Edinburgh Fringe 2022 
Interview

Mike Narouei 
Writer / Director  
Helter Skelter
Assembly George Square - The Blue Room
Aug 3-9, 11-18, 20-29, 11:50 /  Tickets
July 7, 2022

1967, Susan, a runaway from a troubled home, escapes her past by hitchhiking to LA. Whilst there she finds Charlie, the charismatic and mercurial leader of a "family" of misfits and outcasts. Together they make their way out into the Californian desert, creating a utopia that's isolated from the society that rejected them. However, a sinister philosophy starts to emerge, and Susan finds herself in a downward spiral, coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence and an act that cannot be undone. New writing which explores the psychology behind the Manson cult.

 

Hi Mike thank you for taking the time to talk with The New Current, how does it feel to be heading to Edinburgh Fringe and Assembly George Square - The Blue Room this year?

 

The first time I went to the Fringe was 2019, I think this applies to everyone but I’d never seen anything like it. It was almost like stepping through a portal or something. But the whole time I was there I couldn’t stop thinking how amazing it would be to bring a show up and experience the whole month. In 2020 we were almost there, then the pandemic hit and for a while, it felt like it was bye-bye theatre so the fact we are doing this now still feels surreal.

 

You have already had some amazing notices for Heater Skelter, what has it meant to you receive such praise for this production?

 

The work in progress was very much a work in progress. Everyone from myself to the cast and crew was holding our breath after the run to hear if the thing was any good. When you're working on a show for so long I think you lose an objective outside eye on it all. But getting the feedback we did, specifically the way the show made people question some of their beliefs around criminal psychology was a huge validation for us.

 

Are there any nerves ahead for your Fringe run?

 

Yes. But also impatience. I and most of our team work full-time jobs to pay the bills and I’ve noticed time has slowed down a lot during the work week.

 

Can you tell me how Heater Skelter came about, what was it about the Manson Cult that inspired you to write this new show?

 

In A-Level drama, they do this thing called devising which usually is a recipe for disaster. Our module had crime as a topic. So, I googled ‘biggest crimes of the 21st century' (yeah, I know). As I was going through the Manson Cult came up. For anyone that doesn’t know the story is an ex-con convinces thirty-forty college dropouts and outcasts that he is Jesus Christ come again, that they should live in the desert, and together they would bring about an apocalyptic race war. I think my first thought was yeah right… then I read some more about it, and some more… and you end up understanding a little bit of the why behind it. You put yourself into the shoes of the kids that followed him. But it’s a rabbit hole, you see how it wasn’t a story about a crazy cult leader and murderous teens but rather about escaping a society you feel completely disconnected from. Something I feel a lot of people can relate to today.

Did you have any apprehensions about making a show that dealt with such disturbing themes?

 

Definitely. The show is divisive because there is a strong argument that we shouldn’t give space and time to such despicable people. However, I think taking people like Charles Manson and his family and locking them away in a closet doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding how they were created in the first place. Were they born that way, did they end up that way, and could it happen again? With those questions, I was able to steer away from creating a ‘crime thriller’ (nothing wrong with a good old crime thriller) but rather something more interested in psychology and subverting the dramatisation this story has already received throughout the years.

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"However translating that to the stage meant I, the creative team, and the cast had to think abstract, asking ourselves how do we create a desert with a hundred quid and a 6m by 3m stage."

During your research did you discover anything about the Manson cult that you had never seen before and how did your research help you write the text?

 

I’ve read accounts from around thirteen different people on what happened. The general structure they give is the same, but the why, how, and who are vastly different. There isn’t a clear-cut explanation behind how the Manson cult was formed and operated. However, the biggest takeaway was that there was no grand plan or simple A to B journey. Instead, you have a literal Helter Skelter of events, where one thing leads to another and eventually it all comes crashing down. But what was most interesting was the context. For example, how conservative the government was at the time, how women’s rights were regressing, how relationships between different ethnicities were reaching a boiling point, how being involved in a war in a faraway country affected the population, and finally how young people felt lost, angry and wanting to create something new and separate from the society their parents had created for them. All of which are eerily close to the world we live in today.

