This year the Robert Louis-Stevenson classic is spruced up by a group of ridiculous clowns attempting to recreate the ‘Treasure Island’ story. Directed by Stephen Sobal, I get to chat to Holly Bodimeade, one of our Island clowns and Fourth Monkey Year of the Monkey company member. Hopefully she’s a little more serious about my questions than this show suggests…
Hi Holly! So, this show seems to be one of havoc – What’s it like working with Stephen?
Holly: He works in generally a very relaxed manner but isn’t afraid to throw us in at the deep end in terms of just being on stage alone having no other choice but to make the audience laugh. He is great to work with because you really feel like there is a collaborative and democratic approach to making the show. We started the process by composing short, brief summaries of each scene, and then we would just go ahead and create improvisations around them. Then Steve would go away and write the scene based on what we had created.
Whoa, that sounds like you guys have had quite a bit of freedom in the creation of this show. Clowning really is a style of its very own, are you learning many new techniques with Stephen?
Holly: Clowning was definitely a new concept for the majority of the group, and right from the start we were introduced to new techniques and skills to enhance our understanding of the style, and to quite literally form the show. We learnt a lot about not planning or pre-empting, and whatever you do in clown, always ‘keeping it light’. We learnt about little things such as how just a simple look to the audience at the right time can make the moment funny. We also use the technique of having a metaphorical ‘antenna’ which basically means being sensitive to what the audience are enjoying, and repeating/building on that.
So what does that mean in terms of your roles within the show as a whole?
Holly: It’s great being an ensemble member of a clown show, because for clown to work you have to be completely and utterly open and genuine, even if you’re playing a ‘character’ on top of that (I know.. it’s quite confusing..). Even though it’s based on a published book, everyone’s characters have been created to suit their own personalities and strengths in comedy. This is great because you really get the sense of everyone being an individual within in an ensemble. In a practical sense, Treasure Island is very fast-paced, so everyone needs to be focused and ‘on-it’ in terms of cues and knowing what comes next, so it’s always a brilliant feeling when we’re doing run-throughs and it all comes together.
Fourth Monkey prides itself with the training being based around old school methods of repertory theatre. How has that impacted on your learning experience this year?
Holly: Doing shows in rep is incredible, considering years ago it was such a significant method of training and nowadays it is almost non-existent! I couldn’t think of a more valuable training as an actor, in Edinburgh we will be performing every day in front of an audience in different shows and having to bring the same energy, commitment and detail every single night. The enjoyment of it is having that luxury and the opportunity whilst still ‘in training’ to perform a lengthy run of shows like that, and in many cases completely opposing roles. I couldn’t really imagine a better way of perfecting your craft to be honest! I think the difficulties will vary from person to person but definitely having to go from a family clown show like Treasure Island, where breaking character and looking at the audience is encouraged, to something like The House of Bernarda Alba which requires such a different energy and focus and emotional intensity. Stamina is also a huge factor, as so much consistent energy and physical commitment is required.
Stamina and commitment are truly the foundation to being successful at what we do. Although, you sometimes need a bit of ridiculous-ness, paricularly in this show, for creativity to really surge.
Holly: Well due to the nature of Treasure Island and the amount of clown games we play, ridiculous-ness is pretty much encouraged above all. There is one game in particular called ‘three lives’ where you just literally have to stand up in front of everyone and just make them laugh. If you start to ‘flop’ – meaning it’s awkward and no one is laughing – then you loose a life, and when you’ve lost three lives, then you’re out. It actually gets pretty competitive so you can probably imagine the lengths of ridiculous people go to, to stay in the game. It’s absolutely terrifying, but it’s all a laugh!
This sounds like another production really worth seeing to get a glimpse of Fourth Monkey’s comedic style and sense of play! Catch ‘Treasure Island’ this Edinburgh Fringe at The Space, V9 on Niddry Street. Oooh Arrrrghhhh!
Cant Stay Away
One of the plays being taken up to the fringe this year will be Mitch Michelson’s ‘Can’t Stay Away’. I had the pleasure of talking to one of the cast during their on going rehearsal process. The lovely Kayti Moran tells us what it’s like working with the fabulous Mr Mitchelson, Commedia dell’Arte and being part of an incredible piece of new writing.
So, firstly, as a completely original piece by Mitch, how would you sum ‘Can’t Stay Away’ up?
Kayti: Sum up ‘Can’t Stay Away’? ‘Lazz’ a tough question. At times, it simply feels like a lazzi of delightful commotion with the fast-paced and frequently bizarre action (a lazzi being a comic routine commonly used in Commedia dell’Arte).
