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 http://www.curtaincallonline.com
1. 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I had any real pictures from productions that I could show them, which I didn’t. I realised that I also didn’t have any historical document other than the production photographs in those programmes as a testament to my career.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.
2. 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. © Matt Humphrey – Curtain Call (2016). (2)
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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. © Matt Humphrey – Curtain Call (2016). (1)
6. 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.
Barney Norris is a very good playwright.
Things we wanted to discuss included his his career, Wittgenstein, Tractatus, clause 7 and his favourite service station.
1. Hello Barney! What are you doing at this exact moment in time.
Hello Carl! I’m in my flat drinking Aldi own-brand instant coffee, which I hate because of the taste but love because it’s a gleaning from touring to Scarborough and all links to the memory of touring adventures are precious, while my cat sits on my shoulder like a parrot.
2. VISITORS was a huge critical and commercial success. Presumably the pressure you put on yourself — and I get the impression you put a lot of pressure on yourself — would have been enough to be getting on with. How did you approach writing EVENTIDE?
EVENTIDE happened the same as VISITORS more or less, it started with wanting to make a play, and then it was grown by the same group of people using a very similar process of development (which I use for everything really). Having done a play people liked did make things scarier – but it also made a thousand things easier too. Not just money and production and so on, but it made things easier in terms of story. I felt suddenly that I knew who I was for, and what I wanted to do.
3. What do the next 12 months hold in store for Up in Arms?
Actually a lot of that’s still secret and can’t be announced: we’re just wrapping up the tour of GERMAN SKERRIES, our first play by another writer, Robert Holman (big step forwards for the company), which has been very successful and very fun. Then we’re in development on two new plays, one by me and one by the brilliant Bea Roberts, and planning a tour of a play I can’t yet name for spring 2017, and planning two ventures into media we’ve never visited before. Growing plays is a slow, loving, laborious business, so our fight is to let them take the time they take even if it means we only get to make so much work. The new media we’ll be tiptoeing towards is about extending our reach to new audiences. That’s the heart of what we do – reaching people. Not necessarily just reaching as many people as possible, quality and depth of engagement is crucial and that’s what we offer as a company over, say, a movie, we offer quality and depth, but we do always want to grow our audiences. So we’re in a period of development.
4. What’s your favourite service station on any United Kingdom motorway?
It’s all about Fleet. I suggest at least twice a year to my fiancée that we should do Christmas Day at Fleet one year, partly because it feels like we spend it there anyway, visiting everyone, but also because I love it. We got engaged last month and I outlined the possibility of having the ceremony in the overpass that links the two sides of the services. She hasn’t agreed to it yet, but we’ll see. I think it’s important to acknowledge the beautiful trees that surround Fleet. It’s an eery place at dawn. But these are the ravings of a service station amateur – you have to check out Henryiddon.com/forton-stories. That’s the goldmine.
5. You’ve just published your first novel ‘Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain’ How do you choose what parts of your life you put forward in your writing?
I don’t think I do really! I think writing is probably a translation of experience into sense/meaning/something approximating those two. So it all goes in really, even if not all of it gets a mention. Because all the work is just an expression of what it feels like to be alive at the present moment. All the work I do of my own volition anyway. There are commissions I take for different reasons that are more targeted explorations, less about the self, but the novel, and VISITORS and EVENTIDE, they’re quite self-exploratory.
6. When will the world end and whose fault will it be?
The world ends for each of us at the end of our lives, and I don’t yet know who to blame for that. As for the planet – she’ll be around long after our filaments are all burned out. It’s us, not the planet, who are on the way out, I think.
7. You strike me as someone who doesn’t take the easy route. How will you feel when you decide you’ve done what you needed to do?
The Evening Standard said that about me last week, is that where it first struck you? I kind of decide that every evening when it’s time to relax and eat and sleep and so on, but in the larger sense, I see older generations facing up to the end of their careers and I don’t know whether that happens with creativity. I think people always still have something to say while they’re alive, but our sight, our hands, our minds fail us. My Grandad didn’t choose to stop his woodwork, his hands gave up on him, he got shaky. So I don’t know whether what you’re describing will happen.
8. If I locked you in a safe for twenty four hours with no phone, what would you do inside your head?
Panic. I like space. It would depend on whether or not I knew I was getting out at the end of the day.
9. Tell me this, though. You’re quite credible aren’t you. You’ve been written about in all the right places, your plays get seen by all the right people. Is it right, though, that actually you’re kind of not that cool?
