As the pandemic spread, and the country went into lockdown, then out, then back, then out then back, creatives everywhere had to adjust their lives and their modus operandi in order to bring theatre to the people and keep their art alive. One of those who has worked very well in this way is Director Scott Le Crass, and I recently caught up with him for a chat about theatre in the age of COVID.
TE: Welcome along Scott. I’ve just been looking back and the last time we talked was in June 2019 just after the opening of your show Country Music at the Omnibus Theatre. That was a successful run, wasn’t it?
SLC: Yes, we ran for four weeks. I was quite keen for that to happen as a lot of fringe shows I’d done prior to that had had a maximum run of three weeks and I felt that to make it work and try to attract as much of an audience as possible it made sense to do a longer run. I sort of co-produced that production as well, and with a producing hat on as well, I really wanted to run it for four weeks. We were very canny with how we budgeted it and we had additional performances – I think we did six performances a week – and that was useful to do that financially.
TE: I always imagine that in fringe theatre it must be like walking on a knife-edge as to whether a show makes a profit or not.
SLC: It can be and a lot of that is about capacity. Fortunately, with the Omnibus, the capacity we had was about 100 people so even if it was only a quarter full that compares favourably to the capacity of many smaller venues. It’s a great location. It’s a theatre that is producing some really interesting work, so it was a really good run both financially and in terms of personally, creatively. I got people to see the show that could see the type of work I think I’m good at. And it was well-received. Cary who played the lead character was nominated and won and Offie for the show.
TE: Would you like to put Country Music on again?
SLC: Absolutely, in a heartbeat. The show is very much in my DNA. I recently did a workshop about any play I wanted to do, and I did approaches to text and how to unlock a story in a text and I went to Country Music as it’s a play I know so well, and I would love to do it again.
TE: Could you imagine it as a same-sex play?
SLC: It’s an interesting idea, but because of the text I don’t think it would work. They have a child together and because of where it’s from – that world – set in Gravesend in the beginning of the nineties it would be commented on by the characters. However, I’m all up for making plays same-sexed. I did it with A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Christmas Round Robin Letters at the Hope Theatre in 2017. I adapted it from the original collection of letters. Originally, when I was casting it I was looking for a heterosexual couple but I couldn’t find the right dynamic, but then two incredible women (Kate Russell-Smith and Claire Lacey) came in at different points of the day and I thought why don’t I make them gay women – and it totally worked. What I found quite interesting about the presentation is that their sexuality never became the thing that was the story, they just happened to be gay, and that’s what I liked.
It’s interesting how these things appear. For example, quite a few years ago, when I first started out directing, I did The killing of Sister George. And what’s interesting is that it’s never explicitly said that they are in a couple – the writer never mentions it – but it is so there, and it was great how we explored that. And that’s the interesting thing, when you see plays about heterosexual relationships, they don’t have to keep telling. That isn’t the thing that holds their relationship, or they talk about, so we don’t have to do that in plays with gay characters.
TE: Last time when we spoke you mentioned that you were developing some projects with a gay male voice at their heart.
SLC: One of them, I actually spoke to the writer a couple of weeks ago. It’s now with a producer and it will hopefully be going ahead. It’s a new play for one person. I think solo plays might be their thing going forward, especially for smaller venues because it’s the only way financially they can do it. I’m really interested now in actually tapping in to being a gay queer male and being like – read more of this work and more new plays about that. Because it is my world. I feel I can tell those stories.
TE: Given the way the industry has adapted to putting on online shows, do you think that once ‘normality’ returns there will still be a future for these type of productions?
SLC: Absolutely, there will be a demand for it. I think that it will take a while for people to feel secure enough to be in an enclosed space, and capacities will be smaller. I think what’s going to happen and I know some venues have already started to do it, but because the capacity is smaller and you still need to make a production viable financially, they are having people in the space and also live-streaming it. I think this be happening for quite a while so people who aren’t confident or don’t want to go into an enclosed space like a theatre can still enjoy the show.
I think that theatres re-opening will be overwhelming for me but in a good way. We are creatures that are quite social and lots of us like socialising and sharing experiences. I suspect it will be open-air stuff that comes back first. I have an open-air show that I have tentatively booked in for July, so I’m hoping that will go on, and if it does then that will be a way of people seeing a live performance in a safe environment.
I really enjoy open-air theatre, it’s not like I’ve suddenly decided I want to do it. It’s something I’ve done previously and it’s exciting. Battling against the elements whilst trying to bash out a famous speech. I remember the first year we did an open-air Macbeth, there was one performance, where during Act IV, a beautiful mist started to appear over the playing space, I was thinking, you would pay a lot to have this happen on a stage. Another time, when doing Lear, on the heath, it suddenly started to rain and things like that are just so beautiful to experience. I’m also a big fan of using the landscape and using what is around us to be part of the action. The venue we work with in Devon is such a gift then why would you not use it. It enhances the production.
