Just to start, I thought I’d let you know I'm going to be in the only show that’s going to be live this July – Barmy Britain, in car parks near you! So if you’ve ever wanted to see a show in a car park – now’s your chance. But I’m here to answer your questions!
Why did you want to set up your own company and was it very difficult in the beginning?
I set up my theatre company after I had left Warwick University where I lasted for seven weeks, which was enough for me! I wanted to set up a theatre company because, in those days, that was the only way you could get an Equity card, or if you got a job. You couldn’t get a job unless you had an Equity card though - so it was a very strange world.
So, I set up a theatre company and it was very hard. In the first year I lost a lot of money because I had no idea what I was doing. But, the strange thing about life is that by doing it and doing it wrong, you normally learn how to get it right. You have to hope you learn how to get it right before it is all over. It was nearly all over in the first year, because we lost £100,000, I lost my flat which I’d mortgaged to capitalize the company. We were effectively saved because we started doing high quality children's theatre – which was very rare in the early 90s. It’s hard to imagine, now that we have the likes of Matilda and Harry Potter onstage in the West End, but there was very little good quality children’s theatre in the early 1990s, so we started by touring Roald Dahl’s books, for theatre. Touring saved our company, by going around venues all over the country who would give us a good deal for the shows. We could make it work.
The money stuff, the legal stuff, is seen as tedious and boring. Strangely, for someone who works in theatre, I weirdly like numbers. The stuff most people find boring, I find quite challenging and interesting. I enjoy the producing side enough to allow me to do the acting stuff.
In terms of starting up your own theatre company, it’s worth a go. You’ve got to prepare for the ups and downs, and hope there are more ups than downs. But you cannot hope to learn how to do something without doing it. You can go on courses, you can go to business schools, but until you start actually doing it, you’ve got no way of knowing. My advice would be to start small, and don’t get too ambitious, particularly with money and at this stage in the theatre world. Try it!
How did you get the job on Horrible Histories? And was it a challenge to produce the songs as well as the sketches?
We were always looking for fantastic books to put on stage – because we don’t get any funding as a company, it's very hard for us to do truly original work that hasn’t been produced before. You need subsidised companies to do that – if you’re a commercial company like we are, and you have to make all your money at the box office, you often need something well known to do the show on the back of. Horrible Histories was a very successful book series – my education director Ellen Mills said I should think about doing Horrible Histories, so I googled Terry Deary, and asked if he would be happy for us to do it onstage. It was almost as simple as that. So we started producing Horrible Histories onstage in 2005, in 2009 the TV series started, and recently the film happened. There’s been a real evolution of all types of Horrible Histories.
As you mention the songs – funnily enough, the producers of the TV shows came to see our show, and they hadn’t intended to put any songs in the TV series, until they saw how well they worked onstage. The reason the songs work so well is because of our fantastic composer Matthew Scott, who until recently, was the head of music at the National. He is a brilliant composer - I write the lyrics, he writes the music. With Horrible Histories, the songs became really crucial.
Does anyone ever make a profit taking their show to the Edinburgh fringe? Rarely. The only people who make money are the comedians – for the very simple reason that a comedian only needs himself and a microphone. As soon as you need more than one person, a set, and somewhere to sleep (accommodation is the most expensive thing you’ll pay for in Edinburgh), it's extremely hard to make money. You shouldn’t go to Edinburgh with any hope that you will come home with anything other than a loss. Any money you make in order to go to Edinburgh, you have to assume you won’t have any of it when you get home.
But the advantages about Edinburgh are that you are surrounded, and part of, an extraordinary festival of creativity. You hope that people will see you, and that you’ll be noticed – if you think of The Play That Goes Wrong – Kenny Wax saw it and bought it to London. He has worked with Mischief Theatre to create this huge phenomenon. It came from Edinburgh. There are so many success stories, it’s worth doing. We’ve done it three times and always had a fantastic time. Only once I made money - £1000 for three weeks, for all that work. That’s the most money I’ve ever made at Edinburgh.
Does it make you nervous when you are acting in a Horrible Histories to think that some children seeing it will be their first theatre experience? Personally, I am always nervous when I go onstage, but there’s a difference between nerves that are constructive, or destructive. If you’re too nervous that you can’t concentrate or your thoughts are distracted, that’s not good nerves. You need to find a way to tackle that. But having a bit of excitement, knowing that you need to up your game, that’s useful. You’d be quite strange as an actor if you weren’t nervous in some way. You’re standing metaphorically naked in front of thousands of people – you're inevitably going to feel the spotlight is on you.
