“Whatever you are going through, you are not alone”: Neck or Nothing co-creators Callum Cameron and Chris Neels on the importance of addressing toxic masculinity
Neck or Nothing is a new play by Fledgling Theatre Company. Inspired by cult-hit Project Grizzly, the story follows Jens, a driven but troubled inventor, as he sets out to create a giant suit to fight bears. The production opens at the Pleasance Theatre after a collaborative development process, and The Upcoming caught up with Callum Cameron and Chris Neels (co-writers and directors) to touch on what to expect.
This is such an unusual story – one that forms a fascinating entry point into a study on trauma and depression. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to build off Project Grizzly’s narrative?
We’ve been working on developing this story for a while now. I think when we both sat down and watched the documentary together we were primarily struck by how outlandish the characters and story were.
The film definitely highlights an unusual tale, but we wanted to ensure that if we were going to put it on stage and tell this story we were doing so much more than just that. We started to look deeper into the strands that underpin the film, but perhaps aren’t touched on quite as much, such as the main character’s depression and his own debilitating mental health that drives his inventions. At that point, we started to see where we could take this play and began to see the film as more of a jumping point for this play rather than as a direct adaptation.
As a Canadian I’ve always felt a kinship with bears – they’re majestic but terrifying creatures up close (especially grizzlies). What relationship, if any, do you feel bears have to the concept of masculinity?
Grizzly Bears are indeed incredible creatures, as you say, both majestic and terrifying. When approaching Neck or Nothing, we didn’t go out to paint parallels or metaphors between them and masculinity, but rather were attracted to the mythology that surrounds them. Bears appear in children’s stories all the time and for this production, we wanted to adopt an element of that childlike fantasy that Jens uses to deal with past trauma.
One of this show’s protagonists is Jens, a highly driven inventor. What can you tell us about his past, and what motivates him to build this bear suit?
In our production, Jens has had a traumatic event in his past, which he has never dealt with. This event acts as the key motivator in driving him to build this suit. The building of the suit acts as a form of therapy for Jens but eventually only serves to isolate him further from those around him.
But this is partly a love story, isn’t it?
Perhaps between Jens and his inventions, yes!
In Project Grizzly, Hurtubise (the lovably mad outdoorsman/inventor) aims to make his deceased father proud and prove his own worth as a man by taking on a grizzly bear. How does this characteristically male drive to prove one’s physical strength factor into Jens’s character?
Yes, that’s a very good point! The notion of his father’s legacy and his attempts to try and follow in his footsteps have been quite a key element of the film that we’ve tried to incorporate. It’s a theme that we’ve discussed and questioned a lot between ourselves during the development – why do so many men have this desire to leave some kind of legacy? Where does this come from? It’s definitely something that feeds into Jens’s character and in particular to his increasingly fragile state of mind as the play progresses.
Bears don’t need a ridiculous suit to demonstrate strength. They are naturally strong. What, for you, makes a naturally strong man?
I think that the need to define or place an emphasis on the notion of being a “strong man” is sort of what is at the crux of the debate around masculinity, and what we try and look at within the play. Why do men have to be naturally “strong”?
Nice! So going back to this suit, how was it created for this production and what does it represent?
It’s currently being built as we speak by our designer Sophia Pardon! I think it would be best to leave that as a surprise – you’ll have to come and see her work in action!
I’ve heard Neck or Nothing incorporates some robust visual imagery. Can you give us a glimpse of what to expect on this front?
For the first time, we are incorporating a fair bit of tech and multimedia within one of our productions. A key inspiration for that and the character of Jens as a whole has been 80s and 90s action films and what effect their portrayal of masculinity has had on subsequent generations. In other words, you can expect to see a fair bit of Robocop and Steven Segal!
And it’s a surrealist comedy – I love it! What is it about surrealism that lends itself to a play about trauma and depression?
I think as a company we have always sought to create work that tries to finds the humour in themes of a darker and more personal nature. Our previous shows have explored themes such as loneliness and grief but have done so by showing the funnier and more mundane aspects that can often accompany those emotions.
We hope that Neck Or Nothing is able to portray how isolating and hard living with depression can be on those who suffer from it and those around them, but also highlight the comedy that can arise out of it.
Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year last year was “toxic”, and a key phrase associated with that was “toxic masculinity”. How does Jens’s quest relate to toxic masculinity traits?
With Jens, we tried to create a character who is constantly living in the shadow of his father’s legacy and driven by a desire to create his own. This motivates some fairly toxic behaviour. Jens clings to his independence, unwillingly to talk to those who love him about what’s going on. His hunt for a legacy sends him down a path of destruction both in himself and in his relationships. It’s this sort of toxic behaviour we hope to shed a light on, and that the best way to remedy such behaviour is to talk openly about it to those around you.
A lot of men seem to feel their place in the modern world is becoming less purposeful. Do you agree with this sentiment?
This is definitely a thought that we have explored in this play. As society is progressing and gender roles are becoming less relevant, I think there is a certain group of men who struggle to know what their place is meant to be in society. We certainly tried to look at this with Jens.
Despite dealing primarily with male-centric issues. Will this show appeal to a universal audience?
Absolutely. At its core, Neck or Nothing is a surreal comedy about following your dreams. We hope that everyone will be able to relate to the character’s desire to do something more.
Male suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. This is an issue that requires urgent attention and discussion. What do you hope theatregoers take away from Neck or Nothing?
The major message we want audiences to come away with is that there is always someone to talk to. Whatever you are going through, you are not alone and if you ask for help, someone will be there to help you, be it friends, family or some of the great organisations (like CALMzone), you are not alone.
Photos: Courtesy of Fledgling Theatre
Neck or Nothing is at the Pleasance Theatre from 23rd April until 4th May 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.