We caught up with Lizi Patch, the creative mind behind 'Punching the Sky', a new play about porn, parenting and pressure which will open its doors at the Soho Theatre on 27th April 2016.
For those who are not familiar with Punching the Sky- please can you tell us a little bit about it?
In 2013, my 11 year old son came to me and told me he'd watched some brutal online pornography after a lad at school sent him a link. My blogpost on the subject was picked up by the Independent newspaper, published and re-published and discussed across the globe. I was invited to Westminster and on to Newsnight to discuss the issues raised.
Not wanting to sink under the pressure I decided to find my way back to where I felt able to speak honestly and openly, and so started to write Punching The Sky. The show has been through two Art's Council research and development phases working with partner venues the Lowry, Live Theatre, Theatre in the Mill and the Hub in collaboration with some brillant artists. The show has been touring throughout Yorkshire and the North East, finishing with a week at Soho Theatre as part of A Nation's Theatre Festival.
What made you want to explore the complexities of our relationship with online pornography?
No one is indifferent to the subject of pornography. Debate veers between total libertarianism and some kind of fundamentalism that would ban all things. My article in the Independent prompted 112 pages of comments, which I trawled through in the name of research for Punching The Sky. And amongst those pages and pages of comments I found… no consensus whatsoever. One of the first comments was this:
"I sometimes wonder if this massive, ubiquitous use of porn will not be one of the defining characteristics of our age - and yet you hardly hear a breath of discussion of it, really, on news shows, in the media etc. Has it ever come up on Question Time, or Newsnight?"
Commentators went on to discuss and rant about the extremes of sexual pleasure, pain and exploitation, of morals, fantasy and censorship. For me, as a parent - making it up as I go along - it's about how and where we draw a line for those we are responsible for.
Why are there contradictions in the nature of our feelings about sex, censorship and parenthood?
Because the majority of parents tend to feel their 11 year old watching hardcore, brutal pornography online is unacceptable but that enjoying watching a bit of porn alone or with their partner can be a turn on…
And whilst no one wants to be told what to do, what to watch or how to live their life, censorship and conversation are 2 very different things, and I'm calling for the latter - after all that's what has worked for my sons and I.
What do you see as the biggest dangers of the internet other than pornography?
The internet is stunningly brilliant and completely hellish at the same time. It just depends where your search takes you, who's in control and how able you are to contextualise what you experience. As an adult we can make choices about what we want to stream into our eyeballs. A child searching for stuff they are in no way ready to see so they can fit in with the cool kids is a whole new level of 'dare' from when people of my age were 11.
You wrote, co-produced and perform in this production, so how difficult was it to be involved in so many aspects?
It has been the hardest thing I've done - both as a mother and an artist. But it has been my choice. I have wanted to stop a good many times - not least of all because, let's not forget, I'm the mother in this and I want to be sure I'm doing the right thing by my son. It's too important for half measures and if the feedback from audiences is anything to go by, then job done. Oh and my son tells me he's proud of me and the conversations we've started, so that'll do me. I'm pretty damn proud of him too as it happens.
How did you collaboration with Mark Hollander come about?
I've know Mark from way back when he worked for the Art's Council and I was sat across the desk eyeing this smart be-suited man, hoping for a positive outcome to a bid. Mark struck me as someone who actually listened and it became clear his opinions were to be respected. Years later he went freelance and became a 'critical friend' and then co-producer for the 2nd R&D period. Now and again he made a comment when he sat in on the rehearsals and he was always spot on. So I asked him to direct the show for the tour (and to continue to Co-produce) and he said 'yes'. And here we are. We're both grafters and we work around all our other commitments. We understand each other and it's a fantastic working partnership.
One review said that this production is 'more relevant than ever'- so how much do you agree with this?
Kids are increasingly being given tablets and smartphones as soon as their hands can hold on to them. The internet pervades every aspect of modern life for better and worse. Young people have to be able to navigate the online world just as much as the offline world - so it's not going away. Others say it better than me:
This was fabulous! My son had gone to see it at Leeds Carriageworks with his AS Drama group. He said I should see it when it came to Seven Arts. 'would you want to see it again?'. He did. So mate, mothers and girlfriends all came too. Powerful, pertinent and a real sense if what motherhood is about. The nurturing, protecting, self esteem building all blasted out of the water in an instant. So well handled. Arthur is lucky to have you. And we are lucky to have seen this play. Thank you. (Audience member on Facebook)
"Saw @Punch1ngTheSky last night - brilliantly explored the impact of oversimplifying the debate around porn. Brava @LiziPatch" ( Madeline Shann, Theatre Maker/Choreographer working on 'Sex in Real Life': investigating the gulf between what we are taught, and what we have to figure out for ourselves.)
Why did you want to combine live performance with animation?
I can't bring my son onto the stage and I can't show the video. So I have to be a bit clever in the way I evoke my son, the content he watched and the fallout from this. Arcus Studios (Gateshead) have developed gorgeous animations that work on a number of levels, evoking the innocence of early childhood, showing my son's world being turned upside down and bringing my original article and many of the verbatim responses to life. So the animations projected onto Scott Thompson's simple but effective set, along with a unique piano score from Aron Kyne combine to assault the senses and beautifully support the live action.
You have already toured Punching the Sky around the country before it goes to the Soho Theatre in London, so how have you found the response to the project?
Overwhelmingly positive. From teenagers to parents to sex educational professionals to grandparents. Again, audience feedback sums it up.
"An extremely powerful and thought-provoking piece of theatre. Your dedication to raising awareness of this very important issue, in such a brilliantly engaging production, is such a credit to you." Julia Louise Haworth (Actress, Coronation Street)
I turned to my clearly captivated 14 year old son at the end of the play and he said…"That's about me isn't it?" And there you have its appeal…'It's about me and you and everyone in-between' I replied. This beautifully written play is engaging, witty and insightful as well as painful and heartening by turns." A Father: CEO in Creative Industries.
What is next for you?
Punching The Sky will go to bed for a little while as I'm also the Artistic Director of the City Varieties/Leeds Grand Youth Theatre and have a production of the Addams Family (with a cast of 65!) in rehearsal for production in July. I'm also developing a new radio play about the Menopause (more joy!) and, most importantly, I'm going to watch a whole load of films and eat junk with my kids and partner.