Interview: Three Chairs and a Hat
With no Edinburgh Fringe this year, The Space have continued undeterred & are presenting a three-week online festival. The Mumble caught up with one of the companies involved.
Hello Nia, nice to see you & your wonderful company, Three Chairs and a Hat, again. If only by Zoom! So, last year you brought your brilliant Verity to the Fringe, how did you find the experience?
Nia: Hello! Nice to see you too! Last year was our debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it was an amazing—and exhausting!— experience. It was so great to be part of that buzzing energy and activity, and to have access to so much original and inspiring theatre; and to perform every day with the wonderful Verity team was an absolute privilege. The build-up to our first Fringe was a bit stressful, and I was probably a tad grumpy and preoccupied at times, but the team were unfailingly patient and positive and enthusiastic from the word go. And we couldn’t have had more help and support from the venue, theSpaceUK, and the Fringe organisers. They were so friendly and always ready to advise. So I’m now looking forward to going back as often as possible, with as much work as I can produce!
Hello Wayne. As the Creative Director of Nia Williams’ musical ‘Melody’, the cancellation probably hit you hard – how did the group take it at first?
Wayne: As a company, we were disappointed not to be able to take Melody to EdFringe, but we’ve all been very pragmatic about the situation; using the opportunity to create something for the online festival. We are determined that Melody will appear in person once the festival is up and running again, and the venue has been wonderfully supportive.
Hello Jane. What do you miss most about being in a more tactile environment with Three Chairs & a Hat?
Jane: Performing together is such fun, sparking off each other as the show progresses so that every performance is unique. And of course, we all miss the audience with their reactions and laughter (when appropriate!). When recording something, you have to imagine the audience’s response.
So how did the announcement of the three-week online festival inspire you to get busy, Nia?
Nia: Three Chairs and a Hat were booked in to the Space on the Mile for a week’s run of my new musical, Melody in August, and it was hugely disappointing for everyone, of course, when the 2020 Fringe was cancelled. We fully intend to go back in 2021, but in the meantime, theSpaceUK’s three-week video festival Online@theSpaceUK has kept us busy and creative, and given us all real momentum. It’s also been a great chance to involve more people and more new writing, as we’re able to contribute four videos: HAUNTED (available from 8 August); LADY M; THE SINGING LESSON (both from 15 August); and PAMELA DRYSDALE’S LOCKDOWN (from 22 August). Learning about video-making has been a mix of terror, frustration and fun, but it feels really good to be on this steep learning curve, and I’m now starting to think more about the potential of video for future projects and promotion.
Hello Alice, you’re directing one of the videos, Lady M. You’ve got lots of experience directing larger cast shows like Into the Woods and Pinocchio. How have you found directing a one-woman video, and doing it at a distance?
Alice: Directing at a distance is definitely a challenge, but at least with a one-woman video I’m able to focus on the characterisation and detail more easily than I would have with a larger cast using physical theatre! Susanne, who plays Lady M, is very responsive to direction and she has primarily developed ideas in isolation, which we have then discussed and expanded upon to shape the structure of the piece. After reading the script and discussing staging ideas with Nia and Susanne we quickly realised how suited this piece is to a video format. The monologue takes us on a journey through one woman’s experience of living life as an outsider and never truly feeling accepted. Her attempts to coach others, in a virtual world where she never has to face her own reality, lead her to reveal her own vulnerabilities and a past she cannot wash away with sanitiser. Through rehearsals and recordings Susanne has brought to life this troubled and quirky character and we have tried to highlight the contrast between her mask of Lady M, an online self-help guru, versus the unnamed woman who feels devalued and irrelevant.
Wayne again. Can you tell us about the Sergeant Pepper’s project you were involved in?
Wayne: In 2017 I was commissioned by The Oxford Beatles, in conjunction with ElevenOne Theatre, to write a play script to be performed around a live performance of The Beatles’ album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. The album was celebrating 50 years since its release, shortly before The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, died from an accidental overdose. The show followed Brian through his final year; from the recording and publicity of the album, through to his feeling that the band were slipping away from his guidance. In order to create the spectacle of the album, the show featured the four Oxford Beatles and their musical director, a 12-piece orchestra, two Indian instrumentalists, and four actors playing six parts.
You’ve done a lot of work with local theatre groups, Marilyn, what is it that appeals to you about that world?
