Welcome Esther, tell me a little bit about yourself
I grew up around the UK but found my home in London, a place filled with creative inspiration. I originally wanted to be an actor, but found I was too much of a control freak to simply wait for other people to cast me in things. I spent several years finding my feet and learning as much as I could about the industry, all the while working a plethora of day jobs to fund my passion. I never went to university or Drama School, but in 2016 I secured a place on the National Theatre’s introduction to playwriting course. It was around this time I stopped seeking validation from others and began to believe in myself as a professional artist. I now find great joy in sharing this feeling with other emerging artists around me.
What inspired you to start your art and theatre collective, the UnDisposables?
It was something I had been teetering on the edge of for a long time, but actually the thing that pushed me over the edge to finally make a start was in 2017 when Shakespeare’s Globe announced that Emma Rice would be stepping down as their Artistic Director after only being in charge for one Summer. I know that Emma Rice’s use of lights and amplified sound is a touchy debate, and I’m not saying she was entirely right in her choices, but what really shocked me was how fast she was shut down for experimenting, and what is theatre if we can’t take risks and try new things? Emma Rice made her ‘Summer of Love’ at the Globe one which set out to “rock the ground”, and I felt a sudden urge to follow in her footsteps and quit waiting for someone else to permit me to do so.
Why did you decide to call it the UnDisposables? It’s a great name!
Thank you! Coming up with a name was a real hard task, and I’d advise anyone who is also thinking of setting up a theatre company (or any company for that matter!) to not let this decision paralyse you. It’s a hard thing to get right but finding the name for me came after going back to the roots of why I was setting the company up: I wanted a company that made anyone involved feel valued. Too often as an emerging artist you feel lost in a crowd, fighting an uphill battle in an oversubscribed industry. It’s easy to feel discouraged when you’re going up for the role of ‘blonde girl 3’ in an unpaid student film which you don’t even really want, and you find there are another 50 women in your casting going for the same part. I often felt totally disposable which made me wonder why I was even trying, but I strongly believe that everyone in the industry has their own shining uniqueness which they can offer. I wanted the company’s name to reflect this, and I can happily say our UnDisposable community has only proved further to me the value of every single artist.
Did you always know that you wanted to be involved in the theatre?
Pretty much, or always in the arts in some way. As a small child I wanted to be a painter, then Jacqueline Wilson made me want to be a writer, then seeing Wicked on the West End as a young teen made me want to be an actor. I’ve always been far more captivated and drawn to theatre than film or TV, I think it’s probably the magic of it being live, and being in that room packed with strangers watching something unique unfold in front of you, just for that moment.
The UnDisposable’s Julius Caesar at The Space
Your most recent play – an adaption of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set against a background of environmental crisis – received fantastic reviews. How did you and the team go about adapting the play to this new context?
Well the first thing was I gave a strict brief to the director: this play can be set anywhere, anytime, any place, but you must not make it about Brexit or Trump. As much as the parallels are there, none of us need more of that in our lives. The environmental crisis idea came from the Director, Kate Bauer. We had a wonderful RnD back in November with our Producer, Conor Gray, and some fantastic members of the UnDisposable collective. We chatted through the concepts and drew parallels between Extinction Rebellion and the conspirators in Julius Caesar. Once we had the cast in place, it was then up to us to work collectively to piece together the concept even further, working out what role every character played in our fictional XR group. It drew out a lot of interesting debate on how far is too far to achieve something for the greater good, and is there really a good and evil side in this classic Shakespeare story.
What has been your most enjoyable production that you’ve done with the UnDisposables to date and why?
For me personally (and totally selfishly), nothing will compare to last summer’s production of my own play, The Jailer’s Daughter. This was a play so close to my heart and seeing it come to life in its full form for a one-week run was…well, it’s hard to actually put into words! Nothing will quite compare with that feeling of fizzing excitement and nervous dread as a packed room of strangers is about to see your work, especially when you get to see your work performed by an absolutely stellar cast. I was also lucky enough to work with an old childhood friend (and brilliant director) on this piece, Sarah Fox. It was incredibly enjoyable seeing what Foxy and the cast did with my script, their ideas gave it a whole new energy and I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity.
I see you also offer writing workshops for aspiring writers to showcase their work. What inspired you to start these?
