Titas Halder: An interview with the writer of Escape the Scaffold
Playwright and director Titas Halder trained on the Royal Court Theatre Young Writers’ Programme and is a graduate of Oxford University. His extensive experience includes work as Associate Director at the Tricycle Theatre, Creative Associate at the Bush Theatre, and Literary Associate at the Finborough Theatre. He has directed The Sinners Club by Lucy Rivers, Silence by Harold Pinter, St Nicholas by Conor McPherson, A Boy and His Soul by Colman Domingo and The Dance of Death by August Strindberg, among others.
Incorporating his focus on theatre, film and music, Titas has written and developed numerous new plays, most notably Run the Beast Down, and his latest, the riveting, thought-provoking Escape the Scaffold, showing at Theatre 503 in London. We had the opportunity to chat with Titas about this remarkable new work.
Hello Titas, great to speak with you. Escape the Scaffold is very thoughtfully and beautifully written. What inspired it? Can you describe the process of writing it?
Titus Halder: Thank you. I wrote it a few years ago, maybe in 2012. At the time I was just sitting in this hole with nothing to lose and I thought, well fuck it, I’ll just write a really big play because it’ll never go on, and I can just throw everything into it. I wanted to write three massive parts for young actors and it all just came out in a sort of frenzy. I guess there’s something about the optimism of graduating and that golden time versus the creeping dread of the real world…
Music is very effectively used in this play and there seem to be some filmic elements in the piece as well. How much does your work in film and music influence your approach to creating theatre?
A huge amount. I think writing a play is like making an album. It’s probably around the same sort of frequency or timescale, isn’t it? To make one, I mean…
The albums I love the most are their own self-contained vivid universes. They sink you into a world and they take you on a journey. That’s the same for a play, isn’t it? I want the audience to sink into the world of the play, go on this wild journey with the characters – with the actors, even.
With the film stuff, it’s things like sound design; when I’m directing, there’ll pretty much always be sound running, always an underscore – if there’s the sound of wind or the sea – that has a musical impact. If the air is thick, you can feel that in the audience, and maybe that makes you feel warm and comforted, and maybe it makes you feel on edge. It’s all there to give you the richest experience possible.
Recently you stated that in college the idea of writing a play was that it should be “as cool as a Quentin Tarantino movie”. Is Tarantino an inspiration for you?
Oh, for sure. I was watching Tarantino movies way before getting anywhere near a theatre. And as a kid you’re sitting there loving this amazing fizzing dialogue and the sheer energy, and the look of them – they’re so vivid – but then also you’re watching these brilliant performances from the actors. Sometimes unlikely casting, or actors cast in a new light – they become iconic don’t they (Uma Thurman’s bob). Images like that are burned into your retinas.
You have also said that you like to write good parts for actors. You seem to have great respect for your actors. How much freedom are they given to develop a character and is improvisation important?
I love actors. And of course I have great respect for them – they’re the ones up there staring out into the lights after all. I love the idea of working with a group of actors to create something that would be really cool. Escape the Scaffold and Run the Beast Down were written in isolation though – I wouldn’t have had access to a group of actors at the time – so they were all done in sort of hermetically sealed boxes. We did do a couple of readings with actors as the plays got closer to the stage, and that was crucial, because if actors have a special move it’s sniffing out a dud line: if there’s no thought behind the line, if it’s just unplayable, they’ll try it and you’ll soon know, as the line will fall flat. So it’s a joy to work in the room with actors. And if an actor has a better phrasing for a line or bit of dialogue, then you’d work it in – why not?
In Run the Beast Down and Escape the Scaffold notions of questioning perception and blurring the lines between reality and fantasy are strong. Does questioning the nature of reality emerge from your own experience?
Uh, I’m not sure… I hope I’m real.
Madness, psychological confusion and paranoia seem to be key themes as well. Is the human race mentally fragile do you think? Do you think we live in a paranoid society?
