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Grassroots Shakespeare London talk to Tom Wicker about steaming up the Old Red Lion with their Summer of Love season

Fresh from their critically acclaimed, sell-out Christmas rep season, the multi-Off West End Award-nominated Grassroots Shakespeare London theatre company is returning with Summer of Love at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Grassroots' latest season is pairing the star-crossed tragedy of Romeo and Juliet with romantic comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. The plays run on alternating nights from 18 June to 27 July.

Led by SOLT/TMA Stage One Producer and RADA graduate Siobhan Daly, Grassroots is rapidly making a name for itself with its Original Practices policy of working without a director and devising each show from scratch, as an ensemble effort. The company produces stripped back, textually rigorous and fun productions that are accessible to everyone.

A fortnight before the season’s opening night, I met with Daly and Boris Mitkov – Grassroots’ assistant artistic director (and this season's Romeo) – to discuss Shakespeare’s enduring appeal, the benefits of working without a director and the challenges facing younger actors today.

Why the Summer of Love theme?

Boris Mitkov: That’s from the producing side. How do you sell a show? With ‘Summer of Love’ we’ve got one play – Romeo and Juliet – that is a tragedy, quite definitely, and one – Love’s Labour’s Lost – that is a comedy, so it’s the theme of love explored from two very different angles.

Siobhán Daly: We were having conversations about what we should do. We quite liked the idea of doing something popular and well-known and then we thought, ‘What could we do alongside that?’ And it’s funny, because Love’s Labour’s Lost seems so popular – and we weren’t sure whether it was going to sell!

Why do you think that is?

BM: It’s very interesting. Love’s Labour’s Lost is actually a very funny play, surprisingly so for one of the comedies; its text, its language, is denser and more complex than Romeo and Juliet. Partly that’s because people are more familiar with the latter – they know the text, so that’s an easier way in, whereas Love’s Labour’s Lost is something fresh and new.

How do you make it accessible?

BM: You’ve got one character already speaking Latin and who is very verbose. That was the kind of comedy that was really appreciated at the time Shakespeare was writing, because they loved language and wordplay. And now, in rehearsals, we have to look up a Shakespeare glossary to find out exactly what they’re talking about! But once you’ve pinned down the meaning, it suddenly comes to life. People may not understand every word that character says, but that’s part of the comedy. We’ve found a way into that. One of the characters carries his own Latin dictionary, so he can look things up. It’s playing with the idea that, all right, no one knows what he’s talking about, rather than going, ‘We’re on the outside looking in.’

What makes Grassroots stand out from other Shakespeare companies?

SD: It’s a good question. One thing we love is to be as unpretentious as possible. And because we’re original practices, and don’t work with a director, I find lots of people want to talk about that. You could go to the Globe or the RSC, but I think there’s something really attractive about having portable theatre that’s value for money; and we bring a lot of fun because we don’t get caught up in the idea that ours has to be the most definitive version of a play ever. We just want to enjoy what we’re doing and we want the audience to have fun with it, too, especially when they only have so much disposable income. It’s also about word of mouth. With our last show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we had Egeus come out at the beginning and ask, ‘Have you come far?’ Once, someone said, ‘Yes, we’ve come from Gloucestershire’! I don’t know who they were. They weren’t anyone’s parent! So there’s something there.

BM: The word irreverent is really what we strive for, but not disrespectful. The idea is to do Shakespeare in a way that really focuses on the relationships of the characters – making these real and relevant. Of course, it all is, so it isn’t like we’ve got some huge task; it’s just about tearing down the fourth wall thing that didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time. These were massively popular plays. He was the West End success. It was a commercial venture and he had to cater for a massive audience. We want to bring it back to that level, because – now – Shakespeare is seen as elitist, but there’s absolutely no reason why it has to be.

Boris – what’s it like to play a character as well known as Romeo?

BM: It’s tough, but it’s great to tackle such a famous character. I think it’s quite telling that yesterday that we had a scene which – in terms of actual text – is quite short, but a lot of action happens between Tybalt and Mercutio and Tybalt and Romeo. In that scene you go through the entire gamut of emotions. Romeo enters having just been married and then he sees his friend squaring up for a fight, and then he watches his friend get stabbed in front of his eyes...

SD: It’s his fault!

BM: By intervening, by trying to stop the violence, Romeo actually causes Mercutio’s death. And suddenly he goes from being the lover to burning with revenge in the space of about two minutes. The speech that’s really the turning point is probably about 4-5 lines of text and suddenly everybody in the rehearsal room had an idea about every piece of it. It’s great – you’ve got 12 directors and everyone has an idea. But of course you’re never going to please everyone. You can’t both blow up and really internalise this vengeful anger. So you have to listen to everyone and then decide what the essence of what they want is, and then try to find a way to convey that.

