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Shockheaded Peter, by Improbable Theatre
Inviting the Audience

Phelim McDermott in conversation with Caridad Svich








[Phelim McDermott has been directing and performing for more than twelve years. His first work was for dereck dereck Productions, which he co-founded with Julia Bardsley. He performed in Cupboard Man, a solo show for which he won a Fringe First Award. He then co-directed and performed in Gaudete for which he won a Time Out Director's Award. During 1996-97 he directed A Midsummer Night's Dream for the English Shakespeare Company, which won a T.M.A. Regional Theatre Award for Best Touring Production. He co-founded Improbable Theatre company with Julian Crouch, Lee Simpson and producer Nick Sweeting in 1996. The company is distinguished for its improvisational approach to text and innovative designs. Improbable's productions include 70 Hill Lane, Lifegame, Coma, and The Hanging Man. With Julian Crouch McDermott co-directed Shockheaded Peter, a junk-opera collaboration with The Tiger Lilies, for Cultural Industry. He has worked with Peter Greenaway and was a co-deviser of The Masterson Inheritance on BBC Radio 4. This conversation was held as Improbable's adaptation of Theatre of Blood was preparing to open at The Royal National Theatre, and Shockheaded Peter was about to return to New York for an Off-Broadway run.]

CS: Have puppets always been a part of your theatrical vocabulary?

PM: Pretty much, even before I met Julian Crouch and we started working together. I was at the Leicester Haymarket doing a kid's show called The Ghost Downstairs, which is kind of an inverse version of the Faust story, written by Leon Garfield, who is a children's book writer. The story is about a lawyer who meets a man downstairs who is probably the devil. The devil says to him, "I'll give you all the riches in the world if you give me seven years off of the end of your life." The lawyer agrees to this but in drawing up the deal thinks about swindling the devil and decides that instead of selling him seven years off of the end of his life, he'll sell him seven years off of the beginning. Well, the deal is struck, and he does get all this wealth, but slowly he begins to be haunted by the ghost of a little boy, who turns out to be his own childhood coming to haunt him. We used a puppet for the boy. At the same time Julian was doing The Little Prince with great, big-scale puppets, and I became intrigued. I was invited to direct a production of Dr Faustus and I knew I wanted the Seven Deadly Sins to be puppets, so I asked Julian if he wanted to work on it, and that's how we ended up working together.

Improbable Theatre started in 1996 with 70 Hill Lane, but Julian and I had been working together for a long time. We had actually resisted forming a company for years because we didn't want to scratch money together and do all that. So, ours was a backward route. We were working in the repertory companies doing big shows and when we formed Improbable we went back to doing small shows, partly because we wanted to do work that was more personal again while we kept the bigger-scale projects going.

CS: 70 Hill Lane is very personal, and you have traveled with it quite a bit. How does the connection with the audience occur when you have toured with it?

PM: We took the piece to Egypt where the audience was largely non-English speaking and it had an extraordinary response, which surprised me. On some level, it is about the visual element of the piece and about the imagination and the puppetry, but I think it is also about that connection, if people are willing to relate to the person who is talking. There are studies where it's been said that 10% of our communication is verbal, whereas the rest is primarily visual. In Egypt or in Syria, where we also performed 70 Hill Lane, people are surprised and shocked that someone is speaking directly to them--and also that not only will an actor speak directly to the audience as part of the show, but that if something happens in the audience, the performer will to respond to it spontaneously--unscripted--right then and there.

Shockheaded PeterPeople say that Shockheaded Peter or other work that we do is really new, but I don't think it is. It's quite simple, and old-fashioned. It's just storytelling: talking to people and telling stories. I think what is different is that we are prepared to use anything to tell the story. I like interacting with materials and seeing what they can do and how they can speak. 70 Hill Lane was an exploration of that. In fact, one of the decisions we made early on was that we were going to make the house from newspaper stuck onto cello tape, so we'd build it like a Wendy house. Then we realized that just the tape in the space was magical, and strange, because it was there and it wasn't there, and it left a lot of space for people to read into it, so they could see their own house. We talk about our sets and how we like to have a gap in them: a gap between what you're saying it is and what you're seeing. So, you say it's a tree but it is obviously a cardboard tree, so the audience plays the game with you and says, "We'll believe it's a tree." We also talk about our sets as being like puppets. The story of the set in the show is as important as the story of the actors performing on it.

