Amy catches up with Ben Norris, who recently starred as The Poet in the Choir of Man. Ben is an award winning poet, and has written a new play, Autopilot. Autopilot is debuting at the Edinburgh Fringe this month – with Hannah Van Der Westhuysen starring. Here Amy speaks to both Ben and Hannah ahead of the show opening.
Hi Ben, how are you feeling ahead of the Fringe?
Nervous! For all the usual reasons: what if no one comes, what if the people who do come absolutely hate it, etc etc. And really excited too. I love Edinburgh to bits, and as it gets nearer it’s finally starting to feel real, and I catch myself getting giddy.
Did you always want to be a writer and poet?
No, when I was younger I hated art and poetry. I was, like a lot of young lads at state school, obsessed with football, and very poorly behaved. Nothing would’ve embarrassed me more than declaring a love for literature and self-expression. But everything changed when these two phenomenal drama teachers showed up at school when I was in year 9 (there was no drama department before that). They clearly noticed something in me, some need to perform or some pent-up energy and anger and a desire to ask questions and wrestle with ideas, and they steered me away from the path I was on, and towards the life I now live. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
What inspired Autopilot?
I read an article in TIME magazine in 2017 about self-driving cars and became obsessed with the ‘trolley problem’ – when the car has to choose who to kill and who to spare in the event of an inevitable crash. It seemed to me the perfect metaphor for the way decisions are made about our lives by people, or organisations, or machines who are so far removed from the consequences of those decisions, and the egginess of how to apportion blame when there is no human being who is directly responsible for a particular decision. And then I had to try and find the right vehicle (as it were (I hate myself)), to explore those themes. Autopilot is the result of that.
What can people expect from the show?
They can expect two brilliant performances from two brilliant actors (I am thrilled with our cast). They can expect big questions about big themes, but hopefully some big laughs too. I didn’t want to write a heavy play about heavy stuff – there is heavy stuff in it, for sure, but I want it to be a really fun 70 minutes, so people have a bloody good time as well as a big ol’ debate in the bar afterwards.
What inspired you to incorporate philosophical and moral questions into the plot?
I think at the heart of all good stories, whatever they are superficially about, is a philosophical or moral question. That is the essence of drama.
The show was supposed to debut in 2020 – how does it feel now it’s finally being staged?
It feels brilliant. It’s been a long time coming (I’ve been writing it since long before 2020!) so it’s a huge relief and very exciting that it’s finally going to see the light of day and meet some actual human audience members.
What are the key themes / messages in Autopilot?
It’s about class and power and money and autonomy, selflessness v selfishness, and how much of ourselves we choose to reveal. It’s about love.
Will you be popping over to see your boys in the The Jungle whilst you’re up there?
Absolutely! I can’t wait to see them, have a pint or two and remind myself how much fun it is to watch that show. Also, hilariously, technically I am the first cover Poet for that cast, so if anything happens to the lovely Conor Hanley (hope not mate!) then I will not only be popping over to The Jungle, but I’ll be popping on a microphone and popping up on stage to sing with them too!
How did it feel to make your West End debut last year?
A literal dream come true.
You’ve performed at the Fringe before, what is the best and worst thing about performing at the Fringe?
The unpredictability and the chaos. They are the best AND worst things about it. It’s an absolute riot, and sometimes the riot lands some punches on you, and sometimes it sweeps you up in a sea of colour and joy and energy and you’re weightless and dancing. I love the sheer cacophony of artistic noise that consumes the city during that month. There is nothing else like it on earth, at least that I’ve ever experienced.
Finally, with so many shows to choose from this year, why should people come along to Autopilot?
Because it contains some of my best and worst jokes, and I will almost certainly cry if no one come
HANNAH VAN DER WESTHUYSEN
Hi Hannah, how are you feeling ahead of opening at the Fringe?
I’m feeling nervous, because I think the play is brilliant and I really want to do it justice!
Is this your first time at the Edinburgh Fringe?
As a performer, yes it absolutely bloody is! And I’m thrilled to have the experience of not just being a punter.
You’ve recently starred in the Netflix series Fate: The Winx Saga, what made you choose a stage role for your next project?
Stage has always been my preference. I absolutely adore having the experience of direct feedback from the audience. It’s gorgeous because it’s collective and it’s unique every night and that’s really special.
What attracted you to Autopilot?
Ben (the writer) is a friend of mine who I’ve known for a long time – I’m a huge fan of him and his work and having the opportunity to work with him was obviously a massive draw. And then reading the play, I was really excited by all the things it explores.
Who do you play in the show?
I play Nic, one half of a romantic couple who are from very different walks of life…
What can audiences expect from Autopilot?
Audiences can expect an hour and ten minutes of provoking conversation, moments of laughter and joy combined with the rich and devastating highs and lows of a relationship.
What are the key messages and themes in the play?
I think the main thing for me is about the bridge between having different ethical standpoints in life and how one creates a relationship with others who see life in a different way to them, both because of the way that they are and the way that they were brought up.
Why do you think this is an important show to be staged right now?
Well, leading on from the above, the world has never been more divided or divisive, I don’t think. Things have never felt more fraught or scary. And it’s really important to remember that love and hope and bridging between wildly different opinions is possible when you boil it down to having the belief that humanity is good.
What shows will you be seeing whilst you’re in Edinburgh?
There are lots of amazing queer shows up there – I’m excited to see Bloody Elle and Happy Meal, both at the Traverse. Sap and Hungry, both Paines Plough. I could go on and on!
With so many shows to choose from, why should people come along to Autopilot?
I might be biased but I do genuinely think it’s brilliant. People will be entertained and moved and provoked to question big beliefs that they hold dear, and I think that’s really unique.
And finally, where can people buy tickets to the show and where do people find you on socials?
The show socials are: @BillsMum_ #AutopilotPlay and Hannah’s socials are: @HannahVDW
ABOUT THE SHOW
Venue: Pleasance Courtyard
Dates: 3rd – 29th August (not the 15th or 23rd)