Playwright Evan Placey chats to Susan Elkin about his Canadian roots, challenging writing and his concerns for the future of drama in schools

Within a couple of minutes of our meeting, playwright Evan Placey and I are chatting comfortably about his partner Daniel and life in south London with the little boy (now 20 months) they have adopted together. We are sitting in a coffee shop in Catford where Evan used to run a youth theatre. Blue eyed and gently bearded he is thoughtful and intense with flashes of humour.

On the table I have details of several of his plays, four of which – Banana Boys, Holloway Jones, Pronoun and Girls Like That are to be published, or republished by Nick Hern Books in a new collected volume of Placey plays this spring. His play Consensual – commissioned and staged by National Youth Theatre Rep Company in autumn 2015 – is already published by NHB. It explores the very difficult issue of staff student relationships.

Evan, who has also written about transgender issues, children born in prison and sexting, never shies away from challenging discussion and exploration. “That’s what theatre is about and what it’s for” he asserts. “It enables people, especially young people, to ponder issues and to ask questions in a ‘safe’ depersonalised environment”.

Evan’s personal story begins in Toronto where his mother, a life long theatre buff and until her retirement a special needs teacher, encouraged performing arts in her son. “We went to the theatre all the time and I was a child actor and dancer doing videos, commercials and modelling so it was all very much part of life” he says.

When he was eight, Evan’s mother persuaded him to transfer to a specialist performing arts school although he didn’t initially want to change schools. “In the event the Claude Watson School for the Arts, for which I had to audition over six Saturdays was wonderful and suited me very well. Suddenly in an environment like that you’re no longer that odd kid who likes drama. Everyone there shares your passion”. The Claude Watson School is part of the state education system and it has to meet the full academic requirements specified by the Canadian government. “We mostly did performing arts in the morning – classes in acting, dance, singing, mime and lots more – and academics in the afternoons.”

At thirteen he transferred to Earl Haig Secondary School where the Claude Watson program continues as a separate strand within the school. “At that point some students moved elsewhere and we were joined by newcomers from outside” recalls Evan. “It was a Wizard of Oz scheme. We were literally dancing down the corridors towards lands of opportunity”.

Evan’s modelling career had ended at puberty because of a temporary puppy fat issue. “I majored in acting and minored in dance at the secondary school” he says. Meanwhile Evan was beginning to realise – and his teachers made it clear – that he wasn’t as good at acting as some of his peers but he was in the process of learning exactly how plays and theatre work – a fine basis for his future career. While still at school he directed and produced student-written plays and then produced the entire one act play festival the following year.

“That was a bit of a turning point because I had to read the submitted plays in order to decide which ones we would do and I thought I could do it better. So I submitted one – it was all done anonymously – called Caffeine and it was picked. The next year I wrote Phone Play and it went on to the Schools Festival. “Later while I was a student at McGill University in Montreal we took Phone Play to the Edinburgh Fringe during a 2004/5 university placement in the UK and that’s where I met my partner Daniel”. Evan says, adding with a modest grin, that Phone Play is still being staged with students in Canada so it’s had quite a shelf life for something written when he was only 17.

Then it was home to Canada for a year to complete his degree in English and Cultural Studies. “The next port of call really needed to be London or New York for postgraduate study. Daniel, by then a secondary English teacher, was in London so I enrolled on Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s MA in Writing for Stage and Broadcast Media, graduating in 2007.” At the same time – in order to pay bills – Evan worked at what came naturally. Influenced by his mother’s job, he took a job in a school as a learning support assistant, assigned to an autistic boy. Then came a post, first as education co-ordinator and then as project manager at Hackney Empire. He ran youth theatre projects.

“For a long time I didn’t marry up the two things. I wanted to write and I was used to working with young people. Eventually the penny dropped and I realised that the real way forward was for me to write plays for young actors focusing on young audiences”. Evan’s first commission came from Hampstead Theatre and Banana Boys was the result. Then Mother of Him won awards, was published and adapted for Radio 3. “And it all began to spiral” says Evan modestly not mentioning the awards his plays have won.

Pronoun, for example, Evan’s challenging and thoughtful take on transgender life, was commissioned by National Theatre for Connections in 2014. That is the scheme which enables youth groups all over the country to stage one of six commissioned plays in regional festivals with the best chosen for performance over a single weekend on the South Bank in London. “I knew it would be assigned to 40 or so different youth companies so it had to be as flexible as possible” says Evan. “For example, there’s a chorus but it doesn’t matter how many people it consists of”.

Plays do not, of course, begin and end with the commission. “You never expect a life beyond but it happens” says Evan telling me that Consensual and Girls Like That have both been translated into German and staged in Germany. Girls Like That and Holloway Jones are both being produced in France this year in French translations. “My plays are increasingly being read and studied in secondary school drama and English lessons too and I’m really pleased about that” he says.

Evan tells me that he sometimes works directly onto a computer but that he is a “notebook man” at heart and usually maps scenes out on paper first. “I find the process of amending and crossing out so you can still see what you changed helpful” he says, telling me that he also (as most writers do) edits as he’s typing up. And he has to start with a plan. “I need to know where the story is going even if I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to reach its destination.” Sometimes he deliberately writes in a place such as a park if that’s where he wants to set a scene. “The location helps me with the rhythms and dynamic” he says.

And even before the plan there’s the information gathering process. “Of course I read and do conventional research” he says “But I also workshop the topics with groups of young people. I worked with the company Gendered Intelligence, for instance as part of the preparation for Pronoun. And for Girls Like That, which is initially about a naked photograph posed by a teenage girl, I needed to find out more about why women are using the tools traditionally used by men to oppress them, to oppress each other”.

When he wrote Consensual last year, he knew it was for NYT rep so he workshopped it with the group and then redrafted. “In the event I rewrote the second act after the dress rehearsal but these things happen in the theatre and it’s very good training for these actors – who handled the changes very well.

Does he have any problems with getting this edgy material into schools and for viewing by school parties? “Some theatres are occasionally nervous” Evan admits, citing a famous theatre which tried to tone down the content of a play it had co-commissioned with two others. “In the end, I couldn’t write to the modified plan and wrote a version of what I’d intended in the first place – and it was fine!” he says adding that most people are very open to and supportive of what he’s trying to do.

Of course Evan is worried about the status of drama and theatre in schools saying bleakly and baldly “The government is going to kill it. It is being sidelined. It is a horrifying decision to leave the arts out of the E Bacc. Theatre allows people to articulate ideas and to be brave.” He adds, only half joking: “Maths, which gets such high status, doesn’t do that!”

“Not only is theatre essential in its own right but it’s a fantastic grounding for life because it teaches so many skills. The ones who trained with me have all gone on to be successful in their fields – doctors, lawyers, teachers, researchers or whatever”

Our time is nearly up and I ask Evan what’s in the pipeline for the future. “I have play called Wild! coming up. Tutti Frutti Theatre commissioned it and there’s funding from Wellcome and input from a University of Nottingham scientist. It’s about a boy with ADHD and uses just one actor and a live musician. The tour runs until 30 June, mostly in the north of England and the play is aimed at over-8s.”