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Interview with Keith Stevenson
Image Credit: Gavin Watson

Interview with Keith Stevenson

14 May 2017 Belphoebe New

We spoke to actor/writer Keith Stevenson, as his Off West End Award-nominated comedy Out There On Fried Meat Ridge Rd. returns to London for a West End run in the Trafalgar Studios smaller space, following a sell-out run at Kennington’s White Bear Theatre. The first in a trilogy of plays set in rural America, it follows the fortunes of Mitchell, a man whose life appears on a permanently downward trajectory until he moves in to a motel with the ridiculously upbeat JD, meets a series of social misfits and starts to re-evaluate life.

London Calling: Please could you start off by telling us a little about the themes you explore in the play?
 
Keith Stevenson: The major themes I wanted to explore were kindness and acceptance, but I didn't want it to be cotton candy. In drama, you have to place obstacles in front of the places you want the characters to go. The play is a lot of fun, but it treads on rough ground. 
 
LC: You’re starring in, as well as having written, the play. Are there challenges to performing your own work or does it make it easier?
 
KS: It actually gives me a little bit of license to improvise on any given night with a joke I may have cut, but that I feel would work with that night's audience. The downside is that, in a certain section where I don't speak for a bit, there’s the temptation for me to settle in and watch as “the playwright” to see how it's going. I have to slap my wrist and take off the writer's hat.
 

Image Credit: Gavin Watson

LC: Your character JD seems to be a fun loving, positive hillbilly - but is there more to him?
 
KS: Definitely. JD comes from an enigmatic and perhaps unbelievable origin. Despite the hillbilly stereotype, he is not of this place. His backstory has made him a target for ridicule his entire life, however he makes a choice to be positive. He's had some social challenges leading up to the point where we meet him, but he's fallen into a band of misfits who accept him for whatever he is, and he does likewise. Like all the characters in this play, there is an underlying pain, but JD chooses to rise above it.
 
LC: It seems like there is something of a character contrast between Mitch and JD. How does that pan out in the play?
 
KS: Mitch and JD are both sides of myself. I've been where Mitch is: heartbroken, looking for a place to call home and coming to grips with the things I did or didn't do that put me in that situation. JD is an aspiration of my best self. I wouldn't claim to be as infallible of spirit as he is but I do try to see the best in people. I believe that 99% of the human race are basically good people, but sometimes an underlying pain or fear causes us to behave outside of our best selves. So, just like those two parts of me complement each other, JD and Mitch fill in the holes in each other that are missing.
 
LC: The play looks at small town America – is it a positive portrayal?
 
KS: The Fried Meat Trilogy is in no way meant to serve as a cross section of America or Appalachia. I had a lot of people ask me this when I brought a production of it to West Virginia, which puts a fear in me because I wouldn't want it to be misconstrued. It is satire, but that's just a jumping-off point. I started with broad American archetypes, but then tried to deepen the characters so that anyone, no matter where they were from, could identify with them.
 
LC: I’ve spoken to quite a few playwrights who have described how difficult it is to write comedy. Do you agree with the idea that comedy is often harder to write than drama?
 
KS: I believe that comedy is 90% science, and 10% intangible. I learnt how to write comedy by watching great comedians and great series. 30 Rock, Community, Arrested Development and The Office (both versions) I watched like textbooks, in addition to sketch shows like The Chapelle Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, SNL and Little Britain. The most important thing I learnt was the separation between being a writer and a performer; as a writer I needed to surprise and as a performer I needed timing. I think surprise is the most important element of comedy writing; hitting an audience with something they didn't expect. While there are some actors who can make any sentence funny, some of the funniest comic performances I've seen were by people who aren’t necessarily funny in real life, but know how to stand and deliver on stage – letting the line do the work.  
 

Image Credit: Gavin Watson

LC: America’s political climate has transformed beyond recognition over the last few months, and yours seems to be a story about hope and kindness. Do you think the play has a new significance in this climate?
 
KS: The US isn't the only place where the political climate has become alarming. Brexit came before our presidential election; the French presidential election resulted in a 35% vote for a similar platform. People are scared. They are circling the wagons. They don't want to accept the unfamiliar. The play confronts that in a microcosm: face what you think you know already and you might find something else.
 
LC: The play was at Pacific Resident Theatre in Los Angeles and was a cult hit – how have English audiences reacted to the play, and is there anything in particular you hope that audiences can take away from it?
 
KS: There is a significant British expat population in L.A. who responded rather exuberantly to the production. I was especially encouraged by an L.A. audience, comprised mostly of Brits, for a special benefit performance of the play - they were one of the liveliest audiences I've ever performed in front of. That gave me hope that the humour would translate over here. For our UK productions I've changed a few cultural references to make them more universal but the situation is entirely human. We've received similar responses from people from dozens of different countries and religions, and from LGBTQ+ communities. You don't have to know anything about Appalachia to get this play; you just have to be an Earthling. That said - visitors of nearby star systems are welcome as well!

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