TE: Well good luck with that and fingers crossed it all goes ahead. On top of this, you have a new improvisation-based project, tell me about that.
SLC: It’s called Organised Fun and it’s totally new. I’d realised probably about November that a lot of the work I’d been doing had been quite heavy, and everything was text-based. When I was younger, I was a fan of comedy, in terms of both seeing and doing. At drama school we did loads of improvisations, we had an incredible improv teacher, and I loved it. As a director though I moved away from this and concentrated on the text. I did some devising but not much improv and I love it and I thought I would challenge myself and go into something that feels a little less known and create something that I think for an audience that is a bit more uplifting.
I think it’s wonderful that there are these amazing, sprawling heavy plays, but also it’s nice to have something that’s a little bit more interactive or different. And that’s what is interesting about this piece. It’s not invasive in terms of audience participation but the audience decide certain things about what the performers do and we have a host who engages with the audience. And engagement is entirely up to the watcher, they can engage as much or as little as they want. A lot of people balk when hearing audience participation, so this is not one of those things where you have to say or so do something. You can choose to write in the chat or switch on your camera if you want to but are under no obligation to do anything. I quite like that idea of something being live and, for me as a director, being very different from anything I had done before. So I am really excited at doing something like this from scratch.
TE: Now, I’m really intrigued so am going to ask for more details, carefully avoiding falling into any spoiler traps.
SLC: What it is, is a series of improv games. Several of them I’ve developed specifically for the idea that they are in the Zoom world. One of the games I’ve developed is called ‘Glitch’ and, as we know, sometimes when we are talking on Zoom, the sound drops out or the screen freezes or something like that. Using this, we’ve come up with a team game where the performers are in an important or high stakes meeting – like a company board meeting. The audience decide the company via the chat. They get to a point where something is really important and the sound drops out at the key bit of information like this – here Scott stops speaking but his mouth carries on as if he is talking, and then the sound comes back in so that you miss the key bit of information.
There’s another game called ‘Continuity’ that is a homage to a trashy soap. For example, if the performers are in a crime drama, and they find a murder weapon – holds up a mobile phone – they will talk about the phone and “pass it” to another person, remembering this is people in different places on Zoom, and the other person shows something very different. We’re playing around with how we can be clever, but the performers have to pretend it’s the same object. It’s basically just a series of games that are fun but don’t take themselves too seriously. Another game is ‘Inner Monologue’ where we have two people that meet for the first time, and the audience decides what that meeting is for, and two of the other performers are their thoughts. So, we have a conversation going on with separate thoughts occurring as well.
Overall there’s no narrative in the show it is just an evening that’s quite light with great hosts that have a lovely way of engaging in a stand-up but intimate way. It’s definitely a bit of a hybrid – stand-up, improv and interactive. There are 10 performers in total and each evening there will be six performing with the host. To add to the fun, the performers don’t know which team they are on or which games we are playing until we start the performance. It’s really fun and the performers are so game and ready to jump in.
Yesterday, at one of the previews, we had a really bizarre suggestion which was chosen but it was great as everyone just went for it and owned the story. For me, it’s a difficult thing to gauge because when I have a live audience watching a drama, I can use the preview in a way that gets me to see things from a distance and be able to change it before the formal run starts. But with comedy, it’s very different because, some of it is about taste – what people find funny – and the laughs will be in different places so you can feel out the show. The challenge we have here is not being able to hear the laughter. That’s unique in itself but the audience make their feelings felt by using the chat function. We’ve done two previews and had a lot of feedback so I’ve been able to make changes where needed. This has been a really personal show because I’ve created it which is exciting and terrifying in the same breath. The guest host is really important. At the moment we have Barbara Nice. She’s incredible and I’ve known of her for years and known her as an amazing stand-up. I’ve also seen her as an actress, and she is as wonderful and endearing as Barbara herself. I’d really like to make this a bi-weekly or regular event in the future.
TE: When is the show on?
SLC: It started its run on the 20th of Feb, and runs at 8pm on a Saturday and Sunday.
TE: Were you tempted to take up the performing mantle once more for this show?
SLC: No, I didn’t. It kind of passed through my mind momentarily but when I see what the performers we have can do, it confirms I could not do that. When I was a performer and did stand-up then yes. My first stand-up gig was at The Comedy Store when I was sixteen, and I loved it. I formed a stand-up duo with a friend and really enjoyed it. It’s hard work but exciting. There was an elective module in stand-up art drama school and because I had always done stand-up as me, I decided to do the module as character-based stand-up. We did loads of improvisations at drama school and it was really exciting. I have respect for anyone that can get up on stage but the level at which the performers must work on a show like this, they have to be so quick, and I’m so impressed by them. Apart from one of the performers who I had met previously, I’ve never met any of the performers in person. They are from all over the country – Yorkshire, Birmingham, Manchester, all over the place.
TE: How do you audition for an improv piece?
