10 Questions: The Department of Distractions

News 13 Mar 2020

The Department of Distractions by Sheffield-based company Third Angel is…oh, hang on, I just got an email notification. Better check that first.

OK, where were we?

We sat down with writer & co-director, Alex Kelly and performer Umar Butt to find out more about the show…sorry, I just remembered I have to...back in a second.

Right, we set Alex and Umar our 10 Questions. They share their love of detective stories and their favourite distractions. It's a lovely read.

Anyway, here are their answers...don't you go getting distracted now.

1. What was the main inspiration for creating The Department of Distractions?

ALEX: It was two things really… We discovered, or noticed, ‘The Department’, in 2013 making a show called The Life & Loves of a Nobody. The Department are a clandestine organisation whose job it is to plant the seeds of stories out in the world, and in the media, apparently with the benign aim of making the world more interesting - stories that might grab your attention for a few moments on the way into work, or might be the subject of much discussion and speculation in the pub and on social media for a crucial day or two.

We realised we had been tracking their work for a while, in the projects we were interested in: urban legends, conspiracy theories, telephone boxes, empty benches, clues left in the street or buried in maps or letters pages or puzzles.

And the second thing, I’ve always wanted to write a detective story.

2. The Department of Distractions merges quite a few different genres – theatre, exposé, conspiracy-theory, detective-story – can you tell us more about how that mix came about and why?

ALEX: Rachael (Walton, Co-Artistic Director of Third Angel) and I both really like crime fiction. As a teenager I was obsessed with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, Sarah Paretski’s VI Warshawski books, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series (and his other books in fact), Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently and particularly the 80s TV series Moonlighting. This project felt like the opportunity to revisit those early obsessions.

The Department themselves are storytellers, and so the show explores the different ways they put stories out into the world, and includes stories within stories...

3. You quite frequently collaborate with Third Angel, who like to mix media and non-artistic expertise in their shows, what would you say is the importance of collaboration to you?

UMAR: The importance of collaboration makes good theatre. It’s all I know. Whether its text, or technology. Without collaboration, there is no theatre. If theatre is culture, then collaboration is life!

4. The Department of Distractions deals with themes that sound very similar to the current rise and concern surrounding fake news. As the piece has been in development with Third Angel (the theatre company) since 2014, how has that changed the show’s development?

ALEX: It has been pretty depressing to see the show become more relevant. However, it is worth noting that The Department themselves are clear - they don’t make stuff up. They draw our attention to true, interesting stories that are already out there in the world. Lying and Fake News are clumsy, dishonest strategies they frown upon.

5. The show asks us what is it that we’re not paying attention to – what is it that you think is one of your own main sources of distraction?

UMAR: I know you asked for one, but I have two and I can’t separate them.

  • The murmuration of Starlings. (Like this!). I can watch it until the end of the world.
  • And Cricket! The most compellingly beautiful sport and the best thing since sliced bread. In my opinion.

6. What do you hope audiences leave thinking, having seen the show?

UMAR: Pay more attention to the tiny details, Ask more questions. look more closely. Slow down a little.

7. You’ve performed at the Traverse Theatre before, welcome back! How does it feel to be returning?

UMAR: It always feels like I’m coming back home. I get to see my family and friends and in retrospect, they get to see what I’m up to. I’m so excited The Department of Distractions is at Traverse. A play with performers I absolutely adore, in a place that I love performing in.

8. How would you sum up The Department of Distractions in three words?

UMAR: Makes You Think

9. If you could be any famous detective, fictional or non-fictional, who would you be and why?

UMAR: IMRAN ALI, a detective in spy novels by Ibn e Safi. I always wanted to be him when I was young-er. I remember, I loved reading the Urdu novels growing up in Gujranwala, Pakistan.

10. What’s the best piece of advice you think you’ve been given, as a theatre-maker?

Not as a theatre-maker, but…

‘What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom? The person who knows knowledge, will talk. The person who knows wisdom, will listen.’

Ghandi once said that.