CS: How much turn-around do you allow between the creation of pieces? Is it open or do you have a set time-table?

PM: It's open out of necessity because we do not get revenue funding. We are project-funded, so if we're not doing a show, we are not making money for Improbable. Things which have kept me going have been: Shockheaded Peter, and doing improvising gigs at The Comedy Store, which is where Lee Simpson (co-founder of Improbable Theatre) makes his wage. Julian does other design and directing jobs, which is healthy for all of us, but also presents difficulties. Our office is paid for basically by touring in the US. This also comes down to the decision about how we work, because if you become revenue-funded then you have to produce a certain number of shows, etc. One of the problems, I would say, is that we had an initial burst of shows--70 Hill Lane, Animo, Lifegame, Coma, Sticky (which is an on-going large-scale project) and Spirit--but we don't get much time to do any kind of seeding or dreaming, which is so important. I think it's especially difficult now because you can get on a treadmill and just do and not think. The good thing is that we're not comfortable with being comfortable. We recognize this is a company, so if we're going to do something, we have to be interested in it.

CS: How did the idea for The Hanging Man come to be, and how did it morph into what it is now?

PM: The initial idea for the story came from Julian Crouch. He had just been working on a TV job from which he got sacked, and he was driving in his car, feeling pretty angry, and the idea for a story came into his head: a man tries to hang himself, but he's so inflexible that he can't actually do it. That became the key to the whole piece. We also decided we wanted to do a new show that had the scale of Shockheaded Peter but was more like our Improbable shows, which have a more intimate quality. I talked about the idea of wanting to do something that was more vulnerable and less showy. It was important to me that the new piece had more contact with the audience, where the performers could be themselves. The other idea was that we wanted to start putting together an ongoing ensemble that would learn how to work the way that we work, so in effect our work could tour as it has done but we wouldn't have to tour with it as performers. So, we had a couple of development periods for The Hanging Man. One was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the other was at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Then we had about three weeks with an initial workshop with actors.

CS: Actors were not involved at every step of the development?

PM: No, just in the three weeks after we'd made some decisions as a company about the show, its shape, and so on. The first two development periods were with Lee Simpson, Julian Crouch, sound designer Darron L. West (of SITI company), and myself. We sat in a room together and talked about what we were going to do. Julian found a painting by Tiepolo, which was of a group of Pulchinellos. What's interesting about the painting is that all the Pulchinellos are the same. They're all wearing tall hats, sitting around a cooking pot and cooking gnocchi. They're in half-light, yellow-light, very beautiful. The painting is very atmospheric and languorous. It's not in a performance-mode. It's as if the Pulchinellos were off-duty. We liked what they looked like, because they reminded us of ourselves: artists hanging around the outskirts of a city, outcasts from the theatre.

So we then spent three weeks with a group of actors, and Julian made some Pulchinello masks, and we explored ideas and shapes for three weeks trying to find out what the story was, and what these characters were like. We then decided that the guy who wants to kill himself is an architect, who has done a great project. He's made a beautiful cathedral, which is a great success. And the funny thing is, he made the cathedral without really thinking about it. The guy who was designing it had died and he had to take over the project, so he just kind of made decisions really quickly. And then someone says, "Okay, you've done this great building and we want you to do another. Here's all this money. You can do whatever you want." And he starts this new project, and when it's half-built, he realizes that it's not working. It's a failure. And rather than deal with the issue of it being a failure, he decides to kill himself. He decides to hang himself inside this unfinished cathedral. But it doesn't work. At which point Death turns up and says, "Wait a minute, it's not that easy. Just because you had this thing happen you think you can just use me? You've never ever thought about me. You've never had a relationship with me. You've got to hang around for a while and deal with me."

CS: And Death stays present.

PM: Death's present in the show. We wanted to create a modern mystery play. It's interesting because since creating the show, a number of people have said, "Oh you know the story about . . ." Apparently, there's some story about an architect who did hang himself in his own church. But for us, it's a story about us as an ensemble, about our journey, and where we were at the time of making the piece.