 

What have been the biggest challenges you faced bringing Heater Skelter to the stage?

 

I had never written a play before, and coming from a working-class, immigrant background theatre wasn’t something I watched a whole lot. But I’d seen a lot of films. That influences me subconsciously into creating something with multiple locations, scenes that stretched over a vast span of time. However translating that to the stage meant I, the creative team, and the cast had to think abstract, asking ourselves how do we create a desert with a hundred quid and a 6m by 3m stage. That was a lot of fun though in retrospect.

 

Do you allow yourself or your cast much flexibility once a show is running or do you prefer to stick to the show as written?

 

Yes to dialogue, not so much for structure. Cutting the play down to an hour meant the age-old ‘if it doesn’t serve the story, toss it in the bin’ became essential. However the lines themselves I’d written while speaking them, playing out each character as I wrote them. But I’m me, and when an actor picks it up they read it completely differently and as a result will say things differently. Through that, the lines changed a lot like how you would tailor a suit to fit you.

 

How important is the collaborative nature between a director and his cast?

 

It’s probably the most important part of the process. Like writing, directing is something new for me so I came at it like actor. That means in less vague terms that there was very little go here, do this, face that way. And a lot more of playing games, asking why, and removing the blockers we all have when performing. Also, the characterisation is completely the actors, I didn’t want to create a period piece where we imitated real life people through voice and mannerisms. Instead, the actors created the people in the situations they were in and lived through them.

 

Have you always had a passion for theatre and Veto Productions come about?

 

I think telling stories is my passion and theatre is the most immediate way to do that. Going back to campfires there is something really rewarding in feeling your audience following along, holding their attention, and then shocking them when they least expect it. That journey you take together is what makes theatre special for me. VETO Productions came about in my first year of university. After that A-Level devising thing for Helter Skelter, I dabbled at trying to write it into an actual play. Then I and three other first-years read it for fun over beer and pizza and afterward asked ourselves why we had to wait three years to put on a show. That first year of calling up venues, chipping in fifty quid each, and seeing our first audience roll in was amazing.

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Has your approach to your writing and directing changed a lot since your debut production?

 

Quite a bit. I began Helter Skelter in 2016 and can say I only finished it this year in terms of writing. Every year I think a different influence, writing style, or direction would change my approach (especially when writing things other than Helter Skelter). But one thing I found was at some point when you get too strategic all the fun goes away, so recently I’ve just tried to get back to writing something that grips me when I imagine it. If it’s a chore to write I cut it.

 

What has been the most valuable lesson you have taken from the shows you’ve created?

 

Producing. I hate producing (no offence to producers) because of how essential and complicated it can be. When you're starting out you can’t pay anyone to do it so either you scrap the idea or do it yourself. So learning marketing, admin, budgets, etc has equipped me with a basic understanding of what it takes to put on a show rather than just how to make one. Especially when you’re not Arts Council funded, which means that if one show doesn’t do well the next show just isn’t going to happen.

 

Do you have any advice, tips, or suggestions you would offer fellow playwrights or directors heading the fringe this year?

 

Seeing as I’d consider myself a beginner in writing and director I wouldn’t have much to say to anyone who’s been doing it for a while. But for anyone that is yet to write or direct I’d say first write the thing, whatever it is, however bad it is just write it. Most of the good stuff happens in the second cut. Then if you want to direct it and don’t have the resources or the connections, start small, what's the first thing you need to get a little closer to making it happen. I think having big goals is great, but what has helped me is turning big goals into tiny achievable chunks. Also if you're like me you still work, so manage your time.

 

And finally, what do you want your fringe audiences to take away from Helter Skelter?

 

I’d hope the audience during the performance feels like they're in the world we’ve created and aren’t spending too much time figuring out what things mean, or where they stand on the themes we present. However after they leave that’s when I hope the show stays with them, and they start to question some of the beliefs they may have had before watching it.