“In 2007, American actor and playwright Peter Michael Marino wrote a musical based on the film Desperately Seeking Susan featuring the music of Blondie. It opened on London’s West End … and closed a month later. Whoops! This high-octane, comical solo train ride fills in the blanks of how the £4 million musical was made and unmade. From hatching the idea, to deals with producers, MGM, Debbie Harry and even Madonna; all the way to thrilling workshops, dangerous previews, scathing reviews, closing night and beyond.” www.seekingtheexit.com
At the time of interview, Peter was starring in Desperately Seeking The Exit at the Leicester Square Theatre and took time out from his busy schedule to chat about the show and his career. I hope you enjoy this fascinating interview.
You are a native New Yorker. When did you first get involved professionally in theatre?
I graduated from college and moved to New York in 1990 and started working off Off-Broadway with an improvisation company. A few years later I was cast in STOMP which I did for 5 years, both Off-Broadway and on tour.
As an actor you have performed many roles. Which one has given you the most satisfaction, and why?
That would undoubtedly be STOMP. That show was a really great exercise for me. For someone who has a rather ‘big mouth’ and is used to eliciting laughs from people by clever observations and witty repartee, STOMP did not afford me the opportunity to speak. We played at theatres Off-Broadway with about 400 seats, to the Fox Theatre in St Louis which has about 4,000 seats, and to have the opportunity to learn how to make an audience laugh simply by your timing, facial expressions and your body language was a great exercise. Also, to do eight shows a week for five years, it was a great lesson in how to keep a show fresh. To know that you are doing it for your audience and not for yourself. Learning how audiences react to comedy in different ways, especially around the world. For example, people respond to humour differently in Brazil than they do in Canada. The show also introduced me to a lot of British people, as that show started in Britain.
How do you keep a show fresh?
I always try to make it seem like I am doing it for the first time that day. I like to feed off the audience and know that I have connected with them in some way. With STOMP and with this show, my performance alters depending on the kind of reaction I get from the audience.
Your biography describes you as a writer, director, producer, teacher and actor. Which one of these do you enjoy the most and why?
If I had to pick one for the rest of my life, I would have to choose teaching. It is really incredible to see other people growing, learning and improving from things that you have taught them. The other great thing about teaching is that I learn a lot from my students, seeing what their process is. I find them very inspiring. I am very inspired by the way novice writer-performers and experienced writer-performers approach a story.
In 2007 you created the musical Desperately Seeking Susan which having been slaughtered by the London critics – closed after one month in the West End. In a nutshell what went wrong?
In a nutshell, see the show. The whole process is broken down into seventy easy-to-digest minutes. But, generally it was a ‘perfect storm’ with an imperfect combination of artists, producers and timing. It just didn’t work.
You were asked recently whether you had put any of your own money into the 2007 show to which you replied “Thank God, no, just my soul”. How have you used that experience to move on with your career?
I went into such a deep depression after that show closed that I literally did not fathom seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, let alone reach the end of the tunnel. I think most artists go through that and we always have to believe there will be something positive that comes out of every experience, whether it is positive for the project or for some sort of personal growth. To experience those depths of depression I think you have to have the heights of elation.
It is nice to know that your soul can be resurrected in some way like the phoenix rising from the ashes. I know that everything that I have approached since that experience, I have approached much more delicately with a lot more hindsight and knowledge. The bottom line is that you never know what the outcome is going to be for anything that you do and the only way to find out is to just do it. I had a college professor who told all of his students “Just do it” and this was before Nike picked up that phrase. I think that for actors, writers and directors we sort of get used to asking for work, knocking on doors and getting turned away and I think that once you start creating your own work eventually someone is going to listen and hear your voice and find you are unique or interesting or possibly something that can make them money.
Was there a ‘personal risk (pride)’ in trying to make a ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ with this new show?
I never thought of it that way. The last thing I wanted to do was create a therapy piece. I teach solo shows and what I always try to get my students to avoid, and also avoid seeing myself, is any type of therapy show. What I think is important is that your journey is some way universal. It was my director John Clancy who taught me that it wasn’t just about recalling all of the steps it took to make the musical happen, but it was more about having things like being a fish out of water for example, which we have all been at one time. It just happened to be a story about an American trying to communicate in a country that speaks the same language.
