“I wanted to look at bereavement through the eyes of other people as well as through my own”: An interview with Losing the Night playwright Cecilia Knapp
Cecilia Knapp is a writer, poet and playwright whose work has been performed all over the UK and internationally. She has been featured in Vogue as one of the UK’s young poets to watch and was shortlisted for the role of London Laureate in 2018. She is currently poet in residence at Great Ormond Street Hospital and is an ambassador for CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably), a charity that aims to reduce the silent stigma around depression, mental health and suicide.
We caught up with Knapp about her new play, Losing The Night, opening at the Camden Roundhouse this week. We spoke about her inspiration for the show, the importance of addressing the mental health crisis, and how the play came together.
Hi Cecilia, thank you so much for finding time to speak with us. We’re so excited to see Losing The Night. How long have you been working on it?
I wrote it a couple of years ago. I didn’t do anything with it for a while because when I wrote it, I felt like I was just doing it for me. There were some things I wanted to explore and push and play with and I did that through these characters. I wanted to take a deeper look at bereavement and look at it through the eyes of other people, as well as my own. After a while I started to want to share it with others, so I went about trying to get a team together to help me develop it.
What did your research and writing process for the play involve?
I wrote it very quickly. It just sort of came out. And then I read through it with a few friends who were also writers and rewrote bits based on their feedback. In terms of research, it’s based very much on my own life but also the lives of all the people I’ve met and spoken to about their experiences with mental health and loss. Once the script was in a good place, I got some funding from the Arts Council and spent two weeks with the director and actors just making it even stronger. I’m happy with what we’ve made, I’m proud of it; of the story we are choosing to tell.
As the writer of the play, have you had much input in the rehearsal process?
Not really, which is great! I have fantastic actors (Jim Caesar and Olivia Dowd) and a wonderful director in Beth Pitts, who have carefully brought the script to life and are really invested in the characters. I’ve been in rehearsals whilst we were workshopping the script and making it stronger, testing in and asking questions and fine-tuning, and that was great, a really collaborative and exciting process. But largely I just let them do their thing.
The play is based very much on your own life – could you tell us some more about the personal experiences that inspired Losing The Night?
I lost my brother to suicide seven years ago. When it happened, I felt incredibly alienated because of the circumstances surrounding his death. I struggled to find places where I could talk about it and be honest and open. I think representing these stories on stage will help others like me, whilst also breeding empathy and raising awareness.
With that in mind, what is the importance of having two people talk about bereavement, mental health and suicide on a stage?
It’s actually a male character and a female character, which is a deliberate choice.
I grew up in a very male household and I found men’s responses to loss very different to mine. There was definitely a sense of “getting on with it” and being less open about feelings from the male members of my family. I wanted to explore this, and maybe start to unpick some of the reasons for this in my play.
Could you tell us more about the different gendered responses towards suicide?
Well, suicide is the biggest killer of men in the UK, so it definitely feels like it is a gendered issue. I think men struggle more to practically deal with their feelings or to reach out and be vulnerable, and a lot of the time this is due to harmful gender stereotypes. It’s definitely worth saying that the LGBT community, of which my brother was a part, are also disproportionately affected by suicide. I discuss this in the play.
Undoubtedly, though, all people will struggle with their mental health in a society that doesn’t have enough support. My brother struggled to access help because he didn’t have the language to discuss his mental health issues; the subject is still heavily stigmatised. And ultimately, we are in a mental health crisis in the UK because there simply aren’t enough resources or government backing to meet the need. I hope my play goes some way to highlighting this.
Despite the very serious subject matter, your play is quite funny. Do you think there is value in discussing issues like these with humour?
I think that humour is part of life and therefore part of these characters’ journeys. Just because terrible things happen, it doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of real silliness and absurdity and all the things that make us human. Having humour in the play just makes it more realistic, and shows the complex and multifaceted experience of dealing with both mental health and loss.
The characters in the play are placed in a scenario where there is nothing to do but talk about their feelings, bereavement and mental health: do you think this illustrates both the importance of talking and people’s reluctance to do so?
Yeah, I think there is still some resistance to talking about mental health, but I do actually think that’s getting better. The problem is, as I mentioned before, that as mental health becomes more widely discussed, people do start to seek help, but the help they require is not readily available to them. We are talking eight-week waiting lists, a system that is cracking under the pressure of the need. I think the conversation needs to move away from placing responsibility on people not “opening up” and actually start to think more about how to help people when they do.
The fact that my characters are stuck in a bar with nothing to do but talk is more a theatrical device to place them in a situation where they can start to talk about these things, and their own stories too – to go on their own journeys of discovery.
Your play has sold out at many venues. Does this demonstrate that there is an appetite to see these conversations on stage?
I think so, yes. For a long time it’s been a stigmatised subject, but it affects so many people. I think putting stories on stage and showing the human side to the issues is a force for change.
Finally, what impression do you hope Losing The Night will leave on someone who watches it?
I hope if they’ve been through something similar, they will feel seen by the play. I hope it’s an honest depiction of the messy but beautiful process of loss, a truthful look at bereavement and mental health. I hope anyone who hasn’t been touched by the themes of the play will just feel empathy and compassion and will understand a little more. I hope the show makes a comment on how the world needs to change to better support those suffering.
Thanks so much for talking to The Upcoming, Cecilia.
Featured photo: courtesy of Cecilia Knapp
Losing the Night is at the Roundhouse from Wednesday 20th November to Friday 22nd November. For more information or to book tickets, visit the theatre’s website here.
To find out more about Cecilia, visit her website here.
Watch the trailer for Losing the Night here: