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Interview with Playwright Phil Porter: “I often think about the song ‘A Woman’s Touch’ from ‘Calamity Jane’.”

Phil Porter

Phil Porter is a playwright, who has brilliantly just co-adapted ‘The Miser’ with Sean Foley, a West End production due to open at the The Garrick Theatre. Hurrah.

Phil won the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize for Cracks in my Skin and the Arts Council’s Children Award for Smashed Eggs (Pentabus Theatre). His recent plays include The Man With The Hammer (Plymouth) The Christmas Truce (RSC) Blink and A Mad World Masters (RSC) The Tempest (adaptation co-written with Peter Glanville for the RSC).

I thought it would be good to chat to him ahead last week. Here is what we discussed.

Phil Porter

Phil Porter

Hi Phil, where are we and what can you see?

Right now I’m in rather delightful surroundings. A rather posher hotel I would normally find myself in. I can see you mostly and a hanging light thing over the bar with lots of fake but nonetheless beautiful candles. It reminds me of an event I went to in a park in Brighton with lots of fire-based installations and rusty metal. Lots of Pagan things go on in Brighton in the Winter.

How is ‘Dry January’ going?

I’m not big on abstinence. I’m a vegetarian – maybe that one small sacrifice is what makes me feel entitled to drink as much wine as I fancy. If I was ever going to attempt a month dry it wouldn’t be January!

You’ve had quite a busy week, haven’t you?

Well, the first two days of this week I was in rehearsals for The Miser’. This is a script I’ve co-adapted with Sean Foley and which he is now directing, with quite an impressive starry West End cast – Griff Rhys Jones, Mathew Horne, Katy Wix and Lee Mack, who is making his West End debut. We open in Bath on February 8th for a couple of weeks of previews, then a week in Richmond, then into The Garrick following ‘This House’ from March 1st.

From what I’ve heard adapting is a bit of a ball ache. With this in mind is co-adapting a bit of a double ball ache?

I don’t even know if it is an adaptation really. Adapting suggests taking it from one medium to another. Molière wrote it as a play and we continue in that fashion. The first thing I did with Sean was work on ‘A Mad World My Masters’ for the RSC a few years ago. That was kind of easier because Middleton wrote it in English, and as a result there was only so much we could change without stomping on someone’s very clever original play. So we just edited the play to make room for some songs and put in a few new jokes. But when a play is written in a different language the process is inevitably a bit more interpretive. But it wasn’t a ball ache – it was great fun. Maybe normally there would be a difficult status thing where you are fighting with your co-adaptor over every line. But Sean is the director so if we were to disagree on something – and generally we don’t – I’d probably let it go because he is the one who has to bring the thing to life. If he has a strong sense of how he’ll make a particular line work I’m happy to follow his judgement on that. I think it works well. I’m there just thinking as a writer while Sean is sort of writing and directing at the same time.

Tell me about Sausages

Eh? Oh, I know what you mean by that. Something I said in an interview I did with the Soho years ago. I wrote my first play on a train to Plymouth when I was about seven. It was about some sausages trying to escape from a freezer – written in the 1980s when all sausages were frozen. Maybe it could come back as an experimental opera; a play for voices. Looking back I didn’t really understand what screenwriting guru Robert McKee would describe as ‘progressive complication’. The sausages simply found a hole in the corner of the freezer and escaped halfway down the first page.

You can’t turn on the TV these days without seeing an advert for sausages. Anyway, what writers do you rate?

In terms of the playwriting giants my greatest hero is Federico García Lorca . He had an amazing poetic sensibility that I really love. I rate many of my contemporaries – Dennis Kelly and Mike Bartlett spring to mind. The way they can write so well, and also so much, is amazing and makes me jealous. Lucy Kirkwood is a fantastic writer. James Graham is another who is very brilliant and extraordinary prolific. And of course my pal Amy Rosenthal, a great writer who posseses a real understanding of comedy – a rare and much undervalued talent.

What are your thoughts on Hull as UK City of Culture 2017?

