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When you talk about authentic casting in musical theatre you'd be hard-pressed to find a better example than actor and writer Ashley Robinson in Floyd Collins, Adam Guettel's 1996 musical set in 1920s Kentucky. Born in rural Southern Appalachia, Robinson's soft accent and southern charm make him a perfect fit for the character of Floyd, a mid thirties adventurer and cave explorer whose reflexive positivity and calm persona is maintained, despite being trapped in a cave and causing one of America's first real media sensations.
Guettel's musical is loved by performers, audiences and critics alike due to its intensely rich story paired with an incredibly innovative score. “He's the greatest composer living I think”, smiles Ashley as he comes from a vocal rehearsal to meet me at Wilton's Music Hall, a perfect and unique setting for this London revival. “It's Stravinsky meets Gershwin meets Bluegrass - it rings so true in its transcendence.”
Our mutual admiration for Guettel's music, and indeed the score of Floyd Collins, sets us on the right wave length immediately. “He's made poetry out of these people from the dirt and that to me is so respectful and is the beauty of the piece”, Ashley goes on. “It's so based in the earth, it's not so concrete, its about eccentric and beautiful people. I think he's doing the most extraordinary stuff, to sit there in that hole and just bathe in that music is terrific. And Tina [Landau] has honoured the characters so well, she's created such a beautiful piece.”
In a year when American media sensations have become almost white noise against events happening in the rest of the world, I can't help but think that the underlying message of Floyd Collins continues to be seen today. The 'carnival' aspect of a vulnerable community exposed to media underpins much of the musical, in a way that continues to be seen in popular culture from fact based dramas such as “Making a Murderer” to fiction, “Stranger Things”, our fascination with small-town America seems only to have increased.
“I'm from very rural Southern Appalachia, so the world and the piece for me speaks to me”, Ashley explains. “If I had to describe it in one word I'd say 'home'. It's a piece about finding home. It's lovely for me because it's a piece about where I'm from. So often when people from where I come from are portrayed, especially in musicals, it's that “gee-golly, hokum and biscuits” bullshit. This really honours people, and I'm such an advocate of people where I'm from. It's easy to look down on these people as Trump supporters, gun toatin' and whether or not you agree with that – I don't personally – I think it's important to believe that these are real people – as real as people in cities and I think they often get shrugged off easily, not listened to.”
I wonder how striving for that honesty affects performers and especially how that translates to work in a rehearsal room. The sense of unity explains Ashley is what holds the piece together.
“It's also about 1925, it really is about a community. The title of it may be Floyd Collins but the whole thing is about a whole group of people trying to get out from under a rock – whether that's something that society has put on them or they're financially poor – everyone is struggling to find and reach something.”
Ashley's commitment to finding this truth in both the character and the situation led him to spend the past summer researching the role by visiting Kentucky and the actual place that Floyd Collins was trapped. I wonder how that level of research can be fed into a performance so that an audience can also share with that authenticity.
“I think you can only hope that if you see it and have as much belief in the moment as possible then the audience will also see it”, Ashley replies. “I'm a bit obsessive I guess, I just want to do as much as I possibly can. I can be comfortable then I can release into it if I know the temperature of the rock and know what it feels like to go through a nine inch compression, your chest is in a vice of solid limestone – I've experienced that same panic, albeit for five seconds and not two weeks!”
In his quest for true and honest representation of his homeland, Robinson has also been developing his work as a writer, and his new musical written with Jason Carr premières at Mountview Theatre School next month. Described as a “southern gothic musical”, Lockhart is set once again in the deep south and follows characters who are struggling to escape the no-hope town they have been trapped in their whole life. I wonder if juggling work as an actor and a book-writer help each other out in terms of finding a creative voice.
“One definitely influences the other for sure” he confirms. “I definitely couldn't be a writer if I wasn't an actor, because I step into my actor to write – I'm always improvising. Jason and I started writing Lockhart in 2014 and we really started work in earnest last year. Mountview did a workshop and now they're doing a full production next month and that's very exciting. Matt Cowart is directing Lockhart and they're in such good hands. We were classmates at drama school - he's a southern boy from Alabama, so Jason Carr is sandwiched in-between these two southern boys! Lockhart is in rehearsal at the same time Floyd is and I'm really trying to separate the two as I don't know that I can juggle both at the same time!"
Despite the obvious staging challenges of the piece, Guettel's score also makes incredible demands on the actors.
“You know it's really been about getting it accurate, really learning it specifically. When it's really what he's written, exactly what he put on the page, which is really difficult, then it locks in, and it cracks open and it just shines. It's remarkable. I just think it's the greatest score written for the American theatre, I really do.”
“Amanda Holland and I started scheming to do this about two years ago, and she's made it happen in a very cool way, with a first class team and and an amazing company (which she pays fairly, by the way!)."
We talk about the vitality of the London fringe and its importance in bringing new pieces of musical theatre to wider audiences. “The term fringe sounds less important and less solid, and I don't get that”, Ashley states. “That's where the work in terms of musicals is interesting in London. There's so much great work being done, especially in musical theatre, on the fringe. It sounds like a demeaning term to me. How about Off-West End?” Floyd Collins was last seen in London in a fringe production at the old Southwark Playhouse, and this new production will give fans of Guettel's work a rare chance to see and hear it in a highly unique setting. “I hope they come away with an appreciation for the piece. We're doing things in this version that haven't been seen before – some music that was cut and is coming back in. Some music that hasn't ever been performed before, so this really is going to be a new version.”
What makes Floyd Collins stand out as a piece of musical theatre that despite modest beginnings continues to be re-evaluated and enjoyed by audiences, I ask. “I think for me it's an beautiful tragic piece that's about letting go – it's a piece about everything, it's transcendent” Ashely replies. “It's about things you can't talk about. You'll come, sit in that theatre and things will bubble up in you, spaces that are intangible that you can't talk about – it's that stuff that makes art beautiful, and this contains all of that. It's about home, it doesn't matter if you come from East London or Alaska, home is a very particular thing and I think this is so specific in what it does that it manages to become universal. It then becomes revolutionary for people watching it as it becomes specific to themselves.”
Floyd Collins runs at Wilton's Music Hall from 21 September to 15 October 2016
Lockhart, featuring music and lyrics by Jason Carr and book and lyrics by Ashley Robinson runs at Mountview from 27 October to 5 November 2016.