Saturday, 7 March 2020

Moving Forward with the Twirl of a Cane - An Interview with Ross McGregor.

Back in 2019, I was granted my wish of interviewing Ross McGregor, Director, writer and founder of Arrows & Traps.  At the point of the interview, the company was about to undergo significant changes, possibly even ‘permanent hiatus’.  Since then, they have staged three more shows at the Jack Studio Theatre, ‘The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde’, ‘One Giant Leap’ and most recently, ‘Chaplin: Birth of the Tramp’.  Two of the shows are currently touring or about to start touring (‘The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde’ and ‘Chaplin: Birth of the Tramp’).  I felt that now was the time to request another interview from Ross McGregor as the last interview read like an ending and judging by the continuing quality of the company’s shows, Arrows & Traps are nowhere near coming to an end.  Ross McGregor has very kindly agreed to answer my questions again.

When I last interviewed you, you suggested that Arrows & Traps was about to go on ‘permanent hiatus’.  What has motivated you to continue with the group?

In some respects, that has still happened to some degree.  The way that we used to work - large casts, and just one venue with 15-20 dates - that model is finished with, and we won’t be returning to that.  What we are trying to do here instead is to move to a touring model, with an opening run at the Jack Studio Theatre, and a regional tour of the UK following that.  The idea is to build a book of shows, that use multiple casts, with multiple casting combinations that can tour simultaneously and constantly as needed.

Since ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘TARO’, you have produced two very different yet engaging productions, ‘The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde’ and ‘One Giant Leap’.  ‘One Giant Leap’ in particular was a funny take on the never-ending conspiracy theories concerning the 1969 Moon landing.  Do you find it more creatively satisfying to produce works, which are not based on existing novels and plays etc?

I think of the types of work we have produced, I find the historical biographies, like TARO, Gentleman Jack, The White Rose and Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp the most satisfying to write, as they require a fair amount of research, and in all the cases mentioned above I knew very little about the subject or their history before I began researching them, so the process of educating myself is most enjoyable.  In the case of One Giant Leap, it wasn’t so much about the moon landings as an ode / love letter to making a theatre company, these rag-tag bunch of creative people all going through the trials and tribulations of making entertainment, against the setting of having to try and pull off the greatest conspiracy theory in history.  I never understood why critics said that show should have ended with the moon landing musical sequence - because the story wasn’t about the moon landing - it was about the characters.

In relation to ‘One Giant Leap’, at one point, the cast perform a song from ‘Hair’.  Would you ever be tempted to produce an existing musical or even to write a brand new one?  I can imagine Arrows & Traps working on one of the contemporary musicals and creating a work that feels unique and vital.

I certainly wouldn’t be against it.  I love the idea of it, but musicals are so much harder, take far more organisation, and often end up being super expensive.  Unless you write them yourself, I suppose, but I sadly don’t have the musical skills to do that.

Your current show ‘Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp’ which has just finished its run at the Brockley Jack Theatre but soon to tour is an emotional journey for the audience, using re-enactments of scenes and routines from Charlie Chaplin’s theatrical life & films, whilst documenting key events from his life.  It offers Chaplin as an adult and as a child.  What inspired you to work on a project based on a universally recognised cultural icon at this moment in time?

Again, I knew very little about him before I started.  Writing a mute character interested me, and I’d seen a couple of videos on YouTube about his practical effects in his films, and at about the same time my girlfriend bought me a DVD of City Lights as an unrelated birthday gift.  So for me it was a way to write a story about how experience shapes the art we make, and how genius can sometimes come at a price, for both the person and those around him.  I wanted to write something honest about Chaplin, that showed how brilliant he is, but also how difficult he was at times, and to give a small insight into how he became who he did, and where he got it from.  And I also wanted to write a homage to all mums out there.  There are so many plays about fathers and father figures, I wanted to write one about mothers.

