TSKC's Bethan Screen interviews Sam Dunstan a theatre producer, director, marketing whiz and the most enthusiastic person you’ll ever probably meet. Sam is from Doncaster in the north of England and lives in London.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I would describe myself as a jack of all trades and a master of absolutely nothing. I am a director and producer, I work part-time as a marketer to put food on the table. I produce a site specific theatre festival called Basic Space, My latest project is Men's Vocal Sessions. I thought, "why don’t we create a space where men can check in and out with each other." If we want to open up to each other, great! If not, it doesn’t matter. I’ve always been a big believer in (laughs) this is going to sound really wanky (British slang for pretentious) but the power of song as healing. It's very cathartic.
With the men's vocal sessions, you wanted a space to explore masculinity and vulnerability, what do you think are the main problems with how we view masculinity today are?
The male suicide statistics speak for themselves, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. Statistically speaking we probably all know someone who is affected by this. This isn’t to downplay women’s suicide.
There is definitely a work stigma too, legally speaking we have moved to a more equal work field for men and women but I do think there is a gender imbalance that prescribes that men are the workers. I think that means that men need to (slaps his hands together for emphasis) go out there and work really really hard. Don’t get me wrong I respect it, but I do think its important to realise how it affects you. I can be really damaging. I was listening to a great podcast from NPR called Invisibilia which did a whole episode about the people who work on an oil rig in America. This is a hyper masculine field and it's incredibly dangerous. The death rates on oil rigs are high. They said one big problem with it was that the communication were terrible. If there was a health and safety issue asking for help from your management was seen as weak, meaning they could get injured or die. [The management] found a business development course about developing vulnerability. They sent the whole team to this one week course. The first couple of days they hated it, being asked questions about their lives and their families. Then on day 3 something changed and one by one the guys were bursting into tears. When they got back to the oil rig they found out that productivity shot up, workplace communication was better. On a more personal note they found the workers reported having better relationships with their partners, wives, and children. They weren’t carrying the stress of the job home and pretending to be fine. They were talking and being vulnerable. Stories like that really hit home to me.
It's international Men's Day on Sunday (the 19th of November) one of the charities I’m interested in is Calm, the men's suicide prevention charity. (He takes out some campaign beer mats). I’ve been putting these in pubs around London, the idea is to try to get people to talk about men’s mental health and suicide. I feel that I’ve always been a big believe that feminism is mens responsibility as well as women’s. I believe that if we encourage men to be more emotional and open it benefits everyone.
In your work or personal life, have you ever met any resistance or ignorance, when you’ve been discussing these themes? Or has their been an event in your life where this happened.
My dad is this happy, lovely northerner. He doesn’t take life too seriously, he cares about his family, cares about his job and is a kind-hearted man. He and many other men growing up were prescribed a very ‘northern man’ gender identity. This contrasted with all the amateur dramatics I was doing when I was growing up. I was mostly mixing with women and I was encouraged to be emotional, creative, and outspoken. There was a culture clash. One specific moment was my parents separating when I was eighteen. If talked to him about it he would be very quick to shut down the conversation. I think this stopped him from seeing that I was grieving their relationship, too. I was grieving for their marriage and a stable home life, I didn’t live with them anymore but it hadn’t been long since I had. Once I started to cry and my dad tried to make me feel better, but that would have meant opening up himself and I could tell he wasn’t ready to do that either. To each their own and we’ve since spoken about it. That is hard because he is my dad and he’s the strong, stable superhero. I know some people don’t have great relationships with their dad. It was a culture clash growing up. Coming to drama school was a chance to open up this side of me
Metamorphosis—what does this mean to you? How do you interpret it?
So I've always loved stories, and when I was growing up I always admired the 'wise master' or the mentor characters—sometimes more than the protagonists! Obi-Wan Kenobi, Zordon, Gandalf—they all had one major quality in common, which was in my mind that they had transcended the pains of life through experience. They were wise, calm, kind, yet nevertheless still passionate and still undoubtably were men. Specifically with these three examples they were all willing to sacrifice their lives to metamorphose into something great (a Force Ghost, a wave of energy destroying all evil in the universe and a White Wizard). I'm a sucker for self-sacrifice and so 'Metamorphosis' to me is this: transcending who you think you should be to become something greater. This also made them much better role models than the generic heroes that were usually hyper-masculine archetypes or unrealistically wholesome with no character flaws. In the context of the vocal sessions, I think that is definitely what we are aiming to do. To build a community or situation in which a group of men, together, can transcend being individuals and become something vulnerable, wise and powerful.
Was a career in theatre and performing arts, in some capacity, something you always wanted to do or something you realised gradually?
I think [it was] a gradual thing. When I was nine or ten my mum decided I needed a hobby so I tried different things, theatre just stuck. Here I met older men who had fantastic voices. They were amazing musicians and singers (mimes playing the piano and pulling silly faces). Meeting men like that and then going back to school and home (pauses) just to be clear I’m not demonising my dad, he is open about some things with me, I just think he’s constricted by what he thinks a man should be.
Just like probably every man of his generation. I thinks it's only something that we are talking about and changing very recently. What would be your dream for the vocal sessions, how would you like to see it grow and develop?
Good question. I’m approaching it with a let’s see what happens mentality. I’ve had other projects which haven’t worked out, they fall through and it hurts. I would love to keep the sessions going, I would love to get men from a non-arts background in. Thing is actors and artists, if you give them a note they can do it; whereas I would be interested in meeting the guys in more masculine fields. It has a commercial benefit, from a business perspective you could sell it to companies.
Is there anything you want to add to what we’ve spoken about? Where can we find out more about you and your work.
Follow me on twitter @samuelcdunstan. You can also email me at email@example.com we can chat about men and vulnerability and marketing. Check out https://www.basicspace.org.uk for more information about the basic space festival in London. Men’s Vocal Sessions (which, by the way, are FREE) will begin a new term with the following dates: Thursday 18th January, Tuesday 30th January, Thursday 15th February, Tuesday 27th February, Thursday 15th March, and Tuesday 27th March.