Is that what makes Grassroots’ approach fresh?

SD: When you’re working with a director, they have the authoritarian voice. As an actor, you’re not allowed to question your director’s viewpoint, concept or their vision of what you should be doing. The nice thing about doing it our way is that you have 12 people who are passionately interested. And if you’re bringing something dull, they’re going to pick you up on it – in a supportive way! Personally, having seen a lot of Shakespeare, I think there are actors who don’t know what they’re saying. They’re saying the words, but they don’t know what they mean. That makes a world of difference. But you don’t need a degree in English – everyone has a heart. If an actor understands what they’re saying, even if you don’t recognise all of the words, you’ll understand who’s upset and who loves who.

But how did you end up playing the lead, Boris?

BM: Well, we refine our audition process at each stage, whenever we consider new projects. As we’ve mentioned before, we’re keen on really giving actors a chance. The way we do that is to have an initial reading of the monologues, giving feedback and seeing how people take constructive criticism. Then, in the second round, I was part of the audition process auditioning alongside everybody else. And we do try to balance it. So, I have a much smaller role in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

SD: I should say that the actual decision was mine! What Boris is describing is that from the initial workshops onwards I’m watching to see who could be who. We have to know that the actors are going to enjoy our process and being with everybody else. Then, in the third round, I’m looking at how well individual actors will work together. Is he a good Tybalt? Is he a good Romeo? The bigger picture from our auditions for this season is that we want to start building an ensemble of actors. So Boris wasn’t in our Christmas show and I was; now, I’m not in these shows and he is. And if he wasn’t right, he wouldn’t be in it.

Does working like this necessitate putting aside ego?

BM: I would say that – because of how we audition – we end up with the most dedicated and driven people, but also the most realistic, humble and down-to-earth. Currently we’re a profit share organisation and everybody sacrifices an awful lot to come in, enjoy the rehearsals and really give their best. One guy goes and does a 15-hour shift on his day off and then comes in the next day at 10am. That’s a lot of work and a lot of stress, but he’s always ready to enjoy it. You just don’t end up with actors who turn up, deliver their role and say, ‘Everyone else can do what they want.’ You can’t do that in this situation. The cast wouldn’t let you get away with it! You have to not only be working on yourself but thinking about everybody else. There isn’t someone dictating the relationship so the more you input into other people and their actions on stage, the more you understand the entire piece. Normally, you rely on a director to say, ‘This is how you feel about that.’ Here, you get to sound it out and really explore it.

Do the actors ever find it tricky juggling two characters simultaneously?

SD: We always tell everyone, ‘Learn your lines before you start, so that when you get here we can just play.’ You know what’s happening and you know your characters. And as an actor it’s just loads of fun. It can be easy to say, ‘Oh, I’m bored with this character’, but in rep it feels fresh every night. You have to remember what you’re doing and where your props are – you can’t ever get complacent.

BM: And we really like giving people the opportunity to feel like they can get it wrong. Quite famously, Ian McKellen once said that there isn’t a current generation of great British actors because the last lot trained in rep theatres. They were contracted for a year and got to do an entire season in different roles. They could get it wrong and not have to worry about where the next job was coming from.

SD: Our actors don’t get comfortable, which is important. I once saw a master class with Michael Sheen in which he talked about his parents running an am-dram group in Port Talbot. The first time he went on stage they said, ‘Now, Michael, people have saved their money all week to come to see you on stage, so you’d better do your best.’ I was quite young when I heard this and it struck a chord. Now, I tell actors that story before they go on stage!

BM: From a financial point of view, when it comes to selling tickets, it’s good to have a variety – to give audiences a choice. Maybe someone will see Romeo and Juliet and go, ‘Oh that was really fun, so let’s see the other one.’ But, also, it’s just so hard for people to get the practice as actors. If you haven’t been able to do it for six months, can you really call yourself an actor? Particularly when everyone asks, ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘What would I have seen you in?’ But if – like here – you’re doing two shows, you feel like an actor again. It gives you back that confidence.
SD: The reality is that it’s difficult. For a long time after I graduated from RADA my second job – which wasn’t even in a theatre-related discipline – became my main job. I had to keep working just to keep working. One of the reasons I started Grassroots was to find a way to ensure that, as actors, we have something worthy and creative that keeps us on our toes, so that when we’re out of work we’re doing something constructive rather than sitting around feeling bad about ourselves.

Are theatres receptive to Grassroots as a repertory company?

SD: It’s interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find venues and it’s happened. You can get really high hire fees, but you understand that a theatre is trying to make money just as much as your company is, and that you have to fit in with their artistic vision. It’s not easy – you have to be really passionate about what you’re doing. In terms of our productions, neither Boris nor I will get paid after months and months of work. We’ll get part of the profit share, like the actors, so we do it because we really love it.

