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Director Mark Bell certainly knows all about making comedy. Having directed the West End productions of Olivier Award-winning The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, his ability to make audiences laugh and create controlled mayhem is second to none. Despite originally wishing to be a dramatic actor, Mark has spent a lot of his career training and teaching the art of clowning and Lecoq technique and has a wealth of experience in the art of shaping comedy.
His new play Waiting for Waiting for Godot has just opened at the St James Studio Theatre in Victoria. Written by Dave Hanson and starring The Fast Show'’s Simon Day alongside Laura Kirman and James Marlowe, it follows two hapless understudies who occupy their time backstage, trying to understand art, life, theatre and their precarious existence within it.
We caught up with Mark after a preview performance to find out more about the show and the challenges involved in staging comedy:
Dom O'Hanlon: Mark, Waiting for Waiting for Godot is certainly an interesting concept - can you tell me more about how it was created?
Mark Bell: It's about these two guys who are stuck in this room and are just bored out of their minds, particularly one of them. It's like a kid on a long car journey – constantly finding something irritating to do, so it annoys the other guy. This sort of space suits this really well, if you were doing it in a bigger venue I don't think it would function really. There's three characters – the two guys who are the understudies and the character of Laura who is the stage manager – she only has two scenes but she kind of drives the plot forwards. It's like they've been shut up in a room and forgotten – it's based on Dave Henson the writer's own experience as an understudy in Los Angeles when he first started out as an actor. He said they never got chance to rehearse it on stage, they just sat in this back room for five weeks and nothing ever happened – apart from getting this play out of it. No one ever comes into the room so when she does it's terrifying! It's like an alien being has just sort of landed. So they hide, quite naturally.
DOH: You've just had a couple of previews, is it hard with short runs to get comedy to the point where you 'freeze' it for opening?
MB: With every comedy you learn everything about it really from the audience, no matter what I say or do during the rehearsal it really comes down to the audience, and we're just sort of figuring out a couple of bits I want to shorten, some stuff that's not working that I need to change. It was great watching Act Two today in particular because they really had the audience with them. I like to sit at the back and watch their reactions – it's great because they really went with us. I won't ever freeze it exactly – by tomorrow night we'll have a fairly definitive version of it. With any kind of comedy there's things that just happen one night. They like to try stuff as well, so I'm sure I'll get calls saying “we want to try this” which is fine – as long as they don't mind me coming in and watching and deciding. You don't really freeze it with something like this because there is a danger that it becomes stale and they get stuck in a pattern and it can become a real bind.
DOH: How did you get involved with Waiting for Waiting for Godot? Did you know the play before hand?
MB: The producer sent it to me and said I might be interested. I read it, and there's this one scene where Ester is trying to teach young Val how to act. He doesn't understand acting at all – he's picked it up from half reading books and having conversations with real actors, and he misunderstands everything, but he tries to teach him. That scene is so funny, and it really hooked me – I didn't have to finish the script, I just knew it was going to be something that I would really enjoy doing. It was obviously written by someone who had been in situations working with people like this. I love the theatre and I love working with actors so it's not in anyway a piss-take or a parody of actors, but it's slightly exaggerated of what certain actors can be like. They're clowns – it's like if Laurel and Hardy were trying to be actors, this is how they'd do it. It's that sort of relationship between one rather pompous actor and another naive one just kind of following in his footsteps and doing what he's told, it's very much in that model. It was a very easy choice to do.
DOH: How do you choose the kinds of plays you want to be involved with? Is it hard when comedy doesn't always jump straight off the page?
MB: It needs to make me laugh, or I can see how it would be funny. Sometimes on the page they don't look like that much, but I was at the very first reading of The Play That Goes Wrong and that was obvious – I could see where they were going to take the characters, playing off their idea of the audience – that was an easy choice. I honestly don't know, I don't have a method – you just read it a couple of times and see if you can picture how you would do it. I knew straight away the kind of actors I would want and how I would approach it.
DOH: Is that different to your work with Mischief Theatre, is there less work-shopping involved?
MB: Bank Robbery and The Play That Goes Wrong were both scripts, even though we work-shopped a lot of it when it was not quite finished. Working with Mischief is always a privilege because they're all incredibly driven, ambitious, creative group of young actors – they work so hard that I have to do less work. It's kind of true in a way – Bank Robbery was a long technically difficult rehearsal process, but they're a group of actors where you can describe the sort of scene that you need, for example, someone needs to get their head banged against the wall, they go away and they're like kids with toys to play with – they will come back with material. Working with them is so amazing because they bring you so much. I think it's very important that like good stand ups and sketch comedy that they're part of the creative process of putting those routines together, that it's their stuff. It always works better that way round than if you come in and tell them exactly how to do it – they need ownership over it. Also their ideas are as valid as mine and often they'll come up with stuff that I would never have thought of – it's always exciting, that's why I need actors who won't just sit there and wait for me to tell them what to do.
