Henry V and A Midsummer Nights Dream will be performed by Merely Theatre on the 17 & 18 March at the Devonshire Park Theatre. The following is an interview with Scott Ellis the Artistic Director.
Scott Ellis – Artistic Director of Merely Theatre
This is Merely’s first tour. Excited?
Extremely excited! We’ve been working towards this for a long time…
Is touring important to you?
Being from Sheffield, most of the theatre I was exposed to in my teenage years was touring theatre. It’s the best way to allow the biggest number of people to see the work you are creating. Living in London, we are so lucky with the amount of theatre we have access to. But it is our responsibility as theatre makers to make sure the work gets shared around.
How will this be different from the work you’ve done in London so far?
Most Merely productions so far have been performed with the audience on 3 sides or in the round. This makes it very easy to engage and involve the audience and make them feel complicit in the action on stage. Most touring venues tend to be end-on spaces. Our challenge is to transfer the techniques of audience interaction and engagement we have honed working in the more intimate, inclusive spaces. We want to not only break, but smash down the fourth wall of the bigger end-on spaces.
You’re in a transition right now between being an enthusiastic group of actors who, and some would say this is crazy, put on a different Shakespeare play every month in 2014, to being a professional touring company. What’s surprised you about that transition? What advice would you give to people trying to get a company off the ground?
One: don’t sacrifice quality.
Two: practice, practice, practice.
Find the brilliant people you want to work with and give them a reason to be involved. When we first started we couldn’t pay, so our bargaining chip was flexibility. We rehearsed 1 or 2 days a week over a longer stretch of time, allowing for people to take other work, whether it was acting or not.
The Practice thing is something that I have bored many people’s ears off over a pint so I’ll try to keep it short. Hard work is more valuable than talent. It’s been proven in sport and music (Read Matthew Syed’s book BOUNCE). It’s harder to prove with something as subjective as theatre, but it still applies. Talent can’t make your current performance better that your last one, but practice and hard work can. If you can instill this way of thinking into a group of actors then you can only get better and better.
People who see Merely in action tend to get caught up in the excitement- do you think that will translate to larger audiences?
Hopefully it will just make for even more people being excited by the performance! We shall see, we’re playing some pretty large venues along the way this year!
What do you think of live theatre from London screened regionally. Is now a bad time to be embarking on such an ambitious first tour?
If I’m honest I don’t get the filmed theatre thing. Theatre is live. It’s someone in front of you, making eye contact with you, and telling you a story. I’m not saying I don’t see the benefits of live screenings, allowing these plays to be seen by people that would never get a chance to. But if there can be the opportunity to see these plays live like we’re creating, then surely that is the better option. That is why I think we have a responsibly to touring theatre. I think it is therefore a great time to be launching our first tour. If the popularity of these screenings is anything to go by, it’s more important than ever to tour right now, to remind people what a difference it makes when it’s live.
In 2009, Rupert Goold said the gap was widening between theatre in London and in the regions. Do you think that’s proved true?
We previewed these productions at The Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre. Most of the young people there had never seen a play before and they loved them. These are kids who have grown up only seeing film and TV, so the complete opposite to our stripped back style. The other thing to remember is that there is so much brilliant theatre being made out in the regions. Most of the work I’ve done so far in my career has been outside of London, in places like Manchester, Ipswich and Harrogate, and it all measures up to the work being created in London. This has been in both new writing and classical work so no in my experience so far there is nothing to suggest that the regions are behind.
What do you make of the idea that regional audiences want to see bells and whistles, big sets and big numbers, as opposed to your signature stripped back style?
Our productions don’t use big spectacle but we use audience engagement, simple but brilliant story-telling and sweaty actors bombing around giving you no moment to get bored. Also we’re doing Shakespeare, apart from our gender blind casting commitments we’re hardly going against the tried and tested. Shakespeare has been around a lot longer than the large scale musical and simple story telling has been around even longer than that. I’m pretty confident that regional audiences still have a hunger for both. We just want to see that they get it delivered brilliantly. It’s so easy to turn people off Shakespeare with one bad production (let’s be honest there are enough of those!) We’re confident that a Merely production will only leave you wanting to see more.
You’ve created a gender-blind repertory company of ten actors: five women, five men. How does that work?
Male-female ‘twins’ rehearse the same parts as one another, so there is both a male and a female actor ready to play every role. From that company of ten, five are selected for each performance, with the genders fluidly jumbled. For example, audiences could see a female Henry V or a male Helena.