The choices often seem to be quite provocative. I remember when Glasgow was announced as a European City of Culture years ago, and people reacted in uproar: Glasgow?! As if it had been decided once and for all by a committee that Glasgow was Europe’s Most Cultured City. If that were the case then Hull as the UK City of Culture would be a perverse choice, but that’s not what it’s about. Overall, it’s a positive thing.

Contemporary arts centre Mac Birmingham has been hit by a 70% cut to its council funding, as part of major reductions inflicted on the city’s arts by its local authority. These are challenging times for new work, what are your thoughts on where the next Phil Porter will come from?

My very first play was on at the Mac. The landscape is obviously changing. It’s a big problem that places like Mac, where writers might find support as they’re starting out, are losing the funding they need to offer that support. Most writers, even if they’re really good, won’t get picked up by the big new writing venues, at least at first. It also damages the touring infrastructure, further limiting opportunities. And besides arts funding there are some even broader problems, in the way our society is changing, that make it very difficult for a writer from a remotely normal background to develop a career. I left university with no significant debts, moved to London, paid £250 a month in rent, and picked up a couple of commissions from new writing theatres who could afford to take a chance on an unproven writer. None of that would happen now. But on the more positive side, at least if you write a good play there are people genuinely committed to unearthing new talent.

Talk to me about your work with the RSC.

I’ve been working with the RSC for nearly 10 years now. I owe a lot to Pippa Hill, their Literary Manager, who commissioned me to write a five minute play for an event in 2008 and has been offering me bigger and bigger challenges ever since. This has culminated in ‘The Christmas Truce’ in 2014 and now ‘Vice Versa’ which is on in The Swan over the coming summer. It’s great to work somewhere with those kinds of resources. Having the support of a company like the RSC gives me a great push.

How do you feel about deadlines?

There are two kinds of projects. There are ones that are already in the brochure. Then my brain understands that it is no way a soft deadline; people are going to do this play and it needs to be ready for rehearsal and ready for an audience. Those deadlines I take very seriously. If it’s a more open commission I will always try to make the deadline or as near damn it. But I know from experience that what a theatre really wants is a play they can do rather than one that has arrived on time. I had a play on in Plymouth last year and I was quite late on the first draft deadline. For a little while I felt a bit like I was hiding which is the worst thing. If you owe someone a play you just have to keep the channels of communication open. As long as they know you’re working on it they’re generally fine. But it’s definitely a good thing career-wise to be known as someone who delivers on time.

What is your favourite theatre in London?

I still get very excited about going to The National. I think it goes back to that period when you start discovering theatre and you find this palace on the river with three plays going on a night and at least one of them is something that will completely blow your mind. I still get really excited about going to see a West End show. It’s funny doing the West End thing because as playwrights we are simultaneously taught to be slightly snooty about the West End but on the other hand if you get a West End transfer then you’ve made it.

Are West End ticket prices too high?

Undoubtedly. Some shows and some producers definitely take the piss more than others –  I’m pleased to say The Miser is relatively inclusive. I don’t understand the economics of it well enough to know why the inflation is so rapid. But yeah, it’s a crazy system.

CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR TICKETS FOR THE MISER

What’s your favourite musical?

I like musicals more than you might imagine. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for ‘Cabaret’. Every Christmas me and my girlfriend watch ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ and it gets me every time. And I often think about the song ‘A Woman’s Touch’ from ‘Calamity Jane’. Whenever I’m writing something and trying to think about how to transition quickly from one state to another I imagine Doris Day and her pal cleaning up that house. It’s the ultimate montage sequence – a very important artistic reference point for me.

Amazing. What have you got coming up in 2017?