Written by our director, Can’t Stay Away has been adapted from an 18th century Goldoni script, The 22 Misfortunes of Harlequin, inspired by Marco Martinelli and worked from David Posner’s translation. Giving the play a British context, Mitch has taken the idea of an exploited rustic Zanni desperate to return home and transposed it to a recognisably modern scenario of an exploited Eastern European immigrant trying to leave the UK. The piece addresses the issue of immigration and patriotism in this country, featuring verbatim theatre, echoes of Commedia dell’Arte and even a rap song… So all in all, a non-stop production!
Having worked with Mitch recently myself, the entire experience must be a particularly humorous one. He often works very much from a clowning and Commedia perspective, how is it working with him?
Kayti: “Bit by bit, fitting it together, the only way to make a work of art” – one of Mitch’s favourite Sondheim quotes, you can often hear this little mantra recited in rehearsals. And that’s how we’ve worked – bit by bit with clear objectives, working from the script and our own devised ideas. Rehearsals are a real process of discovery, with new lines and lazzis being constantly added to the play as we encounter new moments of hilarity or, equally, profundity. The space is always alive with creativity and laughter – never a boring room!
I can imagine! What sort of new skills are you learning during this rehearsal process in regards to this?
Kayti: During rehearsals, there has been great opportunity to devise and improvise to develop the piece and so we are constantly on our toes to find new ways of delivering the performance. We were thrown straight into experimenting on day one of rehearsals, creating five different versions of live bison, five talking lorries and our own takes of a dreamlike paradise – using only ourselves and all the bags, brooms, bowls and other belongings we could find. For us as actors and as theatre-makers, the elements of imagination and, quite importantly for this show, comedy are components that have been really played on and developed in the undertaking of ‘Can’t Stay Away’.
‘Theatre-makers’ is, I think, a particularly important phrase in the Fourth Monkey ethos, especially for a company that very much works from an ensemble point of view – how does the ensemble work in ‘Can’t Stay Away’?
Kayti: The ensemble plays an essential role and very often has the most profound voice – even when appearing as talking furniture! We rely greatly on each other’s timing and accuracy in the play as the action is fast-paced, with lots of bustling ensemble scenes creating the world of the play, often quite literally (see aforementioned lorries, furniture, dream sequences…!). It has been a fabulous group process of developing the play, and always fun to see what will come out of everyone’s wonderful, warped imaginations.
Absolutely! Working as a team is one of the most fundamental parts of being an actor. How does that translate when doing plays in repertory, as you are this year?
Kayti: Doing shows in rep immediately presents a demanding process as we prepare for sustaining ourselves for a show every night up at the Fringe. However, in rehearsals, it’s a fantastic aid to be able to watch our doubles and see their take on the same character – as the saying goes; good artists borrow, great artists steal..! Having said that, it’s important that we don’t replicate each other’s performances, which means we now have two very distinct variations of the show with their own respective quirks – the greatest distinction being the opposite gender casting of the lead role, Bogdan. Rather beautifully, this flips the plot on its head and brings new obstacles for characters but ultimately, it quite literally leaves us with the best of both worlds.
Finally, this sounds like an production worth seeing for the comedy alone – Have there been any moments or amusing stories from the rehearsal process that stick in your mind?
Kayti: There are plenty of surreal and hilarious elements to Can’t Stay Away – possibly best summed up in watching the characters Herbert and Hortensia having to orgasm over a paper maché piggy bank – so we are never short of funny anecdotes from rehearsals. Another image that sticks out is an ensemble-made bison that suddenly started raining condoms (note to self: always zip up bag before creating the behind of a bison…). We have even been treated to Mitch on a unicycle in rehearsals – he just can’t stay away…
Golly! Well, I think you’ll agree that this show is going to be worth seeing! Piggy banks and bisons and directors jollying about on unicycles – Fourth Monkey really can be a place of wonder. Or, possibly just a place for mad people.. Either way, come over to The Space, V9 on Niddry Street this Edinburgh Fringe from 1st-23rd of August.
The House Of Bernarda Alba
Of the three Year of the Monkey productions being taken up to the Fringe this year, ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ is the least devised in its nature. Eva Scott tells us what it’s like working with Fourth Monkey’s Artistic Director Steve Green and where they as an ensemble have taken Lorca’s play.
Eva, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! We all want to know what this play is about?
Eva: The House of Bernarda Alba is the last play written by the famous and prolific Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Written in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, it was completed two months before Lorca was killed.
The play focuses on the drama within Bernarda Alba’s household after the death of her husband. She has five unmarried daughters between the ages of 32 and 20 who she condemns to eight years of mourning. If this period of confinement isn’t enough to send the girls mad, combined with the excruciating heat and a total lack of male contact, the eldest daughter, Angustias becomes engaged to the most eligible bachelor in the village, Pepe El Romano. This drives multiple wedges between the five sisters and their mother, causing Bernarda to tighten her grip on them until the brewing storm cannot be contained any more. The tragic fallout may prove to be too much for even this, the strongest of matriarchs. The drama is stirred further by Bernarda’s maid of 30 years, Poncia, Bernarda’s Iago and Fool rolled into one.