New writing has always been the heart of what the UnDisposables do. We produced our first scratch night to help us build our confidence not just as a theatre company, but as writers too. Hannah Whyman (one of our founding members) and I each wrote a 10-minute scene. Both scenes would be the first time we had our work performed to a live audience, and it was a really eye opening experience for the both of us. But more than that, it made us aware of the need for new writing opportunities in the wider industry. We had over 60 writers also apply to our inaugural scratch night, despite being a completely unknown company. Since then, we have produced a further four new writing theatre nights, and each time have had more and more writers apply to be a part of it. It feels important to give space for these writers to see their work in a professional, yet accessible setting which helps them improve their craft, giving more voices to our theatre industry.
How has the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic been affecting your work and theatre company?
It has been tough. The whole pandemic standstill really knocked us, especially at first. Lockdown began to creep up on us in the midst of our run of Julius Caesar at the Space theatre, a show which sadly had to be cut short. We also had to cancel our workshop on People & Power in Shakespeare as the fear of the virus limited our ticket sales. It hit us financially as most of our income comes from ticket sales, but more importantly, it definitely hit us creatively. It has been hard to keep momentum going in this artistic blackout, especially when we don’t know when things will be back to normal. I’m a person who works far more effectively when they’re busy, so being stuck at home with no shows to see or events to run has been a challenge. A big part of that challenge has been to not put too much pressure on myself to make something incredible out of this crappy situation, and to accept that it’s okay to take a step back in these strange times.
Have you been able to offer any online alternatives to your audience during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Yes actually! We ran an online scratch night in April on the date when we were meant to be producing a live theatre new writing night. It was very small scale and experimental, but it did spur us on to plan another one, titled ‘Scratching the Servers: Independence Day’ which will take place via Zoom Webinar on 4th July. We are aiming to make this online performance as close to a live theatre show as possible and are currently in the phase of reading through applications. The UnDisposables are also co-producing an online show with Scorner Theatre on the 16th July as part of the Space Theatre’s Locked Down, Looking Up season. More information on this show can be found here: https://space.org.uk/event/locked-down-double-bill/
Do you have any recommendations for online theatre-related opportunities and events or ways for people to still feel involved in the theatre community during this difficult time?
There are two sides to this advice, but I’ll first say do make sure you find the right balance. The first bit of advice I have is, please go easy on yourself and try not to feel too much FOMO. There may be a lot of people seemingly achieving a lot on social media, but social media is only one (often idealised) source of truth. If you find yourself getting blue over your twitter feed, switch it off, walk away and don’t feel bad for not jumping on every Zoom webinar out there. The second bit of advice is to find a couple of mediums which do encourage you. There are many theatre professionals doing online talks and masterclasses, many of them are free. Of course, I’m biased, but the Space Theatre is doing some great online meet ups with directors and writers, book clubs and screenings which are all free to join as and when you can. Set some time aside to nurture your artistic brain and engage with other creatives, reminding yourself that you’re not alone in this.
Do you think that theatre can offer something unique in these troubling times in comparison to television, film and other forms of media?
Absolutely. Theatre will always offer something different. I think the biggest thing it’s offering to me right now is hope. The way the theatre community has come together across the globe has been incredible to see. It makes me excited to see what work will be created when we finally come out the other side of all this.
There have been a lot of comments online about Covid-19 being likely to inspire artists to create work around themes such as isolation, stagnation and crisis. Have you been able to reflect on the pandemic and channel this into any sort of creative output?
I did write a short piece for the BBC writer’s room call out for short scripts about isolation early on, but since then I’ve personally tried to stay away from these themes as it feels a bit overwhelming to dwell on them while we’re still stuck. I suspect on reflection though that it will affect my writing and the stories I am drawn to produce.
Do you have a favourite theatre production of all time?
Whenever anyone asks me this question I blabber on about the same play: The Almeida’s The Oresteia. This was my first Robert Icke play and it blew me away. I loved everything, the clever use of multimedia, how seamlessly Icke adapted a classic story into a modern setting, the phenomenal Lia Williams as Clytemnestra, and the way the entire setting was flipped on its head at the end…utterly inspiring and unforgettable.
If you could meet any theatre legend, who would it be and why?
There are so many. If you asked 15-year-old me I’d have said David Tennant, no doubt. Then for a while it was definitely the Globe’s current Artistic Director, Michelle Terry. But currently I’m on a massive Robert Icke hype, especially as in the past few years my writing passion has become adaptations. I’d love to pick his brains one to one about his previous adaptations and chat about all the concepts I have buzzing around my brain.
