'Everyone in the industry knows each other' The Toxic Avenger director on theatre, learning and more

Benji Sperring is the Associate Director of the King's Head Theatre in north London, UK, and is responsible for directing the productions Shock Treatment and the five-star reviewed The Toxic Avenger. Here he talks to Mandy News about how he got started in the industry, how productions differ in the US and UK and what actors and directors can do to succeed in the theatre business.

9th January 2018
/ By James Collins

Benji Sperring – The Toxic Avenger theatre director BENJISPERRING

Please give us a little introduction to yourself and how you got into the industry.
I’m a theatre director and producer. I started directing while at university in Manchester. After studying, I went to Central and studied a masters in directing. Then, I sort of entered the industry. I had some wonderful jobs at Eton as their director in residence, and at Portsmouth, which trained me in bigger theatres and budgets and things. Then I started my own company in 2012. 

We started on the Fringe, doing shows at the Old Red Lion and then moved to the King’s Head, where I did the sequel to Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment. We got a really good response from it and that led to a variety of different shows that we’ve been doing to this day. Mostly musicals. Work that is either brand new or has been forgotten for a while or coming over to the UK for the first time. Usually kind of rock-core with an element of black comedy and darkness– cold musicals, I suppose, is what we’re best known as.

What was it that got you interested in being in theatre to begin with?
It all started off with my auntie Sian, my Welsh aunt. When I was 5 or 6, she and her husband used to be actors in the West Bromwich amateur operatic society, and she used to take me along to see these shows and take me backstage. I remember going to see Finian’s Rainbow and being took backstage and seeing everyone in the company sitting around having a laugh after the show, taking their makeup off. It was such a warm environment. When I was little, I was just amazed by it. From that moment, I fell in love with theatre and wanted to get involved.

At school, I studied English and I was going to go off and be an English teacher. That was always the plan. At the University of Manchester, in the first term, I asked the drama society if I could direct something and I did Sondheim’s Assassins. We ended up doing it at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, which is a 1,600 seat venue – ridiculously nice room. For a student to be doing something like that was incredible. It went down really well, had a great cast. David Oakes (The Pillars of the Earth) was in it. We had a real stellar cast who have gone on to great things. 

That set me up as a director and I managed to not f*** it up. I carried on doing gradually smaller shows, funnily enough, until getting to London and starting my own company.

What was the idea behind that? What made you start your own company as opposed to being employed by somebody else?
Just the fact that no-one was doing the work that I really liked. There seemed to be a real gap in the market for that kind of cult, slightly dark existential work. There wasn’t really another company that I could approach. I’ve never assistant directed and I’ve never really followed that path. I always thought it would be better to be creating my own instead of watching other people do it. So we just took the leap and I’d been working in education, so I was able to take some of the money from that and put it into my company.

For the first two or three years, I self-funded the company entirely, and then we started to get a bit of a following so we could find investors. It was just seeing a real gap for stuff that I wanted to do on stage and, since I’ve started, more and more work’s been made. There’s a bit more of a hunger for that sort of stuff. But in the early days, 2011-2012, it was all quite conventional stuff.

You mentioned that you were in education before you started your company. Is that something that you still do now? Is it something that you feel is quite important to your work?
Yes, I’m head of drama down at a school in Dulwich and do that two days a week. The school’s really understanding – that when I’m doing shows and things I might need time off. I’ve got a deputy who steps in for me. I think it’s really important. There’s something very grounding about going and working in a lovely theatre, and working with great actors and then the next morning being in front of a group of eight year olds who are hungry for information. The experience that you’ve got, that you can then pass on to them is great. They’ll ask questions and they’ll question all of the things that you believe are really fundamental.

You have to try and clarify for them and make them understand it. I think that’s a real skill that is necessary in working with other people, when you’re directing and coordinating productions. You have to be able to justify everything. The cherubic face of an 8 year old is something which can either make you really question why you’re doing everything or can make you have quite profound realisations.

I think it’s quite an important facet of what a director is, that you're part an educator for actors and to the company, because you’re trying to get your ideas out of your head and into theirs. I think school certainly grounds all of that quite nicely.

It sounds like you’re not only teaching but also learning at the same time.
Yeah, I don’t think you can teach and not learn, because kids will always throw a curve ball, especially when you’re settled into something. With the way the classes work at school, I tend to do the same lesson for two classes in the same day. The varied responses you get – you’ll have a great lesson and think you’ll be fine to repeat that for the next lesson, but then suddenly it’s so different because the personality of the class and the background of them is really different.

