well, so don’t worry!


Did you know when you went on the journey that you wanted to make it into a show?

Yeah, we’d already got arts council funding and Oscar was there with his camera in view to capturing these moments - maybe to use in projection or not, I didn't know that, but I knew I wanted to make a show.

Do you ever find it difficult to talk about something so personal in front of strangers?

No, I find it way easier to talk about it in front of strangers, because it’s like you have nothing to lose, and you hope that you will open a door for them to their own experience in a way.
I get much more nervous performing it in front of friends, and obviously the ultimate person being my dad, because you think, did I have permission to do this? The most nervous I’ve ever been for that show easily were the two times my dad has seen it. I think I find talking to strangers quite easy because you’re in charge of the narrative and you’re in charge of who you are onstage, and when you perform to people who’ve known you since you were born they bring with them narratives of their own regarding you, which might hit up against the one you’ve been presenting.

How did your dad react to the show?

Typically, he was like, ‘Well done mate, let’s go for a beer’, and then we never spoke about it, and initially that really hurt, because I was like how can you watch that show and not want to have a conversation about it? But then he came again, and the same thing happened, but then I realised that his communicative language is not verbal. He comes to stuff. And that kind of fed back into the show later regarding how he came to Edinburgh the first time, and he never does that. He never gets trains; he’s got like two trains in his entire life - since I've been born, at least - both times involving me. One was to go to Newcastle to watch Luton v Newcastle and one was to come to Edinburgh to see Hitchhiker’s. That's his love language, as it were. He doesn’t need to tell me, he just shows me.
So then I actually was kind of okay with it. And I think the whole journey of this and the show and who we are outside of it has been one of not really trying to change each other any more, and realising who each other is, and that that's okay, you know?

Why is it so important that men feel they are able to talk about their feelings?

Well at its most extreme it leads to a lot of deep, deep unhappiness and depression in men; male suicide is famously a lot higher than female suicide, globally. It’s a feminist issue too because sometimes it means men behave in a particular way towards women, in a romantic and sexual context. Both sexes stand to gain from a great softening of man. And in the most superficial sense people would be happier because they’d have an outlet, and they wouldn't feel the need to be violent, or abuse substances, or however it manifests itself. It’s a valve, isn’t it, and if you can't just say I had a crappy day today and it made me feel like x or y with your friends, or a lover, or your parents, or whoever, then that just builds and builds and that cap will pop at some point. If you can't relieve it in some way then it will come off in a more catastrophic sense. So, yeah, it is important.
Also, with Choir of Man, we’re only men because it’s a male voice choir - that’s the idea - but I think we’ve got to have something positive to say. Particularly as more and more theatres are becoming increasingly aware - as they should be - of what casting breakdowns look like (in terms of gender). It’s been so woeful because most plays have casts weighted towards more men than women, and it’s the same with writers and directors. Generally there's a huge bias towards dudes in the industry. So I thought we’ve got to have something positive to say, otherwise we’d just be another group of dudes being dudes, and I felt like we had a duty to at least use that platform in a positive way.

Do you think there's a future in theatre for genderless casting and awards?

Yeah, I do. Recently there's been a proliferation of high profile female actors playing male Shakespeare roles, to a lot of critical acclaim and commercial success. I think there's something Brechtian about it, and if people want very similitude experiences then maybe they might want to see a man playing the role, but you could come back at that and say they’re speaking in iambic pentameter, so if you’re talking about the suspension of disbelief then you’re already going in pretty strongly there! I think that if you’re watching a human performing a role the character takes on a life of their own.
And genderless awards absolutely, because you don't have best male sound designer - I mean they tend to be male for the same reasons, but you don't have best male lighting designer or best female costume designer, you just have best of those categories, but there's best actor and actress. I think particularly as we move into a world now where hopefully kids won't be raised with the assumption that they're straight - like I personally would try to not assume they’re going to be a certain type of person - as we move towards a more non-binary world in every respect I think it would be good to just have best actor. And then there wouldn't be any of these arguments about a person being trans, so which category do they go in, you know what I mean? I think that would be a good thing to see.

Our view of masculinity is changing for the positive, albeit slowly; how do we encourage that change?