Well this sounds like a remarkably serious one in comparison to the other two! How has this been to explore with your director?
Eva: The process has been a real mixture of thorough research and discussion, combined with quite visceral and physical discovery of the world of the play. Steve began the rehearsal period by assigning us presentations to deliver on a list of topics that he deemed key to the production. We spent the first few days of rehearsal pooling research on Lorca and the historical, social and political context of the play. We plotted the various complex relationships between all the characters and tried to create as layered and complete a world as we could. Steve also invited the Spanish director George de Juan to come and speak to us about what this play means in Spanish culture and why it is such a seminal piece of writing. We then moved on to the more physical side of rehearsals. One of the things Steve is most anxious to bring out in our production is the notion of duende. This is an idea that Lorca theorized in his 1933 lecture, ‘Theory and Play of the Duende’. It refers to a sort of raw artistic passion. It can be found at its most intense form in the traditional Flamenco music of the Gitano (gypsy) communities in Southern Spain. It is something beautiful but not pretty. It is of the earth and in many ways totally not English. Steve spent a lot of time playing Flamenco music at mega-decibels whilst we danced and moved to the music, attempting to access that deep earthy quality that would be so prevalent in this village in Southern Spain but can be so absent in a rehearsal room in inner city London. It is such an important theme because this natural fire is exactly what Bernarda is attempting to quash in her daughters and is what eventually bursts forth and burns her.
It really sounds as though Steve has really pushed for the company to immerse themselves in the Spanish, and particularly Lorca’s, ideas of theater as an art form. What sort of difficulties have you found as a company of translating a heavily Spanish piece of writing?
Eva: I think the whole cast would be in agreement that one of the biggest difficulties when tackling Lorca is the language. Even though this is, to his mind, the least poetic of his plays, the lines are still full of complicated imagery and poetry. Trying to make this natural, yet maintain the lyricism is extremely difficult. Coupling this with the complex physical language of the characters has also been tough. For example Bernarda never relaxes into herself, she is always upright and ready to pounce if anyone puts a toe out of line. The daughters, however, have to embody the freedom of the duende, showing the innate fire in their bellies whilst also embodying the restriction and control that Bernarda exerts.
Aside from the complexity of the text, has there been anything else that you feel has taught the ensemble a lot?
Eva: Probably members of the cast having to play characters much older than themselves. For example Bernarda is supposed to be 60, Poncia is in her forties and, the biggest stretch, Bernarda’s mother, Maria Josefa is in her eighties. I think all the actresses playing these parts have had to spend a lot of time trying to forget about the age of their characters and just play the truth of the experiences. I think we’ve all at some point been bogged down by trying to play older women, but if you forget about the age and play the intentions of each woman, we have found (hopefully) that the weight of age comes naturally.
I also think we have all been stretched by the sheer amount of stamina the play demands both emotionally and physically. The stakes are sky-high throughout the whole play and the energy can never be dropped. Each morning before rehearsals begin we do a cardio/core/yoga workout, which certainly gets the blood racing and sets us up for the crazy world we have to inhabit when entering Bernarda’s house.
And you have created this crazy world as an ensemble, how do you feel that experience has been during rehearsals?
Eva: The ensemble environment has been particularly conducive. Steve has allowed us to improvise a lot of the movement-based set pieces on our own, only coming in to help us refine and amalgamate our ideas. This feeling of unity helps to maintain the energy that is so vital to this difficult play. A group effort has also been helpful when attempting to get to the root of difficult passages, of which there are many. The varied ideas that come from a group can be much more exciting that one actor’s initial thoughts.
Indeed! I have asked the other girls what it has been like participating in more that one show at a time and stamina seems to come up every time… How has it been so far?
Eva: Rep is an incredibly testing experience. It requires so much discipline and stamina and it forces you to rely upon your ensemble members. I have loved being in Bernarda Alba and Treasure Isalnd as one day you’ll be playing a grieving Spanish matriarch and then next you’ll be rolling around on the floor trying to make people laugh. Trying to maintain tragic and comic performances is hard work, but hopefully in the end rewarding. Ultimately I think working in rep stops you from getting bogged down in one play and over-thinking it because as soon as you begin to do that you’re on to the next play and by the time you come back to the first, it feels fresh again.
Well, if you have had quite enough of the comedy that sprawls over the Edinburgh Fringe, why not pop over to The Space for a slightly more sombre, dramatic piece of theatre. All three of these shows look like there are going to be unmissable!!