You’re always having to change plans. I think it’s a really important thing and I don’t think it really matters what age it is either. I teach from three year olds to 13, but I’ve also taught GCSE, A levels and at universities and drama schools. Just the nature of that investigative mind when you’re teaching does make you more aware of what your process is.

The Toxic Avenger theatre show THETOXICAVENGER
The Toxic Avenger cast in rehearsal

That’s really cool. How did Toxic Avenger come about? How was that first presented to you?
It was a weird one! My agent – I’m with John Rogerson at Soundcheck – set up a meeting with Katie Lipson. We sat down and had a chat about various different projects. We really got on. At the end of the conversation, I said, "I have got one show that I’m sort of sitting on because I think it’s really special. I’ve got the rights to do The Toxic Avenger." Katie looked at me and she said, "No you haven’t." I told her it was pretty much signed. She said she'd flown out to New York and spoke to Joe DiPetro and he granted her the rights. At that point, she could have said, "Screw you, I’m not doing it with you," but she said we may as well do it together. It was total serendipity that both of us had landed on the same project at the same time. We had no idea how it would go.

I had seen it when it was Off-Broadway when I was in New York. I had always thought that it had so much potential but that it hadn’t found the comedy. I don’t know if it was the audience or the performance that I saw, but it had so much potential. We didn’t know whether the audiences would like it or whether it was silly. So it was the first project Katie and I worked on, and it was a real delight from start to finish.

Has much changed from the American production to the UK production?
I worked quite a lot with Joe, the writer, and David Bryan, the composer. There were some gags that weren't going to land because of the British sensibility and the British audience. There were other things where we created a style of show that was very meta-theatrical and very much a comment on itself. It was suggested by the script but wasn't inherent in it. 

So Joe, David and I had quite a few chats. I said what direction I was thinking of moving in and when I wanted to bring the characters on. They were so understanding, because Joe’s had a few pieces that have come over here and done really well, but he’s aware that the British audience needs a slightly different show from the American audience. They were so understanding of every change and move and it was lovely.

The piece itself comes from the cast, it’s very ensemble-led and collaborative. When you’re working with a group of comedy actors, you hire them because they’re funny so you might as well let them be funny. I don’t get directors who tell people what to do. You let people be brilliant and then you mould that brilliance so that it works as a whole. I have five incredible comedians. When we transferred to Edinburgh I had a new bunch of actors and comedians with very different senses of humour and comedy value. But I let them rip on the script and work on thing and then went back to the writers and said what we’d like to do. They were so supportive. They’ve been brilliant.

Are you involved in the casting as director?
Yes. Jane Deitch is my casting director. I always joke that casting is the worst bit. I’m not very good at it. But I think I’ve lucked out quite a lot. Generally for a casting, I like to spend 15 minutes, but Jane only gives me 10 minutes for a slot. The first five minutes are just a chat with the actor. It’s just a relaxed talk to find out who they are, what they want to tell you about and what they’ve been working on. Then, if there’s a conversation that comes out of that, that’s brilliant. Generally, I’m just trying to make them relaxed.

I hate with a passion these auditions that you hear about where actors are made to feel small and little, as though they’ve earned a place at the audition. You don’t get the best results from that. You don’t shout and scream at kids when they’re doing an exam – they’re not going to perform very well. In an audition, you want people to show you the best that they are at that time. Generally, that five minute chat is as important as the rest of it because you then know if you’re going to get on when you work together. I’ll try and make some crappy jokes and if they laugh and go with it, that’s great because it means a sense of humour is there.

After that, I’ll ask them if they’re ready to do a bit of singing. I generally get them to sing a comedy song and have it MT standard. I’ve now heard ‘Screw Loose’ from Cry Baby at least a hundred times in auditions. I get them to sing their song, then maybe try a little bit of gentle direction and see how they take that. I think that’s quite an important bit when you’re first meeting with someone.

Then, I get them to read a side or something. That’s probably the least important bit for me in the first round, because when actors are on a trail going around auditions, you have so many auditions for first rounds that you’re not expecting people to make bold, brazen choices when they don’t know where they’re going. I don’t think it’s necessarily that fruitful. When they come down to the second round, you get them to read the script, you get them to select a scene and then they start putting their own character on it. But I think the first round is just to see if they fit the right shape for the role.