BM: We’re always looking for the next space for the next show, and the next donation. We’re flexible about what we programme. We can sit down with our dramaturg and look at our options, what haven’t we done and what would we like to do, but it’s also about liking the space and feel of a theatre. For example, we recently visited the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. It’s a brand new space in an area that doesn’t have a comparable theatre centre nearby. It’s brilliant, so we said, ‘We have ideas but if there’s anything that might fit better with your programming, we’d be happy to work around that within the canon of Shakespeare’. Ultimately, it’s about demonstrating the company’s enthusiasm.

The Old Red Lion had great success with Henry V last year. Was that part of its appeal?

BM: The artistic director Nick Thompson told us that they actually don’t book that much Shakespeare – they like new writing. But we do classical texts through a way of working that people won’t have seen before. That’s possibly what excited them about the Summer of Love season. Our plays aren’t new but the method of creation is.

Could you envisage eventually touring a version of Grassroots outside London?

SD: It’s so much about the contracting and what each different venue wants. And then it’s about getting a cast around the country, so I’m not sure about touring.

BM: We don’t have lavish sets, so what we do is portable and would lend itself to touring. Right now, though, we’re keen to do what we can for the bits of London that don’t have much theatre. And there’s a huge amount of expense in touring. Here, people can still keep their day or night job. That’s not an option on tour. Do you give up your flat? Are you just throwing your money into a black hole? There’s enough in London to do for the moment!

What’s your perspective on the current debate about the value of the arts?

SD: I fall on the side of the arts as not a commodity. For me, if you start taking that approach, people start losing access. That makes me really angry. I’m from Newham, which has Royal Stratford East, but apart from that there’s nothing in that borough –which is so culturally rich – and there should be. It should have more fringe venues, theatres above pubs, but there’s nothing. I’ve tried to meet up with the mayor of Newham to talk about it. Where’s the cultural provision? There used to be parts of Newham which had old-style park festivals, and they’ve been stopped. Why have they been stopped? That’s where I think people with a lot of money could invest, rather than spending it on, say, a £200 ticket at the Royal Opera House – which, incidentally, already receives public subsidy.

BM: To my mind there has to be subsidised theatre. The numbers don’t stack up otherwise. Unless you’ve got a big theatre with a thousand seats, where you’re charging £50 a ticket, you can’t actually afford to pay people a living wage. Of course, there are commercial shows that will make their money back but where are the experimental spaces? Where are you going to push the industry forward or break boundaries? It has to be the fringe or festivals or new writing or companies with new ways of working. The arts have never had enough money and it never will. For example, the Arts Council is very specific about how you need to apply for funding: you need to have booked a venue and they want a lead-in time of a minimum of three months. So you have to book your venue for three months before you know if you have any money to do the show. And even if you’ve managed to raise enough money to get that far, you can run out of the 12-week period and still not get the money. And even if you do, it means you can really only do a maximum of two shows a year. It’s mad.

SD: Coming back to the elitism of art, that’s a perception I really want to break down. I’ve worked in opera, which people see as elitist. But at the end of the day, it’s really not: it’s just some people singing some music. There are people you come across in the industry who actually want to keep theatre elite, which is an attitude I’m passionate about working against. Shakespeare is a playwright for all people. You can be anyone to come and see our shows and we try to keep them as cheap as can be.

BM: We want to engage people. ‘Populist’ can sometimes sound like a dumbing down of the material, and that’s not what we want to do. We don’t simplify it in any way – we give the text all of its glory – but if someone wants to engage with it and there’s a way in or something they can relate to, we empower them to do the work themselves. I care hugely about not letting audiences just sit and have the play wash over them.

What’s on the horizon for Grassroots besides the Summer of Love season?

SD: One thing I’ve been looking at is as Grassroots grows and develops and matures and becomes more established, how do we keep doing our free outdoor theatre? So we’ve come up with Grassroots Offshoots, a company which will have its first time out this summer. We’ll be in Victoria Embankment Gardens for three weeks in August doing As You Like It. A really talented 19-year-old – Christien Bart-Gittens – auditioned for us last year. He wasn’t quite ready to be in the main company but he was the first at rehearsals and he ended up doing his foundation year at East 15. He’s going to lead Offshoots for us. It’s a great opportunity for young people like him, who may be on a foundation course or of graduate age. We want to maintain the free theatre aspect, which is really important to us, while creating a platform for people like Christian to do something good before drama school.

For more information on the Summer of Love season, and to book tickets, go to: http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/old-red-lion.htm






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SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE needs your help NOW to lobby and tweet for their survival!

Amy Tez talks about FOUR DOGS AND A BONE with Tom Wicker

WILTON'S to remain open - hurrah!!

PATRICIA CAMPER to leave Talawa Theatre Company

BOY GEORGE at GREENWICH THEATRE!

