Sunday, 22 May 2016

'Punching The Sky' - Living and Growing With The Internet - An Interview With Lizi Patch.

I attended ‘Punching The Sky’ at the Soho Theatre based upon a guttural instinct that this performance would offer something different and brutally honest.  I was not disappointed.  The play offers an autobiographical insight into parenthood and indeed, growing up in a sensitive and occasionally stylised manner.

The writer, co-producer and one of the performers in her work, Lizi Patch has very kindly consented to let me interview her.  My focus for this interview will be the play as I have deliberately avoided the previous interviews and any articles that are available.  I have also yet to read Lizi Patch’s blog.  I would like this interview to demonstrate that a work of art in any form can influence others and help to generate conversation.

As a lead in, ‘Punching The Sky’ is a play that explores an event that had significant repercussions for Lizi Patch and her family.  Her son Arthur (who at that point was eleven) was sent a web link via mobile phone from one of his friends or classmates at school and upon accessing it, unwillingly viewed hard-core pornography for the first time.  Several days later, Arthur spoke about the experience to his Mum.

From viewing the play, I was immediately struck by your decision to start the play as though the audience were your children and you were reading them a fairy tale.  The fairy tale about the Princess effectively ends with the rape of the Princess.  I interpreted this as maybe, the violation of innocence (in the same way as Arthur’s innocence had been affected by the hard-core pornography he had viewed).  Was this also an indication as to the content of the hard-core pornography? 

This is an interesting take on the opening. I’d like to keep this deliberately open to interpretation.

When Arthur came to you after accessing the web link, how did you initially help him to understand what he had seen?  I recall seeing the sequence in the play involving him exploring the internet as a means of understanding why women appear in pornography and stumbling on other information.  Do you feel that in some cases, understanding contentious issues and subjects or at least exploring them can help to overcome potentially damaging psychological problems?  How does Arthur feel now concerning the material he viewed?

Understanding, contextualising and exploring contentious issues is of primary importance in making sense of our world. That starts the moment we’re born and – in my experience – continues throughout adulthood. The difficult bit is how we access information and what that information is, you know - who it’s coming from.  The internet is a wonderful tool, but as you see in the show (and as we all know) the content is put there by humans, one question leads to another and we’re all fallible. As a parent you can only do what you think makes sense at the time, and by listening in a non-judgemental way and answering my son’s questions as openly and honestly as I felt was appropriate was all I could do.

When you wrote your blog concerning Arthur’s exposure to hard-core pornography, did you anticipate the variety of responses that it would generate?

No, absolutely not. I initially wrote down what was in my head purely to make some sense of the overwhelming sense of anger and sadness I felt in learning at my son’s horrible loss of innocence and the fact I felt I had failed him by not somehow preventing it. As I say in the play “‘it was only when I looked back at what I’d written I thought ‘people need to read this…. some one’s got to start this conversation’”.

I had no idea that it would be picked up by the Independent, I had no idea I would be called to Westminster to discuss policy change with the shadow cabinet (as if there was any likelihood of them gaining power and changing policy! We still hope!), I had no idea I would be sitting across from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight discussing the issues. I was, perhaps naively, completely unprepared for the wave of response. Thinking back it’s obvious. I put something deeply personal out there; something that people find it incredibly hard to talk about and it touched a massive nerve.

Your play beautifully explores family life and how your two sons have grown up through animated sequences and also through the use of the male and female actor who also perform in your play.   I found their roles in the play fascinating, alternately representing aspects of public opinion and sometimes, your children.  To what extent, have the two actors helped to contribute to the development of your work? Also as a writer and performer, do you find that you work most effectively on your own or collaboratively or does this depend upon the project you are working on?

I have worked with a number of actors over the course of 2 Arts Council funded Research and Development phases (supported by partner venues the Lowry, Live Theatre, the Hub in Leeds and Theatre in the Mill, Bradford) and into the tour rehearsal period. They and my co-Producer (and Director for the Tour and Soho), Mark Hollander, have contributed huge amounts to the development of the piece which would not be the piece it is without them. No one is indifferent to the subject matter of access to hard-core online porn and all had stories of their own to bring to the table. The actors for the tour and Soho run - Emily Dowson (Medea) and Rob Ward (Webster) worked intuitively and brought 2 very tricky characters to life under Mark’s skilful direction. Personifying the Internet is not easy! But Emily and Rob both have exactly the right skillset to get to the heart of the roles. Rob was the original Webster at the first scratch performance when the play was called ‘Slap’ and shown at the West Yorkshire Playhouse ‘Playground’, so had a strong foundation to build on.

Sometimes I have to work alone. I enjoy my own company and solitary walking helps me piece together so many ideas (I recommend it. I don’t suffer from writer’s block – I just walk). At other times I actively seek out excellent collaborators, brilliant artists who know stuff I don’t. Cross-pollination often brings strong, rich work and my collaborators on Punching The Sky were truly spot on. Arcus Animation Studios (Gateshead) worked with great sensitivity and were so responsive throughout the process, creating the ‘cartoon Arthur’, bringing him to life and developing truly integrated and thought-provoking content throughout the piece. Aron Kyne (Composer, Sound Design for the Tour and Soho)  and Alex Turner (additional sound design) were hugely responsive to the material that already existed and – crucially – also suggested content that I could never have thought of as I’m simply not a sound designer so we see different things at different moments. Collaboration lives or dies by how willing you all are to listen to the needs of the piece and serve that rather than your own ego.  If you choose to collaborate you have to guide but not be stiflingly precious about your work.  I am fortunate in that I have met and worked with so many excellent artists over the years and I keep them close by! I also work with them on their projects – it’s a 2-way flow.