I understand that writing this production required the support of the Chaplin Estate.  Did they help to provide you with research material and/or do they have to authorise any project that focuses on Charlie Chaplin?  Did they restrict you from exploring any aspect of Chaplin’s life or work that you would have liked to have explored?

No, they didn’t provide much in the way of research materials; they trusted me to make my own choices.  They don’t need to authorise a biography about Chaplin, no, anyone in the public eye who’s deceased is fair game for writers, as long as you don’t libel or slander anyone.  Chaplin may have passed on, but his grandchildren are still very much around, and I didn’t want to embarrass or anger them with a controversial take.  In terms of copyright and protected property, the character of The Tramp is restricted so in order to use him, and have someone on stage that dressed in the bowler hat, the toothbrush moustache, and the big shoes, I needed their permission for that, which I got.  In terms of censorship, I am aware there are parts of Chaplin's personal life where he doesn’t come off well, particularly where his wives are concerned, but that was never the focus of the piece, so it never came up in discussion with the estate.  They were helpful and supportive throughout the process, and they were kind enough to provide the footage from The Great Dictator that we used at the end of the show.

Structurally, the play uses the device of having the adult and younger Charlie Chaplin on stage regularly mirroring each other?  You have used this creative device effectively and movingly before.  Do you feel that in many respects, linearity is a hindrance and that ultimately, in the case of play writing and indeed in biography, it is more realistic and emotionally powerful to focus on key events as the catalyst for the ongoing movement of the play (or for the documentation of a life)? 

Most of my plays involve the past and its importance on the present, and I don’t personally find memory to be a linear process.  At the end of the day, you’re not making a documentary, you’re telling a fictional story based on real events, creative license is used quite liberally, characters are amalgamated, tweaked and given lines they never said in real life.  Ultimately, you use what works to tell a good story, keep what works and cut the rest.  Generally, if I had included everything I wanted to use at the start, every single show I’ve ever written would be five hours long, and nobody wants to see that.

Your decision to cast Lucy Ioannou as Chaplin as a child and young man has resulted in many astounding interplays between the adult Charlie played by Connor Moss who seems world weary and driven and the young Charlie who performs the majority of the acrobatic routines.  Do you feel that the current theatrical leaning toward gender blind casting highlights the point that most roles need not be determinant on gender?  I am starting to realise that personally it makes little difference who plays the roles so long as they can accurately represent  the characteristics and emotions of the character.  I saw an all-male version of Genet’s ‘The Maids’ at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018, which helped me to realise that gender really doesn’t matter, so long as the characters and themes are successfully presented.

It really depends on the play.  We operate a gender-blind casting on some roles, not on others.  It really just depends on the part, and what you’re planning on doing with it.  Should there be a female Macbeth?  Female Hamlet?  Sure, absolutely.  If you find someone amazing then go for it.  Why not?  As long as the story’s clear and everyone knows what’s going on, I can’t see a problem with it.  In terms of the Tramp - once you put on that hat, the moustache, the jacket, the shoes, the massive trousers - it’s hard to tell what the performer looked like originally anyway.  The casting was racially blind, and gender blind, and we cast the best person for the role - that’s generally my principle - not too worried about the traditions.

In relation to the above question at a Q and A at the Brockley Jack Theatre you gave around the time of ‘The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde’, you suggested that you preferred working with female actors (sorry, if I have misquoted you)?  Please can you talk some more about this.  As a slight aside, I particularly liked your Mabel Normand scenes in ‘Chaplin’ where you challenge the language used which has constantly undermined her position as a significant performer in her own right.  Do you feel that in the light of the #MeToo movement, there will be a re-evaluation of the importance of previously somewhat neglected performers in all mediums?

