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Interview with Dan Ireland-Reeves

Bleach - Photo credit Steve Gregson Photography.
Bleach – Photo credit Steve Gregson Photography.

Back in February this year, I reviewed a one-man show at the Vault Festival which completely blew me away.  The show in question was Bleach and I recently met up with Dan Ireland-Reeves, who conceived, wrote, directed and performed the show. I started by getting Dan to give me a quick biography.

DI: I’m thirty-year-old writer, actor, waiter – as many actors often are.  I live in Farnborough with my husband and dog. I started my acting training with a company called Peer Productions, which does actor training and theatre in education tours. Now I’m on the board of trustees with them. I then did a drama foundation year and realised that drama school wasn’t what I wanted so I decided to do my own thing and that’s what I’ve been doing ever
since.  You can argue that going to drama school is a necessary part of the process. But I feel I’m in no worse a position than most of the people I know that did go down that route, whether certain parts of the industry feel it is necessary is something totally different. I think ultimately, it’s very personal.  It’s about the path you want to take, what sort of actor you want to be and what sort of work you want to do. I just didn’t feel like it was for me. This was a hard conclusion for me to come to as it was something I had been really adamant about for so many years, I felt I was letting myself down a bit by choosing a different route, but ultimately I’m happy with the choice I made.

TE:  Moving onto Bleach. It was definitely one of the highlights of the Vault festival for me. I was completely surprised by the show. I read the blurb for it before I went, and it was something along the lines of rent boy gets into snuff movie and I remember thinking that this wasn’t going to be much fun. In the end I was totally mesmerised by the whole thing. So, how did the play come about?

DI: Initially I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a one person show because it had always been something that had totally terrified me, so I wanted to try it. The idea came about from having seen friends that had moved to London who had lots of ideas of what it would be and for the majority of them it just didn’t work out and they found they had a horrendous, depressing time. So that was an element.  I’d also had this idea about a snuff movie which I didn’t know what to do with, and so the two things eventually came together to become Bleach. I booked it in for one performance and that was all I was really planning to do with it, just to see if I could. And I thought that if I could just get to the end of it, then I would cry with happiness because the stress would be over and that will be that. Obviously, as it is with actors, you’re never quite happy so you have to push it further.

TE: I was reading that you started off making Tyler (the character in Bleach) quite a negative character, and yet by the end, I found I really liked the guy.
DI: I wasn’t interested in writing someone that you’re expecting to be nice and I’m not particularly interested in always showing the gay community in a squeaky-clean sort of sitcom light, which happens a lot.  There’s nothing wrong with that but I’m not particularly interested in writing like that myself. So, I did set out writing him with this sort of darkness to him and I think that’s ultimately what makes him relatable. You can see that he is trying if nothing else. I mean he’s making a big mess but he’s trying all the time. I didn’t want him to be damaged from being a sex worker – because I don’t think everyone is – and I think that’s also a story that’s being told. Tyler is damaged in many ways, but I don’t think his work is the route of that. It leads to damaging experiences, but I don’t think he finds the work itself damaging.

TE: He has a wide range of clients and it’s great that you introduce those. For example, there’s one of his clients that just wants to spend the evening with him and snuggle. Where did he come from?
DI: Mainly from looking into sex work and the things that people were looking for. I found this ‘boyfriend experience’ idea which is where people just pay someone to act like they are in a relationship, and I thought it sounded nice and it was a different way of showing the variety of relationships Tyler has with his clients. The client Roger is interesting as well. He has a carer; he has a disability and it’s another aspect that shows that Tyler is really quite a sweet person. He’s very happy to provide Roger with something he doesn’t have in his life and he doesn’t judge him in any way for that.

TE: Looking at Tyler, you must consider the effect James (a boyfriend) has on him. I have my own, rather negative, opinion of him, but how do you view James and what he did to Tyler?
DI: I don’t have all the answers about what goes down between the two of them. I do see James and Tyler having a really loving relationship, but it’s a fast one. The timeline of them getting together and moving in together is really fast and I think there must be an element of fear in that for James. I’ve avoided answering all the questions about their relationship because I don’t think Tyler really knows or understands quite what happened. I think that’s why he finds it all so confusing.  It’s because it was so good, but then it went so wrong so suddenly. So, it’s not something I’ve ever put too much focus on answering myself. I know that’s probably not a useful answer.  It’s a hyper passionate relationship that leads to Tyler going where he does afterwards.

