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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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.