You actually let them pick their own scene to read for the second audition? That’s fantastic.
I mean, it also means that the actors come in having read the script. The problem is always when they choose the first scene, because they have to qualify that they did read the whole thing and just found the first one interesting.

I like to do that, because then actors will be able to show you the bit that they think they’ll be best on and show you where their strengths are. Sometimes, I’ll choose a couple of sides from the script and give it to an actor, and it will be something that they need to work with me on. If they choose it, they own the audition. I just think it makes so much more sense.

I think the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent and all those things have had such a negative impact on the casting process. I never sit behind a desk, I never like any barriers in the room. I’ll get up and shake hands with the actors – it’s the first thing that I do. Then, I’ll try to be close to them because it’s terrifying. We did first rounds for a show that I’m doing up at the Liverpool Royal Court next year and when the actors came into the room and there were nine people in the room – executives from the Royal Court, writers, producers, musical directors – you kind of want to be the person that is their go-between, the person they can trust, because that’s what I’m going to be in the job.

The X Factor has really told us that the panel are better than you. They sit behind desks and show no emotion. They’ll make fun of you when they can. They’ll laugh about you when you’re not there. It’s just so wrong. It bugs me every time, it really does. That’s very much a personal thing.

I guess in that sense you’re going to become a team further down the line.
Absolutely. Even with the kids, when we’re doing a school show or something, I always say, "I’m working with you, I’m not telling you what to do. We’re serving the show." You need people who feel comfortable with that. It’s so upsetting when actors come into the room and they go and stand next to the MD, expecting that they’re not going to get spoken to and just go into their songs. Then someone will stop them halfway through. It just breaks my heart.

The Toxic Avenger cast rehearsing at the King's Head Theatre TOXICAVENGER
The Toxic Avenger cast enjoying rehearsal at The King's Head Theatre

Once the production is running, what is a day in the life of a show for you? What’s the busiest period for you during preparation for a show?
In rehearsals, it’s generally a 10 o’clock start. We tend to do warm ups and vocals until 10:30, with a lot of coffee before that. Then, play for an hour and a half, whichever bit we’re working on, bit of a break, then another hour and a half. Then a lunch break and four hours in the afternoon. Generally I try to do choreography and musicals in the morning, and then script work in the afternoon.

I really don’t like table time – I don’t do it – so I get the actors straight up on their feet and we just play. Certainly when I’m working with comedy, it’s just making each other laugh. Olivier award-winning actors that I work with keep on taking the p*** out of me because I say that we’re going to d*** around with the script, but that’s essentially what it is – just playing, and finding the laughs in things. Then gradually making more decisions as you go through.

So I try and get it all blocked within the first week, so there's a lot of moving around that week. You just get it on its feet so that everyone knows what it’s like. Then you can change that. I tend to have a three week rehearsal process, so that by the end of the first week it’s up on its feet and everyone knows roughly where their paths are. Then in the second week, you start tweaking and playing. In the third week you add all of that lovely depth and shade and everything.

The other thing is finding the gags. As a director, I don’t think it’s your job to say what the joke is. You know when there’s a beat that needs a gag. One of the best things is when you say, "right, there’s a joke in here, there’s a moment that needs a joke– what is it?" and you’ve got all the cast desperately trying to come up with a punchline, in a competitive sort of way. Suddenly, someone says they’ve got it, and you get them to do it and that inspires someone else. Together as a group, you find the funny moments and you just realise that’s how comedy should land. In a writers’ room. You’re all collaborating together to get that gag.

Anyway, we go from two 'til six, then finish. Basically, I’m a borderline alcoholic – I quite like the cast to go out for a drink afterwards, just so we can leave the rehearsal room behind and just chat and chill. A quick glass of wine or something, then home.

Then I prepare, listen to the music, go through the moves myself, go through the script, make sure I know what I’m doing. Generally, on show days I’ll work until 10, 10:30, 11 at night and just make sure that I know what I’m hoping to achieve the next day – consolidating all the stuff we’ve done the previous day. In the first week, it’s a bit more relaxed, and then by the third week you’ve got quite a lot of preparation work done so that when you’re actually adding all those layers, you know the script so well that you can bounce around in the script.

I’d love to say it works every time. When we did Toxic Avenger, I think I personally passed show 100 before Emma Salvo, who’s playing the lead, put in a moment early on in the first scene that suddenly made sense of everything else that had happened. I can’t explain the fury that I’d spent 100 shows totally missing that moment. Sometimes you’re blindsided, you can’t see the wood for the trees.

