Summer Strallen interview: 'I don't like being told what to do, I like being able to do whatever I want'
Opening at the Park Theatre earlier this month, French playwright Alexis Michalik's latest play, Intra Muros, sees a theatre director and social worker set up a series of workshops with inmates to help them cope with the stresses and pressures of being incarcerated.
Alongside director Ché Walker, Summer Strallen stars in the play as optimistic social worker Alice. Strallen's latest London theatre credits include the musicals Young Frankenstein at the Garrick Theatre and Phantom sequel Love Never Dies at the Adelphi Theatre, plus Sigmund Freud play Hysteria on a UK tour.
We caught up with Summer to talk about how the play changes night-after-night, and what she hopes audiences will take away from the show.
Looking at the poster for the play, your character is noticeably chirpier than anyone else. Does your character bring a different kind of energy to the play?
I’d say I’m the young element of the group, as much as I love that, she’s quite optimistic. I play Alice who is a social worker, and she organises a theatre workshop with a director called Richard. He brings along an assistant called Jane, and then we meet these two prisoners who tell us their stories. The play is a puzzle of putting things together and how this affects them outside of prison as well.
Did you do much research into these workshops that are run in prisons prior to the play?
I watched as many documentaries as I could. It's awkward to call a prison and ask: “can I come and meet with your prisoners?”, but our director Che spent a lot of time in prison doing these workshops himself so he explains a lot about it and how the prisoners act. It is very much about bravado and how we all put on a bravado, but in prison it’s heightened even more. It starts from a very early age, they place a lot of bravado on a lot of pain from an early age, and the layers keep getting thicker and thicker until they don’t really know who they are or what they’re doing.
You’ve said before that actors have their own life, and then live the life of the character that they’re playing. Do you often feel like that?
All the time, especially on stage. I’m very interested in psychosis and psychology and how it affects my life. It’s hilarious, because one minute you’re there and you’re really involved, and the next minute you’ll think: “Oh god, what am I doing with my hands? Is everybody looking at my hands?” You’re listening to the other characters talking, but you are also thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner. It’s like this weird schizophrenia.
That’s something you never really consider as an audience member, even if your own mind might be floating in those directions, that the actors might not feel completely in their character.
I think ultimately, we all pretend to be different selves at different times with different people. You don’t go to your family dinner and talk about shagging (unless you’re that kind of family), so it’s about the company you’re with. It’s all about people do that in general, not just actors.
What else do you hope people will take away from the play?
I hope it will give people compassion for people who are incarcerated. Either, they have a chemical imbalance in their brain, or they’ve had a really hard time growing up, and that’s why they make the decisions they make.
Music features quite heavily in the play, and you have a live musician on stage?
Rio Kai is a real jazz musician, so the music changes quite frequently. The scenes change every night, we play around with them as actors, and he just goes with it. He’s used to playing with a singer or jamming and he can feel that energy. It’s the same with the audience too, sometimes it’s a bit more raucous, sometimes it’s quieter, so he can pull it around and it’s a real privilege to work with him.
The last few years have seen a couple of French playwrights have their work produced in London theatres, with the likes of Florian Zeller having his plays mounted in the West End. Is there anything in Alexis’ script that sets it apart from an English play?
It’s quite romantic, in a way, and full of dark drama. We’ve colloquialised it quite a lot because Pamela Hargreaves, who translated it for Alexis, worked with us to make it more British. We collaborated with Alexis on that and he was very open to that. Maybe it was quite ‘French’ in the way he let the artist pull the work around so that it was comfortable for them.
Do you enjoy performing a piece like this which can change night after night, and how does it differ to a big West End musical where you have to hit your mark precisely every performance?
Absolutely, I’m the epitome of that; I’m a Sagittarius, I don’t like being told what to do. I definitely like being able to do whatever I want – within reason obviously. I try to choose projects where I don’t just have to hit my mark, because for me that takes any artistry out of what I do. With this project especially, it’s really nice to be working with the director Che onstage because he allows you to play. For me, that’s the ultimate thing as an artist that I would like to do.
Intra Muros is at the Park Theatre until 4th May.