Marilyn: I have always loved live theatre but had to make a choice when I was growing up to either train for a career in the NHS or apply to drama school. Needless to say, my parents encouraged me to take the safer option where employment would be guaranteed. However, I could not let the opportunity to perform pass me by and so I auditioned to join a local group. Amateur theatre has allowed me to play so many wonderful parts that I may never have been able to on the professional stage. I have escaped to the diverse lives of Mrs Anna in the King and I, Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, Ruth in Pirates of Penzance and many more. I have witnessed the joy of many people as they fulfil their dreams of playing certain parts in local theatre and the pride of their families as they watch their loved ones grow in confidence and ambition. Local groups cater for all ages, on stage and behind the scenes, and allow people to explore their talents whilst holding down a day job.
Hello Susanne. How have you found performing and rehearsing LADY M, given that it’s just you and the camera?
Susanne: It’s been a new challenge! I’ve very much missed rehearsals and working collaboratively in real time with Nia and Alice. That said, it’s been a pleasant surprise to experiment with a camera and lighting to try and convey different moods. Its also been a good medium to try and convey nuances of character, though the immediate feedback from watching your own performance takes some getting used to!
A question for anybody now. What have you learnt about yourself & your art during the Lockdown period?
Jane: I have learned that I have had to be resourceful in finding new interests whilst being furloughed from work and how enjoyable this has been for me. I really enjoyed writing PDL (and two subsequent short stories that followed). Without the Lockdown (and encouragement from Nia) I would never have started writing and I’m so glad I did.
Susanne: In this unusual time I, like I’m sure many others, have realised how important music and drama is to me. As a means of social interaction, a way to be creative, and a mechanism to explore new things, art is essential for a colourful life. We must preserve it at all costs.
Alice: Interestingly I started lockdown feeling optimistic about acting more quickly on creative urges and embracing new challenges, believing I’d have so much time to indulge my own projects, but the drain of ongoing uncertainty and hours spent with children needing education and entertainment, have slowly chipped away at my creativity! I’ve learnt that my relationship with theatre is very much a response to a need for human stories in my life. My lockdown narrative has been banal and average and I think myself very lucky to emerge without a ‘story’, but I have been truly moved and inspired by the global humanity shown through this pandemic and that is an outcome in itself. Knowing we can be touched and affected by what others are going through is one of the most incredible gifts of being human and in my opinion argument enough for an arts-based culture to be given validity and worth. It is vital to the re-emergence of society that we can offer a stage for these stories to be shared.
Wayne: I have found that the quiet solitude has actually helped me to create, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the support available from other artists who’ve been willing to share their work and offer online mentorship. It really does go to prove that the show must go on!
Hello Guy. In The Singing Lesson, you play flamboyant singing teacher Evangeline Gibson; you also play this and many other roles in Melody, the show that’s the basis for the video. How did you approach both tasks and how do they compare?
Guy: In the full show I play 12 or 13 different characters and have to change quickly between them all. I try and find a different physicality for each one; this informs the way I move, stand, walk and my body position. At one point I play Melody’s mother, I imagine her to be quite short, slightly stooped and worn down by life, I play her in a slightly apologetic way by wringing my hands a lot. Evangeline Gibson is very different! I imagine her to have a large bosom, with a lot of theatrical waving of hands and more than a touch of Hinge and Bracket thrown into the mix. I also like playing with accents as this helps me make sense of the different characters, I play Melody’s boss at one stage and for some reason it seemed to make complete sense to me that he should have a Birmingham accent; again this informed everything about the way the character behaved, he’s a bit pompous and talks out of the side of his mouth, he struts around like a jumped-up peacock!Reducing Evangeline to a Zoom lesson has been tricky because she’s very flamboyant in all her movement. Trying to capture that theatricality on screen meant doing a lot more close camera work and trying to ensure my hands were always on view. Having a swivelled office chair helped give me a range of movement that was different than when we see her standing, but lent itself to some fun theatrical shenanigans.
So, Nia, tell us about HAUNTED.
Nia: HAUNTED is a story about isolation, jealousy and obsession, and the way our minds can go around in circles and play tricks with our sanity, when we’re on our own. It follows the thought processes of a woman who’s helping her brother move in to a new house, and it could be a ghost story, or a story of paranoia and guilt. I decided to make it a dramatised narrative, rather than just tell it straight from the page, so I then had the challenge of finding ways to create the right mood and atmosphere using only what I had to hand in the house. It was also a bit of a first for me, as I’m not an actor, but I really enjoyed it—though by the end, I did start to understand that filming is a very slow, fiddly and tiring business!