The most important tv show I ever watched was a Mr Motivator episode where he tried to be cool. So he wore a baseball cap and went skateboarding and, in a telling insight into how far we’ve come, ate a hamburger, but he still wasn’t cool. He was still wearing head to toe Lycra. Then a kid told him that being cool was about being yourself, and being happy with yourself, that there was no such thing as absolute cool. But in general, I think your question has too many undefined terms (credible, right, cool) for an answer to be possible, so – Wittgenstein, Tractatus, clause 7.
10. Anything that you’d like to add?
I think I’ve done quite enough damage already.
The other day I had a bit of chinwag with Amy Rosenthal who just happens to have two new plays on the verge of coming out. Amy is a playwright who is a very obliging woman so she answered all the questions, and some other ones too.
Here’s what happened during the chat.
1. Greetings! What are you up to currently?
Hello! I’m currently in rehearsal for my play Pelican Daughters, which is part of the Shakespeare In Shoreditch Festival 2016. I’m one of four playwrights commissioned to write one-act plays inspired by Shakespeare, Shoreditch and storms – to be performed in site-specific locations from 20th-30th April.
Mine’s a modern-day spin on King Lear about three Jewish sisters, focusing on the eldest, Gaby, who’s desperate to please her dad on his eightieth birthday. He’s a naughty old tyrant who once ruled his East London patch and is now prey to redevelopers who want to gentrify the area. It’s about family and roots, and I hope it’s funny. I have a great cast and a terrific director, Kay Michael. It’s lovely to be in a rehearsal room after a period of solitary writing time, and I’m lucky because I then go straight into rehearsal for Fear of Cherry Blossom at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre.
2. What can we expect from your new play Fear of Cherry Blossom?
Funnily enough, it also focuses on a Jewish family. Dinah and Abby are unmarried sisters on either side of forty, and Abby, the youngest, has become a committed Buddhist. Dinah and their dad Ronnie are alarmed by Abby’s choices, and Dinah wants to pull her sister back to her values, and what she thinks life ought to be. The play touches on themes I’ve wanted to explore for a long time – it’s about Anti-Semitism, which feels pertinent and (on stage) rarely addressed – about inherited, inter-generational fear – and about faith, in all senses. Judaism, spirituality, and how to keep faith with oneself, especially in the middle patch of one’s life.
3. Will you tell us a secret about yourself?
4. I didn’t see that coming, Amy… Can you describe your state of mind when you are writing a play?
Tortured? My close friends, especially playwright Phil Porter, get the brunt of it – the fat tears, the self-doubt. The beginning is the worst, it’s as though in order to find my voice, which is essentially light and comic, I have to go through some dark night of the soul that can last – well, considerably more than a night. Once I finally know what I’m doing and the play starts to take shape, I’m very happy. I love my own company, I’m rarely lonely, the play becomes more real than reality. I write from 5.30 a.m. in a joyful state – a bit like the feeling after a migraine. Everything feels light.
5. What cereal do you like to have in the morning?
I’m not a cereal girl. I like toast and I love eggs. Sometimes I have porridge oats baked in the oven into a flat pancake, buttered, with cucumber, because someone once told my mum it’s good for you.
I don’t know about a personality type, I’d say a lot of playwrights are quite shy, but what you need is staying power. “Rising to the top” can happen fast, or mid-career, or late; most writers rise and descend many times. I’d be surprised if any playwright felt a constant coasting satisfaction; in any freelance career there’s always an element of fear. It’s a solitary profession and there are long periods of writing before productions happen (especially in musical theatre, which can take years to come to fruition because its so collaborative) so you often feel forgotten or as though the world thinks you’re not working. You have to just keep working, keep faith, and take on other jobs too – teach, run workshops, interact with other humans. It’s taken me a stupidly long time to learn crucial lessons about all this and I’m still learning. But I’m very disciplined now, and very committed.
7. Can you tell us about your Russian Doll painting sideline?
The great David Edgar, who taught me playwriting at Birmingham University, also inspired my mad sideline. David collects Russian (matryoshka) dolls – mostly political figures. He commissioned me some years ago to paint his family on a set of blank wooden dolls. I loved it and I’ve been doing it ever since – painting families from photographs. A commission often seems to come along at the right moment and it’s a great antidote to writing because you don’t have to think. It’s meditative. It’s not easy to paint an accurate portrait on a curved surface, and the tiniest dolls are a challenge, but if you get it right they can feel uncannily alive.
