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The Distance by Ben Norris at the Roundhouse as part of The Last Word

The DistanceThe annual festival of fearless storytelling returns to the Roundhouse for two weeks and a half week of bold performances from established and emerging spoken word artists. Ben Norris’s The Distance is on Sunday 1st July 2018.

Ben Norris was a middle/long distance runner for 8 years and received his first international call to run for England in Belgium in 2010. He finished 2nd. A few weeks later, he was selected to run for GB in the World Cross Country Championships in Poland alongside a then relatively unknown Mo Farah. He was 18 at the time, and it convinced him, when he finished school, to train full time as an athlete with the support of UK Athletics.

Sadly, his career didn’t progress much further. After training in Ethiopia in preparation for a race in Kenya, he developed a serious knee injury as a result of training too hard on a still-growing body.

Ben reinvented himself as a theatre maker, but this is the first time in six years he’s drawn on his athletic past in his work, not feeling able to admit that it was over.

Ben chats with LondonTheatre1.com about his career and The Distance.

Q: Your teenage years were undoubtedly heavily involved in sport and training – what inspired your transition into theatre?
Ben: Well, partly it was a forced transition. I enjoyed drama and sport equally at school, but they appealed to very different parts of my nature – one being far more subjective than the other, and I think initially I felt safe and secure in the relative objectivity of sport: knowing that I was reasonably good at it and being able to quantify that against other runners, meaning you could work out how likely it was that you might be able to actually have a career in sport. Theatre was something I enjoyed as a fun hobby, an escape from the increasing pressure of sports. And then it was something I had to eventually stop altogether when the sport got more serious. At which point, of course, I got injured! Typical. So it was actually in the depressive wasteland of injury and all the psychological crap that comes with it, as well as the physical pain, that I found my way back to acting, writing and theatre-making. Doing Am Dram stuff in Nottingham and then lots of student plays when I went to uni. At first, it was just because I liked it and I was trying to make my life richer again so that if injury struck once more I would have other things worth getting out of bed for. But then through this, I remembered just how much I loved it, and as my circle of friends and my experiences built up more and more in the arts world, and the sports injuries just kept on coming, I realised it was something I might like to attempt to do professionally. You don’t see it happen, because it happens too slowly, but as you start to shut down bits of your life to focus more on your sport, you begin to lose bits of who you are. So getting back into drama was like opening doors in myself that had been closed for years. It was amazing.

Q: What life-skills have you managed to bring from sport to theatre?
Ben: A lot of what I’ve had to do is unlearn things! In fact, the show itself explores a lot of these tensions. Running is a very solitary sport, whereas the best theatre is made collaboratively, or at least with a tremendous open-mindedness and open spiritedness, and a selflessness. I think sports often have to be a selfish act, to some extent. The sacrifices you have to make, how rigorous you have to be with your schedule. Your world has to revolve around you. In theatre, if the world has to revolve around you, you’re just a bit of an arse! So I’ve been trying to practice genuine vulnerability, and embracing not knowing things and not over-planning for scenarios I cannot control (which, let’s face it, is most of your career when you’re first starting out!).

The one thing that does help is that working in the arts and being a pro sportsperson are both bloody hard work. And things don’t happen overnight. So, it’s given me a decent work ethic and – I hope – a decent amount of patience.

Q: Can you tell us about The Distance?
Ben: Running was such a massive part of my life, eventually at the expense of all other parts, and yet I have never written about it, despite having been a writer now for 6 years. I think perhaps I wasn’t quite ready to admit that the running dream was over. Sometimes you need a certain amount of distance (forgive me) from something in order to start making sense of it. But also I’ve realised now that this kind of narrative rupture – thinking your life is going a certain way but then it absolutely doesn’t – is not unique to sports, and that many people are constantly wrestling with huge traumas, or small but significant shifts in their identity. We live in a society where so much of who we are is tied to what we do. I want to explore how healthy, or not, that is, and how we might start to forge an identity that isn’t verb-based or success-based. So now there are two of us in it (me and Rachel Denning (Doctor Who, BBC, The Vote, Donmar Warehouse)) and we’re exploring what success and happiness looks like in Rachel’s life too.

Q: What do you hope the audience to take from The Distance?
Ben: I’d like audiences to question how their own identity is made up, and how attached it might be to the things that they do, or the things that they like. I’d like to ask the question ‘Are success and happiness mutually exclusive, or is that just something unsuccessful people say?’

Q: What next for you in your journey in the world of theatre?
Ben: Making this show, I hope.

Q: Away from performing arts, what do you like to do to chill out?
Ben: Running, unsurprising, still plays a part in my life. It’s finally something I’m able to do and just enjoy, now. I’m also watching a lot (and I mean A LOT) of the World Cup. I genuinely love football, and also I think there’s something about the structure of the tournament and filling in my little wallchart at home that provides some weird tiny comfort in a world that feels very structureless. Perhaps I’m just a weirdo, but I think it’s that same bit of me that liked Running and liked Maths at school when I was also enjoying English and Drama… I need a wallchart in my life.

I also like playing the piano and guitar and singing a bit. This will hopefully balance out the wallchart weirdness, which the more I think about the more embarrassed I’m getting…

The Roundhouse, London 13 June to 4 July
Additional performances at The Albany and Canada Water

Listings information
13 June to 1 July 2017
Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 8EH

The Albany, Douglas Way Deptford, London SE8 4AG

Canada Water Theatre, 21 Surrey Quays Rd, London SE16 7AR


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