You’re also the writer of LADY M – what’s it about?
Nia: I started writing LADY M after thinking about the way ambitious women, without any means to power, are so often portrayed as flawed characters or out-and-out villains. That led to imagining what Lady Macbeth would do if she were alive now; and the whole video format lent itself to portraying her as a life coach, giving out advice to herYouTube followers. Susanne and Alice and I are developing this as a stage show, which sees Lady M start to indulge in confessions about her own dodgy past. I’ m hoping this video will inspire people to come and see the rest of her story, when we’re able to get back to rehearsing and staging live theatre.
Hello Marilyn. Can you tell us something about The Singing Lesson, and what it was like creating a video?
Marilyn: The Singing Lesson is a glimpse of the life of Melody Smart, whom I play in Nia’s musical ‘Melody’. Melody is a hotel receptionist with a big secret that gradually unravels during the course of a singing lesson which she won in a raffle. She has always wanted to sing, and her meeting with Evangeline Gibson gives her the opportunity and confidence to analyse her life choices as well as sing. Creating the video was initially daunting and scary but it gradually became great fun. It was a wonderfully different way to portray Melody and her growing relationship with Evangeline. It also taught me how to lip sync. and sing a duet without being in the same room as the other person.
Susanne, how do you manage to balance your work as a doctor and your performing?
Susanne: Obviously it’s been a challenging time for lots of people including those working in hospitals. Having an absorbing project to come home to that is so completely different to my day job has been a welcome release.
Guy, can you tell us about your work with the Music Youth Company Oxford, and about the recent recognition you received for your work in education and the theatre.
Guy: I’ve been working with the Musical Youth Company of Oxford (MYCO) for the last 17 years and became their resident creative director about 10 years ago. We specialise in musical theatre and have staged a huge variety of shows over the years, as well as winning a number of awards. So far my favourite show with MYCO was our 2018 production of Godspell, set in a dystopian wasteland, into which comes a character who changes everyone’s lives. Most recently I was directing and choreographing their new production of Chess the Musical, which sadly had to be postponed 3 weeks before we were due to go up because we went into lockdown. We’ve rescheduled for March next year at the Oxford Playhouse. It was doubly hard as Chess is one of my favourite shows and I felt deep down that this was some of my most innovative work.I was honoured and very humbled to be made an MBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List. The citation was for services to education and community in Oxfordshire. My work in children’s, youth and adult theatre was heavily cited as well as voluntary work I do, training teachers and other public sector workers in tackling LGBT bullying. I was especially glad that my dad was able to see me receive this honour at Buckingham Palace: it made him really proud and sadly, just over a year later, he died of pulmonary fibrosis.
Jane, can you tell us about PAMELA DRYSDALE’S LOCKDOWN?
Jane: Pamela Drysdale’s Lockdown is the story of a woman tempted to a titillating weekend away with Kinky Keith from the office. But a weekend becomes weeks in the face of the COVID-19 lockdown. Can her passion be sustained?
So Wayne, how have you found working on The Singing Lesson, and what have been the particular challenges of Lockdown directing?
Wayne: Overall, this has been an uplifting experience of turning a potential negative into a positive. At first the four of us – the two actors, Guy and Marilyn and the writer and musician Nia – just stared at the squares of faces, wondering how this might work. But we all quickly realised that a singing lesson does actually lend itself well to something that could be done online as, I think, a lot of music tutors have discovered. Some aspects of the show require a certain amount of intimacy; for instance when the singing teacher, Evangeline, holds onto Melody to show her where her diaphragm is; and another point where there is an element of implied threat. So, to imply this over-familiarity, I suggested that Marilyn and Guy come very close to the camera at certain points, so that the audience experiences a feeling of invasion of personal space. It also adds comedic value too, as you will see from the trailer when Melody is trying to look into the camera to ‘see’ if anyone is there!
The Mumble: Well good luck everyone—I hope you enjoy this alternative fringe experience, and look forward to seeing you all in Edinburgh soon.
LADY M—running from 15 August
THE SINGING LESSON—running from 15 August
PAMELA DRYSDALE’S LOCKDOWN—running from 22 August