8. Is your life an open book?
I wonder. I’m not at all secretive and I like making people laugh, but on the whole I’m the listener in a lot of my exchanges.
9. If I were to hand you a book from the future, and it was the autobiography you wrote when you were 80, would you read it?
I don’t know. I’d be scared. Is there an index?
10. Anything that you’d like to add?
Not really, I think I’ve gone on at length.
That’s that then.
“If you do want to stand up, know that your final decision will be definitive and 100% correct. Authentic, voluntary, high spirited standing ovations are truly uncommon things.”
Standing ovations are dished out like cocktail sausages. That’s right ladies and gentlemen. We are living in an era where hundreds of reasonably sensible people are falling over each other to leap to their feet and clap at the drop of a hat. Since when did ovations become so unavoidable? Is it because we have spent so much on a ticket? So often audiences appear fulfilled by work that is “not terrible” or that “could have been worse”. And then they get up on their feet and applaud. Very rarely I do too, credit where its due etc.
If you are one of these people, how often do you mean it? Would you stand up if the “posh people” around you didn’t, but the work you’d just seen had changed the very fibre of your existence? Because that is when you should get up and show your appreciation. If you do want to stand up – get up and know that your final decision will be definitive and 100% correct. Authentic, voluntary, high-spirited standing ovations are truly uncommon things.
We’ve all been in an auditorium where folk bounce up and down like a Jack in a box when it isn’t earned. There is a lot to be said about mawkishness around standing ovations.
Sunset Boulevard has got people up and out of their seats thanks to Glenn Close making sure the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ’50s noir-inspired musical was a triumph. Audiences gave a standing ovation the second she walked on the stage and before she’d sung a note. But this kind of ovation isn’t entirely for her performance but for who she is, her bona fide celebrity glamour and what she embodies. (I stood up too.)
I watched GYPSY at Chichester Festival Theatre and was all too happy to participate in a standing ovation for Imelda Staunton mid-song. It felt natural and I did so of my own free will. It was an almost instinctive experience whereby the entire audience spontaneously combusted. The audience, briefly, matched the show.
A standing ovation is a public situation, so I suppose is open to manipulation such as, for instance on Press Nights where family, friends and supporters gather to show considerable support for a production. Or in big shows like Bend it Like Beckham or Mamma Mia where the false-ending is cynically engineered to achieve a standing ovation from the people in the stalls. In any case, a standing ovation that has simply become part of convention is basically futile.
As a general rule I would suggest that you stand up and clap when someone delivers the goods (‘the goods’ being at least six exciting moments per show, usually more) Be open to life itself, and the surprises of life. Standing ovations have to catch us by surprise, when we are the least looking for them. So, half-hearted ovations are, in the very purest sense, a load of old nonsense. And there, it would seem, we have it.
Note: Article to be published in UK theatre Magazine- May 2016
“X” is not what it appears.
“X” is set on a small research base on Pluto. Pluto’s distance from the Sun is 3.67 billion miles. Much like the planet itself, “X” relies on what you bring to it. It is both engrossing and alienating.
“X” is not what it seems.
Written by Demi-God Alistair McDowall and directed by Vicky Featherstone with customary assurance, this production is incoherent, but looks good and is mostly well acted. Sure “X” is ambitious. Even startling. But too many plot points are left to the audience’s imagination without absolutely any explanation whatsoever.
Superb as the visuals are, I wish that Featherstone’s production paid more attention to McDowall’s language. Not much is made visually apprehensible.
I liked the huge dead bird on stage and the bird that was flown in – wonderful
opportunities for design and stage management. I didn’t enjoy quite so much
all that mum stuff at the end and the last moment when someone said the tree
was her mother(!).
Science fiction never announces its subtext this narcissistically. Still, it’s a smart response to the excesses of the sci-fi genre. Without wishing to baffle you, people are doing this shit because everything is fucked. Theatre needs to be instrumental in un-fucking everything.
But as is the way with these things, it’s hard to get a proper feel for a play like this on one viewing, but “X” feels like a genuine attempt to steal the currently vacant theatre throne, as well as being the kind of gloriously all over the shop play that you often get in 2016.
It seemed like a 6/10 event – slightly above average and, for that reason, an average McDowall play.
McDowall’s got talent but at the moment no very coherent way of presenting his ideas. We shall see how he moves forward.
At the Royal Court, London, until 7 May. Buy tickets for X from www.royalcourt.com