If you feel nervous, don’t worry, that’s normal – as long as it’s not inhibiting the process. I remember reading that one of my favourite actors, Sir Michael Hordern, was doing a festival in a tiny village called Nether Wallop, and he threw up before every performance. Someone as big as him, as wonderful as he was, still got incredibly nervous.
I’ve been using this time to write for stage and screen. How should I get these produced?
Send it to as many people as you can – literary agents, theatre companies that have literary departments, theatres – most big theatres will have departments that will read your work. Get friends round who are willing to tell the truth and be really honest about your work. Don’t hesitate – everyone is looking for new material!
Do you think that drama school is the only way into the industry?
No, drama school is not the only way – but it is a very good way. One of the awful things that’s happened in this lockdown is that the final year students weren’t able to do their showcases, which is absolutely awful.
I employed an actor as a lead on Gangsta Granny (Ashley Cousins) who has never been to Drama school and is a brilliant actor. He’d been in Billy Elliott when he was very young and done a lot of acting – but never been to drama school. So it’s perfectly possible - don’t freak out if you can’t get into a drama school. Many wonderful actors couldn’t get in. Drama schools are often looking for a type of person. Don't give up, keep trying, but if you don’t get in – don't worry. You can still do well.
When you are acting in a play for children is your process the same as when you do adult roles?
Intrinsically yes. The most important thing for any play, particularly comedy, is for something to be funny, people have to believe it. It must ring true. Sir John Gielgud had a great comment that ‘style is knowing what play you’re in’ - so you can be in The League of Gentlemen with their very strange performance style, but it still has to be true within that style. The process of understanding who you are, why you’re there, what you’re trying to achieve, who you hate/love, what’s happened to you – it’s really the same process. The only difference with children is that you can’t just have two people sat talking, as children tend to get bored easier. The process is the same, think that it’s real, but in terms of something like Horrible Histories, it also has to be heightened – it’s funny, its larger than life. If a Great Viking is coming up to you with a big axe, you still have to believe it!
How would approach creating your own work to perform in?
I write a lot of the work we do, I adapted David Walliams’ plays – the way I do it, is to not think too much about it. I sit down and start writing. Some people go through a much more structured process and work it all out in advance of writing the play, but what helps me is to just to start. It’s much easier, then you can change things as you go along. Instinct in the creative industries is really important. That’s sometimes why stupid people do really well! Being a bit too intellectual and thinking things through too much can sometimes inhibit the actual creative process. University graduates who then go to Drama School sometimes find it tougher because they are over-intellectualising it. Acting is all about just being a human being – being in touch with yourself, observe what other people are doing and use your instinct.
What’s your process of learning lines?
Well, I am not a great line learner. I read them over and over again, and they tend to go in just by repeating them over and over again in rehearsal. In rehearsal, you also start to associate moves with different lines. That helps your brain remember them. The most important thing you can do to help yourself is to work out why you’re saying the dialogue - because that tells you why you’re saying it. More often than not, you’re responding to someone – so it’s incredibly important to listen. What they say will tell you how you’re reacting, and what you’re reacting to.
I had a wonderful tutor at drama school, Rudi Shelly, who said acting is the art of reacting. That really is it – you're reacting to what's happening around you, which is often what we’re doing in real life. As Shakespeare said, theatre should hold a mirror up to life – it should feel like real life, even if it’s a heightened style.
I’ve been working without an agent/manager - how do I know which ones are right for me?
Unless you’re really big, you tend not to have a manager. Just an agent. You don’t need an agent necessarily – and in terms of finding the right one for you, if you’ve got that much choice, you’re lucky. Most of the time, actors are just finding someone who likes them enough to represent us. The most important thing though is the first meeting – you have to be really honest with yourself as to whether you think you’re going to be able to have a good working relationship with that person. More often than not, you’re going to be calling them and they’re going to be asking you go away!
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you onstage?
We were doing Horrible Histories outdoors at Hampton Court Palace, and they had a generator to make the lighting/sound work, and someone forgot to put diesel into the generator. 20 minutes before the end of the show, all the lights and mics went out, and we were just left onstage. But neither I nor my colleague Morgan stopped – we were now essentially in a field trying to entertain a crowd of a thousand people, so we just raised our voices. Morgan even started doing the sound effects!
