Billed as “a story about what we do to protect those around us and how we fuck them up in the process”[1] You Forgot the Mince, the latest production from theatre company and charity Imagine If, is a very human tale of the road to an abusive relationship. A recent hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the production will now tour the UK through the autumn, beginning at The Courtyard Theatre in London from 26th September (further information can be found here). You Forgot the Mince is directed by Stephen Whitson, who is also the associate director for West End Smash hit 42nd Street and taken on the project before heading back to the West End as the UK associate director for the global phenomenon Hamilton, which will finally make it to London’s West End in December this year. We at culturised talked to Whitson about his role with You Forgot the Mince, his lifelong relationship with the world’s largest arts festival, and his how his work has developed across his career.

What is You Forgot the Mince about and what is your role?

It’s a tale of two characters and how they fall in love, and them coping with a world that they don’t necessarily have the tools to cope with because of their backgrounds, but also because they’re young. These are characters setting out in life and setting out in a relationship and we examine the pressures that occur. What happens is that Niko goes to prison for a crime that is serious enough to warrant an eighteen month sentence, although he only serves ten, which is counteracted by Rosa going to university and it explores how they cope with their relationship after that time: we see the connection between the two develop but gradually this disintegrates.

What You Forgot The Mince is about is discussing why small things develop into big issues and what actually constitutes abuse. The media tends to have an incredibly binary approach where one person hits the other person, but after discussing both with charities and foundations and with people that identify as abused and abusers it became cleat that abuse can be many different things, but it’s mainly about control. You Forgot the Mince asks the question at the end for the audience to identify times in their lives where similar situations have cropped up. It’s a huge step for us to accept that such situations exist and that if we are aware of them then we can make a choice and it doesn’t have to be like this and to see when we are close to crossing that line into being controlling.

I’m the director and I’ve been working with Francesca for nearly a year; we took this play on tour last year and it develops every single time we have done it. Chesca has run some workshops beforehand and so it developed into a performance and a static script by the time it got to me and then it sort of adapted and changed as we worked together. From there we interviewed a wide range of people connected to the prison service as well as those who have worked with abuse charities and people who have identified as being in an abusive relationship or even abusers, and from that we learned a great deal. My job as director is to try and pull all of that together and bind together the team as we also have our movement directors (White and Givan) who identify feelings to add a further physicality to the piece and sound designer Ed Clarke who adapted a score that really extenuates pressure alongside Chesca.

How have audiences been responding to the play?

The most striking thing in which audiences respond to is that they identify with the characters. These characters are working class from Leeds and they come from a very specific background but that didn’t seem to matter to audiences and their ability to relate with them. They all see some of themselves in the characters. People have started to understand their own behaviour as well as that of their partner and feel empowered that they can now do something about if either by changing their own behaviour or by speaking and understanding their partner. A big part of the play is also the outside world and observers and how they engage with a situation like this. As people on the outside we have to question what we do, whether we should get involved, and we seek to encourage some involvement in a way that is sensitive to the situation.

You’re from Edinburgh and took You Forgot the Mince to the Fringe this year. How has your personal relationship with the Edinburgh Fringe developed?

I was very lucky as my parents always took me every year to see shows as a part of the Fringe and their visits still continue every year. I distinctly remember being a young teenager and being told that I was able to pick this year as she wanted me to understand that there were some pieces of theatre that while the stories were good were not perhaps so well planned and see failures as well as successes. That year we saw some of the best of the fringe but also some of the absolute worst, to the point that they almost didn’t speak to me. It also made me realise however the extreme amounts of effort it takes to perform at the Fringe for what to an outsider looks like very little reward and so I have huge respect for anyone, whatever the success of the piece, for taking anything to Edinburgh at all and to write it, market it, and produce it. It is a fantastic thing for Edinburgh as the rhythm of the city completely changes and it becomes a lively and engaging place where opportunity happens and people are able to reach communities far beyond Scotland.

Where do you see the Fringe going in the future? With the festival’s seventieth year just finishing there has been a lot of discussion regarding the changes undergoing the festival and fears of it becoming overly commercial. What are your thoughts?

I think there is a huge challenge for the Edinburgh Fringe in that it becomes harder and harder financially for companies to bring pieces of theatre up to the city. Just the cost of accommodation in Edinburgh due to the huge demand on it is astronomical. I can see a future where it does become more commercial and for me that would be a shame as I think the joy of the fringe and something that the organisers are very keen to keep is maintaining the broad range of work allowing many people from many different communities to tell stories at the Edinburgh Fringe as there aren’t that many places where you can go and see a play in the morning about a domestic abuse situation, in the afternoon maybe do some comedy and then in the evening watch a hard-hitting piece of dance theatre. It is incredibly important that we are able to explore all those facets of life and having an arts festival that celebrates diversity is incredibly important. That is what the Edinburgh Fringe has done incredibly successfully over the course of its history and maintaining that ethos should be a priority.

Coming to your role as a director what have been your biggest influences on your practice?

I learn from each practitioner that I work with. I think the works of people like Ivo van Hove are important in their efforts in isolating the drama of a situation and really speaking directly to the audience. My practice is also adapted to each play, for example with You Forgot the Mince there is a situation which is hard to define why it is the characters do what they do and the choice to become abusive is a difficult one for an actor and the whole point of this play is to prove there is a choice and in developing the world in which an actor is to explore the situation effectively there must be the ability for a choice to be made; the choice to abuse. This happens by closing down the world so that there is only one choice for these characters. Most of the time my work is about opening up situations and providing options so that there is cross purposes within the room which is completely different to what we have done here.

How have you adapted between directing for musicals like Hamilton which you are going on to do in the West End later this year and 42nd Street to hard hitting drama like You Forgot the Mince?

I think all of these shows have the experiences in common and these characters can remain very real despite the differing form. When I take on the mantle of rehearsing understudies like I did in 42nd Street it is about identifying the truth in these characters which needs to stay the same across musical theatre even to the most abstract of drama. What I see my job as it to identify to both the actors and the audience what the truth of the situation is because that is when it speaks to an audience.

You Forgot the Mince Tour Dates

26 – 30 September: The Courtyard Theatre, London

2 October: Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

3 October: MAC, Birmingham

4 October: The Castle, Wellingborough

6 – 7 October: Shoebox Theatre, Swindon

12 – 14 October: Interplay Theatre, Leeds