Thick as Thieves on gender balance and their next production: Twelfth Night

Twelth Night show image

How did Thick as Thieves come together as a company?

We're actually married in real life and after working in the industry both together and separately we wanted to bring together everything we'd learnt along the way. We're lucky that we have similar tastes!

You say your goal is making theatre as accessible and affordable as possible. Tell me a bit about the kind of things you are doing to achieve that. How is that developing?

We want anyone and everyone to be able to enjoy Shakespeare. The themes and stories in Shakespeare's plays are universal, but it's common to hear people cite the language as being too complicated or archaic to understand. So for us, accessibility when it comes to Shakespeare starts with clarity. Everyone has to have a clear idea of what they're saying and why. It may not be the case that audiences understand every single word, but the story and the characters' behaviour will always be clear and that's what makes it entertaining.

We also like to shake up traditional theatrical conventions. The actors are always present on stage (including while changing costume), they welcome the audience into the space and operate the sound and lighting, we light the audience throughout and there are elements of improvisation and interaction. These features are all designed to involve the audience to a greater degree, to make them more a part of the production. This is a way to tackle the sense of intimidation or impending boredom a Shakespeare production might instil in a casual theatregoer!

We're still very much honing these elements, but we found that in our debut production of The Tempest in 2015, it really lifted the production. We want audiences to leave with a smile, having not just watched some Shakespeare, but having been entertained by it!

Nicky’s work with Open Book Theatre is clearly linked to your goals of accessibility. How has that informed, or developed alongside (or both), Thick as Thieves productions?

Simply put, a huge amount! Open Book adapt classic novels and perform them in libraries across London for free. The fundamental aims of the company are to firstly tempt people into their local libraries, and then to bring great theatrical productions to people who do not otherwise see theatre regularly, for financial or social reasons. It has been a huge success so far in the three years the company has been running.

Thick as Thieves is very much a sister company and shares many ideals. Because Open Book perform to people who don't often go to the theatre, it has developed a style which takes this into account. There is no theatre etiquette, only pure enjoyment and discovery – the shows are very interactive! That's something we very much wanted to bring to Thick as Thieves, albeit within a theatre space. It's taught us to value and exploit the 'liveness' of theatre and also the shared experience between performer and audience.

Why Twelfth Night?

Twelfth Night is such a funny play, so it gives us a chance to flex our comedy muscles. The play was named for the festival it was originally performed at (it has nothing at all to do with Twelfth Night) so we really want to create that festival atmosphere and romp through the play.

The cast and creatives in Twelfth Night

We're a cast of four: myself and Thomas Judd (hubbie and Executive Producer of Thick as Thieves), and Madeleine MacMahon and Oliver Lavery. I'm also the director. We like to be busy! Original music for the production is being done by our and Open Book's resident composer David Knight. Our Stage Manager is Ariel Harrison, who was in our production of The Tempest last year. And our Lighting Designer is Kirsten Buckmaster who we're delighted to be working with for the first time.

Your development process

We always start with the first folio text, so as to strip back all preconceptions of the play. There is always an element of interpretation in any publication of the text and we like to always look for evidence in the text, nothing based on another production we've seen or 'how the character is usually played'.

As an ensemble of four, the rehearsal process is highly collaborative. Everyone has a say. This is particularly important for me since I'm acting and directing. I need people to watch me and give me notes as well!

You aim for gender balance: how have you achieved that, what were the impacts?

Our productions have two actors, two actresses. Our creative team is also balanced; a female director, male producer, female stage manager and male composer/MD. For us, it's a no brainer – it's 2016 now and this needs to be the norm. Men and women equally represented. It works brilliantly!

How do you think/feel that affects the story? What areas/characters/moments are foregrounded (or muted) in your version?

I can't see it affecting the story at all, particularly in the case of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare wrote fewer women, presumably because there were a limited number of actors that could play women. Why shouldn't Belch be played by a woman? Or Antonio? They're characters. In fact, I'll be five months pregnant when I'm playing Belch so physically he'll be closer to my casting than Viola!

Tell me about some of the challenges you found in developing the show? Were there moments when the vision you had refused to work, or took you in a new and exciting direction?

For The Tempest last year, we were really finding our feet, and some of the things we now employ as hallmarks of the company didn't come about until the eleventh hour. We always knew what we wanted to achieve, but it took a lot of experimentation to get there. I think because we're so audience focused, a lot of those things didn't come about until we actually had an audience in front of us to experiment with.

The main thing on my mind at the moment is how to cover the baby bump for Viola/Cesario. You'll just have to see the show to see how we do it!

What have you most enjoyed about the rehearsal process?

We always try to keep things fun and relaxed. We laugh a lot!

What do you hope your audience will think, feel, take away with them from this interpretation?

Most importantly, that they feel that they've been part of something and had a great time. We really hope it can change people's perception of what Shakespeare can be.

How much cake will you have eaten by the first night (or tea/coffee/gin drunk…)?

Even more than usual, cake that is - it takes a lot of sugar to grow a baby it turns out! I've eaten more cake and biscuits in the last few months than in the rest of my life. My rehearsals are usually tea fuelled but I'm on decaf and no gin for me, obviously. We are rehearsing above a pub though so I can't speak for the others...

Twelfth Night: The Hope Theatre, Islington
12 - 30 April 2016
Tues to Sat. No shows Sun & Mon

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