Barnsley-born Jonathan Watkins is returning to Sheffield Theatres this month to direct the first stage adaptation of Matt Haig’s bestseller Reasons to Stay Alive in the Studio. We caught up with him to talk about the process of bringing this much-loved book to life on stage.
What inspired you to want to bring Reasons to Stay Alive to the stage?
“It was two things: the first was a step in my journey of discovering what kind of theatre I wanted to make and looking for inspiration from stories that are really worthwhile. My plan was to recognise the capacity of theatre, to shine a light on the darkest corners of humanity and to trigger empathy in people for those who are dealing with things maybe not everyone understands. That was my driving force.
“Second, I’d read the book when it came out and I was struck by the truths put out by Matt [Haig], and his acceptance of his situation. He’s a brilliant writer in terms of imagery and being able to relate experiences he’s had to things others might have experienced and to offer them a window into his world, so when I was looking for stories to tell, I revisited the book and realised how much the rhythm of it spoke to me – Matt offers little interjections of thoughts and humour to help an audience navigate the story. I also loved that it’s very much Matt’s story – he doesn’t claim to know it all, but he offers a look into the world of mental health and suggests – as he calls them – ‘weapons’ to cope.”
You’ve worked previously on adapting books into dance and movement pieces (Kes, 1984), how is Reasons to Stay Alive proving different?
“It’s different in that it’s a combination of movement, music and words. This isn’t a story I wanted to tell without words and from the beginning it had to be the right collaboration. I wanted to work with a writer who could handle the text and work with me to adapt it so I wouldn’t be writing dialogue, but I’d be imagining the pace and structure of the show – and I found that in April [De Angelis]. I really think that now we’re in the room and working there’s a huge trust between the cast, myself and April to continue to mould and develop the script we had at the beginning into something much deeper and more authentic.
“It was important to be from the beginning that words and movement would combine in this story – they’re both ways of storytelling and communicating, but I wanted to show all the brilliant things that Matt has to say, but also to use movement to push the story wherever Matt says that sometimes words just weren’t enough.”
How did the process of getting Reasons to Stay Alive into a theatre show happen?
“When I originally read the book, I let it germinate in my head for a while and worked to imagine it into a show even before I’d been given Matt’s blessing to go ahead. For me, it always starts with a seed of an idea and I have to knock it into shape so that I can present it properly and give the very best version of what their truths will look like on stage. I reached out to Matt and straight away he got it, he understood the hybrid nature of it because that was the approach he took when writing the book – so I kept on developing and evolving it.
“With projects that you’re so passionate about, it’s important that you give them the time they need – around two years ago I started to think about venues and scale, knowing that I wanted the audience to almost be able to reach out and touch the story, and that it should have no interval so people have the opportunity to become fully involved. When it came to where, I’d worked in Sheffield before and Matt has a lot of northern connections [he was born in Sheffield and went to Hull University] and it all just felt right to bring it to the Studio, then ETT got involved which was amazing – it means we’re able to share this story with more people.”
Catch Reasons to Stay Alive in the Studio theatre from Friday 13 – Saturday 28 September. Tickets from £20 (limited availability), are available through the Box Office and through the link below.