I think we need to stop people from thinking as if feminism and male issues are separate things. Also, I think lots of men who are traditional, masculine men think they’re under attack, when they’re not. If that's a choice and they’re happy it’s totally fine to be obsessed with sports and beer, and there are elements of my own personality that are very much like that. Football is a major of the show, and how I bond with my dad, as is drinking in a pub, and Choir of Man is set around pub culture, but I think it’s making the space broader.
There's an amazing festival at Southbank centre called ‘Being a Man’ festival, and it’s run by Ted Hodgkinson, and he says it’s just about broadening the bandwidth of masculinity and making space for all the different types of masculinity. It’s not like the traditional, macho man has to die (as long as that macho man doesn’t mean being domestically violent or anything), just that's there no hierarchy of who’s more or less of a man.
I think clothes would be another big thing as well. There are a lot of ways in which the world is worse for women - the vast majority of them - but the one thing that I think men have less permission to do is the way they costume themselves. I think it would be nice to just see clothes shops instead of the men are downstairs and the women are upstairs, because I often find myself wandering elsewhere curiously. I want a trouser that would traditionally be for a woman, but that has space for the necessary things that I have! But you will feel like less of a man if you have to buy the clothes you want to wear in the women’s section of the shop, and that shouldn't be a bad thing - being feminine shouldn't be a bad thing - but if those clothes are also in the men’s section, or if one day there's just a clothes shop, that would be cool. Small but significant things.
It’s like people say who are in any kind of minority, it’s about seeing yourself in the world. When we start to see effeminate men, or trans, gay, people of colour, whatever it is, as soon as we start to see all of those types of man in the media, that would be good.

What advice would you give to young boys who feel like they’re under pressure to be a particular type of man?

It’s hard. School was hard. and I was a pretty stereotypical schoolboy. I wasn't really interested in exploring the things I’m interested in exploring now at school, probably because it felt unsafe to do so - or maybe I have grown into those curiosities, I don't know - but it’s hard. I would say seek out like-minded people. Be friends with girls, that often helps, and be braver with your male friends because you’ll probably find a lot of them are feeling the same way as you.
My cousin, who is 15 now, is going through a similar thing. He’s suffering a lot with his mental health and he says he can't talk to his male friends about it. He’s quite popular at school: he’s very good at football and he’s a key social player, but he only talks to a select few female friends of his about his depression and he feels he has to be a certain type of dude with the guys. I've said maybe change your group of friends - I know that’s easier said than done, but seek out people who give you permission to be your full self.
When you’re young it’s hard; you might find that community online and then of course you need to be safe about how you go about that, but for a lot of people it’s finding those role models in art, in film, in music. Bowie was so loved because he symbolised some kind of great smashing down of these oppressive barriers of identity. So I’d say just try and find those communities, and things get better when you get older because people tend to chill out a bit about how you behave and who you are.


Why is it so important to talk about mental health?

Everybody has a mental health the same way everyone has a physical health, and I think famously it’s been lagging behind physical health for so long, in terms of the words we use, in terms of the provision there is in the NHS, and the way people deal with it. It’s difficult; if somebody says I’m feeling x you can't deny them that, but I think we need to be careful about how we diagnose and medicate these things. We’re just learning all of this, really.
That's one of the big things; to become more articulate as a people, globally, about what those things mean, so we can deal with it. If somebody says I can't come into work today because I've got a chest infection, that’s legit, but if they said I'm clinically depressed, we still lean towards ‘Oh, maybe just come in anyway and crack on’. It will help us be better at talking to people who feel suicidal and then it will help us be better at talking to people before they feel suicidal. Prevention rather than cure, cause rather than symptom, you know. The language needs to evolve. It’s vital.

Do you think the arts help with mental health?

I massively do. People always question what the value of art is and I think at its best it either reflects your experience back to you in a new way and makes you see it afresh, or it gives you an experience than you haven’t had before and gives you a window into it. So maybe that's you watching a play about a mental health condition that you have no experience of but it leaves you feeling much more knowledgeable and aware of it, or you see yourself onstage or onscreen and you realise somebody understands. That can be a kind of lifesaving camaraderie at its most extreme. So I would staunchly defend the value of art across the board, but particularly when it comes to people feeling like they belong; like they've seen themselves in the world.

Did you always want to go into the arts?

No I wanted to be a professional long distance runner until I was about 20.

How did you end up going into the arts?

I got injured a lot. I got into acting and running at the same time and I just got better at running, I guess, and then when that fell away I found solace in performing again, and writing. I was lucky in that my Plan B was most people’s Plan A. And it wasn't really a Plan B, they were dual passions,

What is the hardest thing about being a performer?

It’s just hard to make a living! There are very few industries where you would train specifically in a craft and then not be able to get employed in the craft. I mean, if you get accepted into medical school, unless you mess up you are going to be a doctor. Drama is different; each year we spew out more graduates than there are jobs by tenfold, probably a hundredfold, so you just don't work for ages unless you’re very lucky. It’s difficult to feel like you have anything to contribute or anybody wants you or cares, and that's why I think writing was what saved me. You need permission to act - you need to be in a play, with other people, there needs to be a framework that already exists, that you’re invited into, or you need to make it yourself - but with writing if you want to write something you just write and nobody can say it’s not a piece of writing. You’ve done the writing and then some art has happened that day, and you can feel sustained by that. So I owe a lot to the writing that kind of picked the acting back up.