WILTONS are turned down by the Heritage Lottery Fund!!

GIANT OLIVE THEATRE CO talks to Tom Wicker about celebrating women playwrights, performers, directors and designers as part of the Gaea Theatre Festival at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre.....

TOM WICKER talks to the creators of an uncompromising new play about the death of Baha Mousa...

RoAm Productions and Madison Theatre Company talk to Tom Wicker about RUMOURS.....

THRILL ME transfers to Charing Cross Theatre from 17 May to 11 June!

Tom Wicker talks to JAMES HADDRELL about the new Emerging Artists season, Greenwich's break with the past and the problem with pigeons....

CATRIONA MCLAUGHLIN tackles life and directing while staging IRISH BLOOD, ENGLISH HEART....

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part 5

How far would you go for love? THRILL ME tests you until 30th April at Tristan Bates

JOSIE ROURKE appointed new Artistic Director of The Donmar

Award-winning NEIL MCPHERSON talks candidly to Tom Wicker

HOMOS PROMOS: Peter Scott-Presland talks to Tom Wicker

THE BLOGGER BLAGS IT TO THE OFFIES! Part 4

OFFIE WINNERS GALORE!!!! READ ALL ABOUT IT!!

Sisters Cindy and Sheila Rhyme are updating Alice in Wonderland at The Courtyard....

MATTHEW CRITCHFIELD and JAZZ FLAHERTY talk about The Black Death, conspiracy and friendship...............

OFFIE SHORTLIST ANNOUNCED after a day of contention, controversy and too much coffee.....

ANTHONY ABUAH talks about putting his heart and soul into writing....

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part3

Interview with writer Philip Ridley

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part2

JAMES BURN introduces Legacy Burns

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part 1 in an endless new series.....

POLIS LOIZOU talks about life, art and CLOTHES TO FALL APART IN

Glenn Chandler and Scouts In Bondage

What is Paul Clarkson doing at The Union?

Bill Bankes-Jones talks about Salad Days and surfing

Carole Carpenter on tour with Jane Austen

Dan Barnard is SHOOTING RATS at an epic new venue

Zimbabwe-born David Dinnell talks about HOW TO COOK A COUNTRY

Director Sarah Norman talks to us from The Finborough

Amy Molloy Interviewed (appearing in Kitty & Damnation at the Lion & Unicorn from 11 Aug 2009 to 12 Sep 2009)

Charlotte Gwinner talks about ANGLE

Kenneth Emson talks about Whispering Happiness and what inspires him....

THE FRENCH ARE COMING to The King's Head!

Paolo Rotondo talks from New Zealand

Writer Stephen M Hunt wishes he had written Slueth

Writer Jeremy Green talks about THE SERIOUS BUSINESS OF CHOOSING A MATE

Andrew Olay talks about inspiration, character amd Tom Courtney

Ellie Turner performs with LOVE&MADNESS

Sondheim's Saturday Night with Helena Blackman

Alistair Green directs The Thingumywotsit at The Hen & Chickens

Racky Plews directs Into The Woods

Robert Lloyd Parry is at Baron's Court

Interview with The Umbilical Brothers at The Leicester Square Theatre

Interview with Iain Pears at The Riverside Studios

Interview with Tim Roseman directing Overspill

Interview with Melanie Wilson

Interview with Gillian Plowman, author of Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe

Interview with Alex Helfrecht

Interview with Michael Gieleta

Interview with director Rhys Thomas

Interview with writer James Graham

Theatre Student Patricia Low posts her Malaysia Blog

Sabina Arthur performs in Under The Veil

Fin Kennedy talks about UNSTATED

Interview with Andrew Keatley

Interview with Ben Hales

Interview with Ali Taylor

Interview with Matt Ball

Interview with Tim Fountain

Interview with Glyn Maxwell

Interview with writer Coda Quashie

Interview with Sarah Mann

Interview with Yolanda Mpele

Interview with Howard Barker

Interview with Brian Timoney

Interview with Laura Stevens

Interview with John Sandy

Interview with Philly Greenwood

Interview with Dean Stalham

Interview with Jack McNamara

Interview with Caroline Partridge

Meet People Show artist Gareth Brierley

Interview with George Mann

Meet Phillip Brook, star of Uncle Barry at the Blue Elephant

Interview with Fin Kennedy

Interview with James Graham

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown V

Interview with Cath Whitefield, now appearing at The Gate

Interview with Lavern Archer

Royal Court Announces Autumn Season

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown IV

Marketing Managers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown III

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown II

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Arcola to Create World's First Carbon Neutral Theatre

Interview with Nell Leyshon, Writer of Glass Eels at the Hampstead Theatre

A New Start for the Southwark Playhouse

The Mark Shenton Show

Theatre has moved on - whatever we critics think

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