TE: So, you wrote the play, during that first performance and afterwards how did you feel? Were you pretty happy with it or have you changed it?
DI: It took me such a long time to become comfortable with performing it that I didn’t look at some of the elements of the script for a long period.  I would perform it, have a break then perform it again and it just took me a long time to feel comfortable with the amount to words to the point where I was no longer worried about the text, just my performance. Then I could go back and look at everything. The Vault was probably the first time I could get a good look at the script again.

TE: Did you make a lot of changes?
DI: I changed a few things.  I cut quite a lot of it. When I saw them do it in New York, it kind of highlighted that there were elements of repetitiveness that weren’t needed.  Also, that performance ran quite long, so I think it made me look at everything in a slightly different way. It’s very bizarre watching someone else do something you wrote.

TE: Bleach is your play. You wrote, directed and acted in it and it couldn’t be any more your baby.  How do you hand it over to someone else, not just in the UK but in a completely different country?
DI: With blind faith and hope.  Also, from a really sort of base level, I’m a small time nobody and it puts my work on a platform that’s a big step up from where I was. In some ways, it didn’t matter what they did with it, it just was important to me that it could go somewhere I couldn’t take it. They re-set the story to be in New York, which I had control over so researched the areas and changed some of the text where it was too British. In the Australian production, they’ve kept it English, but I think that’s a reflection on the types of cities they have rather than anything else.

TE: In the script I read, there is no mention of movement or positioning etc. How does that work with another company producing the show?
DI: I was interested to see how someone would interpret it and how that would compare to my version. For example, mine is the only one that ends in the specific way it does. The other productions have different takes on the ending, and I don’t specify it in the script. In NY, they used no sound cues or music. The Australian production is closer to my version but is still very different. That’s one of the things that excites me most is seeing how they do it. I almost don’t see it as something I wrote in a way. I’m very close to my own production and that’s because I’ve done it how I see it and want it. In my eyes then, my interpretation is pretty close, but I don’t have that strong a hold over the writing.

TE: In the opening, when you describe Tyler, he is 24, good looking. Outwardly confident and pedestrian.  What did you mean by that?
DI: Tyler isn’t someone you would look twice at. You could pass him on the street 10 times in a day and you wouldn’t notice.  If you stopped and thought you might think he’s nice looking but he’s the sort of person that would just disappear.

TE: And that goes with the whole belief that Tyler has that he can’t make a difference which flies in the face of everything we are taught throughout life.
DI: I feel like that’s something that James gives to Tyler that kind of releases him from so much stress about having to do and achieve things.  And suddenly someone has told him, you don’t have to do it, it doesn’t matter, not everyone can make a difference and that’s OK. I don’t personally see it as a hateful or negative thing, I see it as an empowering thing that Tyler enjoys. I don’t think he believes it enough to take it forward but he can understand how that’s a freeing idea.

TE: Let’s talk about Tyler’s bag. I love the concept of it and the description of the contents and what they are for in Tyler’s working life.  Where did that come from? Did you talk to people to find out how they prepare for the job?
DI: It came from the thought of if I was doing this job, this is what I would take. I did try to talk to people in the sex industry but it’s very difficult as nobody really wants to talk properly about it. This is why Tyler exists in such an isolated bubble, he doesn’t know any other sex workers. He has nobody to help him so makes it up as he goes along.  So, I watched some documentaries and then worked on the what would I need to do this job and went from
there.

TE: Turning now to the white box (area marked out on the stage). I started out thinking the box was trapping Tyler but ended thinking maybe this was actually his safe space where he could be himself.
DI: The way I perform it now, it’s a white frame but initially the box was a white square that I performed on, with the whiteness signifying the cleanliness of everything and then at the end I made it so he stepped out of the box.  When I did it like that it felt like the box was trapping him. When I did the Amsterdam fringe, I got a much bigger space and that’s when the frame idea came and that changed it to more of a safe space. He never left the box; he would go around the perimeter, but he never fully left the box. The whiteness has always been significant. It’s interesting that in the NY production, though they didn’t stage it with a white environment, one of the reviewers said they thought the language of the play was very reflective of the times as it was so white dominant. Not something I necessarily agree on as they had made a few judgements on the races of some of the characters – which is not specified at all. They said that in Trump dominated America, the theme of whiteness in the play, the character and everything is apparent all the way through.