I will say that, when necessary, I can happily step away and trust my own strengths/instincts. Having 30 years behind me (and the same in front!) as a performer, director, writer, producer and developer of multi-artform collaborations means I should know my stuff!

The play ends with the letter that you wrote to your son, which ultimately suggests that life is about experience; it’s about making mistakes, learning from them and moving on.  The play as a whole left me with a sense of hope.  Your decision to use the YouTube video that your son had created of his amazing feats as an encore of types also felt like a brave creative decision.  Indeed, after viewing your play, I began to interpret the title of your play, ‘Punching The Sky’ as both a reference to your son’s jubilant arm gesture upon completing such feats as walking a wall and also as maybe, a commentary on anything that is ill defined or difficult to provide any structure to.  I am not a parent but I guess in many respects, parenthood is like this, helping to nurture and steer your children, in ways that will help them to develop yet also avoid things that may be harmful to them.  There are no real guidebooks.  You have to make decisions based on instinct, emotions and I guess risk assessment.   Have your two sons seen this performance in any of the venues you have performed it in and if so, what was their reaction to it?

This is a lovely explanation of what I intended. Thank you.

No, my sons haven’t seen the show, my youngest is too young and it would be just too close to the bone for Arthur to be there. They are both hugely supportive of the piece and Arthur and I have discussed it as it’s developed. 

Finally, since Arthur’s exposure to the web link, have your opinions towards censorship, pornography and the relative ease of access on the internet to potentially unpleasant content changed at all?  What measures do you feel could be put in place to prevent children such as Arthur from accessing such material?

My feelings remain the same. That the internet in all its glory and horror is here to stay and by building a good relationship with your kids – as parents, teachers, close family, mentors etc. we can help each other to navigate the world we live in -  both macro and micro. Censorship is a moving and useless target and freedom is messy.

I believe, without question, that good Sex and Relationship Education that actually tackles issues that our young people are facing today is completely essential and that schools need funding and support to deliver this. Not all families can discuss these issues openly: we need to understand the differences in cultural and religious beliefs, lack of confidence in starting conversations – and, you know, not all kids have a family at all, so school is their best chance of having these conversations, and it goes back to what you asked me at the beginning – it depends where kids get their information from. It’s not easy, but we can’t keep ignoring the world we live in and delivering the sex education from the dark ages of condoms on bananas. Kids want to talk – I know this from experience – so let’s get our thoughts in order and be ready to listen and discuss. Healthy relationships are everything. These young people are consuming and making content that will define the way our world develops, they need to be able to talk to each other about the really important stuff – and what’s more  fundamental than friendships, relationships, sex, love and communication?

(After sending Lizi Patch, my first batch of questions, one more sprang to mind and I include it here as the final question).

Do you think that your show could be usefully adapted and performed in schools?

Yes, absolutely. With some tweaks it could and should go into Year 7 and above. The amount of emails I've had from parents, teachers and teens saying this play should be seen by everyone suggests so too.
I may do a film, I may turn it into a one woman show, not sure. All this depends on funding and time. 

I want to thank Lizi Patch for agreeing to answer my questions and I look forward to seeing her future works.  My abiding reaction to her work was one of positivity and growth.  Something beautiful and original came out of a horrific situation and in these times of public apathy, the world needs more plays that both nurture and challenge.

If I’ve left you with a feeling of positivity and growth then job done. I’m happy.

Thanks for the emotional honesty of both yourself and your family, Lizi Patch.

You’re welcome. We could all do with a bit more emotional honesty, if we’re honest. ;)

Barry Watt - 22nd May 2016

Photos (Thanks to Lizi Patch for providing and allowing me use of the images).

Lizi Patch in performance.

'Punching The Sky' Promotional Image.


Firstly, here's the list of the very talented creative team associated with 'Punching The Sky':


Writer/Co-producer/Performer: Lizi Patch
Co Producer/Director: Mark Hollander
Designer: Scott Thompson
Animation:James Taylor and Nick Lewis at Arcus Studios
Music and Sound Design for the Tour: Aron Kyne, Alex Turner.
Music and Sound Design for R&D: Rich Huxley & James Hamilton.
Company Manager (Rehearsals): Emaleigh Pightling
Company Manager (Tour and Soho Theatre): Tom Blackband
Actors for Spring Tour: Lizi Patch, Milton Lopes, Emily Dowson.
Actors for Soho: Lizi Patch, Rob Ward, Emily Dowson.
R&D actors: Ben Burmann, Daniel McCann, Wesley Thomas, Rob Ward, Rebecca Jenkins and Paul Fox.

Okay, if you are interested in learning more about Lizi Patch and her creative endeavours and ideas, please visit:

On the back of the programme for 'Punching The Sky', a list of useful websites is included.  These websites cover a number of the issues raised by the play including children and the Internet:

'Newsnight', 'The Independent' and other intellectual properties mentioned in this interview are copyright to their respective owners.

Thanks again to Lizi Patch for offering to answer my questions and for her support.


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