SPUR is a mysterious time-travel Western piece landing at VAULT Festival at the start of March. With a cryptic show listing stirring up themes of grief, inheritance, love and self-sacrifice, we were intrigued to find out more about the piece’s origins and what the audience can expect of a show about an evasive outlaw, solar power plants, seances and a VHS tape. We sat down with the show’s Writer, Matt Neubauer, to talk all things obscurity, fantasy, truth, untruth and mixing Jack Daniels with Smirnoff.
Catch SPUR at VAULT Festival between March 4th and 9th at either 16:20 or 20:30 (date dependent). Tickets are available through the VAULT Festival Box Office.
Jake: Hi Matt! Your bringing a show to VAULT which you’ve described as “A patchwork western about grief, inheritance, love, and needless self-sacrifice.” Tell us what inspired you to write it?
Matt: Well, there’s a couple of things. Firstly, on a very immediate level – I love cowboy movies, but I also think they’re a bit shit sometimes. And I wanted to make a play trying to unpack some of that. The very early writing on SPUR was very genre-based, almost to the point of spoof/pastiche. In the end, I moved away from that – I settled into this idea of using the western genre to investigate that feeling instead, the feeling of loving something (or someone) which is deeply flawed, or even evil on some level. The genre is now the backdrop to these character’s stories
Before SPUR, I wrote a play which was much, much too personal. I showed someone a draft of it, and they essentially told me ‘You couldn’t and shouldn’t put this on stage’. I think this was probably the most important piece of writing advice I ever got. It took me a while to bounce back from this, but when I did, I realised that I really wanted to just make something up – and what’s more made-up than cowboys! So this was the second thing. I wanted to write something and enjoy it. I wanted to write something which I could love but also let go of. I’ve said to everyone along the way – I’d rather make something Interesting than something Good. So SPUR comes from the weird intersection of a lot of these thoughts: personal, but also very fictional; genre-bound and genre-bending; strange, sincere, and silly all at once.
Jake: In the show, three people tell stories about the future, about solar power plants, séances, cybercrime, and a strange VHS tape found in an attic – tell us what the audience can expect from this cryptic and intriguing set-up.
Matt: Cryptic is an interesting word. I showed an earlier draft of the play to a friend and she challenged me on whether the play was mysterious, or just confusing. I think I’ve settled on the fact that it should be a bit of both. Not all of SPUR’s questions have answers, and I think that audiences should come in expecting something quite unsatisfying in that way. A central pillar of this play is about the pursuit of something that you can’t have, and coming to terms with that, and I hope that we can also take the audience on a similar journey. The play hops from place to place, from one time period to another, from the USA to the UK and back. I promise that there is an emotional through-line to it all! But there isn’t a really nice, neat Christopher-Nolan-type cryptographic decoding of it, where everything suddenly becomes clear in the final act. So prepare yourself for that.
Jake: The show deals with “the stories we tell about the past, and the stories we use to build the future”, tell us about your feelings about stories, and their relationship to time and truth.
Matt: The key reason why I was drawn to the genre of Westerns is because of this – because I think it is a Fantasy sub-genre masquerading as a Period sub-genre. The Wild West as described in early American literature and film never existed in that way. The true story of the American frontier is a story about military imperialism, genocide, petty crime, disease, ecocide, the exploitation of natural resources – the list goes on and it’s not pretty. But I think at some point it became important for American artists, particularly authors & film-makers, to tell a more Romantic version of that history, as America tried to position itself as a society that was theoretically opposed to all those things. And I do think this has a fundamental effect on how America sees itself today. Ronald Reagan literally starred in half these movies. Few artists defended McCarthy and Hoover harder than John Wayne. And George W. Bush paraded in a Stetson hat as he prepared to invade Iraq.