Hampton Court Palace thought they were going to have to refund everybody – but no-one wanted a refund. I think that was probably the best 20 minutes I’ve ever spent onstage. If you’re lucky enough to work with great people like I have been, you’ll be very lucky.
What’s the best advice you can give to an actor for an audition?
You have to go to every audition with the thought that you are going to give the person auditioning you no choice but to cast you. When I auditioned, I used to think my job was to turn up, show them what I could do, and they would make their choice. I thought all I could do was my best, and that is not the approach – you have to prepare and prepare. Read the play more than once, learn whatever speech you think they will ask you to do - the very best people I’ve auditioned will learn all of the speeches - and come in and make it impossible for them to cast anyone else, because you are going to be the best person they are going to see that week, reading that speech. It may sound arrogant, it may sound difficult, hard work – but I can guarantee you, the people who have done all the work will most often get the job.
The bottom line is, as actors in Britain, we can be lazy. I’m often auditioning actors who have not read the play – I remember auditioning actors for a David Mamet play. David Mamet plays have incredibly complicated dialogue, it’s so difficult and requires a lot of preparation, and someone came in and said “I haven’t managed to read it, tell me what the play’s about?”. Anyone who walks into an audition without reading the play, without giving real thought, is wasting their own time and wasting the time of the person on the other side of the table. Do all the preparation you can, and then go in and have a good time.
Would you encourage an actor to get in touch after an audition?
When you’ve done an audition, just let them get on with it. Also, if you don’t get an audition and you don’t succeed, there could be a thousand reasons why you don’t get it. We all come away feeling terrible, but it’s often simply you don’t look right. You’re too short, too tall, you haven’t got the right eyebrows, etc. Particularly in television or in adverts, and even in theatre it can make a big difference. Plus, what most people are looking for is the ‘quality’ of what the person in the room brings in. As actors, we think we can do anything, but at the moment I am most likely to get the part of a 54yr old white man – there’s no point me thinking I’m going to play Romeo!
I was just wondering what advice you have for actors to help themselves find a balanced life, especially living in London?
It’s a very good question at the moment, because theatre is in trouble. I am more pessimistic than most in thinking that there isn’t going to be any theatre until well into next year - that’s my personal view and I really hope I’m wrong.
Balance is really important, there’s a wonderful book I would recommend called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It’s a wonderful book of balancing your life, not of being successful, but in being effective. Success is something quite different and comes with a lot of problems – and if you’re effective, you’re going to be effective whether you are successful or not. There are certain things I’ve learnt from it that I’ve never forgotten. I decided that if something wasn’t fun, I didn’t want to do it. A lot of great theatre comes out of tough times - think of all the films that have gone through two years of torment and have come out great, but to be honest I’d rather just have fun.
How do you go about getting into a room with a director or company you admire and want to work with?
Well, I interviewed Dustin Hoffman for a fundraiser, and he spoke about this, and said ‘you have to beat the system’. You have to do whatever you can. Obviously, you can email your showreel to someone, but if there’s anything else you can do (without being a pain!) you should do it. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you are trying to interest – don’t stand outside their office every day for a week, but if you can find out a way to bump into them and can spark up a conversation, that could be helpful. Anyone in the position of being able to offer others a job, expects people to ask them for a job. No one is going to hate you for asking, they won’t think you’re crazy for asking. But, find the right moment, ask them once, and be realistic. You could try again a year later or get in touch if you really have something to say.
Also – you can’t rely on people you know to ‘remember’ you. Even if they’ve known you for a long time, it’s so hard to think of the right person for a job and they may just not have thought of you for that show – you can always reach out without feeling bad.
Is this the end of fringe theatre as we know it, what is the best way to bounce back from this pandemic and avoid theatre becoming an elitist art form?
I don’t know how to answer that – I've been doing weekly meetings with the top producers in the country, and I can tell you that no one knows when this situation is going to ‘correct’ itself. Clearly social distancing is the most important issue that we need to solve, if theatre is going to come back. Fringe is the worst-case scenario, because if you can only fit people into a theatre at 2 metres, social distancing is going to decide whether they have a future or not. Our industry is in trouble, there’s no question about it.