We have the RSC show, ‘Vice Versa’, which is a Roman style comedy. I never wrote it as such but it’s starting to look like a Trump satire. Um, I’m writing a sort of futuristic musical for The Soho with a composer called Marc Teitler who wrote ‘The Grinning Man’. On a day-to-day basis I’m currently writing an adaptation of ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ for Joe Murphy to direct. Joe directed my play ‘Blink’ (Soho Theatre) and is directing ‘Woyzeck’ at The Old Vic this year. Then I have another commission for Plymouth and I’m trying to adapt my old play ‘The Cracks In My Skin’ into a film. But right now it’s mostly about ‘The Miser’ and ‘Vice Versa’

 

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Your chance to win a Gypsy DVD -Competition closed, Winner announcement soon

http://www.rasaint.net/ - Glitter Graphics

THE COMPETITION IS CLOSED. WINNER ANNOUNCEMENT SOON

Well, it’s that time of the year when I would like to run a GYPSY competition and, as luck would have it, Universal Pictures have chucked a DVD my way in order to draw attention to the fact that GYPSY is available to buy on DVD and digital download from November 28.

In order to stand a chance of winning all you have to do is submit your email address in the sign up bar below. The promo is being run for UK residents only.

Gypsy DVD Cover Image

Gypsy DVD Cover Image

Awarded with an Olivier Award® for her role as Momma Rose, Imelda Staunton (Maleficent, The Harry Potter Series) gives “the performance of her career” in Jonathan Kent’s dazzling revival. Lara Pulver (Edge of Tomorrow, Spooks), reprises her “stunning” role as Louise and they are joined by Peter Davison (Law and Order: UK) as Herb, in this gloriously entertaining musical fable that features show stopping choreography from Stephen Mear.
Gypsy is based on memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous striptease artist back in 1957, and focuses on her mother, Rose, whose name has become synonymous with “the ultimate show business mother”. It follows the dreams and efforts of Rose to raise two daughters to perform onstage and casts an affectionate eye on the hardships of show business life.
Featuring the classic songs “Let Me Entertain You,” “Rose’s Turn” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Jule Styne, this moving and scintillating production of Gypsy was the first to be seen in London for 40 years.

And that is that.

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Mark Anderson talks about his role in The Toxic Avenger “It’s been great for me to step out of my comfort zone.”

 

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson is an  immensely talented actor and musician based out of London. His theatre credits include  The Book of Mormon – Original West End Cast (Prince of Wales Theatre), Once Upon A Mattress (Union Theatre), Legally Blonde (National tour), Love me tender (The Churchill Theatre Bromley) and more. Currently he is starring as Toxie in The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse.

During the course of what follows you will hear Mark talking about various things. Enjoy!

Hello Mark! How the devil are you?
I’m really good ta.

You’re currently starring in Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse. What’s that all about?
It’s a musical based a cult, 80s, B movie, horror film. It’s essentially your typical comic book superhero story; Nerdy guy Melvin Ferd, The Third is an aspiring earth scientist who gets dropped in a vat of toxic waste by some local thugs and evolves into The Toxic Avenger. The villain is the corrupt town Mayor who is importing toxic waste into Tromaville for large sums of cash. It’s written by Joe DiPietro who wrote I L ove You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and Love Me Tender, which toured the UK last year, and David Bryan who is most famous for being in Bon Jovi. They also wrote Memphis together which was hugely successful in it’s West End run. Toxic Avenger is much smaller though, there are only five of us in the cast and three of those play multiple roles. The love interest is a blind librarian called Sarah and the Mayor also doubles as Melvin’s mother which culminates in her having a scene with herself. The other two guys literally play everyone else and quick change like there’s no tomorrow. I think what makes the piece is that it’s very aware of what it is. It self references and all of the fun and drama comes from whether or not people will make their changes and who they will come out as next. The material is SO strong and it’s just really good fun.

