Simon Stephens
(© Simon Kane)
Simon Stephens
(© Simon Kane)
Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens is currently one of the most influential voices of the British theater, but is only now making his New York debut with Bluebird, now at Atlantic Stage 2. The one-act play, which was originally produced by the Royal Court Theatre in 1998, peers into the lives of Londoners through the eyes of Jimmy, a troubled cab driver (played here by Olivier Award winner Simon Russell Beale). TheaterMania recently caught up with Stephens through email to discuss the long journey to New York, working with Beale, and his theatrical influences.

THEATERMANIA: Could you describe how this production at the Atlantic came about after so many years?
SIMON STEPHENS: Well, I have to confess that it came out of the blue to me. It was a total surprise. I received an email from the producer, Caro Newling, asking me how I would feel if Simon Russell Beale played Jimmy in a New York production of Bluebird. I had to write back to her to check she wasn't winding me up. I gathered afterwards that the production was driven by Simon's desire to challenge himself as an actor by taking a role in a contemporary play in a small theatre and him asking his friend, the director Gayle Taylor Upchurch, to find him a play. She read Bluebird and was rather taken by it, and he fell in love with it. They took it to The Atlantic, which is a theater I've wanted to work in for almost 10 years, and they worked hard to accommodate it. I could scarcely believe my luck.

TM: You've had a number of productions in Chicago but Bluebird is your New York debut. Is that due to the economic difficulties of producing here or is there something about the theaters in Chicago that lend themselves more to your work?
SS: I think my plays have big casts, which is tricky for New York. I think Chicago maybe has a taste for theatre which is as interested in flint and toughness as it is in commercial success.

Simon Russell Beale and Kate Blumbergin Bluebird
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
Simon Russell Beale and Kate Blumberg
in Bluebird
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
TM: What kind of discussions did you have with Simon Russell Beale about the role?
SS: We talked a lot about Jimmy and about London. We discussed whether his gesture at the end of the play was generous or deluded. We talked about the role of the taxi driver as a contemporary ferryman of souls across the river of Styx that is the contemporary city. We talked about Jimmy's class and his background and we worked a lot on his accent. He's one of England's finest actors and a man of real soul and grace. It was joyful working with him.

TM: In previous interviews, you've said that you've been influenced by Martin Scorcese's film Taxi Driver. How did that film influence Bluebird?
SS: Well it was mainly the extent to which Travis, like Jimmy, drives, touches, communicates with, heals or affects the passengers in his cab. I liked the randomness of that collection of folk. It seemed to speak in some way of the extraordinary intimacy and alienation of a major city.

TM: Who are some of your other influences?
SS: There's a lot. Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Robert Holman, Georg Buchner, Brien Friel, Conor McPherson, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, David Grieg, Joe Penhhall, Martin Crimp. I really could go on and on. But mainly, it's my wife and kids.

TM: Are there plans for productions of any of your other plays in New York?
SS: Not that I know of, but I never know when another email might arrive and take me by surprise.