An Interview with Alex Fthenakis
2017’s On The Verge Festival – a small festival of big ideas and big ambition – kicks off later today, 21 performances at the Citizen’s Theatre (Tickets can be bought at the RCS box office or at the Citizens).
The Mumble managed a few words with its chief…
Hi Alex, so where ya from & where ya at, Geographically speaking?
Born and raised in Mountain View, California. That’s the heart of Silicon Valley, so at the time it was all HP, Sun, Cisco, and Lockheed employees. Now it’s Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. That and retired 35 year old multi-millionaires getting ready to start their second (or third) career. It should come as no surprise that I feel rather out of place when visiting. Based in Pollokshields. I couldn’t love it more. Have been in Glasgow (mostly) since 2009. Along the way I’ve lived in LA, London, and, Chicago.
When did you first find yourself getting into the dramatic arts?
I think I was in first or second grade (age 6-7). It was a production of Peter Pan. I was a ‘lost boy’. After that it was school plays and Christmas Pageants for a few years before my interest really got going and I made a serious thing of it in High School. I was recently on tour performing in a Play, Pie, and a Pint show, His Final Bow, and made a joke about ‘taking the day off and watching from the house’ or something. It triggered a flashback to that Peter Pan – I remember throwing a big tantrum when I found out that being in the play it meant I wouldn’t ever get a chance to see it from the audience. These disappointments are rough when you’re six… Perhaps that was an early sign that I wanted to do more in theatre than just perform. That Peter Pan youth theatre must have been a racket too – they were a touring youth theatre that toured their shows but not the kids. So they would make a show and take all the tech, design, etc. on tour but recruit and rehearse new kids in for each new stop on the tour. Those participation fees must have added up quick. Sounds a bit like Harold Hill’s band when I think about it now.
In 2014 the Arts Council of England and UKBA endorsed you as an artist of Exceptional Promise for his work, cam you tell us about the process
I probably get asked about this more than about my work. It’s a really tough process applying for this visa category. Tyler Collins and some others have been in the press lately due to their struggles in applying. Basically you have to prove to Arts Council England that you have the potential to become a world leader in your field. There are probably about a dozen of us in Scotland – I’d bet that more than half are OTV alums.
This week sees On the Verge returning to Glasgow, what is it about this particular slice of student theatre that makes OTV so special
My (absolute lifesaver of an) Associate Producer Stephanie Katie Hunter keeps referring to OTV as a ‘DIY Festival’ and I think that’s a great moniker. OTV students make all their own work from scratch. They write, direct, perform, design, source props, build things, operate lights and sound for one another, write their own marketing copy, run their own social media campaigns, write their own risk assessments etc. They are mentored by some really fantastic tutors and guest artists, but the work they make is all their own and they’re tasked with self-sourcing almost all the resources to support it. For the audience I think that’s really special because it’s a chance to see the work of this next generation of theatre makers standing all on its own. Works are very much in-development and many of the students are just beginning to recognise who they are as artists, so it’s all less polished than you’d find with some of the drama school’s full productions. However, this is the first time an audience gets to see the nascent work of these students without it being filtered through outside professional directors, designers, technicians, writers, etc. Think of it as the theatrical equivalent of being able to claim that you saw Belle and Sebastian’s first gig at the Halt Bar before anyone had ever heard of them (disclaimer: lots of OTV shows have gone on to future success, but none have been quite THAT successful – yet…)
What for you makes a good piece of theatre
I think all good art has to come from a place of both passion and exploration for all the artists involved. Beyond that, a good piece of theatre should never try to be something it’s not or apologise for being what it is. And it should do something that can only be done with a live audience in real time (i.e. something that’s not possible on film – this is a bugbear of mine with a lot of young American writers).
What do you think the students get most out of OTV
For those that know they want to make their own work after graduation I think it’s a great dry run at what their first endeavours might look like. Imagine you’ve just graduated and the industry doesn’t know you and you don’t have a track record yet, so you can’t get any funding or much formal support – you’re going to have to phone in whatever favours you can to try to get your first no/low-budget project off the ground. In a perfect world it would be easier than that but oftentimes it’s not, so it’s great to get a chance to try out this way of working in a context where audiences accept that the whole thing is a ‘DIY Festival’ of works-in-progress. It gives students a low-risk opportunity to discover where their strengths lie and where they need to spend more time cultivating relationships with specialist collaborators. For lots of students, though, OTV is the impetus for them to try their hand at writing or directing or designing or songwriting for the first time. Except for the 3 MA directing students, everyone in OTV is training first and foremost as a performer, so for quite a few OTV students this is the moment when they first discover (or first reveal) that they want to build a career as a multidisciplined artist. With the way the industry is changing (and has changed over the last 30 years), it’s more important than ever for a theatre artist to have multiple strings to their bow in order to make a sustainable career.
What does Alex Fthenakis like to do when he’s not being theatrical
I’m a pretty avid cyclist – not a lycra and racing bike kind of cyclist – I’d describe myself as an ‘adventure cyclist’. For me the bicycle is a tool to see things and go places that I couldn’t otherwise afford to see for reasons of either time or money. I’ve done the West Highland Way a couple times on a mountain bike (only takes 2 1/2 days at a slow pace), and several other ‘bikepacking’ type adventures, but just now I’m on a road touring kick. After OTV I’m headed up into Sutherland for a bit of cycle touring and tent camping. I’m trying to keep my itinerary flexible, but if all goes according to plan I think I’ll cycle round the new North Coast 500.
Can you tell us about your baby, Rootstock Arts
Yeah – I think I first witnessed the guiding principle behind Rootstock in 2012. It was the first Pepperdine Scotland commission – Why Do You Stand There In The Rain? by Peter Arnott. I had a great discussion with the students one day about whether the play was Scottish or American – there was no real consensus, and I think that was the play’s biggest strength. Peter wrote a 7:84/Wildcat style agit-prop ceilidh play, but he wrote it for a dozen super-talented young Americans, and he wrote it about an episode in American history. He’d had the idea for the show sitting in his drawer for something like 20 years, but had never found the right group to write it for. It was a perfect situation where the whole became better than the sum of its parts and the resulting show was a huge success (and is probably a big reason behind my certification as Exceptionally Promising). Ever since then the key question when commissioning for Pepperdine Scotland is: what is the one story that THIS writer and THESE performers are better equipped to tell than anyone else in the world? Rootstock is about trying to facilitate work that answers that question in various situations where we bring international artists (or their work) together. It’s about making international theatre that represents true co-creation rather than just import and export of complete work. Since 2012 I’ve had a few Pepperdine-like ideas that ran into road blocks because there needed to be a separate company on board to handle the ‘international’ aspect of a project, so I set up Rootstock to help with this. As a company we’ve done a few little bits and pieces so far, but it looks like our first significant project activity probably won’t begin until either this Autumn or next May.
What does the rest of 2017 hold in store for Alex Fthenakis
Well for the next month or so I’m just going to take a break and regroup! It’s been one of the busiest spring seasons I’ve ever had and I’ve been working nonstop overlapping contracts as both an actor and a producer since about mid-February. I’m massively thankful for that, but now I’m also grateful for a bit of quiet time through early summer. This autumn it looks like I’m finally going to get some time to focus on some of my own projects – there a few shows I am making / want to make which require a bit of focus and TLC from me just now, so it will be good to spend some time on those. There are a few other things in the pipeline too, but they’re dependent on some still-pending funding applications so I can’t talk about them at present. Also if the apps get knocked back I’ll be looking for some more work this Autumn, so I’d better not make it sound like I’m too busy!