That isn’t really what I said, but I understand how it could be seen as that.  The question I was asked was about casting and whether or not I had a policy with regards gender-blind casting, which I don’t especially - I believe in the best person for the job, and offering as many people opportunities as possible.  I do think that where possible you should widen the casting as far as possible, in all directions.  My comment in the Q&A was about the fact that it has been the usual experience of mine that female actors come to the audition more prepared, and the standard that you’re presented with on first meeting is generally higher at the audition phase - but that’s not a comment on talent - I don’t think one gender is better at acting than any other - it’s just been my experience that female actors seem to come with more of the scene down - and perhaps that’s due to the highly competitive nature of the industry where they’re concerned.  The ratio of men to women seems about 1:10 to me, and there are always more male parts than female, particularly in the classics.  There is a balance problem, and I don’t know whether the answer is to cast a female Lear or Othello or Hamlet or whatever, or to write more new stories from a BAME/female/LBTQ perspective.  It’s probably both.  And in answer to your Mabel Normand question, history is filled with untold stories, male and female, discovering them and bringing them to a wider audience is one of the best parts of running the company for me, and I think there’s certainly room for, and an audience for, #herstory pieces.  You only have to look at success stories like Call Me Fury, or Faust: Damned Woman, or It’s True, It’s True, It’s True for that.

The comedy routines in ‘Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp’ are almost exact re-enactments of the scenes from Chaplin’s films (and stage routines), do the cast have previous experience of training in clowning?  I notice that you have a Clown Director listed in the programme.  What does their work consist of?

We do homage various sequences, but they’re all inventions of the production in rehearsal.  Yes we eat a boot at one point, and use synchronised side steps like in the boxing match in City Lights, but at no point have we copied a full sequence.  There’d be little point in doing that, you should just watch the films, Chaplin did it better than we ever could.  The cast do have movement experience, yes, either through working with me on previous shows, or being trained in physical-theatre drama courses like Fourth Monkey Company like Lucy Ioannou, Conor Moss and Laurel Marks did.  Toby Wynn-Davies was a travelling clown in Latvia at one point in his diverse and decorated career, Benjamin Garrison is a professional drag queen as well as an actor, and Clare Astor has worked before with music hall and dance - so there’s experience there that I was glad of in the room, in terms of timing, ensemble and physical stamina.  A clown director, in this case, made sure the jokes landed and were clear - as well as honing some of the Chaplinisms and working with the cast to start playing and enjoying themselves - if the clowns aren’t breathing - you aren’t laughing.  Things like that.  It was just handy to have another set of eyes in the room, to be honest, I really valued the work that Stephen Sobal (clowning director) and Sarah Case (vocal coach) did on the show.

I have noticed that you regularly use modern music in your productions.  For example, in ‘Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp’, in addition to using music hall songs (most notably as the audience arrive to take their seats when Clare Aster as Hannah Chaplin sings a couple of songs including ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’), you also use the Divine Comedy’s ‘National Express’ and a cover of The Cure’s ‘Friday, I’m In Love’.  The songs you use are relevant to the context in which they appear.  ‘National Express’ linking to Chaplin touring and the song connected to the experience of travelling.  Do you feel that using music in unusual contexts helps to unlock further levels of a production?

It really boils down to personal taste.  Those songs are what were playing in my headphones when I wrote the piece, I felt like they fitted, and I’ve always used modern music in my shows - I don’t have a profound reasoning behind it, other than we can’t afford a composer, it makes the show stand out, and I personally love the melding of a classic story with modernity.  So yes, we’ve used Destiny’s Child in TARO, Britney Spears in Dracula, Space Oddity in One Giant Leap, Kashmir in Jekyll & Hyde, the list goes on.  It’s part of the company aesthetic now, to be honest, nineteen shows in, people seem to expect it now, and we always get lots of emails after the shows asking for the music playlist.

Upon seeing the play, I left with the feeling that Charlie Chaplin was a deeply complex character, a charming, creative man to some and a highly driven obsessive to others.  I was also interested to learn of his issues with cleanliness.  Whilst writing the play has your opinion of Chaplin changed?  Do you share any of his traits as a creator?

