Interview with Ben SantaMaria, writer and director

Flaming Theatre director Ben SantaMaria talks about his autobiographical show Really Want to Hurt Me, and reflects on the continued problem of homophobia in society. 

Interview with Ben SantaMaria, writer and director

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

Hi, I’m Ben SantaMaria, a writer and director based in Epping, just outside London. I also produce my own work for my theatre company, Flaming Theatre. I started out as a director, wanting to put on queer and gender-subversive work – revivals of neglected queer plays, queer/feminist reinterpretations of classics and devised shows. More recently I’ve wanted to focus on writing, sometimes directing my work as well.

What is the typical outline of a day for you?

Since taking on the challenge of producing, a lot of my time’s devoted to overseeing the tour we’re on at the moment and everything else that comes with the job. So, it’s a balancing act of admin, planning, grant applications, promoting, organising, throw in some rehearsals to keep everything on track while we’re touring… and any day now, there’ll finally be some time to write a new play again!

As both a writer and a director, which came first, and does one naturally lead to the other?

It took me a long time to find the confidence to write my own stories. But I think working as a director and devisor first has meant I’m more comfortable with matching my words to actors and to a production than if I’d started out as a writer. Having plenty of experience of the moment-by-moment decisions that add up to staging something with other people means you understand the whole development and rehearsal process from several different perspectives as a writer.

What first inspired you to enter the creative sector?

I think I got the bug when I was really tiny, seeing and being in plays in my earliest school days and just having my mind blown by this magical other world that seemed to exist beyond the curtain on the stage. That stayed with me. My current show’s partly about why a lot of us gravitate towards theatre or anything creative – the need to belong, to escape yourself, but also find yourself through ‘the mask that tells the truth’. I was also lucky to have amazing drama teachers at my pretty basic comprehensive high school. That’s why it’s important to me in this play to acknowledge how crucial those kinds of early opportunities are for the rest of your life. To value those teachers and youth drama instructors who really care and go the extra mile.

Your show, Really Want to Hurt Me,is currently touring around the UK. Can you tell us a bit about it?

It’s a dark comedy with dance sequences that gives audiences an intimate sense of what it was like to grow up gay in the ‘80s. There are lots of parallels with the same challenges and survival tactics that young LGBTQ+ people experience today. It follows the life of a schoolboy in Devon from 1984-86 as he lives through all the upheaval and self-discovery of his teen years, having to hide and repress his identity to survive the pressures of being bullied and forced to conform as straight and ‘masculine’. The isolation and confusion he internalises push him towards self-hate and self-harm. But he also escapes into the incredible pop and indie music of those years, which shows him there’s a more hopeful, liberated life ahead, and into theatre to enjoy playing other characters instead of the false self he is made to be in real life.

Being autobiographical, what was it like to write the play? Did it come naturally or was it difficult to relive those times?

I didn’t plan to write this play! I don’t usually go for the full-on autobiographical approach and resisted it for a while, but it definitely snuck up on me as unfinished business and it’s ended up being the most rewarding experience I’ve had so far as a writer. 

Going that intensely into examining my years growing up, making sure I remembered it as honestly and accurately as possible – all of that tough, exposing work did churn me up, but was so rewarding in the end. It taught me how much my life has been completely shaped by those naïve, formative early teen years. I know that sounds obvious, but realising it at such a deep level was pretty humbling. I think we spend too much time trying to disown and escape who we were growing up. A lot of queer performance today is about the cooler, sassier, or at least slightly more sorted versions of ourselves we hopefully cobble together when we’re a few years older. 

I wanted to tell a story about the more awkward, unformed, uncool younger part where we start out, and also tell it from a rural and non-metropolitan point of view that’s still too rare. The development process reminded me that I like that shy, barely emerging boy I was back then more than I realised. Of course, there’s some artistic licence in the show too, including the dance sequences! The story’s been reworked many times to make it as relatable and entertaining as possible to diverse audiences. 

What has been the response from audiences? Do you take reviews personally, or try to stay a step removed?

Audience feedback has been the most important and valuable aspect of this show since the first scratch version I did with Ryan Price, who performs it, back in the summer of 2017 and everywhere we’ve taken it since then. Having people of all ages and sexualities take the time to tell us how the show reflected their lives or touched a personal nerve has made all the hard work worthwhile. Gay men asking me how I’d managed to stage their teenage diaries! Young people discussing how much is still the same and how much is changing for the better for LGBTQ+ people since that era. Hearing audience members around the UK sharing their feelings so passionately just keeps reminding me why we’ve toured the show to as many places as we can. 