Mark Anderson as Toxie

Mark Anderson as Toxie

Pretty standard musical fare. You know the trendy people. Let’s call them tastemakers, the media etc. They don’t like to feel that something is too likely to be a hit; they play it cool. How anxious were you about taking on the lead role in the European Premier?
To be honest, I never considered that the response would be so fantastic. You hope but when you’re dealing with something new, you have no idea what the reaction will be like. When I got sent the script I just knew it was right up my street. Like I said, the songs are ace and when I read the script I was lol’ing every other line and I knew I wanted to do it. All you can ever hope to do is do the piece justice and to the best of your ability. I think that’s why we have something so special – there was never any pressure from anywhere but we all threw ourselves in so hard and all wanted to do well, for each other. It’s incredible to be acting with people and working for a creative team who inspire you so much, who you want to impress and work hard for and keep finding new things with every day. That’s why it works.
I never think of myself as the lead. There are only five actors in the entire thing and we all have as much to do as each other, yes, the story is about Toxie, but we’re all essential to creating the world we’re all living in, its more of an ensemble piece.
I was majorly anxious though. Ha! It was big deal for me to take on such a large role, I usually do the sidekick/geeky part and in my audition I told the director, Benji, that I was nervous about playing Toxie. Playing the nerd in the start comes more natural to me and I was worried about playing the character after he had transformed. Toxie is a 7 foot, big, green freak and has some serious songs to sing. This probably isn’t normal for a musical theatre performer but I don’t really like singing, it terrifies me. But, like anything, when you’re in context and wearing a load of prosthetics, covered in green makeup and are in character, telling a story the inhibitions seem to go away. It’s been great for me to step out of my comfort zone. When you’re used to playing certain roles you start to pigeon hole yourself and can doubt your abilities. But then that’s just part of being an actor I guess.

Toxic Avenger Team

Toxic Avenger Team with composer David Bryan

You’ve performed in some pretty big shows.(The Book of Mormon, Legally Blonde etc) Do you feel any pressure to look a certain way?
Ummm…yes, kind of. I gym a bit and always watch what I eat. This is a tricky one because it’s different for everyone. I’ve done some shows with some very physically fit people and when you’re sharing a dressing room with a group of boys who are all very in-shape, there is a certain pressure to keep up. Now, I’m quite happy knowing that I’m the best I can be and want to be. For me, the jobs I’m up for don’t require me to have a 48 inch chest but I think when you do what we do, your body is your toolkit or your office computer. You need to look after yourself because what we’re asked to do sometimes as actors is nuts and even a little cold can take you out for weeks.

What’s your favourite musical note and why?
Ha! My favourite musical note? Any one that comes out of Cynthia Erivo’s mouth probably.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever put in your mouth?
An anchovy. Dis-gus-ting! Why people eat those things is beyond me. I’m heaving.

Yuck! Who or what was your biggest influence as a performer?
Good question. I’ve never been so in awe of someone than Gavin Creel. I loved him before I met him and when we worked together I was so pleased he was nice. Ha! When we did Mormon, he was such genius onstage but that wasn’t even half of it. He was the beating heart of the building we all worked in. He included everyone and was a leading man in every sense of the word in every aspect of the job. We became great friends, he is so generous and kind and makes you feel so special. He did an ‘In Conversation With’ type thing one Sunday at the Charing Cross theatre with Ed Seckerson and he asked me to sing one of his original songs with him doing backing vocals and playing piano. I was so scared. He coached me and gave me confidence and some amazing advice I still practise now. He’s kind of incredible.

What’s your favourite dinosaur?
Is this because you know I’m obsessed with dinosaurs? They’re all so awesome. My twitter says that I’m a Triceratops so I’ll go with that. Though I always wanted to be able to fly when I was little so maybe a Pterodactyl. No, a Triceratops, final answer.

How good out of 10 was GYPSY?
10. I loved it. I love everything. I even saw the Light Princess five times (mainly because I love Tori Amos, but still).

Christ alive. Do you have anything exciting planned for the second half of 2016?
Not yet. Back to the drawing board. Wanna give me job?

If you were to take me out in West London for the evening where would we go? (Not as a date. It was never described as a date)
West London is very specific, ha! We’d go to the Southbank, it’s my absolute favourite place in London, especially when it’s sunny. From the London Eye right down to Tower Bridge. Then, we’d obviously go to the theatre.

Thanks Mark!
Thank YOU!

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Mark Ravenhill, Playwright: “There is really only one rule to learn before writing a play”.