When I started working on this show I always thought of it as an under-the-radar show, like, I am just going to do this in a little pub somewhere in New York and see what happens. I just wanted to tell the story. Once people started responding to it so positively, I decided to take it to Edinburgh as that is a good place to try things out. It has an international audience and I have always wanted to do something there before I was too old to handle the madness of that festival. It was very surprising how the press grabbed on to the idea of this show having not even seen it. I think they expected a backstage, back-stabbing gossipy type of show, and what they got was almost the complete opposite.
Based on the experience of Desperately Seeking Susan you have created Desperately Seeking The Exit. Can you tell us about the show?
It’s about the making and the un-making of a West End musical and a novice American writer trying to find his voice. It’s fast and furious and is a sort of hybrid between stand-up comedy, improvisation and story-telling. It is very simple. It is just me, a stool, a boom box and a short video that we have added to this production which kind of takes the audience back in time and shows them clips from the show and gives them an understanding as to what it (Desperately Seeking Susan ) looked like. This show has already generated a lot of interest in the musical itself. They look at it and say “looking at your video and hearing your story, I want to see that show”. I don’t know where all of those people were when the show opened at the Novello Theatre!
I understand that several West End producers saw the show and said, “You simply must come full-circle with this experience! Bring it to London.” What was your first thought when you heard that? – bring it on or you’ve got to be kidding!
It was “you’ve got to be kidding” Having started it in a pub in New York City and doing it in a kind of off-beat space in Edinburgh I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be asked to do it in London. Many producers suggested that I bring it to London and it was Adam Kenwright who said “You must bring it to London – the story must come full circle”. It is actually a very spiritual way to look at things. It wasn’t that I had to do it for commercial reasons, but for spiritual reasons I needed it for my story to come full circle. On the opening night it was very surreal having members of the original creative team and cast in the audience reliving the story along with me and saying to me afterwards, “Wow I never knew anything about that” and “you nailed it perfectly”.
The show has received rave reviews in Australia and the US, as well as 5* reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe and now in London. I have read that you previously (in 2007) “discovered many cultural differences between Americans and the British”. Have you written the show with the various international audiences in mind?
I do a lot of observational humour about our cultures especially the way we communicate with each other and I do innocently take the p*ss so did wonder how the audience in London would react. However, I haven’t had a single Brit that hasn’t enjoyed the show and thinks that the way I say things is really insulting. That really isn’t my goal anyway, but more a case of “I see it this way and you see things that way, and Americans approach situations like this and you approach situations like that”. It is nice to see British audiences laughing at themselves.
Edinburgh was a great testing ground for the different nationalities in the audience, and within the first week there it was a really mixed audience. For example with Brits, Americans, Japan, Mexico and a wide range of nationalities it gave me an opportunity to realise what jokes work for certain groups and I changed some of the language to make it more universal. I try to find out at the beginning of the show which nationalities are present. For example I talk about various American food products and I ask if there is anyone in the audience who is American and I ask them if they can explain to the audience what this product is. When I do the show in New York there is inevitably a Brit in the audience so I always ask them to do the reverse.
Why should everyone come along and see Desperately Seeking The Exit?
First and foremost it is a great story. Ever since we were little children we were told “once upon a time… and then this crazy thing happens… and our Little Red Riding Hood or Jack and The Beanstalk… manages to slay the dragon… kill the wolf or whatever…” I have been told that it is a really great story and also really funny. Making this show humorous was paramount right from the start. It would have been just too easy to do an “oh woe is me… blame everyone else story”. People are always surprised at how engaged they get in the story and actually so am I. The whole audience gasp and sigh when something happened to me five years ago. To see people literally wiping tears away shows that the power of storytelling is incredible. It is a great story that goes by really fast.
What next after the Leicester Square Theatre with the show?
We are going to do it at Edinburgh again at a different venue and throw in a couple more ‘bells and whistles’ and wait to see what happens. Who knows, maybe Steven Spielberg will see it and ask me to write his next movie for him?
What else have you in the pipeline that people can look forward to?
Shockingly, I am working on another juke-box musical that has the best new wave and punk hits of the 80s. I have also got a show opening in New York in June and another one possibly opening in August. I like to be busy and can’t stop!
Any message to those following your career?
Don’t be afraid to experience new forms of art. You need to be inspired all of the time and the only way is to do things that scare you. Go to a museum, go and see a three hour Shakespeare play, if you wouldn’t usually. Go and see something experimental, a stand-up comedian. If you are an artist you have to keep doing things that will make you think in a different way.
Interview by Neil Cheesman who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1
Desperately Seeking The Exit is at the Leicester Square Theatre until 20th May 2013
Friday 3rd May 2013