As for reviews, we were lucky to have really positive reviews for our previews in London and Exeter, which helped us take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe last year, so I’ll always be grateful for that. It’s hard not to take reviews personally when you’ve put your heart and soul into a show like this. When a reviewer pays attention to the finer details of the play, and understands and respects what it’s exploring, you can’t really argue with them for expressing their personal take on it.

What’s something you’ve learned from taking a show on tour that you wish you knew before?

I’ve assistant directed shows before that toured for companies like Howard Barker’s Wrestling School and Kali Theatre, so luckily I had a few experiences to compare this to. I think it’s good to consciously develop calm ways of ‘coming down gently’ after the frenzy of the travel, tech and performance. At the end of the night especially, when you might have a great chat with the team at the venue or you might be left at a loose end, being able to step back, relax and not expect anything after the show, so you don’t depend on audience feedback or something significant to feel satisfied. Seeing it all as part of the whole process. This was especially true in Edinburgh, which is generating a whole industry of mental health awareness articles and social media posts as the risks and stresses there build every year.

The tour finishes in October. What comes next for Flaming Theatre?

We’ve had two Arts Council grants for the initial phase and the tour of this show, which have been more important than I can say for being able to take my work to a really exciting mix of fringe and larger theatres. That’s given me some of the confidence that was lacking before. I hope to keep building on this with a couple of new projects, including a play I’m developing at the moment from a short piece that seemed to go down well with audiences so far.

Is there anybody in the industry really inspiring you at the minute?

To pluck a couple of names out of the air… Travis Alabanza. I’ve actually only seen them speak at a couple of panel discussions so far – I’m looking forward to finally catching Burgerz in London later this year. But their honesty, articulacy, sense of humour and ability to home in on the real nub of any issue just floored me and turned me into a major fan on the spot. David Hoyle’s inspired me too for a long time and for the same reasons. I think I’m probably more directly inspired by musicians than people in theatre.

How do you think attitudes towards LBGTQ+ people have changed from then until now?

I was beaten up badly by three men in the ‘90s and thought that was going to be the end of my life. From that moment on, I’ve always understood that phobic violence and hate will never go away. Look at any LGBTQ+ news source at random to see the evidence of this. One massive step forward since the ‘80s and earlier eras is that we can sometimes be ourselves out in the world like never before. But I wouldn’t dare hold my partner’s hand in public for long and LGBTQ+ people and media content are still attacked all the time with no sense of shame at expressing that kind of prejudice, so we’re a long way from any tipping point of equality. Regulations were passed this year for LGBTQ-inclusive relationships and sex education to start in September next year. Cue protests by phobic parents at schools, everyone feeling the need to share their opinion about this as though it’s debatable and a rise in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes. Two steps back?

A 2017 study found that nearly half of LGBTQ+ young people still suffer from bullying. What more needs to be done to stamp it out?

My experiences growing up tell me that what’s needed is a healthy sense of community to support those who are targeted as ‘other’ and ‘different’. Inclusive education that acknowledges the realities of everyone who’s in the classroom. Normalising peer protection – again, through education – instead of normalising bullying as something you just have to get through as a young person. It seems to me, having grown up in a period when bullying was even more pervasive, that we’re at a point now where the advances in inclusivity and diversity are smashing against another catastrophic surge in fascism and monoculture. Reaching out collectively, whether it’s helping others whenever it’s safe to or joining a larger group to tackle hate, is always the answer. You can’t thrive alone. Reversing years of cuts to youth groups, police numbers and other progressive community resources is vital as well to join the dots socially.

If you could send a message back to 16-year-old Ben, what would you say?

They’re telling you all kinds of crazy, ignorant lies and the sooner you create your way out of being backed into a corner by them, the better. That goes for most of the so-called liberals around you as much as the frothing bigots. Straight privilege and gender norms are their problems, not yours.

And what advice would you give to a young person who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t hold back. But protect yourself. Create and keep creating, in any shape or form, and with as many allies as you can find. The work will gradually evolve in its own sweet time. And come to one of the free LGBTQ+ writing workshops on our tour, which are for anyone aged 14+. No previous writing experience is needed at all. Just book a place either at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham on 19th October or at Nottingham Playhouse on 25th October. It’ll be a fun, safe space to start writing about your own life experiences.

Where can people find out more information about the tour, or find you on social media?

For everything about our final tour dates in October at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton, Everyman Cheltenham and Nottingham Playhouse, you can follow us on Twitter: @FlamingTheatre / Facebook: Flaming Theatre / Instagram: flaming_theatre. The website’s up and running, I just need some spare time after this tour to make it pretty!

The remainder of the tour dates for Really Want to Hurt Me are as follows:

12 October, Marlborough Theatre, Brighton

18-19 October, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

26 October, Nottingham Playhouse

Header Image Credit: Provided


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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