Build a Rocket – the play about the trials and triumphs of a single mum from Scarborough returns to the Stephen Joseph Theatre later this year.
Playwright Chris York, who was born and brought up in the town, talks about the award-winning work.
It premiered at the Stephen Joseph with Serena Manteghi in the one-woman show.
How would you describe the show to someone who hasn’t seen it?
Build a Rocket is a staged comic book story, but the hero’s super power isn’t flight or telekinesis or anything like that – her power is just being a really brilliant mum.
With that, I guess the ‘baddies’ in this play are social constructs, ones that make bringing up a child as a single parent in a working-class environment difficult. The show has all the colour and boldness of a graphic novel.
What was the initial spark behind writing Build a Rocket?
I wanted to explore the idea of going into a job interview not because you want the job but because you need the job, but like really need it. So, I wrote a scene in which a single mum went into a job interview, and she had to get the job, otherwise her kid would go hungry, and she slays the interview because – she has to.
That was the protagonist Yasmin’s genesis. I fell in love with her, because I realised she was essentially so many of the brilliant women I’d grown up with; those that had taught me, raised me, befriended me, dated me – these women all shared a humility, a humour, and inner strength that was a joy to write – it became a play about maternity.
Has writing this play been the same as your typical writing experiences?
In a way, there had to be a lot more research for a play like this, although the character was formed as a kind of collage of people I knew, there was a lot I had to study, especially the pregnancy and birthing stuff.
I also wrote a lot of scenes for this piece, I’ve never cut, re-cut, re-added so much before – there is so much bonus material that didn’t make the stage, some moments that I know me and the actor playing Yasmin, Serena, found really hard to say goodbye to.
Had you always wanted to be a writer growing up?
Nope! I wanted to play upfront for Scarborough, then move to Spurs in a big money transfer deal.
Unfortunately, I had to accept I am an average footballer. Until I was 20, I wanted to be a sports journalist but then caught the theatre bug at university. I was never involved in extra-curricular theatre, which looking back is a product of the kind of toxic masculinity that prevents young lads getting involved in drama.
I’ve been writing stories and sketches since I was little, I just never had the confidence to do it outside of a drama classroom at school.
You’re originally from Scarborough – is Build a Rocket a homage to and/or a time capsule of a town you once knew?
I wouldn’t say it’s a homage, it’s just what I grew up around.
Build a Rocket is what I lived, and what I saw. I sincerely think this story transcends the location and could be set in an under-privileged borough of London, in a cul-de-sac in Dunfermline or an estate in Newport.
Scarborough is a perfect frame for this play, because we sit at the end of the line, we’re trapped in by the November North Sea – it’s a crucible for a story like this to take place in.
It is why teenage pregnancy is common in Scarborough, but it’s a wider issue all over the country.
The play deals with the taboo around teenage pregnancy. Do you still think people are quick to judge young mothers today?
Absolutely, I think that comes from an inherent snobbery we have as British people, we love to gossip and slag people off, it’s in our nature and I think it’s perhaps one of our biggest flaws as a culture. We are so quick to judge and punish others, rather than help and understand.
We need to educate ourselves about issues like young parenthood. It’s no coincidence that the UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe and Scandinavian countries have the lowest, it’s because they educate their young on reproduction and sexual health from an early age.
In the UK sex is such a weird taboo, we’re so uptight about it and maybe if we were a bit more open things would change.
The production has enjoyed success over in Australia at the Adelaide Fringe, how was the experience of taking the show overseas?
It was mental. I didn’t go abroad till I was 24, and so when you’re put in a position to go see something you wrote in another continent, that’s madness.
It was great, I was anxious about how the show would work in Australia because the pop-culture and language does feel so inherently British, but if anything, certain moments landed better than they did in the UK.
What do you hope to achieve by bringing Build a Rocket to a wider UK audience?
It’s about removing stereotypes for me. The more we can share Yasmin’s story and demystify certain archetypes the better support systems we will be able to put in to place for young mums and dads that need support.
I’m in the final stages of my next project, which will hopefully premiere in next year.
That’s another working class superhero story of sorts, it’s got loads of hip-hop influences. I also working on something Shakespearean, with a big twist.
Then a couple of biopic stories I want to share on the stage, two plays based on heroes of mine.
The play is on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from September 13 to 14
Tickets: 01723 370541
Pocklington Arts Centre on September 26
Tickets: 01759 301 547
Hunmanby Community Centre on October 26