Swiss playwright stages London success
Sebastian Michael, who grew up in Basel, has received rave reviews in the British capital for his latest play, Elder Latimer is in Love.
The fortysomething polymath – he is also a filmmaker, singer-songwriter and entrepreneur among other things – talks about the importance of optimism, the British sense of humour and Swiss trains...
"I fell in love with London as a teenager. I used to visit every year and mainly go to the theatre," he told swissinfo.ch.
"On one trip I spent six days in London and managed to see ten plays. I also loved the multitude of people, the languages spoken here, the cultures, the diversity of influences, the coming together of the really archaic and modern."
Michael started writing and putting on plays in his hometown of Basel when he was just 17. Four years later he bought a one-way ticket to London to pursue his theatre career in English.
He still believes that young Swiss should leave their country, at least for a while, to realise what the rest of the world is really like.
It was in Hounslow, a predominantly Asian suburb of southwestern London, that Michael was inspired to write Elder Latimer is in Love, the story of a fresh-faced Mormon missionary – Elder Latimer – who falls in love with a radical young Muslim woman, Dina.
Michael was himself one day approached by a young Mormon in Hounslow who asked: "Can I talk to you about the truth?" Michael, always interested in the world around him, replied: "Of course you can talk to me about the truth." This exchange became the play's opening lines.
Michael and the Mormon ended up talking for an hour, triggering the playwright to wonder what would have happened had the two got more involved in each other's cultures and lives – something he went on to explore in the script.
Elder Latimer comes to London to spread the word but begins doubting his religion when he comes into contact with Dina and her family. Fifty short scenes, performed by a strong-multi-cultural cast, discuss faith, truth and love and build to a climax.
Elder Latimer is in Love has been described as compelling, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining by British reviewers following a four-week run that ended on Sunday.
"The text is great and fantastically performed by the actors," said Denis Charriere, the Swiss cultural attaché in London. "They have created an intimate atmosphere with the setting. It is a warm, rich, serious and funny theatre experience."
But writing plays is just one string in Michael's bow. He is also a filmmaker, author, actor, singer-songwriter, lyricist and content consultant for corporate events.
At the moment he is working on a full-length feature film and a book with a professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich about a new networked energy model for the digital age.
Michael also has a good business head. In 2004 he founded the company Optimist Creations as a platform to produce his own and other artists' work. He says he was tired of people telling him how they liked his material but couldn't take it any further for commercial reasons.
The company has liberated and empowered him to be able to launch work that has integrity, without having to compromise.
Michael could easily be described as an optimist. He says he's always looking for positive qualities in things and people and giving them the benefit of the doubt.
"Being an optimist is not only better for you – it also makes the world a better place and you give people the chance to fulfil their potential," he says.
Humour is another important element to his work and attitude to life. Michael underlines that he especially loves the British sense of humour and that the Brits can – and do – laugh at themselves.
Understatement and lack of pretentiousness are other factors that drew him to Britain and make him feel entirely at home.
But does he miss Switzerland at all? Michael says he doesn't because he goes back every so often.
He still marvels at the Swiss transport system, especially when a train coming from France to Basel gets delayed and the Swiss railways manage to organise a substitute with complete staff – and refreshment trolley – to get to Zurich on time. He says this finely tuned transport system with its public service principle is exemplary.
He also misses skiing, for which he comes back every winter. "It's the closest you can get to flying with your feet still on the ground."
Claudia Spahr in London, swissinfo.ch
Sebastian Michael was born in Manchester in the mid-Sixties and moved to Basel with his family when he was six weeks old.
He wrote and produced his first plays and formed production companies while still at school in Münchenstein – where Roger Federer grew up – in canton Basel Country.
He has written several stage plays including The Power of Love, Love Hurts and Time After Time – forming the Love Trilogy. Each reached the final ten of Soho Theatre's Verity Bargate Award.
In the mid-Nineties he set up a music comedy act Kissing the Goldfish which attained cult status with appearances at three Edinburgh festivals, two Glastonburys and other festivals around the world.
Michael has written and directed two short films: Twenty-Six Takes on Life Without Allen was screened at festivals in Chicago, Los Angeles, Lisbon and Padua; The Study of Bunkers and Mounds in a Temperate Climate (Relatively Speaking) was in the official selection for the International Locarno Film Festival.
He is currently working on his first feature film, Soho Night 9x9 and The Power Book, collaboration with Professor Ludger Hovestadt and Vera Bühlmann of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
Sebastian Michael lives and writes in London.
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