TE: That’s interesting because Tyler himself could be any nationality, except Chinese.
DI: Yes, though in New York, a certain line regarding Tyler’s work in Chinatown was removed. People seem to have difficulty at times in separating Tyler as a character and me as a person. I do worry about where we are going with theatre if we can’t show a character with flaws. It’s something I’ve been surprised by, that people are judging me for things in the play.

TE: When the main action occurs, why do you think Tyler reacts the way he does and doesn’t necessarily do what you would expect?
DI: I think there’s a whole list of reasons to do with fear, money even enjoyment.

TE: Having seen the play, I knew how Tyler’s story ended but now having read it a couple of times, I can see there could be an alternative ending or even endings.  How do you see the play finishing?
DI: It’s something I’ve had lots of discussions about.  The way I initially wrote it was with one ending in mind, but then obviously I’ve written in the loops back to provide lots of potential interpretation. The end is really open, even when Tyler is dancing, the choice of music will make such a difference, but my production is definitely pushed one way. I like the fact it’s open at the end and people can take what they want from it. It does seem to be a bit of a marmite show, people like it or they don’t, and the reviews seem to split one way or the other. Negative ones hurt to an extent, but I am happy to embrace both types and happy to tell people I have had both. I think artists should always be able to communicate honestly with each other about both their successes and difficulties.

TE: This year you did Reykjavik Fringe, how was that?
DI: It went really well. It’s a great place to perform.  I got to perform in the National Theatre of Iceland. It’s not a massive fringe – it’s still pretty young – but all the feedback I heard was good and I’m really glad I did it.  There are still a few places I’d like to take Bleach. My aim is to get a few plays together that I can do in rep and have a body of work I can take around. For me there’s only so far I can take this play and I’ve done pretty much all the fringes. Bleach won’t go away but will probably become less prominent for a while.

TE: The promotional videos for Bleach are quite sensual.
DI: There’s three different versions – one that’s pretty much “sex sells”, one that’s really dark and one that’s combines the two.  There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter recently about how gay theatre should do better at not having naked men on their posters. Which I understand the point but comes from a place of companies that have the resources to try these marketing strategies. I don’t have the resources to be testing these things and yes, sex sells.

TE: Moving on to another of your plays, Lost and Found and I have to say, you have a very interesting mind.
DI: (laughing) My family are always asking me to write something nice, but I haven’t been able to oblige them just yet. This was the first proper play I wrote, back in 2013.

TE: It revolves around three, on the whole, pretty unlikeable characters
DI: Yes, one of my friends emailed me the other day to tell me they had read it and were absolutely disgusted with the lot of them.

TE: So, we have these three, Josh, Amy and Marcus, all in their 20s living together in a very small flat. Tell me about them.
DI: I see them as college friends rather than way back childhood friends. They are very naive, impulsive and kind of desperate in the way they do things.  I remember that I was writing it so fast that there was initially no delineation between characters. I knew there would be three characters, but I didn’t necessarily know who or where they were.

TE: Without giving too much away, the characters initially do something for the right reasons but then they turn and make some truly appalling decisions when, one phone call to the police would have made all the difference in their, and the fourth character’s lives.
DI: I see them as a well-meaning disaster. They want to do the right thing and every time they go to; they just miss the mark which sets them off on the most disgusting tangent. It’s a good play and when we did it, we had three performers and a dress to represent the fourth character.

TE: Looking back on it now, how do you view Lost and Found?
DI:  It was always going to be dark from the start. This play almost wrote itself which is why it’s hard to talk about the thought process behind it. I sat and typed, and everything pretty much came out in sequence, chronologically through to the end. I’ve never been able to write like that since.

