Award-winning playwright Gillian Plowman does not set herself small challenges. So when faced with the task of giving a voice to the world’s most famous silent clown, she gives him two.
What inspired you to write Tonight…Charlie Chaplin?
Sometimes it’s people who inspire you and sometimes it’s the place. Where you come from where it’s being performed
The town that I live in is a little fishing village with a theatre that has stood on the high street since 1913. This theatre is sort of a derelict hall now but it is owned by a man who loves Charlie Chaplin. He buys loads of Chaplin memorabilia off eBay and stores it in this place. It is even known by the people who are familiar with it as Chaplin’s. Anyway, I had been commissioned to write a different play, that was to be performed in that space a few years before this and was only allowed to come back and use it again if I wrote something about Chaplin!
And so, we did it because of this theatre space in our little town. So that’s how it started and it only because of this funny little town and the interesting people in it and the things that they love.
The play specifically looks at the time in Chaplin’s life when he played the Little Tramp – why did you chose to focus in on this time and character in particular?
It was the character of The Little Tramp that just erupted in 1915 and made Charlie Chaplin into the biggest star in the world. And as I sat to write the play I realised that it had been 100 years since the creation of this amazing enduring character so it seemed like the perfect time to write about him – on his anniversary! I also wanted to give the Little Tramp a voice, in the films he had never spoken, even when the talkies became a huge sensation The Little Tramp stayed silent. This was because he wanted to maintain a universal appeal, and be able to communicate his films to everyone, but I wanted to finally give him a voice.
Within the play you present the character of Charlie Chaplin as both an old man looking back on his career and a younger Charlie – what were you hoping to achieve by exploring the character in this way?
Chaplin would not do talkies. He refused to talk. I was interested in why he did that. He used to direct and produce his own films but not talk. I also wanted to glimpse into that moment in time. Just that particular moment. And taking later writings from Chaplin, stuff that he wrote later in life, meant that an older voice could sort of show what the younger man was feeling.
With the two men I was also able to give him the words at the time rather than looking back on it later. We have his autobiography but how would he say it at the time? Letting him express his feelings at the time meant that he could contest some of the presumptions that we have about him. I really wanted to find an honesty in it, rather than just displaying the facts as we know them now.
What challenges did you face writing about such an iconic man and such an enduring character?
Well it’s a rags to riches story, Chaplin’s and it was important to acknowledge that he never forgot his previous poverty. So when writing the play I had to look at this contrast, of him being so unbelievably famous, the most famous man in the world, and question how it would feel having all of this success from playing a tramp character, a character with nothing. The man with the holes in his shoes.
What would you say are the biggest challenges for a company looking to stage Tonight…Charlie Chaplin?
One of the main difficulties is about planting it in a specific time this isn’t just a broader look at Chaplin but more the story of The Little Tramp.
It is also a challenge to show the older and the younger Chaplins and have them be similar enough to represent the same man, but different enough to show the changes of time, how that affects a person.
But the main challenge is about finding the humanity in the icon and the man.