Just as VAULT Festival appears on the horizon of the UK’s cultural calendar, we’re starting off the first of our chats with artists taking shows to the festival at the end of the month. Today we’re joined by Janet Taylor, the writing brains behind Varnish. The show’s director, Molly Byrne, also directed Binge Fringe 5-star rated On Your Bike at EdFringe in 2021!
Janet has created a fictionalised version of the life of Stand-Up Comedian Jonathan Mayor. The show handles themes of adoption, ego, race and identity, describing itself as a “magnificent and messy exploration” of those very human ideas within Jonathan’s life. Janet sat down with us for a pixelated pint to talk about turning someone’s life story into a work of fiction, the adoption system, stand-up comedians and superstardom.
Varnish is taking to VAULT Festival from the 31st January to the 5th of February at 18:30, 18:00 and 15:00. Tickets are available from the VAULT website.
Hey Janet! So you’ve adapted the life of Stand-Up comedian Jonathan Mayor into a show about adoption, addiction and ego. How did you approach that very personal task and how did you both feel within that process?
“Jonathan has been a close friend for years, so there was a lot of trust before we started. We began this project during lock-down and spent hours and hours on Zoom. The transcripts for those interviews are over 44,000 words long! Jonathan is incredibly open and didn’t hold back, and there were moments that were quite emotional. There were also elements of his story that I didn’t know and found quite shocking. It was fascinating to find out what his life had been like, and the amount of prejudice he’d encountered, particularly at school, before I met him at university, where he exploded into my life with what seemed like flamboyant confidence.”
“The first draft of Varnish was quite true to the story Jonathan told me in those interviews and was very linear. It lacked drama though, and the Eureka moment for me was when I took the decision to treat the play as a work of fiction. The end result is a dark timeline version of Jonathan’s life. It’s what might have happened if he’d made some different choices, or if the people in his life had been less supportive. The character of Jonathan shares a lot of facts with the real Jonathan, but they’re not the same person. I don’t think I’d be friends with the Jonathan in my play.”
Varnish talks about “star quality” as a part of the adoption process – what are the show’s thoughts and message about the way we approach adoption and how it affects those within that system?
“Varnish is not a campaigning play. I hope it will encourage the audience to reflect on the emotional repercussions of adoption, but we’re not advocating for a specific action. I think there’s an increasing understanding of the emotional complexity of adoption that didn’t exist in the 1970s when Jonathan was a baby. Jonathan himself has struggled with addiction, which is a battle he shares with many adopted people he’s met. We explore this in the play. The reference to ‘star quality’ is playing with the idea that, as a potential adoptee, you have to attract your parents. You have to stand out, so that you’ll be chosen.”
The show tackles themes of race and identity through the lens of ego and “superstardom”, what is the link there and how does it appear on stage to the audience?
“The relationship the character of Jonathan has to his ethnicity is complex. He knows it was the reason he was adopted, but, as someone who was raised by a white family in a predominantly white world, he is also culturally detached from his heritage (although this doesn’t stop him experiencing racism). He doesn’t know exactly where he comes from, so he can literally make it up. He can create his own identity, which is what we watch him doing on stage. The enormous ego and fantasy of superstardom is a defence mechanism. It’s a fragile one, however. The audience see him cling to that fantasy as it crumbles around him and the truth of his situation leaks through.”
What’s it like working with a stand-up comedian on a piece of drama?
“It’s great. One of the things that might not have come across in this interview is that Varnish is funny. Jonathan’s stand-up persona is a larger-than-life camp character and the script plays with that. It’s something he can definitely deliver. But he’s been really up for leaving his comfort zone to stretch his dramatic muscles. His comic timing is really important for ensuring that the play remains entertaining even while tackling some dark subjects.”
Now that we’re gearing up for VAULT 23, what are you most excited for?
“I’m just really excited to see it all come together on stage. Sitting at my desk in a global pandemic, the very idea existed in a parallel universe. We’re in rehearsals now, and every time I hear a scene being run with the music, it makes me giggle. I’m really excited about the music and the tech. We’ve had some really cool ideas. It’s doing that magical thing a play does when it becomes more than it is on the page as other creative minds get stuck in.”
Fitting with the themes of our magazine, if your show was an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage (think cocktails, mocktails, shots, beers, be creative!) what would it be?
“Obviously it would be a cocktail called The Jonathan. It’s three parts vodka, two parts tequila, two parts gin, and one part regret (all bought from Lidl) with a splash of blue food colouring. It would have a lot of umbrellas and cherries, maybe an olive too.”