Thank you, Esther
Interviewed by Flora Doble
Production Photography by Phil Brooks
Find out more about Esther and The UnDisposables from the links here:
Hello, thank you so much for answering our questions today. Why not start by telling us a little bit about yourselves?
Benji: I’m Benji and I’m the Artistic Director of The Bohemians Theatre Company.
Elliot: And I’m Elliot Mackenzie and I’m the Assistant Artistic Director of The Bohemians Theatre Company.
Benji: And we trained at Rose Bruford…
Elliot: We did indeed. We both trained on the Actor Musicianship course at Rose Bruford College…
Why and when did you form The Bohemians?
Elliot: I suppose that’s a bit complicated isn’t it?
Benji: There are so many layers.
Elliot: I suppose we officially launched at The Other Palace with Pardoned in 2018 didn’t we?
Benji: Yes. That was our official launch as a company.
The cast of Pardoned from the company’s launch at The Other Palace
Elliot: So if you were to put a date on it that would be it but the seed had been sown with both of us for some time before that and even longer for you.
Benji: When we were in first year our voice teacher Tess asked us what our dreams were. Mine was to have a theatre company. She asked what it was going to be called and in that moment I came out with ‘The Bohemians’ and it’s stuck ever since.
Elliot: Because we couldn’t think of anything better!
Benji: Yep and because we’re all a bit bonkers. Then throughout our training at Bruford everything fell into place really. We all clicked and liked making theatre together, made our first show Wondertown (main image shows Benji and Elliot in rehearsal) and have gone on to do a couple of other things. It’s been hard since graduating obviously, but we are still ploughing on and still committed to fulfilling our mission to create theatre that puts actor-musicians at the forefront and deals with social issues, and is a bit of fun too…
As actor-musicianship gains more popularity within the industry, more drama schools and universities are offering courses on it. What drew you to the course at Rose Bruford, and how do you feel it’s shaped your careers since?
Elliot: As far as I’m aware it’s sort of one of the founding places to study it – the course director when we were there (Jeremy Harrison) literally wrote the book on it. So that was sort of it from my perspective. Because I came from a musical theatre background, I was always aware that even in the West End there was some sub-par acting, so I wanted to do a course that was more acting-focussed but didn’t lose the connection to music. Yeah, I just like playing instruments…
Benji: I’ve always been someone who wants to try everything so the Actor-Musician course was the perfect thing for me. You not only explore the two disciplines of acting and music and how they relate, but there were many opportunities to compose, musically direct, arrange, write, direct, and produce as part of and alongside the course. When auditioning I realised this was the place for me. The training is very multidisciplinary.
Elliot: With a lot of other courses – in my admittedly limited knowledge of them – it looks like musical theatre with instruments, and where I think Bruford differs is that it teaches actor-musicianship as its own innate craft as a genre of theatre making. It also doesn’t just train actor-musos; it trains writers and composers and theatre makers. Even if you never make another piece of theatre again and you’re only working freelance with other peoples’ ideas, all those skills are massively valuable to you. Though of course it’s the only place I went, and I might have had a great time somewhere else.
Benji: I supposed we are biased. The other courses are quite young so I’m sure as those courses grow, they’ll figure out what actor-musicianship is in their own way as well and it’ll all merge and become a beautiful thing.
Elliot: You also get that heritage when you go to Bruford. You’re part of a thing that’s bigger than you, that’s had years of people doing years of research and trying to work out what the hell it is. You know that from Rose Bruford herself leaving other places and going, ‘I think the voice and the text needs to be valued a lot more’.
Was there ever any concern that studying actor-musicianship would make casting directors turn their noses up at you not studying ‘proper’ acting? Have you experienced any sort of elitism in the industry because of it and how have you dealt with that?
Benji: When I was auditioning for actor-musician courses, someone suggested I might get half of each discipline and not a full experience, but I feel we had a full-blooded experience in both those disciplines packed into three years.
Elliot: I think that’s a misconception about actor-musicianship, that you’re a bit of an actor and a bit of a musician and bit of a musical theatre performer, but that’s the wrong way to look at it. We’re not a bit of any of those, we are a whole of an actor muso.
Benji: And actor-musicians are so in demand. There are so many more shows using actor-musicians at the heart of the creative process. I haven’t experienced any snobbery.