I think it’s maybe down to the influences on these plays – it was things like Berberian Sound Studio for Run the Beast Down, David Lynch, Guillermo Del Toro that sort of thing – which lands you in horror territory. And I think horror as a genre reflects contemporary anxieties. Horror is intrinsically political. Michael Haneke’s film, Hidden – horror, thriller, political – it’s a masterpiece of the genre, and sure, psychological confusion, paranoia, that starts to drip out, doesn’t it…
Your plays express angst, fears of something ominous, forces beyond our control, and juxtapositions of innocence and the sinister. Are you apprehensive about the state of the world?
No, I’m not apprehensive, I’m optimistic. I have a lot of faith in our generation. We might have some mopping up to do, you know? So, as much as maybe there are moments of horror, or menacing things threatening the characters in the play, maybe there’s also a way out for them. Maybe they can find a way to save themselves.
Both plays contain fear of an outside danger: a fox invading the cityscape and a frightening Orwellian-type police state threat. Are the two related at all?
In our tech, Chris Bartholomew (our composer) sidled up to me and said he had a theory: that the rioting in Run the Beast Down could be the same unrest referred to in Escape the Scaffold and that it was all part of one universe, like the Marvel cinematic Universe (!); so if anyone wants to get in touch about making a multi-million dollar series of film adaptations, that would be just fine.
There is certainly something eerie about screaming foxes outside your window in the middle of the night. Escape the Scaffold is also brilliantly suggestive of dark threats “out there”. Is it all about existential terror?
The foxes screaming outside the window are completely real. At least where I live. So I think it’s a real terror. And the menacing knock at the door, that could be a reality. It depends where you live, doesn’t it? For Charlie in Run the Beast Down, the foxes out there are totally real – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the sound yourself, but it’s an amazing sound, so strange and thin and curdled – and it’s what that sound means to Charlie. For him, it kind of leads him down a twisted track… but it’s absolutely real for him. You want to be sat there in the audience thinking, fuck, did that actually happen to him? And even better, you want to be on your way home, and to bump into a fox on your street under a lamp post and think… is he looking at me…?
Yes I have heard it, and it’s spooky.
There clearly appear to be existentialist motifs in your work. You have mentioned being influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre. How much of his philosophy is in your writing?
Sartre! It’s more his plays that I love. Huis Clos, Les Mains Sales, Morts Sans Sépulture. And Camus: Le Malentendu, Les Justes… they’re great plays, I wish they were done more. Why aren’t they done more? Get them on stage.
Is there a unifying message in your plays that you are seeking to convey?
Theatre doesn’t suck? I don’t know. I just want theatre to be something that you’d actually go to if you’re young and at a loose end and you know it won’t cost you the earth to go…
Confusion about choices also stands out as a theme in Escape the Scaffold – volatility and a constant back-and-forth between choices. Do you think many people are essentially lost and clueless, or is it our society that is unstable?
People contradict themselves. We’re inconsistent. You can say one thing and then do another. It’s thrilling to put that in a play, to watch an actor play those twists and turns – that was a lesson from working on Strindberg, his characters make amazing 180 degree turns within a matter of lines. Probably good for characters caught in a game of betrayal…
You clearly have a successful collaboration with director Hannah Price. Do you have similar directing styles or do they differ?
Hannah’s great. For sure, there are differences. We trained at the same place (The Donmar), so there’s going to be some similarity. I’d say we both put actors at the heart of the production. I think, crucially, it’s that we see different things in the plays, which is why it’s great that she’s directing them.
What motivates you in life besides your work?
I read this interview with Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) where he said in the daytime they had a team of writers working on Atlanta and then in the evening, all the writers would leave, and then a team of musicians would come in and then they would work on the album (Awaken My Love) – that’s my ideal day. Maybe plus squeezing in time to go watch a movie and get a coffee. It’s great to be working on all these projects and having fun doing it, working with brilliant people. That’s cool.
Do you have any ideas for future projects you’d like to share with us?
Stage Musical of Jurassic Park
Thanks so much for your time.
Photo: Tim Stubbings
Escape the Scaffold is at Theatre 503 from 22nd March until 15th April 2017, for further information or to book visit here.
Read our review of Escape the Scaffold here.