Your writing is very poetic; what is it you like about poetry?

I think poetry is the most economical way to open windows into experiences that you’ve not had and reflect experiences you have had back to you. And I think the musicality of it helps with Choir of Man, as it kind of has a lyricism of its own. It’s novel for people; I got into spoken word at uni so I think I've become sort of known for it, but I do write things that aren’t poetry: straight plays, monologues and short stories. With Hitchhiker’s I tried to make it so some bits are very prosaic and others kind of flow into these more poetic elements, and it just creeps up on you without ever being like, ‘I'm doing a poem now’. Really it’s just the natural language that I had at the time. It’s quite old now, that show; it’s about 3 and a half years since I wrote it.

You said that's it with the show now - what's next? Do you want to do another solo show?

Yeah. I'm making a show at the Roundhouse, doing a scratch performance of it on 1 July. I don't know yet whether that's a solo show or whether it’s a play, and I’m trying to give myself permission to not know for longer. With Hitchhiker’s, I kind of made all the decisions on my own in a vacuum; I wrote the script on my own and semi-directed it myself. I feel very sorry for the director because it was probably a nightmare to work with me! But with this one I want to be more authentically open, and get in a room with some creatives. I imagine the first time will be a one-man version of it, but it might grow into a play or something else.

What’s it about?

It’s about running, and it’s the first time I've written sizeably about it. I’ve written the odd poem, but I've never gone there because I've not really felt ready, and now I kind of feel ready. I want to make a piece about young sports people in general, and thinking your life is going to go a certain way, and investing all of your time and energy into that for it to not happen. I want to explore what it’s like to have to retire from something when you’re 19, and then maybe step back and make a show about narrative rupture in general, and what's it like when anything changes seismically in your life, be it a grief, or a divorce, or a career change, and you have to reinvent yourself. I’m really interested in who we are in the wake of those traumas. So, it might just be a one-man show about running, it might be a 50-strong cast play about narrative rupture, I don't know. Probably given the state of funding that I'm able to command, the former!

What’s different about doing a one-man show like Hitchhiker’s and performing with Choir of Man?

I really enjoyed doing the two of them together, because Hitchhiker’s is costly; it’s knackering, and it’s very personal, and you’re on your own, and as much as I love that and I love telling that story and I love when it speaks to people, it’s so joyous to go back to a group of supportive, lovely friends and do a show that’s - although it has its serious moments - ostensibly bloody good fun! And then it’s kind of nice to go back to Hitchhiker’s after that and do something that’s a little quieter, a little more thoughtful.
When I did it in Edinburgh I did Hitchhiker’s in 2015 just on its own, and then Choir of Man last year just on its own, so this was the first time that I've popped from one show to another, and I really enjoyed the different energies of them. With Hitchhiker’s as well I’m sort of sorting everything out - even though I have a producer I’m involved in every level - and it’s nice with Choir of Man because my job is only to do the performing and a bit of the writing and to do some press stuff, but not to book the van that takes the set from Adelaide to Melbourne! That’s been really refreshing just on a really basic level.

What advice would you give to young people who want to get into the arts?

Don't’ do it, it’s an appalling idea! No, well, I do believe the whole ‘don't be an actor unless you can't bear the thought of being something else’ idea, because it is really hard.
I think if you truly believe you have something to say, and you believe you have the energy to persevere, then do it, absolutely. Be vulnerable. You have to be in it to win it. You’re never going to get your poetry collection published if it sits in My Documents, so send it to 100 people, and 99 of them might hate it, or 100 of them might hate it, but then write another one, and send it again, and keep putting your work out there because eventually someone will say, I like this, let’s do something.
It’s often not the best people who win poetry slams or get into drama school, it’s the people who went to the auditions, or just were the right person on that day. So keep going. Do a lot of things on your own; make your own work if you can. And it’s not the be all and end all when things are going badly. Make sure you've got other things in your life that nourish you and people that you love.

Thanks so much to Ben for taking the time to do this interview, and best of luck with your new show!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

You can check out my review of Ben's show at Adelaide Fringe here!


Sam Nead

Sam Nead Contributor

I am a 22 year old student who loves reading, writing and all things theatre-related. I am studying Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at Birmingham University and I'm trying to write a novel, but not doing very well at it!

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