The Hanging Man, by Improbable TheatreAn interesting thing that happened in the process of The Hanging Man was that we decided to have a script before we went into proper rehearsal. That's something we hadn't really done before: write everything out. But Julian decided he wanted to write a play. So, he went away and wrote a script, after which Lee said, "We're not very good at doing plays. We're much better at adapting things. So Lee suggested we would create a document--a historical document written as if someone three hundred years after the fact was researching this myth of the Hanging Man. It was a mock historical document that then became a script, which we adapted.

It was weird because in order to get to a point where we were happy with a script, and having one in the first place, we had to adapt our own. We had to pretend we were someone else. It was an interesting process that we ended up with. In the U.K. we put a bit of that mock document into the program, and people said, "Oh, it's a real story? It's not a myth?" We created a myth. A new myth.

CS: Have you been working with the same group of actors throughout the piece's development and touring?

PM: No. After the first workshop we kept one of the actors and then we re-cast. So we had a whole new group of people, partly because I wanted to address the issue of getting the actors to bring themselves to the process in a very direct way. We kind renegotiated the deal with the performers and said, "Look, it's going to be like this: You're going to have to be yourselves at certain points in the show, and we want you to know that that's going to be a challenge." So, there are sections of the show where they are themselves and not characters or figures. There are sections of the show that are descriptions of their own dreams. And there are sections where they talk about their own death fantasies: they imagine how they'd die, what it would be like, and what would happen afterwards. That's the bit of the show that changes each night.

CS: I'm interested in the central act of suspension in the piece. The architect character is hanging for the entire length of the show. Physically, how does that work?

PM: In terms of the actual, physical structure of the set, one thing we wanted to make sure is that whatever technology we used had to be seen. That's important to us in our work. Phil Eddols (the co-designer on this show) has something of a medieval technological mind. He knows about pulleys and weights, etc. When we were workshopping at the Walker Art Center, I found a beautiful French book of architectural drawings and co-designer Phil got very inspired by these pictures. For the show, he created a pulley system that is human-driven.

It's not as physical as we imagined it would be, but it's pretty clear that it's human-operated. It's a pulley system that goes up and down, and also trucks back and forth, so that's the leeway that you've got. You see the structure also around all this stone. There's something exciting about the unfinished nature of it, about an unfinished show playing at BAM! I think that's essential to Improbable's work. We've always felt that things are unfinished until the audience turns up. Things are porous, therefore, so that the audience can partake in the show.

CS: I've been obsessed with the question of virtuosity in theatre, especially because it has been an ongoing question with a lot of the artists I work with. I feel that sometimes you go to a theatre to watch a virtuoso, to watch superb technique, to watch a company craft something. But at the same time that can't be the end-product.

PM: I think that you go to the theatre to see people be super-human. For me, the exciting thing is to see potential: to see someone reaching into and outside of themselves in the moment. That's what I think skill is for: to create the space and the potential for something amazing to happen. Ultimately the problem of artistry is that you can't make it happen. All you can do is create the situation where potentiality exists.

CS: I've been thinking, as you've been speaking, about this agreement that you say you have with the audience. What happens in the moment where you offend the audience? I happen to think sometimes that's valuable. But how do you regain the audience once you've crossed that line? Are there strategies you have for doing that?

PM: There's the bit of The Hanging Man where the performers talk about their death fantasies. In rehearsals we played a lot with using mini-disc recorders recording text and then playing it back, and then repeating it exactly as recorded. We then played with the actors recording each other's death fantasies, as well as their own. I wanted to find out what it was like to do that in front of an audience. Our shows are basically quite accessible, but this tiny transgression, this section on death fantasies, tends to put people off. I think it's often the frame that offends, and a frame can be more offensive than questionable moral content.

CS: Shifting gears a bit, you've received a NESTA fellowship to continue your research work especially in regard to Arnold Mindell's conflict-resolution methodologies and how to use them in the theatre. What does this kind of open dream time allow you to accomplish now?

