Theatre in 5 questions: Mark Down & Ben Keaton, co-writers/directors, The Sex Lives of Puppets, Southwark Playhouse
What inspired theatre co-writers/directors Mark Down and Ben Keaton to create The Sex Lives of Puppets? I sat down with Mark and Ben ahead of the opening night at the Southwark Playhouse to find out more about Blind Summit's latest production and their theatre work.
Here's what they had to say (edited), and you can watch the full interview on YouTube by clicking here.
1. What inspired you to write The Sex Lives of Puppets? And why puppets?
Mark Down: We were messing around, and we loved them (the puppets) doing interview-style sort of backstage interviews, and they were very good when they talked about sex.
Ben Keaton: You had a great title for a start.
Mark: I think it was a good title. And once we had it, it was sort of irresistible.
Ben: Mark brought me in, and I've said it many times, we just have to create a show around a great title.
2. You are co-writers and co-directors. How does the collaboration work?
Mark: It's a f*cking nightmare.
Ben: I've made sure it's difficult. It's been my job to do this.
Mark: It came about because Ben auditioned, and he said, 'I know nothing about puppets'. And I was blown away by his voice.
I looked at who'd auditioned and said to my co-director, I want Ben, and if he really can't do puppets, I will do something else. And so that's how we got together, and then the arguments started.
Ben: Mark has an immense experience. He's incredibly passionate about what he does; he has a thing in his mind that he wants. And I come from a different world.
So the combination of our two skills come together in this, but not without bumping heads, that's for darn sure. What I love is we have one agenda, which is to make a great show, and everything clears its way for that.
3. If you had to choose between writing or directing, which would you choose?
Ben: I've had a long career and gone from one thing to another; it's just what happens if you carry on being creative.
I do more writing now than performing. And directing comes on as a sweetener, an additional thing. And I love variety.
If I had nothing else to choose from, I would write. But for me, what really brings life to all the work is to mix. So I can work with dance companies, and I work with physical theatre companies and actors and young actors and film and everything.
It's the variety that I find exciting, but the thing that can underline it is writing. It has been for 50 years.
Mark: I would choose performing. I sort of write and direct in order to perform, I do them through performing. So I feel a little bit cack-handed at both of them.
Ben: Mark's writing is very, very good, that was one of the things that attracted me to the job. He's playing down his writing skills, but he's also an amazing performer.
Mark: We write in opposite ways as well. I write atmosphere, the general vibe, and you are very good at saying: 'But nothing's happening, Mark'.
Ben: I write as somebody who's doing a Marvel movie; I write instances. Mark discovers during his writing. I don't have time for discovery, I've got a crack on, I'm old.
4. What's one thing that might surprise people in the audience about what goes on behind the scenes?
Ben: For me, it would be the amount of technique involved in puppetry. It blows my mind completely.
It looks like nothing when they're working. It just looks like they're sitting there talking and their people, but in reality to get it where it has that appearance, it really takes a great deal of skill to do that.
The puppeteers are not actors, the puppet isn't acting, it's a whole change of psychology.
Mark: I think we agree. People probably don't realise how limited the puppet is. You can't just move his feet, someone has to come on and move them.
And the amount of time that goes into just practical things like saying: 'Oh God, if we're going to move the feet some, we need another person, then they need to get on stage and how do they get on and? And?' Yeah, that stuff.
5. What is your favourite theatre to watch?
Ben: My constant reference point as an actor and a writer is always film. So when I go back to a reference, the most natural thing is film.
It's not theatre, I don't really go to theatre. I don't really read. I'm a writer. And I write for stage and other stuff.
Mark: I love theatre and performances. I love seeing a great performance, and it doesn't really matter who or what it is. I am happy to watch a magician, stand up, a dancer...
And I only need one great performance to save an evening. And there's nothing bigger than a massive great show where everything works, and everyone's good: an opera, ballet, Shakespeare, or even a giant puppet show.
The Sex Lives of Puppets runs at the Southwark Playhouse from 4-13 January 2024; click here for more details and to book.
Other interviews you might like:
Theatre in 5 questions with director Sara Joyce includes chat about Sara's play Boy Parts, Soho Theatre.
Theatre in 5 questions with award-winning director Emily Aboud - includes chat about Emily's new play Flip! which is touring the UK
You can find all my videos - interviews and reviews - on my YouTube channel