How have the first few years of running a company been? What have been the biggest challenges?
Benji: When you’re at drama school you have the resources of space, time and people at no cost and everyone is there and committed. We left Bruford in a really good place with this company and a portfolio of work, but being in the real world you lose the space, time, and people and you have no money. So it has been challenging, but we have still been able to develop our work and plan things. We are exploring fundraising, funding, and focusing on our business and marketing strategy at the moment.
Elliot: I think the biggest single challenge has been lack of financial support. We’ve produced and directed and devised an entire actor-muso musical and it was a thing. The only thing that stops us from doing that again is money.
Has it been difficult running the company while many of its members are all over the country – and sometimes the world – touring with other shows? What keeps you all together during those times?
Benji: Everyone is still so passionate about the company and the work. Obviously because actor-muso work is so popular, all our company members have been hugely successful and continually working. So it has been a challenge to pin people down, but I still feel so connected to everyone. We did a R&D project in Cornwall last September of Pardoned, our musical about Alan Turing and John Nicholson, and that brought people from all over to work in the Sterts Theatre for a week as one of our company members lives near there. So it’s an advantage having people all over the country as we can go and work where some of our members are.
Elliot: We’ve got members from around the UK and other parts of the world with different backgrounds, and they all go off and travel somewhere for a new gig with a groovy director. That stuff is all experience and ideas and approaches that get fed some way or other back into our work. So while it is a challenge being spread out, it is a great asset to the company. Yes, it’s difficult and makes things harder but it makes the work better as well.
How do you think the use of actor-musicians in a play or musical enhances the theatrical experience?
Benji: There’s the visual aspect and also the visceral connection to seeing instruments being played live. I was listening to an old recording of Ethel Merman, who was in the original Gypsy, singing over an orchestra of maybe 25 with no microphone and you could hear every word. It reminded me of how important the connection between voice and audience is. Sometimes what is being sung and played becomes tinny and artificial with amplified sound, and we lose the connection to the performer. Our shows have mostly been un-amplified and relied on musical directors and arrangers to balance the sound in the room and performance spaces. Actor-musicians definitely add a visual and aural connection that creates a really powerful and truthful experience.
Elliot: There’s a real connection. Nothing is falsified. If you are watching a play with music in it and you’re seeing a guy strumming a chord on a guitar live and in front of you, you have an immediate relationship to that as an audience member. If you hear that same chord played on a speaker, that relationship is lost. It’s bundled up into that idea of ‘Theatre Magic’, that you’re not supposed to see behind the smoke and mirrors. That’s not to say recorded sound doesn’t have its place though.
Do you feel that musical theatre is stigmatised – particularly in the UK? How do you try to tackle those preconceptions with the kind of work that you make?
Benji: I do think it is stigmatised but it’s getting better. I’ve been listening to Adam Lenson’s podcast Dischord which is brilliant. He’s basically a guru in figuring out what musical theatre is. There’s lots of talk about the term musical theatre and how some people use music theatre instead because they want to be taken more seriously. I’m very proud to say we do musicals and actor-musician musicals. I suppose we tackle the preconceptions by creating musicals for and with actor-musicians in mind, as most actor-musician work in musical theatre is revivals with the actor-muso stamp put on them. But I think we are still figuring this out. Adam Lenson has been figuring this out for years and there are lots of layers to it – it’s partly how audiences perceive musicals and how stubborn they can be or how open they can be…
Elliot: I suppose from an artist perspective they do have a reputation for being less real and less serious but from a producer’s standpoint a musical is always going to be far more attractive than a play would. The West End flourishes not because of straight plays but because of musicals. I think if there is a stigma attached to it, it comes from within the theatre making community. I don’t think it comes from audiences.
You’re a very politically-driven company, with Wondertown in particular focusing on the importance of voting. How do you find audiences react to seeing this subject matter in a musical – a form which is often perceived to largely stray away from heavy topics?
A production still from Wondertown
Benji: If you look at Rodgers and Hammerstein’s golden age musicals, they are very politically driven. Showboat, considered one of the first musicals of the modern age, is so politically charged. I don’t think we’re doing anything radical and new with that, but I think it’s important to keep exploring political and social issues through this art form.