Anyway, SPUR isn’t a political manifesto or a rant about America (for the most part). I’m not interested in writing a history play – and on some level, it is not my place. But I am interested in writing a fantasy. And I am interested in this relationship. SPUR takes place in an imagined Wild West, and in that fantasy’s imagined future. All the characters are constantly telling each other stories, from tiny anecdotes to ten-minute-monologues, about themselves and the people close to them, about who they were, who they are now, and who they will be in a hundred and fifty years. These stories drive them, form them, and shape them. Not truth, not lies, but something else entirely.
Jake: Tell us a little bit about the process of creating the show and what you have been up to ahead of the show landing at VAULT Festival.
Matt: I started writing it three years ago, whilst working at the last VAULT Festival in 2020. I ran through several concepts before I settled on the rough shape that we have now, at which point I got chatting to James Nash (the director), who I loosely knew through a mutual friend. We got it accepted as a work-in-progress piece for last year’s festival. I finished the official first draft of the play on the 31st December 2021. VAULT 22 was cancelled about four days later, which in retrospect is very funny, but at the time was not. I now also think that it was very serendipitous – the play feels a lot more ready than it would ever have been this time last year. And I think I feel more ready too.
James has obviously had a huge impact on the piece, and has given some amazing feedback on the script. He’s also put together an amazing team over the last couple of months – a mix of friends, people whose work I have admired for a while, and total strangers. I have loved Nat Norland’s work for years – they’re now composing this gorgeous, Morricone-inspired soundtrack, full of horns and drums and floating orchestral strings. One of my closest friends, Alberto Lais, has come on board to cut together the play’s video content for us – it was conversations with him after we watched Once Upon A Time in the West together that spurred my initial ideas for this play. And we’re about to start rehearsals with an absolutely incredible cast – I can’t speak too highly of their talent, and about the way that their auditions and personalities have shaped my understanding of their characters.
Jake: Now that we’re gearing up for your run at VAULT Festival 2023, what are you most excited for?
I actually also work at VAULT – I’m one of the Venue Stage Managers there, so I’m already well and truly geared up. The nature of the job is that I see whichever shows are programmed in my venue for that week, so there’s lots of really interesting-looking stuff that I won’t get to see – and lots of stuff I never would have gone to on my own which I have ended up loving. And I think this is the most essential, exciting VAULT experience: seeing something unexpected or out of your comfort zone. Go see that strange one-night-only dance show in the cavern. Go see a mad installation in a shipping container! Go see whatever is on the staff picks board (we have the real inside track). Just turn up and see the first thing that crosses your mind. Making art and publicising art are very different skills, and there’s a lot of brilliant stuff flying under the radar which is worth searching out and pinning down.
Jake: Tell us about the shows relationship to VAULT Festival and the Vaults – I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the campaign to secure VAULT Festival’s future…
I wrote SPUR specifically for the Cavern. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is my favourite performance space in the whole wide world. The long, long stage, the cramped benches, The Smell, the damp, the heavy air, the slime wall – what a gift! And what a loss. I feel genuinely privileged to be staging my work there.
It goes without saying that the festival could really use everyone’s support right now, especially if you happen to have a 12-venue abandoned railway tunnel lying around somewhere. Otherwise, just come visit! See shows, buy drinks, come to the Lates, and celebrate this incredible space one final time.
I’m sure this won’t be the end for VAULT Festival. If I was feeling sentimental, I’d say that what has truly made the festival work over the past many years has been the passion, dedication, and talent of those who work there – and that will persevere. But that would be a lie. I actually did it all for the leaky, mouldy, train-infested caves. And it won’t be the same without them.
Jake: 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?
Matt: When I was about 16, a friend of mine introduced me to a ‘cocktail’ he called the ‘Jack-Off’, which was a 50/50 mix of Jack Daniels and Smirnoff Ice. (underage drinking is bad, etc.). Anyway, I think about half of this play is whiskey-like – smooth, smokey, mouth-wateringly bitter, and maybe a bit pretentious. And the other half is more alcopoppy – teenaged, nostalgic, and sweet to the verge of saccharine. And when you mix them, the end result is… confusing. But memorable!