Shockheaded Peter, by Improbable TheatrePM: I'm collaborating with Jude Kelly, from West Yorkshire Playhouse, and she has created this amazing space in London called Metal. It's an arts space. And what's extraordinary about it is it is a space to facilitate creativity. You walk in, and you're in this brick, stripped-down room, and the most important thing in the room is a big wooden table and an Argo cooker. At the center is a community space at which to have meals. And then there is the big, tall structure, which is the office, and there's a gallery, and at that other end they've got the flats for artists to stay in, to be artists in residence, to come and create something for the gallery. But they also have this space to have a meal in, with people they would happen to network with, brainstorm with. So it's actually a beautiful space and idea, because it's about creating something that supports the creative process in a whole new way. She's created a home for artists to come and to be mentored in. While I'm at Metal, I will create forums for people in the theatre community to process issues that don't get processed, voices that don't get heard, and explore what those issues are. For me, these forums are an attempt to process those issues, rather than just have a conversation. They're an attempt to create some fluidity and give people a chance to say things, but also to free up people stuck in identified roles. Mindell's new book is The Deep Democracy of Open Forums, and it's basically about how to run and create forums, and we'll be using the book as the basis for our work.

CS: It sounds amazing and necessary. Especially now because people seem so fragmented and afraid, because the economy is so horrible and with every decision you make as an artist it's like, "Oh my God, why am I doing this? How is this going to be received? Am I going to lose all the people who supported me before?" All of that. I'm very curious about the new Improbable piece, about the critic.

PM: Theater of Blood. It's one of those late-night films that I saw when I was a teenager. It's a fantastic, quite camp film with Vincent Price in it, which has a terrible ending. But it has this wonderful central idea that there's a kind of fantastic old Shakespearean actor, who's famous for doing these Shakespearean roles. He gets rejected at this awards ceremony and then goes into this room where all the critics are, the critics' circle, as it were, and he commits suicide. And of course, he hasn't died. What then happens is, slowly, one by one, the critics get killed off. Someone's murdering these critics. But they're each murdered in these horrible ways that are very similar to Shakespearean deaths. So basically, as this actor, he takes revenge. He re-writes The Merchant of Venice. He feeds someone their own poodles in a pie. It's almost cheesy, but it has got the potential to be both entertaining and scary and open up quite an interesting discussion about criticism and critics.

CS: Are you thinking of making it contemporary?

PM: It might be interesting to keep it set in kind of a 1970s style. But there's one bit of me at the moment that thinks theatrically it might be interesting to explore different theatre styles: 1980s RSC, Butch, Alan Howard, mid-nineties physical theatre. One of the central debates in the Theater of Blood is the concept of the virtuoso, the classical Shakespearean actor, and what happens to virtuosity and its perception over time.

CS: Wearing many hats sometimes confuses people. They don't quite understand how you can shift your energies around as an artist. It is something I do all the time because I am simply following my interests and being true to my heart, but I know the question often arises: "Aren't you supposed to do just one thing?"

PM: Well, it scares people because they can't relate to you in a particular way so they know what you are. For me the development of a person is that you become flexible about those roles. You can be all those things. And the boundary of what you do and can do, your sense of yourself, grows and changes all the time. It is also the way I like to think about shows and about work. It is a constant journey. Each person has their own version of how things get formed, and how you keep breaking out of that eggshell.

CS: I think the hybrid form is the 21st century form, at least in theatre, where an actor, a dancer, a DJ, a film, can all co-exist in one piece of work. It is part of the world we live in. At the same time this world which we say is shrinking and moving ever so fast and incorporating all is ignoring countries that are not part of the shrinking, globalized marketplace. I think artists have a responsibility to keep an awareness that there are other people on the planet who aren't part of the driven, corporate machine, and if enough artists are alive to those voices which are being ignored or left behind, the voices will come into the work and maybe communicate something else to an audience, because it is easy to think this is the only kind of world we live in and necessary to be reminded otherwise.

PM: The same things that present opportunities also mean people will be left behind and marginalized in different ways. Arnold Mindell talked about it when we worked on Coma. When someone goes into a coma, they get treated as if they are not there, as if they are invisible, they don't exist, they may as well be dead, and people won't go near them, quite literally. What Mindell says the comatose person is doing is that they are in a deep state which is the kind of state shamans would go into to do deep work for the community. He also says one of the reasons people get stuck in comas is that everyone around them is denying their experience. Mindell tells a story about a man he worked with who had leukemia and they were ready to turn the machines off and pump him with morphine and his family fought for him, so the doctors asked for a signal, and the man woke up, looked at everyone, and then went back to sleep again. Before he died, he woke again and said, "I found it. I found the key to life," and it sounded like nonsense, but it was this vision of the world like the Zurich transit system and it was this fantastic, visionary thing. And this is the work that is not happening in our communities.


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