Are you mad?! — Steven Lee

Steven Lee, in Star Trek style costume and fake moustache, on stage in There Was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly

Are you mad?

Whenever I hear someone ask this, I recall my favourite ever response to the question which was given by Rowan Atkinson in a sketch recorded for 1986’s Comic Relief album. He played a schoolmaster who had administered a severe beating to a misbehaving pupil, and when the child’s stupefied parent cried, “Are you mad?!” he quickly responded, “Mad…? I’m furious!”

To be very clear, when people ask me if I’m mad it’s never in relation to child beating. I like children, and the most severe punishment mine ever get is losing their PlayStation privileges.

But I’m often asked if I’m mad in relation to my artistic choices.

Most commonly, I’m asked why I insist on creating original shows, rather than following the trusted — and far more profitable —method of adapting popular books and known titles.

Actor dressed as an old lady with grey hair and a pink knitted cardigan, sitting in an armchair on stage in There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly
There was an Old Lady on stage

Now, to be clear, I’ve written two shows which you could argue are based on known titles: There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly is definitely a known title, and my adaptation was even authorised by the publishers of the Pam Adams book. Only my version has aliens, a crash-landed spaceship and holograms, so perhaps just a teensy bit of an update on the original story…

Old Macdonald in denim dungarees and a checked shirt, kneeling on stage with a large puppet cow in Old MacDonald Had a Farm
Old MacDonald on stage

Similarly my Old MacDonald Had a Farm is framed as a whodunnit, and involves the audience helping to solve the kidnapping of the eponymous farmer’s animals.

What can I tell you, I just can’t help myself. I’m in love with making up new stories.

But then so was Shakespeare.

In fact for the longest time, that’s exactly what theatre was all about. It was a place people came to enjoy original stories created especially for the stage. Not adapted, not revived, not shoehorned into the four corners of a rostrum from the pages of a book or the vast expanse of a film, but designed and built specifically and perfectly for that purpose.

The truth is: adaptations and revivals are, more often than not, just a safe, and somewhat cynical, ploy to get people to part with their money.

The more commercial side of the industry know that if you like something, they can repackage it and get you to pay for it over and over again until it’s just like every other commodity. By extension you, with your ticket money, you’re just a commodity to them too.

An actor dressed as a dog kneels on the stage alongside audience members: 4 children kneeling and standing and a woman on the end
Kids on stage with I Spy with My Little Eye

So that’s why I write original stories. I write them so that I can see people in my audience and not merely dollar signs, so that I can attempt to make a real human connection and share a real human experience and, above all else, because I love it and I hope that in some small way that love will translate and travel and be felt by everyone it touches.

To put it another way: my mum always said that if you cook with love it tastes better, and is better for you. I try to write like she cooks.

So next time you’re thinking about your entertainment choices, see if you can demand better for yourself and your family. See if you can find something new and original to see: something that will dust off your soul, get your emotions tingling and leave you with the kind of thrilling memories that make life such a wonderful ride. Because the truth is, 400 years after Shakespeare died, new stories are still what theatre does best.

So why pay to read a story in a book, and then again to see the movie, and yet again for the stageplay?

I mean, seriously…

Are you mad?