It’s been a great few days for me. Not only did I get to visit the Omnibus Theatre to review Simon Stephens’ excellent one-act play Country Music but I also got a chance to have a chat with the show’s Offie and Broadway World Nominated director, Scott Le Crass. I started by asking Scott to tell me a little bit about himself.
SLC: I started out as an actor, trained at Arts Ed. A couple of years out I had a change of heart and just wasn’t enjoying it (the acting) anymore, so changed career and spent around 4 years teaching drama. I was directing in the college I was working at and was getting a real taste for it, and I was really enjoying it, so I started to do little projects on the side such as scratch nights, a bit of assisting here and there, and then I left my job and started to work as a freelance director. I’ve been doing this for about six years, doing lots of different stuff.
So, I have a show (Elmer for Selladoor) which is a musical for kids using puppets currently touring. It has been so much to work on. It’s got a real heart to it. So, I’ve got that and I also have a regular gig doing open-air theatre in the summer in Devon. My real passion, and what really excites me is new work and work that has working-class voices, queer issues or mental health issues at the heart of it. It doesn’t always happen but those are the things I really enjoy.
TE: Do you miss acting at all?
SLC: I never used to but in the last couple of months I’ve thought ‘I could do this again’. Never say never, but it’s not up there in terms of ‘I have to do this’. But working on this play (Country Music) reading it, and it’s so well written you can’t help thinking it would be amazing to perform in it.
TE: How about directing yourself, would you be able to combine the roles?
SLC: I wouldn’t want to. I like having a dialogue with someone, and I like talking to the actors about a scene or how something is moving and I’d like that in return. Otherwise, it could be quite a lonely process. I like the idea of getting some distance, wearing different hats can be quite tricky and I think I’d like to focus on one.
TE: You were saying you like new things, so what attracted you to Country Music which was first performed in 2004?
SLC: Even though it was first performed 15 years ago, it still feels quite new. And the fact it’s never been done in the UK for a full run since its Royal Court debut, I was bowled over by that and wondered why it had not been done, particularly as a lot the themes in the play are still relevant and resonate with people.
TE: It is a great piece of writing and unlike the Guardian review from 2004, I loved the fact that the audience had to make their own mind up about the characters and get to know them very quickly.
SLC: Absolutely. I agree with you.
TE: And that brings me one of the most intriguing parts of the play, the number of silent moments there are.
SLC: The writer, Simon Stephens beautifully writes in the play his silences, beats and pauses. He doesn’t tell you why they are there, so our job was to really pick it up and ask why are they pausing there? why are they not saying anything? what is it they’re not saying?
For me, one of my favourite silences is in the first scene when the main character, Jamie, is smoking a cigarette and Lynsey is looking out of the window. Because that’s a point where they both know they have gone too far in that situation, and they are trying to come back from that. I’ve never worked on a production before where we have scrutinised every single line and every silence in as much detail, other than a classical text. And it was a really wonderful voyage of discovery really being specific with those. I think and I hope that we have shown a clarity on what’s going on and the structure of the silences.
TE: I think you are right. There were moments when nothing was happening but everything was happening. Talking about Jamie, he comes across as an amazing character going on a fantastic journey. What’s your impression of him?
SLC: I think Jamie is mercurial, I think he’s changeable. I think he’s broken, dangerous and vulnerable. He flits between being an adult and being a child. He’s a man of contradictions like a lot of us can be. He’s a product of his circumstance, had a bad home life, in and out of care. Ultimately, he’s such a three-dimensional character who really wants to come back from the things he has done. There’s a wonderful moment in the third scene where he
repeats to his daughter, Emma, ‘I want you to forgive me for the things I’ve done’. He’s complex and what I love about Jamie is that sometimes when you get working class voices on stage they can be quite stereotypical but Jamie has so many layers. Every time you think you have a hold on him, something else happens to change your perception. And, ultimately, he’s flawed and he knows it but is trying to deal with it and trying to change. Not committing crime and controlling his anger. It’s wonderful to keep finding new things with him.
TE: That’s very true. In the scene with Matty, there was this point – when Matty gives Jamie some bad news – Jamie’s reaction is almost swan-like. Above the table, he appears calm and in control, but underneath you can see his hand clenched into a tight fist looking ready to explode.
SLC: That’s something we talked about. Jamie is in an environment where to show any kind of ‘perceived’ weakness, emotion or vulnerability would be wrong and he would get absolutely crucified for it. So he gets this really hard news and has to present something that appears unaffected though inside he’s absolutely raging and crumbling. We spoke a lot about that about how Jamie has to present something on the exterior which is totally contradictory to how he feels.
TE: One of the things my friend and I discussed after seeing the play was whether or not Jamie was somewhere on the autism scale.