Elliot: West Side Story – one of the most famous musicals of all time – is about racism and gang culture and what it means to be a defective young person. But I suppose we’re dealing with perception, aren’t we? With Wondertown we had some praise for discussing political issues but it was not being overt. The point of the piece wasn’t to bash you round the head with politics.
Benji: Yes, it was about making the politics accessible to people who don’t get the jargon and we did partly succeed in that. It was interesting seeing the difference in reaction from older and younger audience members. The younger people were getting excited about engaging with politics and we had a comment from an older woman who didn’t realise younger people were this engaged or cared about certain social issues. So I suppose that’s our mission as a company – to make people aware of certain social issues and make people react and make a change.
What were you up to before the theatre shutdown?
Benji: I was preparing material for a scratch night at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. I’m writing a musical about Welsh painter Gwen John which might be a gig theatre piece. But that obviously fell through.
Elliot: I was touring the UK and India in a production of Million Dollar Quartet. I was covering some of the roles and it was actor-muso.
Benji: I think a lot of our other company members lost out on a lot of work which is really sad.
How have you been coping with this new existence of social distancing and staying indoors?
Benji: Like everyone, I found it hard in the first couple of weeks but I’m getting into it now and figuring out how to keep creative and productive, and work on stuff for The Bohemians. But it is all mind-boggling.
Elliot: I’m with you on that one. I’ve always struggled to be productive when I’m not being held accountable to other people. I think in many ways being a freelancer is a bit of a head start over people who haven’t freelanced before, because we know what it’s like to be doing a lot of stuff and then absolutely nothing. But I’m playing a lot of music, trying to write music, and I’m now in a couple of online plays and doing musical supervision for a thing which is going to be bonkers.
What’s your top tip for other creatives struggling with quarantine life?
Elliot: My top tip would be don’t feel bad about creating absolutely nothing at all. There’s a lot of pressure on theatre makers and musicians to still be making stuff but actually, a lot of the joy of our craft comes from being together with likeminded people in a room. We’re lacking that at the moment and that makes stuff really really difficult. So my big piece of advice would be don’t feel bad if you want to sit on the sofa and watch Netflix all day.
Benji: I agree. Eat cake and lots of chocolate. That being said, there came a point when I did want to do stuff and be productive so I made a list of what I want to watch, read, and write in the week.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do once the lockdown is lifted and we’re allowed outdoors again?
Both: Go to the pub!
What’s next for The Bohemians?
Benji: We are currently developing small projects. Because everyone is so busy, it’s hard to realise them – especially without funding. We were planning to take something to the Camden Fringe this summer, so we want to put together a small scale fringe piece when this is over, and also have a couple of our crazy open mic cabarets where everyone can come and sing, drink, get merry and live the bohemian life. La vie boheme!
Elliot: We are also looking at a couple of writers’ retreats with our company members and how we can produce work around the country.
New British musicals are notoriously difficult to get developed compared to America. What challenges have you faced in getting your own work produced?
Benji: It’s strange because the new musical writing world in the UK is so small but it’s so big as well – there are a lot of people trying to make new work. So getting noticed by some of the people in the industry working on new musicals is challenging. But you have to keep going to events, keep networking and supporting your fellow peers making new musicals in the hope they will support you back.
What are the big changes that need to happen to help British musicals flourish?
Benji: More producers willing to take risks is one thing.
Elliot: More outsider success stories like Six because that was a musical not based on a film or a play. A British story that clearly had a large public awareness and following. Until more of that happens, not a lot of producers – particularly large scale producers – won’t take risks. They go for things based on the songs of bands or things that have done exceedingly well at the box office. So I think you need more indie British musicals.
Benji: And we need more Welsh stories, Scottish stories, Irish stories – more regional theatres to support writers and companies. We need people to take risks and have faith that the work will be good.
What hidden musical theatre gems do you recommend to readers looking for something new to listen to?
Benji: I would say all of Adam Lenson’s content from Signal which features a lot of new writing. There’s a quirky American musical, Fly By Night, that’s not well-known which is great. And Say My Name, an actor-musician Breaking Bad parody musical which I helped produce, has recently put out its album which you can listen to here: https://open.spotify.com/album/5cYKTvWHdnfxeQDuPrlVD2?si=VI27SGOLSIqGLziBzJKoAg
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions – stay safe and keep washing your hands!
Interviewed by Ryan Mellish
Photography courtesy of Benji and Elliot
Find out more about The Bohemians from the links here: