Exploring Asexuality: An Interview with That’s Ace Writer and Director Jonny Brace

When the VAULT Festival’s programme was released, I spent a few hours going through each show, taking note of the ones that I would be interested in seeing. Once I got to the performances in March, one particular show caught my eye – That’s Ace. Written and directed by Jonny Brace, the solo show gives the audience the chance to see from the perspective of Ace, a character “discovering their asexuality” with her first clubbing experience. As an asexual theatre fan, I was thrilled to see some representation on the stage! I wanted to learn more about the show and how it was created.

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Jonny Brace about That’s Ace. We discussed his experience in the theatre industry, asexuality represented in the media, and what it means for the show to be playing at the iconic VAULT Festival.

Kat: So how did you first get involved in writing and directing?

Jonny: I first got involved in writing through university. I had been involved with the drama society there, went to Kent, they had a thing over the summer called the Canterbury Shakespeare Festival. And I’d just moved into a new house for that two-month period of doing the Shakespeare Festival and didn’t have any WiFi in my house and was very bored. I’d been doing theatre for a year at uni and thought, “That might be a funny idea for a play!” And I had nothing else to do, because I had no WiFi in the house, so I wrote it and had a good time writing it. And then once I got WiFi back in my life, I carried on writing. And then I just carried on writing ever since, the latest thing being That’s Ace

Kat: What inspired you to write That’s Ace?

Jonny: I think it was a couple of things. I wrote and directed a web series called Seven Minutes in Heaven and the actress, Tiffany Marina Pearmund, who’s in That’s Ace, was in that web series, playing a broadly similar character. The character was in one big episode and then another one, but we ended up having a lot of fascinating discussions about the character’s sexuality, their parents, where they grew up, their religion . . .  And so I’d had that bubbling around in the back of my head. So then when James [Creighton-Goode], our producer, came to me – Hewas looking to produce a show, he was like, “Do you have anything?” I was like, “No, but I could!” [Luaghs] So it all coalesced at the perfect moment with these ideas that had been kicking around in my head. And that’s how it was born.

Kat: What is it about asexuality that you think makes it less represented in media, especially theatre? 

Jonny: Obviously, we’ve come a long way with gay representation and queer representation in general, but I suppose it is a lesser-known sexuality. But also, I think some people just, rather than a separate sexuality, define it by the absence of sexual attraction. It does very much change the way you view the world, which is partly what the piece is about. I think it’s possibly just it not being known about very much. Obviously, if someone doesn’t know about it, they can’t then write about it. And the chances to meet producers, or meet people with money, or have opportunities to put those works on stage are getting more accessible. And hopefully, it will continue to improve. We’ve already mentioned BoJack Horseman, I’m sure there are good other examples that I can’t currently think of! But I’ve read more books, more things seem to be published. There’s a professor called Emily Garside who’s done a lot of research into it and writes a lot about it from a more academic and creative standpoint. She’s great. So yeah, I think it’s becoming more represented and more widely seen, but it’s a journey that we’re on.

Kat: In the press release, you mentioned that you’re asexual. Did you do more research on asexuality, or is the show just based on your own experience?

Jonny: I think a lot of it is based on my own experience, specifically, the moment that I realized I was different. This was part of the discussion I had with Tiffany, our actress, where we’d had this conversation about a lot of queer people growing up feeling the difference, whereas I grew up not really feeling the difference until I realized there was a difference. I was 17 and it was quite shocking. So it’s very much based in that feeling. But then I did some other research into asexuality generally, but also portrayals of asexuality in the media.

Kat: Not that there are many!

Jonny: Yeah, the few that are out there! Basically, I watched BoJack Horseman. But that’s no chore – I love BoJack Horseman. So it’s mainly been my own personal experience with it and those kinds of things. I wrote the role with Tiffany in mind and we asked her to be a part of it after I finished the first draft, so basically, every draft since we’d meet up in a Costa or something. She’s had a lot of input on the script. I know a lot about my feelings about asexuality and asexuality in general, but as it’s a female main character, I wanted to make sure that there was a female voice included in the process of creating it. And luckily, she didn’t have many notes! She wasn’t like, “You’re horrible and this is terrible. Go away!”

Kat: [Laughs] 

Jonny: But yeah, she’s been a real part of crafting it. So hopefully, we’ve got all the bases covered to build a complex and realistic character.

