Elizabeth Gaubert (Writer/Director), Louise Malin (Producer), Katherine Edrupt (Assistant Producer & Actor), Robert Neumark Jones (Actor), Tracey Greene (Actor), Jamal Hue-Bonner (Actor)
Stop, Look, Listen was one of three pieces of exciting and challenging new writing at NSDF’11. AYT managed to track down the boys and girls of Big Smoke Productions for a discussion about the joys of workshops, being inspired, touring a show and how to deal with being star struck…
So, how did you all band together to form Big Smoke?
ELIZABETH GAUBERT: Louise Malin, Katherine Edrupt and myself set up Big Smoke. We’d known each other since we were ten or 11 years old, so as friendships go we’ve been together for a long time. We’ve all ended up going in the same sort of direction. We wanted to work together again because we hadn’t for a few years.
LOUISE MALIN: It was about a year ago that we decided we wanted to take our first piece to the Edinburgh Fringe and I knew Liz really wanted that piece to be Stop, Look, Listen. So, it was because of this that we came to the idea of forming Big Smoke.
GAUBERT: We just thought, “Who better to work with then those we really trust?” It’s gone really well. It’s great that we’ve all come from different institutions and brought with us lots of different experiences. That’s really helped. But it’s because of genuinely knowing each other all so well that I think it’s worked.
KATHERINE EDRUPT: We did originally think of writing an entirely new piece ourselves. But we already had an amazing pre-existing text that had been written by Liz, so we decided to concentrate on that rather then producing something completely unformed together.
Stop, Look, Listen is one of three pieces of new writing at NSDF’11. Can you tell us about the writing process and the ways in which the cast aided itS development when you began touring it?
GAUBERT: Stop, Look, Listen began at Reading University as part of my final Dissertation piece. I opted to write a new play rather then direct a published play. The work came out of what I was thinking at the time. There was also lot going on in the media and a particular Channel 4 documentary called On My Street became a massive stimulus for me. It helped me solve the problem of not just creating a play about two or three people. I wanted to make it broad and have as many different opinions expressed in the play as possible. But then I also had to make it digestible for audience! So, watching that documentary really helped me because it concentrated on a whole street and asked lots of questions about the place they lived. Another interesting thing I watched was Talking Heads [not Alan Bennet’s monologues, but a Polish film], which is one of the most amazing films I’ve seen. It really inspired me. The films ask the same three questions to a massive number of people from the age of 0 to someone who was aged 103. That really interested me: the decision not to focus on simply one generation or age range, but targeting a wide spectrum on the same subject.
Given the prevalence of multi-role in the play, how did the process of developing these characters unfold in rehearsal?
TRACY GREENE: For me, I observed a lot of different people. I listened to people on the bus, which was how I learnt the Nigerian accent. In terms of switching between characters, we had to be on point in order to produce those emotions.
ROBERT NEUMARK-JONES: Early on, we had sessions where we’d focus on individual characters and we’d ask, “How do they sit?” We’d develop a separate pose for each character. In the actual section of the play, you don’t see all those characters. But in those work-shopping sessions, every single character had their own pose. In turn, that fed into how they spoke – the cadences, the rhythms of their language – and each unique tick that makes us all individuals.
EDRUPT: We also made decisions on what happened and asked questions like, “Where do these people come from?” or “What happens to them before and after the play?” We’d each picture them sitting in their home or what they were eating. Rather then just seeing them as a character in the realm of the play, it was about locating them before and after.
JAMAL HUE-BONNER: Having Liz as the director, as well as the writer of the play, really helped. I remember in an early session, Liz was explaining Frank’s character to me and how he felt before and after the accident. I don’t think we would’ve accessed that knowledge otherwise. We had the knowledge of why Frank was so reclusive, and how those feelings went much deeper then I thought.
GREENE: We were observing real things as well. Just as in the play, there really was a real giant wooden giraffe on our road!
GAUBERT: There are a lot of things that occur in the play amongst lots of different characters. Because people tend not to interact when living on their road, they fail to realise how varied their own spectrum is.
