Q&A with playwright Josh Overton on The Houses Are Sinking (And the Adults Don’t Care) at Hull Truck Theatre

Hull Truck Theatre’s Young Creators have been working with playwright Josh Overton (Faustus and Dungeons & Dragons: The Unofficial Adventure), and director Tom Saunders (Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jack, Mum & The Beanstalk) to create a play based on the opinions, ideas and voices of the group.

Josh Overton

Young Creators are a group of talented theatre-makers aged between 14-18 from across the city of Hull and the region who come together to make bold, thought-provoking and contemporary theatre from scratch. The Houses are Sinking (Thursday 30 March – Saturday 1 April), asks audiences to think about when trapped in a place where the future is uncertain and the present is bleak, how do the young stay optimistic?

Rehearsals have now started for The Houses are Sinking (And the Adults Don’t Care), and while Tom is busy directing the piece, we were able to catch up with playwright Josh Overton to find out how he inspired the group to share their opinions, and to tell us his own opinion too on climate change, the future, and if he thinks theatre can help create positive changes in society and within politics.

Q. What can audiences expect from The Houses are Sinking?

The main question this piece asks is: Why are young people asking important questions for change and the adults are not listening?  This is a play where adults can hear what young people really want to say. Youth theatre is a place where young people with a shared interest can come together and discuss current affairs, concerns, and general observations about the world around them, but what we have achieved here is a platform for their opinions and fears, dreams and questions to be heard and listened to.

Q. How did Hull inspire your writing for this piece?

We see a lot of work programmed locally in our theatres which is perfect for people to enjoy “a good night out”. It’s often light-hearted and uplifting. Audiences have a fun night at the theatre and then go home. With this piece of work, I wanted to challenge audiences and get them to think more deeply about subjects that might be harder to deal with, for example, economic hardship and climate change. As a northern city, I think we sometimes feel forgotten about in the grand scheme of things. Having said that, this play could really be set anywhere and it’s relevant to young people up and down the country – it’s less about specific “place” and more about teenagers asserting themselves politically and emotionally – letting adults know they’re here, they have valid opinions, and they want to be listened to!

Q. What was it like working with members of Hull Truck Theatre’s Young Creators to inform your writing?

Writing a play is not necessarily the first thing young people think of when they sign up to be part of a Youth Theatre group, often it’s about being on stage rather than creating something new behind the scenes. It was our job to inspire them to channel their opinions to help create something which would be proudly shared with the wider world.

On our first day working together, we played a game where I asked them to think of a scenario where if they could permanently get rid of one rule in the world, what would it be. Bearing in mind that these young people are all aged between 14 and 18 years old, their answers were perhaps surprisingly heavily focused on politics. When I was their age, I didn’t have TikTok or the ability to have my voice heard by anyone on the planet, but now they are able to have important intelligent conversations with people all over the world, 24/7.

Q. How did the creative process work?

The recommended age guidance for The Houses are Sinking is 12+. I had to be mindful of this whilst writing and balancing the content and messaging, so it was the right mix of spooky, thought-provoking and poignant, whilst heavily centred around climate change and the negative effects we are having on our planet as human beings.

During the inception of the play, the conversations we had with young people included: What should this play mean? What is it saying? We know that everyone is upset about climate change but the problem is young people often don’t know what to believe or what to do about it, and meanwhile, we are reading in the news that houses are actually falling into the ocean because two hundred years ago someone said;  “I will build a house here, there is loads of cliff” and now that cliff has gone.

Q. Do you think that a story is more likely to resonate when they can laugh along with you? 

Frankly, coming to see a funny play about houses collapsing is probably not going to change the way you think about climate change, but it will make you hear how intelligent young people can be. A lot of the inspiration for the humour of the piece came from the young creators themselves. They are straight to the point and usually correct with the things that they say. As adults, we tend to tread more carefully around the truth, where teenagers just say what they think. That bluntness can be hilariously funny and sometimes in the most ironic way because what they are saying is totally true.

Q. Do you believe that theatre is a good space to make people sit up and listen to important issues?

I try and create work that makes people think about the important issues facing our communities right now, but I don’t believe it’s the job of the theatre to necessarily change political opinion. I think the power of culture is in the normalisation of ideas. If people hear enough stories of people who are not like themselves on stage and in film, they no longer believe anyone different to them is “odd”, they then gain more understanding and therefore acceptance.

Q. What does the poetry in the piece add to the story?

I think the poetry in this piece adds another creative layer. It is there to narrate the story and make it slightly easier to describe a lot of the weird events that happen. If you can make people visualise something by listening to describing words, then it is easier (and more affordable) than trying to physically show it on the stage through a fancy set design. The power of imagination is sometimes way more effective!

Q. What is next for you?

My theatre company From Below are doing an adaptation of Dante, another piece for family audiences. We have big flaming swords and are building a dragon with flames coming out of its head. It doesn’t matter how good the play is because we have a flaming dragon right!? That is hopefully going to be happening at Stage@TheDock in August. Watch this space for more details.