We’re preparing car park parties – a show that you drive up and see. We’re not sure if it’s going to work, but outdoor theatre is obviously going to have more luck than indoor theatre. In terms of where we go from here, nobody knows at the moment, but we are all hoping to get more support from the government.
How are you rehearsing at the moment?
We’re trying to rehearse keeping 6 foot apart, and we’re doing a play with two people that you can keep far apart. It’s not going to be very easy with plays including more than four people. The terrible problem at the moment is that, under current regulations, if someone is ill, everyone has to self-isolate – how is that going to work in rehearsal or on tour? If everyone must go home for 14 days, there is no show. Until the government can give proper, specific advice to theatre to help us get through this, I have no idea how we’re supposed to be producing shows.
How do I get into the creative/design side of the industry?
If you get in touch with me (via Birmingham Stage Company) my designer Jackie Trousdale will be able to answer that question better than me. The problem you might find is that many larger companies work with the same designers for many years – so you want to go for the smaller companies who might have a quicker staff turnover, or for fringe theatres – they are a fantastic way to get into design. When I do a fringe show I try and have new designers in every department to give them a chance to get in with the company.
How do the audience stay safe in the car park shows?
Well, they are all sat in cars – they will just leave their ticket on their windscreen. Drive up and hear the show through the radio (by tuning into a channel) and watch!
What is the most difficult or surprising lesson you’ve learned during your career?
You learn something difficult or surprising every day of the week. Glenn Close gave some wonderful advice, to ‘never compare your career to anyone else’. It’s so easy to compare in this profession, but there is always going to be someone more successful than you. You are always going to feel inferior if you compare. For example, I often get people saying “Don’t you want to work for adults instead of children?” - but no, I don’t at the moment. Children are the most challenging audience you can ever have. If they’re bored, they don’t go to sleep like an adult audience, they start throwing sweets or talking. To keep a child interested in what you’re doing for 2 hours, that takes some really serious acting and theatre production. Children are nearly always more sophisticated than you think they are.
I’m just using that example to show that people will put their own values onto you – my parents never wanted me to be an actor, because it wasn’t a ‘serious’ profession and I wouldn’t earn a living. And the reality is, it is serious and I have made a living out of it. So don’t be dissuaded by other people’s expectations of what you should be doing – most people will think you should get married, have kids – and particularly in this weird profession, you’ve got to go on your own path, and be comfortable in that.
You also adapt books for theatre – how many times do you read the book before starting to write?
I will read it about three times, but then I’ll keep the book with me and keep turning the pages as I go. I’m quite a faithful adapter, I don’t go out of the box too much. Aside from writing the plays for Horrible Histories, I’ve only adapted three fictional works, which have all been David Walliams’ books – and he started in theatre, so his books are written very theatrically. They’re beautifully structured. I have to start from scratch with Horrible Histories, for example turning the War of the Roses into a three minute sketch that a six year old is going to enjoy. That’s when I have to start thinking outside of the box, and that can sometimes take a very long time before I think of the ‘way in’. For example, I wanted to write about the First World War, about the Battle of the Somme, which involved quite a lot of people for a start! I had to think ‘how do I tell the story with only two people, in three minutes?’ I ended up thinking of a sketch, where General Haig is invited into the boardroom of The Apprentice, and Lord Sugar is asking how well he did in his task at the Somme. We managed to get across a huge amount of information, whilst being funny. That idea took a while! So don’t worry if it doesn’t come to you immediately – allow the thoughts to go through your head for a while and you’ll get there.
Do you prefer the rehearsal period or performing?
I prefer performing - that’s when you get to interact with the audience!
What’s your favourite production you’ve been involved in?
I’ve been very lucky to have performed in some of the best drama that’s ever been written. I’ve done something brilliant nearly every year that I’ve lived. Playing Skellig was wonderful, we ended up doing that on Broadway in New York, that was a stunning show. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was our first big success, which we did at The Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham. I did a new play called Collision with Nathan Constance, Twelfth Night in Syria and all over the Middle East and The Dice House which is a fabulous American book.
And what’s the best part you’ve ever played?
Certainly Skellig, or Doctor Ratner in The Dice House. I loved playing Hal in a wonderful play called Proof, a Pulitzer prize winner from New York which we performed in London. I wanted to play the lead in She Stoops to Conquer and the director wouldn’t let me, he gave me the part of Hastings, his friend, which was actually a lesson in learning that the smaller parts can sometimes be more fun.