SLC. I don’t think he is but it’s interesting that you say that. When you look at him, there’s lots of repetition and stammering and extreme highs and lows. I think they are things to bear in mind in the first scene he’s a bit drunk, his adrenaline is pumping because of what he has done and there is a sense of danger looming. So I think the highs and lows are partly because of that. And also he feels like he has been backed into a corner by Lynsey so his way to react to that is to attack. What I love about the scenes, and I’m so pleased the audience is getting it, is the comedy. Each scene starts off quite funny, and then there is a turning point and it flips. It’s been really interesting to hear the response from the audience to that.
TE: So, what was it like for you on Friday (opening night) because, that’s it you’ve done everything you can and your baby is launched.
SLC: I just have to let go, and I think that can be a hard thing. I saw the show on Friday but now, I will just give the actors some final notes to help them through the rest of the run and trust them, knowing what they are going to do with is not a worry. This production has been such a personal production for me because it’s a play that I’ve wanted to direct for years. And actually, the letting go is a little bit tricky but it’s something you have to do. I won’t go and see the show every night, I’m not that sort of director. The actors need their freedom and time to let it evolve, mature and develop.
TE: Speaking of the actors, let’s talk about Cary Crankson in the role of Jamie.
SLC: I knew Cary, we had worked together many years ago on an acting job. I knew his more recent work as well. We saw lots of other amazing actors for the role of Jamie, but there was something about what Cary brought into the room, which has now translated into rehearsals and now onto the stage in terms of what he found in the character.
TE: Cary is on stage throughout, even during the scene changes when he changes clothes, he is totally in character.
SLC: That’s important. What isn’t written in the script is about Jamie leaving or coming on and I would imagine in the original production, he left the stage during the scene changes but I wanted his journey to continue during these points. For me, the scene changes are just an extension of the play. They are a means and a way of continuing to tell the story but in a visual way. Cary was very meticulous with everything. The way he absorbed notes, the way he built and developed the character was so detailed.
TE: Out of interest, in the real world how do you think you would get on with Jamie?
SLC: I’m nearly the same age as Jamie in the play. I think I would be intrigued by him and he is the sort of person I could go for a drink with. I think there is something very charming about Jamie, as well as his vulnerability and dangerousness. Jamie at 18 I would be terrified of.
TE: One of the things the writer does is set up the audience. Your initial impression of Jamie is that he is a chavvy thug and you will not like him. Then 70 minutes or so later, you are rooting for him.
SLC: Absolutely, and that’s what I love about the play. I love that we (the audience) have to work a bit and not have everything handed to us on a plate. Why shouldn’t we have our own judgements challenged? It’s not just Jamie. As far as his future life goes, I don’t think it will be plain sailing for him. I hope that Jamie could do a 360 but maybe not.
TE: The scene with his daughter (Emma) really demonstrates a lot about Jamie I think.
SLC: When he sees Emma in Sunderland, he has a difficult time. This is where the real drama of the play comes in. If Jamie and Emma had met and immediately kissed and made up, the scene would have been two minutes long. But you’ve got that really kind of difficult conversation. Again, that’s something about the play I love. How we have difficult conversations and how we get into those. We can’t just jump into them. We have to skirt around it a little bit. We have the small talk, then dip our toe in a little bit asking ‘can we go there?’ And then you launch into it. We thought of it like a boxing match. We felt like Jamie was going for rounds and, as Cary said, ‘instead if winner stays on its loser stays on’. For Jamie, it’s like a fight. Life keeps punching you and then seeing if he gets back up. And he does and learns from it so each experience has an effect on what he does next.
TE: Lynsey is an interesting character as well. She’s a 15 school girl but seems so much more mature, switched on and older.
SLC: That’s true. I think Lynsey, because she has been in care, has had to grow up so quickly. Again, we really talked at length about what each of the character’s backstories were and what’s happened to them. And we spoke about Lynsey’s home life and how that’s shaped her, and how she’s had to be protective of her and her younger sister from a young age. And he relationship with her mum’s new boyfriend. So actually Lynsey has had to grow up quite quickly. And that’s something you see in real life so often. People who are dealing with a lot and whose experiences have forces them to grow up. Also, girls mature quicker than boys and she seems, despite the age gap between her and the 18-year-old Jamie, she seems more switched on and realistic. So, as far as the road-trip with Jamie goes, she buys into the fantasy a little at the start but during their conversation, the reality of it starts to dawn on her and she tries to talk him around. Again though, all of the characters are really complex which is something I really enjoy. You think you’ve got a hold on them but then do something and that changes them for you.
TE: Coming back to Jamie. Without giving too much away, when we first meet him and Lynsey, something bad has happened to him which Lynsey stopped. Although it’s not talked about in the script directly, what do you think caused this event that precipitated the rest of the story.
SLC: I think it’s linked to several things. There are the problems with Ross Mack and the fact that, once you leave care, that’s it, you are abandoned and let out into the adult world with no support. And part of it is Jamie not wanting to be adult and still be part of things. Part of it was a cry for help. I think the Ross Mack stuff really impacted him and I think the idea of not being in the fixed structure of the care system is all part of it. It’s being institutionalised from a young age, in Jamie’s case, in care and prison, and I think he misses that. There’s a wonderful line where he says to Emma ‘Sometimes I go out without a lighter just so I can ask
people for a light’. And you think that’s it, you’re lonely. There’s a dependency with the system.
