Back in the winter of 2015, Nottinghamshire-based poet Neal Pike was on a writing retreat in Devon and saw guest speaker Jess Thom AKA Tourettes Hero talk about how she turned her experience of disability into art. Neal was inspired to start exploring his own experience of attending a special educational needs school in the mid 90s, and to move his poetry into the world of theatre. Three years later, he is set to bring his debut solo show, Five Years, to its premiere at Durham Book Festival.
We caught up with him to find out more about his experience:
What are the experiences of attending a special educational needs school, and how do you think they differ from common preconceptions?
I went in with the idea that it was going to be a lot different. I think when people say they go to a special school people just look at you snootily then say, ‘I bet you don’t do proper lessons do you?’ Yes, we did actually. Yes, we went on trips and had a minibus and went to Nottingham on Thursdays, but there were definitely lessons.
I rant about boxes a lot, but it’s true society enjoys putting people in boxes.
In what ways do you feel that experience shaped you (and perhaps what are the ways it didn’t?)
I like learning and education and I feel SEN schools don’t or didn’t have the time to push that with so many people of varying disabilities, so I feel I missed out on education a lot. But for me the best thing about Foxwood was the learning of social skills, catching buses, how to talk and communicate with the world.
In writing Five Years and revisiting old memories, did you discover anything new about yourself or your experiences, which you weren’t aware of at the time?
I tried to forget what I was at the time. It brought back memories and made me go ‘yeah, I was a general teenager with no idea who or what he was and drifting along with a gang of people who I only liked a few of and vice versa’.
What’s been the most useful thing about making this show?
I wanted to make this show, but a few months after I started writing I was told to not bother as I didn’t have a ‘name’, but that made me even more determined to write it.
It’s made me confront memories in a good way, both the memories of school and how much school helped me, even though it wasn’t the best place in the world.
I am really proud of this show, it’s the best thing I’ve written. Thank you to Jess Thom, that barn in Devon, and red wine.
In making Five Years, Neal has worked with theatre maker and director Matt Miller, who brought his own solo show, Sticking, to the Durham Book Festival in 2016. We caught up with Matt too:
How has the process of working together on Five Years been?
Neal’s writing is brilliant in its concision as well as it’s humour and honesty. A large part of the process has been working through a world that Neal has created from small, direct scenes, descriptions of people, places and events, and making those translate on stage.
Despite Neal being the only performer on stage, we’ve been working a lot on creating ‘other characters’ on the stage, by Neal’s relation to those implied characters. What I think we have as a result is a show which feels rich in texture, dialogue and interaction, rather than being a single point monologue, which coming from a place of solo performance and poetic roots is, I think, exciting.
How does it feel to be coming back to Gala and The Durham Book Festival?
It’s been an interesting process for me to learn from writing and performing my own solo show, working with my own director, and to bring those skills to the other side of a maker/director double act where I’m no longer performing but have the outside eye on helping the performance sing, which has been great! When I was at DBF last with Sticking I had all the pressures of performing on the day. This time once the show begins I get to watch Neal perform, which I love doing.
What have been your favourite moments of working on the show?
Finding moments of surprise has often been fun. Neal has a knack for improvisation and off the cuff humour, and some really lovely material has come from that. It’s been a combination of writing on the page and playing in the space, and those moments of play have been lovely to be involved in.
Five Years will premiere at Gala Studio, as part of the Durham Book Festival, on Sunday 14th October at 7 pm.
The show will be relaxed and BSL interpreted.
Supported by Arts Council England, New Writing North and the Sunday for Sammy Trust.