Jack Dean talks Grandad and the Machine

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Jack Dean’s ‘steampunk fairytale for grownups’ Grandad and the Machine was commissioned by Unlimited (administered by Shape and Artsadmin) and played the Unlimited Festivals at Southbank Centre and Glasgow’s Tramway in summer 2016. It’s set in a dystopian parallel universe of rampant capitalism, diminished rights for women and an evil British Empire ruled by a shadowy corporation. When a giant robot emerges from the sea, destroying everything in its path, precocious young Imogen (played by a puppet) and her father seek the help of Grandad, whose pretty handy with a spanner. Disability Arts Online’s Joe Turnbull caught up with Dean to talk about the work.

A photograph of writer Jack Dean, he is holding a puppet, who plays Imogen in Grandad and the Machine

Jack Dean voices Imogen.

What inspired you to conceive Grandad and the Machine as a ‘fairytale for grown-ups’?
Back in 2014 I was at the Fringe, walking up to Arthur’s Seat and all that. It was the time of the independence referendum and I was struck by the strength of the national myth of Scotland among its people. It got me thinking of how one could tell a story of Englishness that wasn’t narrow and xenophobic but progressive, inclusive and joyful. By creating a weird alternate present where England is effectively a colony of an unchecked British Empire, I could show up the oft-ignored English values of skepticism, conservationism, fairness and decency. These were championed in the fight against fascism in Europe- White Cliffs etc – and this national fairytale served well in framing what I see as the equally inevitable fight against capitalism.

Why a steampunk setting?
The show takes a degree of inspiration from Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which has a similar vibe. I suppose I’m guilty of being a bit on-trend. Although I was also interested in turning the romanticising of the Victorian era that is implicit in the steampunk aesthetic by drawing attention to just how awful for most ordinary people that time was.

Why tell a story explicitly ‘for grown-ups’ primarily through the eyes of a child? What did you think that could bring to the piece?
There was that experiment a few years ago where many pairs of children had a piece of cake given to just one of the pair, and left alone for several minutes. Every single one of them ended up sharing the cake. As children we are taught the essential importance of sharing, empathy and kindness, then we grow up and are confronted with an almost completely opposite set of values. The central character Imogen’s persistent questioning of the rules of the familiar dystopia that is the world of the show hopefully adds some pathos to the audience experience of it by making it, by extension our world, seem even more strange by comparison.

The piece is inflected with a ‘northern’ accent through some of the main characters, yet you’re from Exeter. Was there a particular reasoning behind that?
Hah, you’ve nailed it, I’m an impostor! My granddad originally lived in the Yorkshire Dales, where a lot of the show takes place. In a lot of ways the show is a tribute to him and the land of his birth, by a recent immigrant to York from the south.

A photograph of writer Jack Dean he is raising his arms either side of his head

Jack Dean

Do you think we need more regional accents in theatre currently? Are we seeing a trend against that?
I may not be well qualified to say, having worked with a pretty much entirely received pronunciation team for the show! There are some great shows by Yorkshire natives out there at the moment though, including my LittleMighty stablemates Testament, Matthew Bellwood and Unfolding Theatre. I think generally the theatre world is (very slowly) becoming less London-centred, which can only be a good thing for encouraging a diversity of voices.

As well as a theatre-maker you are a poet and an emcee as well. Which art form did you come to first and how did the progression occur?
I started out MCing in a band in school. Suffice to say it had a very teenage sound, but instilled in me a lifelong love of shouting at strangers. That led to me exploring other types of performance at uni, which led to me hitting poetry open mics with other students, which led to me firing off an email to a theatre to ask if I could make a full-length show, which, through several other steps, led me here

How do these different disciplines feed in to each other and impact the different areas of your work?
I’m really interested less in genre and more in how words, stories and music interact in a live performance, and just seeking out any medium that will allow me to get that out there. Being a writer/performer gives me a lot of independence that others might lack. Depending on how I feel or what’s paying, I can do a theatre show, a spoken word set, make a podcast, write a blog, etc.

How many words is the entire piece? Any tips on memorising such a large amount of prose?
It clocks in at about 8,700. The structure of the language makes it easier to memorise − there’s little repetition of adjectives and verbs. There are lots of tricks to memorisation, none of which I’m qualified to impart, but essentially I rack up a series of images in my head, and the words flow naturally when that internal slideshow plays.

Grandad and the Machine feels very much like ‘old fashioned storytelling’. Is that something we’re seeing less of in theatre and other artforms these days?
It’s certainly something I’d like to see more of. All theatre is storytelling in some way, and again I wouldn’t want to draw arbitrary lines in the sand, but I personally usually find it much more exciting as an audience member when my main relationship is directly with the creator(s) and their imaginations rather than mediated through some characters working from a script.  Or as the storyteller Roger Hill said “Storytelling is much better than film, it has better pictures”.

The Guardian said of Jack Dean that artists like him: “make us excited about what  they might do next”. His latest project Nuketown is a combined storytelling and protest art project about cities, public money and the possible end of life as we know it, which involves getting his audience to build Nuketown Villages out of lego as part of the show. Please click on this link to Jack Dean’s website for more information.