How does that affect the actors/rehearsal process?
It means that the actors get to see someone else perform their roles in rehearsals as well as the work they are doing on each part. It isn’t the easiest thing to get used to. All ego has to be left at the door. But once you’ve got used to it, it can be a really helpful way of working. You can’t always see a part through your own eyes but it becomes clear when you watch or listen to someone else. You have to be able to make the role your own whilst also being open to taking what someone else has created with a specific moment and incorporate it into what you’re doing. The actors tag in and out of rehearsals so that everyone gets a go at each scene before we start to set anything. The way that we work is to try to find the best and most clear way of performing each line or moment so often what the character is doing is the same for both actors but every actor is different and they all bring such different qualities for free therefore there are always going to be differences in the detail of each performance.
What should audiences expect from this way of doing Shakespeare?
They can just expect a brilliant production of these Shakespeare plays. An audience member may take something slightly different from seeing a female actor playing a male role or vice versa but during rehearsals we don’t worry about that. We just consider what is the character saying/doing/trying to affect.
So the gender might not affect the performance, but do you think it’ll affect the audience’s perspective?
I think you’ll be surprised how little it does. It goes back to the fact that the words of the characters are what is important about a Shakespeare play. If an actor or group of actors can use these well, irrespective of gender, then the audience should be so engaged with this that they won’t have time to worry about who’s got what in their trousers. We’re really lucky with Henry V, it’s a very theatrical play. The Chorus character starts the play with a speech which, to crudely sum up, says we haven’t got what we need to tell this story, therefore we’ll use what we have in this room as props and costume and all of us are going to have to play a few different parts. Shakespeare is literally describing the Merely way of performing his plays. He says Let us, on your imaginary forces work which has become a Merely motto. So it shouldn’t matter who the group of actors in front of you are, as long as they are brilliant at engaging you with the text.
You’ve worked with a lot of the cast members before, but there have been some new faces this year. How has that worked out?
They have been just amazing. It wasn’t an easy casting process. We had two female spaces to fill in the company. And they each have to play 6 roles over the two plays, as well as slotting into a company that are very comfortable working together, and have a very specific way of working. Now, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was new. We work very quickly at times, and have certain principles that we try to stick to which we think are really important when creating a production of Shakespeare. But once you have your head around those, then it’s just like being in any other rehearsal room.
If all goes well, what does the future of Merely look like to you?
We’d like to make the spring tour a recurring project. We’ve got a great number of venues for a first tour and it would be great to keep those and add more for next year. That all comes down to reputation. People don’t book the theatre company Propeller because they’re all male, they book it because the work is brilliant and exciting. It would be great for people to know that the touring work we create is gender blind, but all we want them to talk about is whether we’re any good at Shakespeare or not. Hopefully the former!
What companies do you admire right now?
As mentioned above, Propeller I think have been setting the standards for touring classical work over the last few years. We’re really big admirers of the Smooth Faced Gentlemen. Again not because of the gender specificity, but because the work has a brilliant rawness and bite to it.
Best show you saw in 2015. Go.
I was up in Edinburgh at the Fringe this summer and there was a piece devised in women’s prisons in the North East called Key Change (see, the regions do create great work!). I recommended it to everyone who was up. It was so simple. They used only tape to define different spaces which allowed them to just talk to us and tell us these character’s stories. The acting was amazing!
Why should people across the UK come and see your Henry and Dream?
Because they are two of the greatest plays ever written. Because all we do is do the plays, and we do them well. They are fast paced, engaging and extremely entertaining.
In 2014 you produced the Merely Shakespeare Season at The Cockpit Theatre working with the same group of actors to create a totally different Shakespeare play each month for one night only without the use of props, set or costume. What possessed you to do such a thing and what did you get out of it?
It comes down to practice again. We all think we know how Shakespeare should be performed, but actually doing it, and then improving upon that, takes graft. I wanted to hone my skills as a classical theatre director. I wanted to be doing it every week and I wanted the actors around me to have the same opportunity with their acting. All of the Merely principles come from the work we did in 2014. How best to involve and build a relationship with the audience, how best to find clarity in the text when it’s all you have, how little it matters what gender an actor is if they can use the language of Shakespeare to its full potential, and how you can create the best work when you use the same group of people and constantly push each other to be better.
This was a syndicated interview.
Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne 17th and 18th March 2016