I didn’t really have an opinion on Chaplin before I wrote the show, as I knew nothing about him.  But yes, he’s certainly complicated, and not really that happy - at least not until he met Oona (wife #4).  The obsessive showering is true - sometimes up to five a day - but I assume Los Angeles was quite unbearable in the summer, and didn’t have much in the way of air-conditioning.  He was also very concerned about hygiene generally, and that might have stemmed from his mother, perhaps, whose madness was induced by syphilis, and subsequently Charlie became fastidious about germs in his adult life.  Yes, I think I am quite similar to Chaplin - I run a fringe theatre company, we’ve done 19 shows in six years, and we’re still going - a sane person without obsession would have stopped 4.5 years ago.  I suffer mood-wise if I’m not incredibly busy, am always working about three shows ahead of myself, and yet never watch my own work as an audience member because I can’t stand to see all the tiny flaws or errors, making my own work brings me great joy, watching it makes me cringe, so I try to avoid it whenever possible.  I have found it bearable to watch a recording of the shows, but only 3-6 months after the last performance.  So I guess I share Chaplin’s high standards, and his prolific output - I’m certainly not a genius however, and I think I’m possibly a little easier to get along with than he was, work-wise.

I have noticed how Arrows & Traps have begun to tour the shows more widely.  How do you choose where to perform and what has inspired you to share the works of the company around the country?

Some venues were arranged by a tour booker, others we knew from reputation, the rest we did some research, looked at where other companies were going, and made our own enquiries.  The move to touring is a practical decision - London is prohibitively expensive, and fringe theatre cannot ever hope to render a living / working wage for anyone involved when the venues are less than 100 seats, and the weekly hire fees are in the thousands.  The fringe is a great training ground, a wonderful place to try things, to hone your voice and your working style, to network, make connections, form teams, try things out in front of an audience that know their theatre, but as a viable, valid career on the London Fringe?  Absolutely not.  The only people making any money on the Fringe are the… errr… hold on… the… wait… there must be someone….

What are your future plans?  I recall reading somewhere that you are working on an Orwell project.  I can imagine you producing a version of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’.  Also you continue to be supportive of the works of other either temporary or permanent members of the Arrows & Traps team such as Beatrice Vincent and her play ‘Before I am Lost’ (Cobalt Theatre).   Do you find working on the projects of others easier or harder than working on your own?    

At the moment, the company are busy touring Jekyll & Hyde throughout the UK, with dates running until April, and then we begin our tour of Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp, which takes us through until June - complete listing for both shows can be found here:

After that, I have a new show opening at the Jack Studio in September, which is top secret for now - but yes, you’re right, it might be an Orwell.  Outside of Arrows & Traps I’m about to start work on a piece for 2021, which takes the story of Sophie Scholl, a young woman I wrote about in my show The White Rose in 2018, and incorporates a live performance of St Matthew’s Passion - it’s a very large project involving two choirs, a children’s choir, two orchestras, and four soloists.  In general, I prefer working on my own projects as I have more creative freedom and I feel like I’m building something, but there is a certain pleasure about working on someone else’s project as less of the pressure and stress is solely on you, it’s less financially draining, certainly, so there’s that.

Many thanks, Ross for allowing me to interview you again.

Photos & Images (Many thanks to Ross for allowing me to use his photo and the promotional images for the touring shows).

Ross McGregor

The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde

  Chaplin: The Birth of a Tramp


I would like to thank Ross McGregor again for his willingness to answer my questions.  All references to cultural works such as songs and plays etc are copyright to their respective holders and creators.

The following links will enable you to purchase tickets for the touring shows:

Also just visiting the Arrows and Traps website will restore your faith in the future of fringe theatre:

Additionally, I recommend the Jack Studio Theatre for their eclectic productions and their continuing support for fringe theatre and performance:

                                                           Barry Watt - 02/03/2020.

No comments:

Post a Comment