Kat: So how did those collaborations work?

Jonny: It was mainly that I’d show her draft and she’d give notes, which makes it sound a lot more formal than it was! I’d send her over the draft, get some basic thoughts, and then we’d normally meet up in a Costa, get the script up on the laptop, and go through it section by section. It got quicker as we went on, but it was a lot of me being like, “What do you think about this bit?” And then she’d be like, “I’m not sure about that bit.” My favorite note was when I was like, “I’m not sure about this bit.” And she was like, “Are you just padding for time? Or is there anything happening here?” And I was like, “No, I’m just padding for time. You’re exactly correct.” 

Kat: [Laughs]

Jonny: But it was nice because we’ve worked together before. As well as it being a very close personal story to my heart, I wanted to work with Tiff again, which was a big reason about why I decided to also direct it. I thought we worked together well and I trusted our working relationship to build something good. So it felt like a good, professional relationship to build something good and to have those conversations that needed to happen.

Kat: So you’re both writing and directing That’s Ace – What is that like? 

Jonny: It’s tricky at times, it’s interesting at times . . . At uni, I’ve directed a couple of other shows that I’ve written. You have to not pretend to be a different person, but like, put on a different hat and be different in the room. A lot of directors I’ve worked with, they’ll get to a bit of text and they’ll be like, “How do you want to approach it?” And then they might go back to the writer and be like, “What were you thinking?” I try as much as I can in the room to start with, from the actor just reading it, “What are you bringing to this? What are your thoughts on this?” And go from there. And then rather than just being like, “Do an impression of me,” it’s “Here’s why I wrote what I wrote, here’s what the actor brought to it. Let’s now both look at how those two meet in the room and how we can best present that to an audience.” So it’s trying to have a bit of separation from the writer aspect of it. Obviously, it helps that I can rewrite things in the room and tweak things without having to wait for permission, but yeah, trying to keep it a little bit separate. And remember that at the end of the day, the audience isn’t sitting down to read the script – They’re sitting in the audience to watch the performance. So by that point, it doesn’t matter too much about tweaking the script or changing the script. It’s about what works best for Tiffany to do and for the words coming out of Tiffany’s mouth. So not being precious as well.

Kat: Why did you choose to make That’s Ace a solo show?

Jonny: Originally, James came to me and asked if I had a solo show – that was part of his brief – to which I didn’t. And then I was like, “I’ll make one though, don’t give it to anyone else – Give it to me!”

Kat: [Laughs]

Jonny: But also within the script, there’s bits where the character talks to other characters, and we only ever hear half of the conversation. I quite enjoyed playing with that, because I felt like as soon as we could have put another actor on stage, it would then become a scene about those two characters together. Whereas you get a nice balance here where Ace is clearly talking to someone, but the focus is still completely on her and her side of the conversation. It is very much Ace’s story about Ace’s journey. It was a nice way of making the world feel rich around her but still keeping the focus just on Ace as a character, which I think has been interesting to play with.

Kat: So what is it about the VAULT Festival that makes you excited to work with them?

Jonny:  It’s very exciting to work with VAULT Festival because I’ve never actually been before! Obviously, it got cancelled during 2021. It then got cancelled in 2022 because of the world situation, so it’s the first year it’s back. I’ve always wanted to go and be a part of it, but I was at uni or it wasn’t on. It feels, more than anything, like being part of a community. It’s Week One, it’s just opened – I went to see a couple of shows that were brilliant on Saturday, but just walking in, I bumped into four people that I knew from random scratch nights that I’ve done. Or just it being abuzz with the creativity in the air. To be part of a festival that has like 400 shows is daunting because you want to be seen and heard. But also, it’s amazing that in these eight weeks, there is so much breadth of theater, and creativity, and art, and stories to tell that it’s an honor to be a small part of that and to be able to bring this little asexual love story to that conglomeration of 400 shows. 

Kat: And finally, how would you describe That’s Ace in one word?

Jonny: Wholesome. 

Thank you to Jonny Brace for the great interview!

That’s Ace is running at the VAULT Festival from 14 to 17 March in the Pit at The Vaults. Performances are at 6:30 PM and last approximately 50 minutes. A relaxed performance (reduced lighting and sound) will take place on 15 March. Tickets can be purchased here. Jonny Brace can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

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