Play’s the thing for a true talent with tales to tell

Ben Tagoe
Ben Tagoe
Share this article
Have your say

Playwright Ben Tagoe sees the premiere of his first full length play tonight. It’s been quite a journey. Nick Ahad spoke to him.

Like a lot of “overnight” successess, Ben Tagoe has worked long and hard and made many sacrifices to achieve the rewards he is currently enjoying.

The playwright has been through more than his fair share of adversity, has survived a brief spell in prison, the threat of living on the breadline and spent six months surviving on what he could “beg and borrow” before his big break finally came.

“It didn’t really matter what job I was doing, there was always this thing I wanted to do, a thing that I never thought I’d make a living at, but something I couldn’t ignore,” says Tagoe, whose play The Thing About Psychopaths opens in Leeds tonight.

“Writing is like a crack habit – it’s a weird compulsion that gets under your skin that you just can’t walk away from. It’s always there, in your ear and it’s been there through every job I’ve ever done.”

Tagoe, 37, is a Scottish native, Leeds resident who is on the cusp of big things. His career is set to take off in a big way – at least, that’s the bet Leeds company Red Ladder is making and ploughing serious resources into turning his latest work into a piece for the stage.

The Thing About Psychopaths is the latest stop on a fasincating journey that has brought Tagoe to the attention of the television and theatre worlds and now to
a show that will tour nationally, ending with a London run.

Tagoe, the son of a Scottish mother and a Ghanaian father, grew up in Perth. As the only “brown kid” in his school and the area, he says: “I learnt to stand up for myself and eventually that fighting was not a solution.”

Writing was not something he ever really expected to be on the cards until a fateful night in 2002 when, while working in IT recruitment, he travelled to Leeds for a business meeting and found himself stranded due to the weather.

“I only knew one person in Leeds, a lad who I’d known for years and who was studying at the Leeds College of Music,” says Tagoe. “I gave him a call and we went to an open mic night in a Leeds pub. It was brilliant, one of the best nights I’ve ever had, the place was full of writers and actors and poets.” That night was an epiphany. Tagoe returned to his job and quit virtually immediately to sign up to a creative writing degree 
at Bretton Hall, near Wakefield.

The writing bug had already begun to bite and he knew it was something he wanted to explore further, even if it wasn’t necessarily something he was sure he would pursue professionally.

At the end of the course he returned to Edinburgh to work, but also applied to a new writing scheme, Street Voices, run by Bradford-based company Freedom Studios.

“I got an interview for the course on the same day as I moved back from Edinburgh. I turned up to the interview with all my stuff in the back of a transit van.”

Like much of Tagoe’s story, the dedication to taking his chance when it came along, paid dividends. He was accepted on to the Street Voices course as one of a number of fledgling writers. The piece he wrote, So Far to Run, turned heads and led to meetings with various theatre companies – including Red Ladder.

“Leeds is so lucky to have such a maverick company as Red Ladder. I went for a meeting with the artistic director, Rod Dixon, and at the end of it, he commissioned me to write a short play.” That short play, Bittersweet Sunshine, was produced in 2010 and opened more doors. It meant in 2011 he was eligible to apply for the BBC’s respected Writers Academy, which trains writers to script episodes of soaps including Casualty, EastEnders and Holby City.

Getting onto the course, in September 2011, came at a good moment – at the beginning of the year Tagoe had thrown in all his chips and given up his new job, as a copywriter, to pursue the dream of writing scripts full time.

The Thing About Psychopaths is inspired by a moment more than 12 years ago when Tagoe “got into a scrape” and found himself on remand for a week in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

“Talk about a short, sharp, shock. It turned my life around,” says Tagoe. “It was an environment where it really is survival of the fittest, every man for himself.

“In The Thing About Psychopaths, I look at how that environment relates to the way society appears to be functioning at the minute. The parallels are pretty clear, I think we’re in a similar situation.”

While Tagoe’s success might not have come overnight, he’s here for the long haul.

Finding his voice on stage

Ben Tagoe’s first work for stage was So Far to Run, produced in 2009 as part of the Street Voices course run by Freedom Studios.

His first commissioned 60-minute play was Bittersweet Sunshine, produced as part of Emerge, the new work festival run by Dick Bonham at Leeds Carriageworks, in 2010. In September 2011 he joined the BBC Writers Academy, his episodes of EastEnders and Casualty were broadcast last year. The Thing About Psychopaths, Leeds Carriageworks, Mar 7-9, Sheffield Studio, Mar 11, 12, then touring.