SLC: I auditioned people in groups of six to represent the size of the groups in the actual show. We played three games and watched how they worked with and listened to each other. I think with comedy, some people have an instinct, some have funny bones, and some learn the process. It’s really about generosity in improv. Something that we enjoy is the idea of “putting the other person in the sh*t, but in a good way”. For example, in the inner monologue, the person doing the thoughts can say what they want and then the person in the meeting has to decide whether to go with their thought or ignore it, and that’s really interesting to see.
TE: Normally if you are casting a show to be performed say in London, you would be relying on London based actors or ones that are able to travel. Do you see this being able to pick talent from around the country as a positive that has come out of the pandemic?
SLC: Absolutely. Also, I think that this could be a new way of working. I’m working on a new play with a producer called Sarah Berger who founded the So and So Arts Club and we had two days of auditions which we did completely online via Zoom. I think people will do more of this as it cuts down on the costs and time spent travelling to and from auditions.
TE: As we go through Lockdown III, and it’s nearly a year since everything started. How have you coped with everything?
SLC: That’s a good question. There have been times where I’ve found it really hard, really difficult. The very nature of my work is about being around people. And when it all began I had nearly a year’s worth of work lined up and was actually tech-ing a show when everything closed down. Seeing all that work fall away before your eyes was quite overwhelming. I’ve found my creativity over the last year has come in fits and starts. There were points where I was really geared up to do something, and others where I just wasn’t feeling motivated. What I’ve learned to do is go with that and not beat myself up if I don’t feel able read that play or talk to that person or do whatever it is I want to do that day. I think that’s a really important thing, it’s been a challenge. On the flip side of it, it has allowed me to work in lots of different ways and challenge myself. I’ve made some other short pieces online. I’ve done an audio piece and I’ve started having new creative conversations with people. That’s been a real positive. So it’s not all been a total disaster but it has been challenging like for many but some wonderful things have come out of it, and some amazing opportunities, and I feel really fortunate and I’m very grateful for that.
TE: As we approach the end of lockdown and some sort of return to normality, how do you feel, and have you started preparing for the future?
SLC: There are a couple of projects that are potentially going to happen digitally and a couple due to happen live. I’m ready for them but I don’t want to psyche myself up so much believing they are going to happen, then they don’t which will make me feel really disappointed. Really, who knows what is around the corner in terms of opportunities and work. So, it’s kind of open but let’s see.
I think what’s really important with this is that theatres need to open when it feels totally safe. If there’s anything that could be detrimental and then set us back again, I don’t want that. I think it does something to us psychologically thinking something is going to happen then it doesn’t’. Like with tickets, if you’re having to re-book something continually, it loses some of the excitement about seeing that piece. But it might make it more exciting when you do. We all have different views on this. It’s much easier at the moment to plan digital stuff because that can happen regardless of anything, whereas to plan something in April is really hard because either it will be cancelled, or you will have to move really fast to get it performed. Planning an open-air production in July, as I am, feels a lot easier to get my head around.
TE: One of the biggest hits on the television this year is Russell T Davies, “It’s a Sin”. It was quite a short series, only five, hour-long episodes, do you think that the show could be condensed and make a stage play?
SLC: I think it would be a wonderful stage play. I don’t necessarily need to be condensed. I think what we are kind of crying out for over here is a play that is about gay stories and history, but British and sprawling. So we need a gay equivalent of ‘The Inheritance’ or ‘Angels in America’ that’s told in two parts. This could easily be a two-part play, and I would love to direct something like this. It encompasses all of the things that I think are really important. I have a real respect for older gay people that lived through that (the AIDS epidemic) or lost friends and family. I think that the older generation in this era, not only in terms of the epidemic, but also in terms of Pride and acceptance really paved a way forward for younger gay men like myself, and it’s a reason why programmes like “It’s a Sin” are so important to educate everyone irrespective of sexuality, and that part of history really should be taught in schools. It’s really interesting that you have the spread of something that destroys a demographic against a background of the fabulousness of the 80’s and 90’s culturally with music and fashion that would work so well on stage. I think that for young people to have a broadened view and understanding of the world, they need to know about every type of person that exists in the world, and with understanding comes equality.
TE: One final question from me, when we last spoke you talked about possibly doing some writing, has that progressed?
SLC: It funny you say that. Again, a positive from lockdown is that I’m part of A Director’s Group which was set up by a really wonderful director called Kate Golledge bringing together a lot of creatives. Through one of the workshops, there was a pitching session. I had this idea for a play – based on someone in my family – in my head and pitched it and everyone in the group had a great reaction to it and I got quite confident with the idea. So I pitched it to a regional venue who were doing seed funding for ideas and projects. I didn’t get that, but they contacted me and said they really loved the idea and wanted to support me with it in a different way. So, they have given me some funding and support to develop this play with a writer, so watch this space.
TE: Thank you so much for meeting with me, hopefully, it won’t be too long until we could meet for a coffee and chat but until then good lick with Organised Fun.