Steve is the writer of our upcoming production The Distance Between Stars
As a writer, people are always asking me where I get my ideas. Actually, that’s total bollocks, nobody has ever asked me that question, and probably never will. So I’ll ask it myself. ‘Steve, where do you get your ideas?’
Generally, I don’t have a clue. Usually they just float up out of the ether. The Distance Between Stars is a possible exception, because I know exactly where the inspiration came from – an episode of the 1960’s series The Outer Limits. A distant cousin to the more popular Twilight Zone, Outer Limits started in 1963, and ran for two series. Each self contained, hour long episode began with a vaguely sinister control voice, informing viewers ‘There is nothing wrong with your television set, do not attempt to change the picture. We are controlling transmission.’ The series was groundbreaking in its use of science fiction tropes to explore contemporary themes such as paranoia, racism, status anxiety and the ever-present fear of nuclear war.
The Galaxy Being, the show’s premiere episode, focused on a radio station owner and inventor, Allan Maxwell – played by Cliff Robertson – who builds a space radio transmitter or ‘transceiver’, with the intention of making alien contact. Eventually he does so, and a pure energy extra-terrestrial materialises in his lab. Robertson’s character is interested in developing a peaceful, interplanetary partnership. Unsurprisingly, the local townsfolk are less broad minded, and react with aggression when the creature appears in their midst.
What interested me about the story was less the alien aspect, and more the way the Allan Maxwell character withdraws from his family and friends, as the obsession starts to take over his life. He loses interest in everyday things, believing his work to be more important than the distraction of a boring ‘normal’ life. This was the starting point for The Distance Between Stars.
Elliot, the main character in Distance, has built his own transceiver, and is suffering from a similarly obsessive disorder: The first time we see him, he is alone, fiddling with the dials and gauges of his machine, and lost in his own world. His obsession allows him to run away from things he is too scared to face. This crystallizes one of the play’s themes – our prizing of technology over things which are more fundamental, and arguably more important – i.e., talking about our feelings. Does the world really need a faster download speed? A more advanced mobile phone with more useless, boring apps? Don’t get me started on Twitter (the computer equivalent of Tinnitus).
Sometimes, young writers ask me for advice. ‘What should I write about?’ Again, that’s utter bollocks; nobody has ever solicited my advice, and probably never will. But if a young writer ever did ask me the question I would say ‘write about what scares you.’
This is exactly what I have done with The Distance Between Stars. Two of the other characters in the play – Daisy and Mr Birzoni – are dealing with bereavement, and both are at different stages of the grieving process. Bereavement is something I have yet to experience, and I dread the day I do because I feel hopelessly ill-prepared to cope with it. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like this.
Yes, there’s an elephant in the room (actually, there are two). It’s astonishing to think the human race has been on this planet for thousands of years yet our relationship to death hasn’t evolved one iota during that time. We’re still at Day One. Not only are we a death denying culture – we’re a grief denying culture as well. Elephant number two. The way bereaved people are treated borders on the disgraceful. Pick up a copy of the government leaflet ‘What to do in the event of a death’, and you might feel sick to your stomach: in the middle of possibly the most painful experience of your life, you are expected to be an administrator. Not only is there a funeral to arrange, flowers to order, and relatives to inform, there’s a death to register, utility companies to call, direct debits to cancel, a solicitor to hire, possessions and clothes to dispose of … it goes on and on. And be prepared to call United Utilities at least four times before they stop sending final demands to your dead loved one.
Recently, I saw an inspirational quote on a notice board – ‘The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘we’ve always done it this way.’’ Yes, this is the system we’ve inherited but why keep it? We’re human beings. We deserve better.
The Rules of Inheritance is an excellent book about grief by Claire Bidwell-Smith (soon to be a Jennifer Lawrence movie) who lost both of her parents to cancer, and was an orphan by the age of 25. Her book is searingly honest in its examination of the grieving process. Initially, she tries to deal with her loss alone but soon learns she must reach out to others if she is going to recover. The characters in Distance undergo a similar journey.
We will all lose people we care about. We will all go through hard times. We will all die. These are universal truths that don’t get talked about enough, probably through fear. Elliot wants to believe in aliens because living on earth is too hard, and so he fantasises about escaping to another planet in another galaxy. I’ve entertained such thoughts and feelings myself in my darker moments. But at the end of the day, we’re stuck here on planet earth. So let’s try and make things better. And if we can’t make them better, let’s try and make them easier.
All of which might make this play sound hopelessly depressing. Don’t worry, there are jokes.
Ultimately, our relationship to grief and death needs to change. Enough with the technology; put down your mobile phone, and let’s have a real human conversation. Here’s my first question –
‘How are you feeling right now?’
To see more information on the show and book tickets for The Distance Between Stars, visit our website – http://www.organisedchaosproductions.co.uk