When Captain Amazing strides onto the Soho stage later this month, cape aflutter, it will be the latest step in a heroically long journey. The one-man, multi-character show is the story of Mark becoming a dad, and wanting to imagine himself as the titular superhero.
Director Clive Judd gives me his elevator pitch: “he’s an everyday person, but when life throws Mark a curveball in the form of a young daughter it hugely changes what’s in his head.” And who he wants to be. Mark Weinman, who plays Mark, chimes in: “it’s about the difference in a person once their imagination is unlocked, and the possibilities of the imagination.”
It’s the fourth day of their 2014 rehearsals when I speak to Judd and Weinman, whose voices boom down a phone line that sounds as if it’s lodged deep within a wind tunnel. Judd recalls Captain Amazing’s genesis as being back in 2009, but on the other (far less windy) phone line, writer Alistair McDowall remembers first having the idea when the three were at Manchester University together. When he first tried to write it, a development supported by Live Theatre’s Empty Space bursary, he tried “to write it as stand-up, as observational jokes about being a superhero. But it wasn’t the right form for it, for the character – it wasn’t funny and it didn’t really work. So as a response I started writing lots and lots of conversations between the main character and his daughter. They just streamed out of me.”
The combination of that and a fortunate coincidence gave the play its shape. “Just before, around 2012, Mark did a monologue of mine for a Halloween show (it was called Mr. Noodle, this werewolf story) and there were long sections where he stopped directly addressing the audience and was just having a conversation with the other characters – with himself, as he was performing all the roles. He seemed so compelling that the next logical step was to write an entire play like that.”
Perhaps surprisingly for a one-person show, Judd and Weinman spend a huge amount of time doing character work. Every role that Weinman plays gets worked on as if it were an independent character played by another actor – as McDowall confides, “even though it’s a one-man show, a monologue really, formally it’s written like a straightforward play with scenes and with different characters. Theoretically you could perform it with multiple actors, but it wouldn’t be as interesting, really.”
Two years later they ended up in Edinburgh, for a two-week run as part of Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s. The Captain Amazing team are all in their mid-to-late twenties, and after reflecting on their success Judd reckons the Edinburgh experience is “invaluable for a young company.” Weinman says there’s something special about having work playing in the same environment as accomplished artists, “being exposed to the brilliant work out there, and being in the company of great practitioners.”
Last year was the first time Judd had been to Edinburgh, and he sees it as a test of a young company’s mettle. “If you come away having done a whole month on the street, flyering and shamelessly self-promoting in whatever way possible, it might be the best, or the hardest, or the worst thing you’ve ever done, but I think it will give any young performer or producer or director or writer a hell of a good basis to see whether they want to pursue this as a career.”
It’ll give them a taste of a business where money is always an issue. Captain Amazing has been developed with the support of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, and McDowall himself was finally able to give up the day job by winning a Bruntwood Prize in 2011 for his play (and Live Theatre co-production) Brilliant Adventures. The win couldn’t have been more timely.
“I lost my job on 14 November and, err… I won the prize on 15 November. It was really very well-timed. And it enabled me to go full-time, which I’d nearly been able to do beforehand, but it was a kickstarter to that.”
Which is good, because McDowall was never going to stop. He speaks in a quick, impassioned torrent: “for me, writing is a compulsion. If I wasn’t getting paid for it, if it wasn’t getting put on, I’d still do it. I obsessively collect stories, I watch a vast number of films and I read a huge amount, and so it’s also a sense of thinking “I wish I could see that” or “I wish that existed” – and it doesn’t, so I make it. I want to see things that don’t quite exist yet, and so I write them.” For his money, aspiring writers should read as much and as broadly as possible, “and then don’t think about it too much and just write. Write because you have to.”
Weinman’s advice for actors is based on the holy trinity of preparation, self-confidence, and preparation again. “There’s a huge difference between self-confidence and arrogance, but as an actor you have to believe you can bring something to the role. I probably wasted a lot of my younger years wasting auditions because I wasn’t preparing properly.” And, equally as important, “be brave. Make brave choices.” If you haven’t already, Weinman recommends you check out the Monobox, a company that helps young actors to find new monologues and get some audition technique.
Judd’s advice echoes Weinman’s in that your ethos is key. “In terms of directing, you need to forge the strongest possible relationships you can with your team – because without them you don’t have a production. To do that, trust them. I would also say you have to be strong-minded: being strong about your decision making, I think, gains you respect – knowing what you need to create the best piece of work you can.”
Back to Captain Amazing, they couldn’t be more excited to bring him to new audiences in the capital. And if you’re not in London? Well, Judd says, “Captain Amazing’s cape keeps getting dusted off, and you never know – he might be flying to a venue near you soon.”
Captain Amazing is playing at the Soho Theatre from 16 April to 9 May. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.