Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Zak Zarafshan: The Boys Are Kissing

By | Published on Friday 20 January 2023

I was interested as soon as I heard about ‘The Boys Are Kissing’, on at Theatre503 until 4 Feb.

It’s the first play from Zak Zarafshan, who connected with the venue via its 503Five writers’ programme, and it sounds like a really intriguing debut which takes on some very pertinent themes. 

I had a chat with Zak to find out more about the production – directed by Theatre503’s Artistic Director Lisa Spirling – as well as the inspiration behind the play and his journey as a playwright more generally.

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘The Boys Are Kissing’ is all about? Where does the narrative take us? 
ZZ: The play follows two sets of parents after they discover their nine year old sons have kissed in the playground at school, which has provoked a ripple of uneasiness in their local community.

It’s such a small, inciting incident which snowballs from there and triggers a celestial intervention from a pair of cherubic guardians whose job it is to try and guide the parents as they navigate their predicament. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play? 
ZZ: The central question I’ve tried to ask with the play is how we find compassion for people we disagree with, especially when what they disagree with feels so personal to who we are.

How do you approach these conversations with kindness if you feel like your right to exist and enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else is being questioned? It was important to me to try and explore these themes without demonising anyone in particular, and also allowing concessions for the fact that we are all learning, human and fighting our own demons.

I don’t think I’ve necessarily answered these questions but I hope I’ve conveyed the sense that sometimes we have choices and, if we can, we should try to choose compassion. 

CM: What was the inspiration for the play? What made you want to write about this topic and these themes?
ZZ: The idea for the play came first in 2019 after there had been protests against LGBTQ+ education in schools. I was struck by how the conversation became somewhat of a political volleyball and increasingly seemed to be less and less about the children in question.

As a queer person, I think having LGBTQ+ education in schools is incredibly important, but I also see that if two sides of a debate stop engaging with one another that isn’t particularly helpful either.

It felt like a huge part of the issue was about a breakdown in communication and so I wanted to explore what it feels like we’re up against as a society at the moment when we’re trying to resolve our differences. 

CM: How involved have you been with the production of the play? 
ZZ: As much as I possibly can alongside my day job – and hopefully without being an annoying neurotic writer in the room. It was such a joyous rehearsal process and all the cast and creatives have been so collaborative and brought so much passion to the project.

If I could have, I’d have been there every day, as it was just so wonderful to watch them bringing the play to life. The whole team has been incredibly respectful of my intentions and so willing to surrender themselves to the eccentricity of the play and give it everything.

The whole team has really understood what I was trying to say and worked so hard to serve that message. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about the cast and creative team involved in the production? 
ZZ: The cast are exceptional. They have brought so much to the play beyond just their incredible performances. It was somewhat infuriating to watch them often coming up with better lines of dialogue in the rehearsal room than the ones I’d spent so long working on, but it’s a gift to work with people who have that generosity of spirit.

It’s also been such a privilege to have the play directed by Lisa Spirling. She’s been involved with the play from the very beginning when it was just a seed of an idea and helped me develop it. It has been amazing to share a vision and see it right through to fruition. Our producer Ceri Lothian has then taken my crazy script and done things which I would have thought impossible.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more talented, generous and passionate group of people who have been prepared to go above and beyond to make this production the best it can be. It’s my debut play, so they have set my standards unrealistically high for the rest of my career. 

CM: And now can you tell us a bit about yourself? What made you want to write plays? Was it something you always saw yourself doing? 
ZZ: Like lots of people I wanted to be an actor as a kid, I think mainly because I wanted to give an Oscar speech. I now realise I’m not remotely talented enough to be an actor, but I always knew I wanted to work in the arts doing something creative and have always loved storytelling.

I was drawn to theatre specifically when I started seeing fringe theatre and new writing and saw the scope of stories that can be told through theatre and, in many cases, only in the theatre. I grew up seeing slightly more traditional stories on stage but, when I realised that there are no rules in theatre, I caught the bug.

As a writer I think once you’ve realised what’s possible in a theatre – that often isn’t possible anywhere else – and how audiences surrender themselves in that space, it becomes very difficult to resist it. 

CM: What steps did you take to begin a career in this field? 
ZZ: After university I got my first job doing admin at a theatrical agency, where I was able to read lots of scripts. While I was there I took a playwriting course at Soho Theatre aimed at writers of any level of experience, which really helped me understand the basics of the craft.

I wrote my first full length play as part of that course and learned so much from that process. I was pleasantly surprised by how simply having a full-length sample of work can open so many doors for you even if it’s very raw and imperfect.

I think the most important thing when writing is simply to read and write as much as you can, and then of course to write as much as possible. If you can then try and hear your words out loud and get it in front of people, even better!

It can be difficult balancing everything as an early career playwright, and that doesn’t get much easier, but if it brings you joy and you get to work with the right people, then it can be very worth it.

There are also so many things beyond your control that can help or hinder you on the way, like luck and privilege, so, most importantly, never compare your writing journey to anyone else’s. 

CM: Can you tell us about how you came to be working with Theatre503 for the staging of your debut play? 
ZZ: I was originally commissioned to write the play as part of 503Five, Theatre503’s flagship writers’ programme.

You apply with an idea and a sample of your writing and then they commission five writers to write “the play you’ve always wanted to write”.

It’s so exciting to be given the freedom to just explore a story you’re passionate about and to have an organisation treat you like a proper artist and push you to challenge yourself.

Before I was selected I saw ‘Wolfie’ by Ross Willis at the theatre, a previous alumni of the 503Five, also directed by Lisa Spirling.

I was completely blown away by what they had managed to pull off. It was magical and made me desperate to work with them, and I’m still pinching myself that I’ve been able to!

CM: What have been the highlights of pursuing this career thus far? 
ZZ: Having this play produced and working with so many talented collaborators has been the highlight! I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to work with such wonderful people working so tirelessly to make the play the best it can possibly be.

It’s also been so exciting that the play has been selling well… I think you always have that fear that you’re going to open to an empty room, but it’s so reassuring to know that the play is finding an audience. 

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
ZZ: One of the most important things I’ve learned from this process is that the joy really comes in making and getting the work out there. So much of the writing process is you on your own and finally seeing those words come to life is so rewarding, so my first ambition is to keep trying to get stuff made.

Beyond that I’d love to try writing for TV. I’ll never abandon theatre, as there are some stories that can only be told in a theatre, but I’m enjoying watching the boldness and bravery of theatre crossing over to TV and I’d love to be a part of that. 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
ZZ: Over the course of writing this play I’ve had some ideas for new projects that I’ve not had time to properly sit down and work on, so it will be nice to finally go back to that initial process.

I’ve learned so much as a writer from having my first play staged and I’m eager to bring all that new experience to what I do next. If I’m lucky, hopefully the play will connect with the right people and I’ll get the chance to do it all again at some point! 

‘The Boys Are Kissing’ is on at Theatre503 until 4 Feb. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.  


Photo: Danny Kaan