TE: It’s not all doom and gloom though. Six months out of prison he has a job, which he seems to really like and a hobby which satisfies him. The problem is that ultimately Jamie, gave me this feeling that no matter what he does he will never really succeed.
SLC: Maybe, but I love the fact we’ve slipped into talking about him and the other characters as if they are real people. I think subconsciously we do this because they feel so real. I love naturalistic theatre. I wanted to achieve something very natural with the acting but offsetting it with something quite abstract and non-naturalistic with the design. That for me was interesting to try and do that with those two things.
TE: Looking at the whole thing then, what was the process from you wanting this play to putting it on.
SLC: Initially I was going to do the play about three years ago but it never happened. So, I then asked if the rights were still available and they were. Then I approached the venue (Omnibus Theatre) and they loved the play. And suddenly it all got a bit real. Next stage was a Producer and Casting Director, auditions and call-backs. I really wanted the chemistry between Lynsey and Jamie to be so right. It matters less for the other characters because they are disconnected but the audience needs to understand why they like each other. Cary and Rebecca were one of the combinations we called back together. Then we cast it and started publicising. A short rehearsal period, only nine days and away we go. It’s been relatively quick but the process of this started in January when I spoke to the venue.
It’s exceeded what I wanted to do with it. I thought I knew the play inside out, but getting into rehearsals and picking it apart and having the actor’s contributions you find so much more. I feel like it’s taught me to be very confident with doing less. I’m really pleased with the actors’ performances and how the technical aspects have come together. I feel that it’s a beautiful play and I’m proud of how we presented it.
TE: Why do you think it hasn’t had a full run since the original one?
SLC: I think that is it’s a difficult play to get right. I think in the wrong hands – and I don’t think that we have done this – it could be a boring play. It’s so still, and I think if you don’t understand why there are silences and what those pauses mean, it can feel like a very flat play. And it isn’t at all. It’s a really wonderful, rich play, but if you just take it at face value and don’t dig and pick away at the text it could be something you can get wrong. Also, there’s not much movement in it which could be daunting for some people. Though I was like bring it on, that’s the challenge. We need to drive the text and be locked on to the actors all the way through and they need to be locked on to each other and connected to each other. And that’s been such a thrill which I’ve really enjoyed.
TE: So, what’s next?
SLC: My children’s show comes back to London in July at Underbelly at the Southbank Centre and I am rehearsing for my summer show – Lorna Doone – in Devon. We are revisiting the story with a new adaptation. It’s an open-air production using both a community cast and a professional cast. So I’ve got that to look forward to.
TE: You said earlier you like doing working-class stories, what’s the attraction there?
SLC: Because I’m from a working-class background and I don’t feel like there is enough representation of working-class voices and I think that’s a real shame. I would have loved when I was growing up to have seen people I could identify with and understand. It’s really important to me. I work quite a lot with a writer called Leon Fleming and we’ve done several productions together which really champion working-class voices. I just think that it speaks to me and I want to make theatre that I want to see and I would want to see a play like this.
TE: You also want to do LGBT+ plays. One of the weird things I find is that most of the LGBT+ plays I get to see portray the community as very middle class.
SLC: I’m currently developing two different plays with two different writers that have a gay male voice at the heart. I think that working-class gay voices – we exist – and it would be nice to see more of that. I love the process of workshopping it and then giving the writer notes and watching the story evolve and grow. I have a couple of ideas for plays in my head that I would love to write. I have a huge respect for writers. It’s exposing in a different way, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to yet. But there are loads of plays I would love to direct. One that springs to mind is an amazing Royal Court one, similar to Country Music, called ‘Redundant’ by Leo Butler. Something about it really sings to me. There’s loads of those Royal Court from 15/20 years ago that are crying out to be done again.
TE: Moving to Elmer, tell me a little about this show.
SLC: Two years ago, I’d never have imagined doing a kid’s musical show with puppets. There are 22 large hand puppets, 4 actors and 8 songs. Children are a really honest audience. For me, the storytelling has to be so clear but not patronising. It has to be engaging and have a good pace to it. There’s a couple of moments where you can hear the audience’s reaction and that is a wonderful sound to hear. There’s an honesty in that reaction that unlocks imagination and creativity. I’m really proud of the production because it’s a brand new show. It’s been really fun because all of the actors and creative team have been so invested in it. I love creating work for young people. I think what Elmer has got that’s beautiful is the message at the heart of it – you might be or look different but you need to celebrate who you are. That’s such a powerful thing to get over. When you have a play that is about celebrating difference for children then that instils that thought process for later life.
TE: I think that’s it then. Good luck for the rest of the run of Country Music and I’m really looking forward to seeing Elmer in the summer.
Presented by Free Run Productions
By Simon Stephens
Directed by Scott Le Crass
29 May – 23 June 2019