Mark Ravenhill
Mark Ravenhill

Mark Ravenhill

Mark Ravenhill is a playwright. 20 years later ‘Shopping and Fucking‘ still looks like it’s from the future and Mark continues to look ahead. I thought it would be nice to catch up with Mark to see exactly what’s happening. And I was right – it was very nice indeed.
Despite not really doing interviews he agreed to a chat. Here’s what happened.

Hi Mark Ravenhill. If you were to draw a graph of the last ten years, how would it look?
Some leaps of imagination needed here.  First, that I could draw a graph. Which I can’t.  I’ve never been able to stick to the squares on graph paper. And second, that I have the kind of mind that imagines shapes that fit on graph paper.  Which I don’t have either.  So my graph of the last ten years would me trying to think in a way which I can’t, using a medium that I’m not suited to.  In other words, my graph of the last ten years would be one of messy failure. That is not a metaphor. Or a cry for help.

A view from Islington north

A view from Islington north

 

What can you tell us about A View From Islington North the ‘evening of political satire’ you are contributing to with Out of Joint? ‘A View From Islington North’ is a celebration of Max Stafford-Clark’s relationships with playwrights.  All the playwrights who’ve written the pieces have had work directed by Max over decades. He first directed work by Caryl Churchill and David Hare in the 1970s.  I’m one of the johnny-come-latelies, having only first worked with him twenty years ago.  Max is a brilliant, infuriating, insightful and relentless director

What’s your favourite emoji?
The winky one

Shopping and Fucking

Shopping and Fucking

Shopping and Fucking is often described as a period piece isn’t it.
I don’t know how other people describe it (if it all) but yes I would describe it as period piece. I wanted to write what it felt like to be in your twenties in that moment in time.  It doesn’t have any references to contemporary events outside the play but it’s whole mood and style belongs to the late 1990s. It’s a play that is sorted for Es and whizz.

With writers it feels like there’s a constant expectation, and that they need to keep proving themselves, throughout their career. Which perhaps isn’t quite the same for a director where you can just keep going until you fall over. Is that a fair analysis?
Do you think so?  I think directors suffer from constant expectation and many fall out of favour and fashion.  But it’s true that there is a high burn out with playwrights.  Some have one brilliant debut at somewhere like the Royal Court upstairs and then never write again. Plenty write three or four plays and then find they have no more plays to write.  Very few write plays over a lifetime. I’m fifty this year. To ensure that I too ‘can just keep going until you fall over’ I’ve mapped out a cycle of forty full length plays.  I’m committed to writing one a year, finishing each one on my birthday June 7th.  So that will take me until I’m 90, when I will fall over and die as I will have advanced osteoporosis.
If you were to write a playwriting rulebook, what would Rule One be?
There is really only one rule to learn before writing a play.  Never under any circumstances use the line ‘the door was open so I let myself in’. Everything else is allowed.
Let’s imagine we’re putting theatre as an art form in a capsule to sending it into space, which one play do you put forward?
One play to represent the whole of world theatre?  Wouldn’t it need to be a DVD of a performance? (the question is in danger of conflating a ‘play’ with ‘theatre’).  But let’s say it’s a play text.  I think it would have to be one of the Greeks. That’s drama in its purest and arguably most powerful form.  I would pick Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’, although it could just as well be Euripides ‘Medea’ or Aeschylus “Oresteia’.  How about I write a new English version and we ping that into space alongside the Ancient Greek text?
Do you endlessly analyse your creative decisions or are you impulsive?
I write first drafts almost entirely on impulse and then use analysis (often aided by the director and sometimes the actors) to work through further drafts.

Do you pay attention to critics?
I’ll listen to anyone who can help me understand what I’m doing and how I might get better at it.
To the people who are still reading, do you have a final message?
The door is still open. Let yourself out. Thank you.

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John Schwab and Matt Humphrey, “It’s not often that you take time to think about the process of the production.”

 

Royal Court Theatre, Curtain Call, photo by Matt Humphrey

Linda, Royal Court Theatre. © Matt Humphrey – Curtain Call (2016).

