A neuroscientist, a psychologist and a physicist go into a laboratory… Sounds like a joke, right? Well actually it’s the premise for Manic Chord Theatre Company’s revived After What Comes Before, which it’s due to perform at INCOMING festival in May.
Manic Chord – a.k.a. Alex Monk, David Cartwright and Sam Berrill – is currently preparing to embark on a UK mini-tour, which culminates with its performance at the New Diorama Theatre in May, and I managed to grab a brief chat with the team to discover a little more about the company and what we can expect from its show.
The company was formed in 2012, after they graduated from the Theatre and Performance course at the University of Leeds. Since then it has made two professional shows, the first of which was After What Comes Before, the show it took to Edinburgh in 2013, where it was met with an encouraging response from both audience and press (Five stars and “bold, bonkers and brilliant” from Edinburgh Fringe Review and “A rollercoaster of devised mayhem that gets the laughs all the way” from The Stage to name but a few).
The trio describe themselves as a “high energy ensemble” with a “particularly distinguishable physical style” although admit that, as a fairly new company, they’re still discovering what it is exactly that characterises their work. But to give us some idea: influenced by companies like Cheek By Jowl and Complicite, they consider themselves to be in a similar theatrical vein to other contemporary, young companies such as Kill the Beast and Antler Theatre (both of which will also appear at INCOMING Festival).
Cartwright explains that, “the first show was a very steep learning curve as we found out how we all worked together – initially it was a bit haphazard.” Individual roles quickly emerged with, alongside performing, Cartwright taking the lead on writing and dramaturgy, Berrill as director and Monk as producer.
Cartwright went on to explain that, although these became apparent as each member’s “area of expertise,” the process of making work is “still a very collaborative method of devising,” and particularly as all three perform in the show, it’s necessary for each member to also have an eye for directing.
When the group made its second piece, Don’t Let Go, these production roles seemed to further cement themselves and it looks like this is a comfortable working pattern for the company to follow in the future, perhaps even more so as the guys explain how they envisage bringing in new actors to allow them to concentrate on their individual creative production roles.
When talking about the future, the passion and excitement that the company has for its work is clear to see, and the three agree that an adoption of this sort of positive attitude is the best advice they can give to those looking to start their own company. As Cartwright says, “you need grit and determination to do it because there’s going to be tough times, but if you’ve got the passion to do it then you’ve just got to commit to it.” “But be prepared to have no money,” Monk adds, “We knew we were going to have to work other jobs, to lose sleep, but that’s all part of the fun of it.” Cartwright continues, “we’re also very disciplined in setting ourselves a schedule for work, but when that part of the process isn’t actually making money then you have to be quite disciplined”. “Ah, money’s overrated!” laughs Monk.
After leaving university the company had to make the decision whether to move to London before starting up or to stay on and make its work in Leeds. After opting to capitalise on connections they had already established, and after comparing the costs of living and working, they decided on the latter and is still a Leeds-based company. This is one of the reasons why they believe INCOMING festival is so important and are keen to share how they love the way the festival is able to bring together so many out-of-London artists to perform in the city. “We kind of see it as a way to test ourselves,” Cartwright explains, “to see if we can get something going in London”.
I ask what audiences can expect from After What Comes Before, and Cartwright responds, with a theatrical head turn and eyebrow raise, “well, they don’t call us Manic for nothing…”. The group laugh. “It’s high energy and fast paced. It tells the story of three mad scientists,” he continues. “It’s about their relationship, and how they try to build a machine to control people’s thoughts.”
The show explores a number of hot science and ethics topics and, although they tell me that it was never their initial intention to take the show down such a ‘scientific’ route, it developed “quite a socio-political underpinning” in the way it tackles current controversies about scientific advancement being used for human conditioning and genetic manipulation. “There was a big debate, particularly in America, about ADHD and about whether people should take pills to calm themselves down,” Berrill explains. “I think we must have been influenced by that and other similar issues in the news at the time we were devising the piece”.
I ask whether, as this is a revival, there has been much change to the piece they originally performed at the fringe in 2013. “You’re forever wanting to tinker with a show, when it’s your own, to make it better,” says Berrill. “As we’re starting the tour next week it’s really the perfect opportunity for us to keep it fresh, to fall in love with the piece again, and find the moments that we want to rework.” “It was a similar process in Edinburgh,” Cartwright adds. “The show changed quite dramatically from the first show to the last – so who knows what it’ll look like by the time we get to London!”
Berrill earlier described the company as performing with “a competitive playfulness,” and I had noted how their energy and interaction as a trio onstage has often been remarked upon in press reviews. It’s something that, after seeing the three together, I can well imagine and can only interpret as the kind of onstage chemistry that comes from the natural joy and energy produced by performers who have forged both a close and trusting working relationship and an off-stage friendship.