TE: Mentioning the end, yet again it’s open ended.
DI:  This and Bleach are really open in their ending whilst everything else I’ve written is pretty traditional with a closed ending.  I think with Bleach the open endedness is not putting my own views on it. If I was to write an ending to Lost and Found there are only two possible endings both of which would have such an effect on the characters. One ending completely exonerates them whilst the other makes them totally guilty. It would also affect the way that the characters tell the story amongst themselves. They spend a lot of time trying to justify their actions and persuading each other that their version of events was right and that wouldn’t be needed if there was a definite ending, though there is an attempted redemption in the ending which does help.

TE: I did see that you were looking for someone to produce it.
DI: When we first did it, it was just for one night and I would love to see it produced properly. Taking a one person show to the fringe is hassle enough and I don’t have the resources to be able to dedicate to taking a three person play out myself. I think it’s actually a better piece than Bleach. It’s more interesting and has much to say and it deserves to be taken out and shown to the world.

TE: When I was looking at your list of plays, I saw one which had such an amazing title Jesus Camp: The Musical.  Tell me about that.
DI: It’s the story of two 10-year-old American kids. Bad boy Chad meets devout Jesus-follower Lucy at Sarah Chastity’s Christian Camp for Kids for the summer. It’s about them finding friendship and pretty much destroying each other’s beliefs. She discovers boys and he discovers the violent side of Christianity which gets his juices flowing. I had such great fun playing this. I wrote the book (and played Chad) and Bethan Francis wrote the lyrics
(and played Lucy) and Winston Eade wrote the music. It was a good, fun show.

TE: You’re writing at the moment; can you tell me anything about it?
DI: It’s a play called Touch Me Harder. It’s in the fragile stages of writing at the moment where it could all fall apart, and I abandon it tomorrow. It’s about a guy that can’t remember any of his sexual experiences apart from the first time he had sex with a girl.  So, it’s about his journey tracking down all his previous lovers and recording what they say happened during the forgotten nights and what that means for him and why he can’t remember.
Hopefully it will be interesting. It’s battling with me at the moment. I usually have a sense of a couple of events and then work out how they link together and that’s the sort of stage I’m at now with this one. I’m not a disciplined writer. I have a notes page on my phone which has loads of questions I’ve not had a chance to look back at yet. I find writing extremely hard. I’m not one of these people that can just sit down and do it.  I have to wait for the moment to take me and if I’m in the mood I will write a few pages. I have a desk in my front room but spend about 90% of my time listening to music and podcasts and 10% actually writing. In this case I would like to bring it in some form to the Fringe next year. I would like to take it to the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival so that gives me a mental deadline of December to have this written in a place where I am happy with.

TE: And would you perform the show?
DI: Yes definitely. I love performing solo. I can always drag my husband along to work the lights or sounds if I have to.  It’s hard to do though. You only have your energy guaranteed in the room. You hope you will get some from the audience, but it isn’t always the case. You have to motivate yourself and remember that for most of the audience this will be the only time they see your show so no matter what you have to force the energy for them. I find it hard to maintain the energy in Bleach, particularly when Tyler goes home which is by its nature more downbeat.  But that’s part of the reason I have the music in the production – to bring everything back up. It can be lonely, particularly if you get a bad review when they are, in essence, criticising every aspect of your work – writing, directing, acting. I’m not an outwardly emotional person but I do carry bad reviews heavily with me.  It’s a personal thing and you put a lot of work in and when someone slates it, it hurts. Also, I think, like most actors, I suffer from Imposter Syndrome so a part of you thinks a positive review is just a fluke and one day people will work out I don’t know what I’m doing. The good comments give you the positive emotion to the height they should, but unfortunately the feeling doesn’t last as long.

TE: And acting wise is there anything in the pipeline?
DI: Next year I will be doing Thief by Liam Rudden as part of the UK studio tour. It’s a solo show that is quite intense and I’m really looking forward to doing something where I haven’t written the play and someone else is directing.  Some of the details are to be finalised but that’s the plan.

TE: Final question, if you had to choose would you be an actor, writer or director?
DI: I think I would be a writer. Although I love the stage craft it would be nice to say goodbye to the stress of it, the nerves, all that I think I could lose that from my life if I had to pick.

TE: Dan, thank you so much for meeting me. Good luck with Touch Me Harder and Thief.

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