Competition: Desperate to get back to theatre? Win a £50 ATG Voucher and take your pick of shows


‘Being A Man’ - An Interview with poet Ben Norris

Image Credit: Southbank Centre

We chat with writer, performer and UK All Star Poetry Slam champion Ben Norris about his one man show ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family’, ahead of Southbank Centre's 'Being A Man' festival.

Writer, performer and UK All Star Poetry Slam champion Ben Norris will be presenting his debut one man show ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family’ as part of Southbank Centre’s brilliant Being A Man festival this November. Having recently had a successful run with his show at Edinburgh Fringe, Norris is looking forward to presenting his tender and funny journey through his family history to London audiences. Combining recorded footage, animation and spoken word, Norris will take his audience along on his hitchhiking adventure, which he undertook in order to know his father better. We catch up with the wonderfully charming Ben to chat about what being a man means to him, and why his hitchhiking adventure taught him more than he thought it ever could.

London Calling: What’s the inspiration behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family?
Ben Norris: It came from a feeling that I didn’t know anything about my dad. He, like a lot of men of his generation, was not particularly emotionally communicative. He was around for my whole childhood and still is around, but he’s just never been very forthcoming about his past or about his feelings. I didn’t really think anything of it because I grew up thinking that’s what dads were like. So I started having this niggling question in my teens and then later when I moved away to uni about how I could possibly be related to this man since we had nothing in common. I then started thinking about going on a trip to everywhere he had ever lived when he was growing up, and trying to get to know him better in the past in the hope that I might get to know him better in the future.
LC: That sounds like a big task!
BN: Well, conveniently he was born in South London and then every time he moved house he moved north, loosely in line with the M1.
LC: Well that is very convenient.
BN: So I thought, well that’s kind of a good structural suggestion for a trip I could go on. I started in Nottingham and I went south, back in time to everywhere he ever lived when he was growing up. I brought a camera and I just talked to people and tried to find his friends from his youth and meet people that he knew in order to build a picture of him like that. So that’s where the inspiration came from.
LC: Is the resulting show what you thought it would be like? Or is it different?
BN: I suppose I thought I was going to make a show about dad and about how he became who he is, but that was quite naïve of me really. Rather than specifically being about him, the show has become a bigger picture about men in general and our quite unique and very unhealthy ability to just totally evade any kind of proper conversation or communication, which in its most extreme instances, is partly responsible for the appalling number of male suicides you see in young men.
There’s this idea that there’s only one type of man you can be which is this stoic, silent figure or banterous, pseudo-macho guy, and I think that is a poison in a way. We raise our kids thinking that this is what men are and should be but these weird, skewed views of gender are so unhealthy. So the show now joins in with that conversation more than I thought it would, which I’m thrilled about because it’s something quite close to my heart.
LC: How will you be telling the story to audiences? Is it through spoken word?
BN: It’s a piece of theatre, but then within that it’s heavily poetic. There’s also a lot of AV design and projected footage from the trip as well as animations that we’ve commissioned. There’s also a lot of music - commissioned original music as well as music from my dad’s era. There’s this mix tape that he used to have in the car when we were driving places, so all the non-original music in the show is taken from that mix tape, so like the Stones, the Who, Jerry Rafferty and Al Stuart etc.
LC: And what does your dad think about the show and about your adventure?
BN: A lot of people ask this and the answer is kind of satisfyingly perfect. I blogged about the hitchhike and I didn’t know that he knew anything about the show. I later found out that he’d printed out the entire blog and taken it around to show people. He would never tell me this, I learnt about all these things through other people or by accident. I think he finds the gesture of it touching but he would never tell me that. He came to see the show in Edinburgh. He got the train up and came on his own, and that was a massive gesture itself. Then afterwards I said, “So what did you think?” And after having done this whole show about how he’s quite bad at communicating and talking about his feelings, he just went “Yep, well done mate, shall we get a drink?”
LC: Oh no! Well like you said, I guess that’s kind of perfect in its own way.
BN: Initially I was like, surely you have more to say after all that but then I realised no, and that’s ok. My dad’s way of being articulate is by physically showing up to stuff. So coming to Edinburgh was a massive gesture and he doesn’t really need to say anything verbally because he’s already said everything. It’s taken me years to learn that, but yeah I really respect him now.
LC: You’ll be performing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family at Southbank’s ‘Being A Man’ Festival. What does being a man mean to you?
BN: Wow, what a question! I think being a man is challenging what people have previously thought being a man is. It’s having a platform through this show and through interviews like this, as well as festivals like the Southbank and even just being the older cousin of my younger cousin or going into schools and doing spoken word workshops - it’s about either subtly or explicitly trying to liberate people from what they think a man ought to be.
I’m really interested in the liminality of gender at the moment anyway, and I’ve just become so aware about how performative gender is. It’s made me think about how I might be a dad some day. And that’s not to say my dad did anything wrong; he was a wonderful father in many ways. But I think to just have a conversation, to have nothing out of bounds and feel like we can talk about football if we want to, but we can also talk about depression and love and all the big stuff too, that’s what being a man is.

Ben Norris will be performing The Hitchhikers Guide to the Family at Southbank Centre on 25-27 November as part of Being A Man festival. Book tickets for this event and more online.