NEUMARK-JONES: We wanted to portray all these characters as different, but there is an extent to which you can take that to far.
HUE-BONNER: Because we’re all seated, it was about striking a balance. Not caricaturing them, but making the differences notable.
NEUMARK-JONES: You can quite easily imagine a street in London, where there would be someone from Australia, someone from South Africa and so on. But if you influence a play with too many actors and too many characters, suddenly the audiences react with “What is it we’re really watching here?”
The play has had a long life: beginning at Reading University, then moving to Theatre 503 and running for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe, before arriving at NSDF. What were the challenges of touring the show in this way?
EDRUPT: It’s been a learning experience for me. I’m experienced in producing commercials, but theatre’s completely different. Stop, Look, Listen is one of the first projects I’ve produced for theatre. You learn a lot as you go along, and make a lot of it up to be honest! You pretend to know what you’re doing and eventually realize that you do know what you’re doing. It’s been an incredible run and producing the play for Theatre 503 was an amazing experience. We managed to sell out our first show and because we had more people waiting to see it, they offered us another night. That gave us an enormous boost for Edinburgh. On the producing side of things, there is always more you can be doing, and that’s why the produces job is never done. First of all, you’re faced with the organising of the accommodation, the venue, casting, funding, and marketing. We had a little bit of support, so we were really lucky. But we did fund a lot of it ourselves. Without all that hard work we wouldn’t be here.
What do you think NSDF’11 offers up-and-coming young companies like yourselves?
GAUBERT: I think it really does offer an incredible amount. I’m coming to NSDF as someone who is still studying at a post-graduate level [Mountview], and there are workshops here that are on a par with what I am doing at drama school. I’m going into these workshops, being familiar with what’s happening, but still learning new things. I can see all these people reacting with “Oh my god! I’ve never thought about text that way”. The visiting artists aren’t just coming here and merely easing you into things, they’re actually saying, “Look, this is what it’s like to do it in the real world, and if you want to take it seriously, you’re going to have to start thinking like this”. I think that’s important because it’s opening our eyes and providing reassurance in making you realise that everything is possible, it’s just making opportunities.
NEUMARK-JONES: I’ve been struck by how professional the whole festival feels. It doesn’t feel like a student festival at all. There are important people here, the workshops are of an incredibly high quality, the shows we’ve seen are brilliant, the opportunities you get are huge… it doesn’t feel like being a student.
EDRUPT: It’s just such a supportive community. You wouldn’t get these opportunities anywhere else. They cater for writing, directing, teching, producing and acting, and I think that range is invaluable. Because we’re all from London, we sometimes feel like tiny fish in an enormous pond. Whereas being here, you’re going about the week in a little bubble, and it’s incredible to meet all the different sorts of people. I mean, I would never meet the producer of The King’s Speech anywhere else!
GREENE: We got to talk to Hannah Miller, who is head of casting at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It doesn’t take you long to realiSe that they’re all so nice and are actually normal people. Having been in the industry for a while, coming back here is a really refreshing eye opener.
HUE-BONNER: It’s definitely an eye opener for me. Before coming here, I’d never seen a university production before, but there’s been some work here that has just really impressed me. I’ve seen some drama school showcase productions, from some really amazing drama schools, and even they haven’t been on a par with some of the shows here.
So, what’s in store for the future of Big Smoke?
GAUBERT: We definitely want to keep working together. But, at the same time, we’re all in different places. I’ve got lots of plans for the future in terms of writing, directing and acting in our own work together, but it really does depend on what comes along first for me.
EDRUPT: I don’t think it will be the end of Big Smoke. But we might have a little break…
GAUBERT: We’ll definitely need to save some money, given that we’re completely self-funded.
EDRUPT: If we do all go our own ways for a little bit, the amount of experience we’ll get will be invaluable. When we come back together we’ll be bigger, stronger and better.
Keep up-to-date with Big Smoke Productions at: http://www.bigsmokeproductions.org/