DOH: Is it harder then with a smaller cast as you have less voices and input?
MB: I wouldn't say it's harder – it's technically a lot easier with just three of them and a small set. It poses slightly different problems. With less actors in the room there are less voices, less creative energy. Equally that can be a positive – when you have nine people all trying to fight over different ways of doing a scene that can be a headache. It's been a nice change to just work on a small routine, I've really enjoyed it.
DOH: I guess you never really know how an audience is going to react outside of a rehearsal room...
MB: You just don't know – sometimes it's the little innocuous things that you've put in to bridge from one moment to the next suddenly start getting a laugh, and you just wonder why. Usually the penny drops and you see why. I don't think anybody can really anticipate where the laughs will land, sometimes it's just a simple movement that an actor does that's funny. I would say about 80% of stuff that we put in rehearsal lands and we don't have to change, and there's always a couple of things that you're sad aren't working and you have to change.
DOH: Where does your own sense of humour come from?
MB: I used to sit with my dad in the 1970s in the north east and watch Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin. That and Tom and Jerry – my dad loved those things and we used to sit there and howl with laughter at them whilst my mum and my sister would sit there looking like someone had just farted on the sofa. The slapstick of Tom and Jerry I always laugh at and now my own son is 11 I've watched it all with him and I'm passing it down. It very much started there, then doing clown at Lecoq. At the time I didn't get it, I was a terrible comic actor because I was trying too hard to make people laugh. It took me years to realise that I had to stop trying to be funny and take it really seriously, I'm that kind of pompous idiot – that's the kind of clown I am. It didn't click with me for years and once it did that character-based comedy became the driving force of my career. The Play That Goes Wrong came out of the idea of what if these idiots had to do a play together, what would it be like? That's very much connected to Laurel and Hardy, it's kind of the same thing.
DOH: What's your number one piece of advice when you work with actors on comedic scripts or roles?
MB: There's one thing that's very clear for me. If you're doing a play with characters in it, even something as silly as The Play That Goes Wrong, those characters in it have to take it very seriously. As the actor playing it, you can never show the audience that you find it funny. The character on stage has to be laughed at and not with. Sometimes you get characters who enjoy being laughed at and that's fun for them. For actors I say you have to play it truthfully, like you're playing a dramatic part. Treat it like you're doing a Chekhov play. Comedy isn't easier than dramatic acting, it's ten times as hard. You need the same dramatic truth that you have for the character but in a ridiculously absurd setting, whilst getting your blocking and your timing exactly right, otherwise you don't get the laugh that you need for the show to move on. You've got to be both truthful and a master technician at the same time – and that's hard.
DOH: Beckett's original play says so much about life, do you need to have seen Waiting for Godot to connect with this piece?
MB: I think you can come and watch this without having seen any of Beckett at all – but for those who do know the play then there are similarities between the characters of Vladimir and Estragon, it's in no way a copy of Godot, it's not trying to comment on it, it's not a parody, it simply uses Dave's own experience who had a lot of time to think about what the play means. Certain parallels but it's not meant to be a companion piece to.
DOH: Traditional comedy certainly seems to be having a renaissance in the West End, why do you think audiences are desperate to laugh - has real life become that depressing...?
I've heard people say that at difficult times comedy has a renaissance. Why were so many of the great clowns all basically tramps in the Great Depression? I think people have always liked comedy, in terms of it being held up as a serious art form I think it's still looked down upon. As far as I'm concerned, I always wanted to be a dramatic actor. I would have naively thought it was either dramatic acting or just being silly. But that being silly takes a huge amount of skill, and you can't show that skill to an audience because they need to think it's really happening. I hope people who make and perform in comedy are starting to get more respect and aren't being looked down upon. I think what you get with a lot of young actors and I recognise this from my younger self, some take themselves too seriously. You can't really be a true actor until you're willing to go in front of an audience and be laughed at – it doesn't matter whether you want to do Shakespearean tragedies or slapstick – you have to be able to do that because that frees you up.
Waiting for Waiting for Godot runs at the St James Theatre until 24 September 2016.
The Play That Goes Wrong continues to run at the Duchess Theatre.