Curtain Call: A Year Backstage in London Theatre is the first in a series of photography books by photographer Matt Humphrey and actor/director John Schwab featuring an extraordinary collection of fly-on-the-wall backstage photography from London theatre productions in 2015/16. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards, in addition to exclusive backstage photography, Curtain Call also includes a foreword by renowned actor David Suchet and extended interviews with Chief Executive of The Old Vic Sally Greene, Artistic Director of the Royal Court Vicky Featherstone, casting director Jessica Ronane and actress Kate Fleetwood. The book is now exclusively available to buy from www.curtaincallonline.com

Tell us more about writing ‘Curtain Call’. Where did it come from?
John: Curtain Call was something I had a spark of an idea for when I was showing my sons some old programmes that I had from productions earlier in my career.  They asked if I had any real pictures from productions that I could show them, which I didn’t.  I realised that I also didn’t have any historical document other than the production photographs in those programmes as a testament to my career.  I thought this is something that needed to be addressed.  Theatre is such a visual medium, and there was nothing out there that could be seen once a production had closed.  I also wanted to make a website to service the same need and fill the same gap.  I approached photographer Matt Humphrey with the idea, and thankfully he was 100% up for doing it. It was serendipity that Matt had just finished documenting a year at The Hackney Empire. We started Curtain Call together and we haven’t looked back since.

Is this book for anybody or specifically a theatre audience?
John: I believe that this book is not only for a theatre audience, but also photography enthusiasts as well as anyone who is interested in what it takes to put any project together, be it a play, opera, film, radio show poetry event…you name it.  It envelops all corners of the art world. I think that anyone who enjoys aesthetically pleasing art would admire and get so much out of this book.

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre, photo by Matt Humphrey

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre. © Matt Humphrey – Curtain Call (2016). (2)

How much do you think the general public care about backstage workers?
John: This is why I thought Curtain Call would be such a good idea.  It’s not often that you take time to think about the process of the production.  When we had our visit to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, the company manager (Wyn Williams) told us that it takes over 150 people to make that show happen every day. 150!  Now an audience member is only going to see 25 or so people on stage and taking their bow.  I wanted to shed light on what it was like backstage – showing that there is more than just the performers on stage that is making the show tick.  I think that with Matt’s photography people are going to have a much better idea of the hard work, passion and dedication which runs through a company to make it the best production possible.  There is a fascination with what goes on backstage in any arena, and we wanted to shed light on the hard work carried out by all the professionals involved in a production

What is your favourite backstage area in the West End? 
John: There are quite a few.  The “hang out” area in ‘Billy Elliot’ was fun.  I do like a Green Room and there are some spectacular ones in the West End – and not for the glamour, but for the space.  The Vaudeville Theatre has a huge Green Room where everyone involved in the production hang out.  It’s such good fun being in there.  The Dressing Rooms 1 & 2 at Theatre Royal Haymarket are absolutely stunning, and something to behold.  But my favourite place of any backstage area is in the wings.  Some theatres have massive wings like Theatre Royal Drury Lane and some non-existent like The Criterion. They are all so unique, which makes them extremely exciting.

Curtain Call contains exclusive photographs, interviews and stories not available anywhere else. What sort of things can a casual reader expect to find?
John: The casual reader would expect to find exactly that.  Exclusive access to the best of London theatre and get an insight into what it takes to make a show run.  The reader will be allowed backstage, the holiest of holies of the theatre, a privilege that most theatre fans rarely get a glimpse of.  The casual reader will also recognise many of the faces and names in the book and will hopefully get a different perspective of that artist.

The 39 steps, Criterion Theatre, photo by Matt Humphrey

The 39 Steps, Criterion Theatre. © Matt Humphrey – Curtain Call (2016). (1)

Bearing in mind that obviously all photographers folk say “well I just do what I do” and so on, do you keep an eye on the movements of others you perceive to be your competitors?
Matt: Naturally I am interested in what other photographers are doing, and I would actually be very interested to collaborate with them – potentially through Curtain Call. I don’t really see other theatre photographers as competitors – we all have a distinct way of shooting and do different things. I have been fortunate to combine my experience of working backstage with my reportage and portraiture photography, which I think is quite unique, and people like that.

Thanks, lads!