Do you have any top tips for International Touring?
We only go abroad when we have a guaranteed fee, so we don’t have to worry about what happens when we get there. We’ve always been ‘taken’ abroad by someone else. I would recommend that if you’re going abroad – it’s much easier if the person who has invited you abroad is offering you a fixed fee, so you know how much you can afford, what money you’re going to make, and how you’re going to do it.
If you’re going to take yourself abroad, speak to the Arts Council about that, or the British Council – they fund English speaking plays in several countries across the world. They are a public body and they have to see you and should offer good advice!
If you could play any David Walliams character what would you be?
I would play Mrs Trafe, the dinner lady in Billionaire Boy, because she’s mad and evil in her own way. I like playing mad, evil people! I’m playing Richard III in this Horrible Histories play I’m currently doing – he was both. I recently played the Police Officer in Billionaire Boy, which was only eight lines but great fun. Great parts are often the ones that connect with an audience – I don’t mind if they're only eight lines, if you can really come on and have a great moment. The part where you can connect with the audience is probably going to be the most fun.
Which actors have best brought to life your writing and adaptations?
I’ve been very lucky - Anthony Spargo, Alison Fitzjohn, Ben Martin, Morgan Philpot, Lauryn Redding, Pip Chamberlain, Gary Wilson – they've all been fantastic in Horrible Histories shows. We were very lucky in Gangsta Granny, where Ashley Cousins played the lead for two years, and the wonderful Gilly Tompkins playing Gangsta Granny herself. But to be honest all our actors are wonderful! We’ve hired the same actors back again and again.
I don’t think I’d be that actor though – I'm quite a difficult person! If I was employed by a theatre company, I think I’d be too difficult – I'm fussy about everything. It’s a good job I don’t have to have other people employ me! The most important thing you can be in theatre is NOT difficult. If you can find a way of working collectively, you will have a much longer and more successful career.
Do you have any agents that you go back to continually?
Yes, we use a casting director called Kay Magson. She has several agents that she trusts to contact again and again, people that she knows will get appropriate actors for the part.
What can actors do whilst in lockdown to keep busy, and to keep making connections?
This is a crucial question! I think keeping busy creatively, whatever you can do, is great – but it’s very hard. Unlike artists or musicians, you need other people to act with, or people to be watching. That’s what makes theatre special. You can obviously do voice work, but I think the best thing you can do is read plays. The more knowledge you have of plays, the better. Pick up any writer you like and read a good handful of their plays. Keep making connections if you can, but it’s fair to say that producers are not thinking about casting anyone at the moment. They are thinking about how to keep their company going. Don’t be frustrated if you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, because at this moment we are all just trying to make theatre happen next year. When things get going, that’s when you want to get going!
Do you have any favourite theatre outside London that you love touring to? Loads! Sheffield Lyceum is one of my favourites, Kings Theatre in Glasgow, Manchester Palace, there are so many others. I started life at the Haymarket in Basingstoke, and I just hope these venues can keep going. I think we’re all terribly worried that they’re going to be closing. The Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham must be my favourite though, because that’s where I started my company. The first purpose-built repertory theatre in the country, in 1913 by Sir Barry Jackson. He’s relatively unknown, but he started one of the most famous repertory companies in the world, with actors like Sir Laurence Olivier – great things can come from small things.
What's your hope for the future of theatre?
Theatre, in the end, will of course always be here. As Peter Brook said in The Empty Space (one of the most important books ever written about theatre!), all you will ever need is for someone to walk across the stage and someone to watch him - that’s theatre. Theatre will not disappear – but I am worried about theatre as a business, as an industry that is employing thousands and thousands of people in all sectors. That’s what we need to keep going!
Besides writing and acting, how much have management skills contributed to your success?
I like the management side of things, I like keeping things tidy and neat, and having order. That’s very helpful for management, because management is about making sure things happen at the right time and in the right way. Also, you get that buzz when you achieve things! The hard things are those activities that take much longer, that you put aside until tomorrow, because they are the important things.
You’ve worked on making Great Expectations into children’s theatre – what are your tips for creating darker material?
Any work by David Almond is wonderfully dark stuff. He’s very interested in the primal instincts that drive the human condition, in violence and what makes us want to be violent – and yet he writes for children. Philip Pullman’s work is also great.