The first morning of the first day of rehearsals, we do ice-breaking games and I do a cast speed-dating where they talk about a topic for 30 seconds, which is usually based on the show. When we did Holy Crap it was all about sex toys and religion, things like that. You play games and get everyone really comfortable.

Then in the afternoon, I tend to break the cast quite early and have individual time with everyone – just to talk about objectives and characterisations and get these early decisions made so that they know when they’re going through. At least I know, when they’re looking at classical objectives and things like that, that we’re on the same page. I don’t have a strict routine, I think by the end of week the it’s in its shape. We know what the show’s going to be and we know when it’s ready.

Then, in tech, it’s just carnage. But that’s mainly due to the fact that in every show that we’ve done as a company so far, there’s myself, choreographer Lucy Pankhurst, musical director Alex Beetschen and lighting designer Nic Farman. We always try to outgrow the space. So the show always sort of feels like it’s busting at the seams at every venue. That started at The King’s Head, and St James, and over at Wilton, and even at the Arts. We just push it so far that it means that the tech period is very tight.

I can’t think of a single moment in any of the shows that I’ve rehearsed or directed that I’ve ever had an actual member of the artistic team lose their temper. It’s very calm: we’re always polite, we’re always nice, we’re always smiley, even when time is against us. I think that’s quite an important thing for the company, that we’re always pleasant. We just muddle on through until we get to the end. I don’t think I’ve got a regimented routine. I’m not that sort of director. It’s a bit more relaxed, because I think when people are relaxed, they make the best work.

Absolutely. You spoke about the rest of the people that you have in your company, and a show at the Royal Court in Liverpool. What’s next for you and the team going forwards?
We’re off up to Liverpool. I’d do the accent but I might get killed by my executive director. We’re going to the Royal Court and doing a new musical based on The Liver Birds, it’s called Liver Birds Flying Home, it’s a sitcom by Carla Lane in the late sixties, early seventies. It’s my team – we’re all going up to have a jolly up there.

I’m a massive Victoria Wood fan and she passed away while I was doing the first round of Toxic Avenger, and I never really got time to get over that. All the way through my life, Victoria Wood had been one of the most important performers that I’d ever witnessed. I always thought that she was the bastion of female comedians, female writing.

Alongside Victoria Wood was Carla Lane, who wrote Bread and The Liver Birds and Butterflies. I suppose I just got sidelined by Victoria Wood and never appreciated that Carla Lane was writing a sitcom for two independent females in the early seventies, when the majority of work was always about the heteronormative couple where the man was slightly chauvinist and the woman was always under his thumb. It was all very 2.4 children, and Carla was writing some incredible stuff which was remarkably progressive, but I don’t think it’s been valued as much as people like Victoria Wood.

So I was aware of it and then James Seabright, who’s producing it, passed me a script and told me to have a read of it and see what I think. It suddenly triggered all of those thoughts, of "I can’t believe this isn’t more appreciated than it is." It was so important for a female voice to be writing about women at a time like that, who were suffering with problems like being on the dole or not getting enough money. And high rent and independent living.

Barb Jung, who’s written the book, went to Carla Lanes’ estate and said that this what was she wanted to do. They wholeheartedly supported it, so Barb has managed to cultivate this show which revisits The Liver Birds forty years on. It then switches back to the decisions they made early doors, and it’s not taking it from the original TV series. You see all of those relationships and things that they dealt with when they were younger and how they’ve influenced their lives.

It’s got a really nice feel to it, of women progressing through life and seeing the difference between the seventies and now. It’s got great music by Mike Lindup who is the keyboardist from Level 42. I’m a big fan. For my last two shows, I’ve worked with the Level 42 keyboardist and I’ve worked with Bon Jovi’s keyboardist. As long as I get someone from Belle and Sebastian, that’s like my three favourite bands.

The Royal Court itself is stunning, they’ve got a really nice way of presenting theatre. Down in the stalls, they’ve got cabaret seating where they serve food beforehand, and then you see the theatre and in the interval they bring out dessert. It’s sort of classical theatre.

Do you have any specific advice for up-and-coming theatre directors or for actors attending auditions?
Be nice. Everyone in the industry knows each other. Everyone talks about each other. Being nice is so rare. Being nice to everyone. Even if you don’t like them, just be friendly because as soon as you’re a n**, it creates such a big division. I know it sounds really intuitive, but you’d be amazed at how many people can be standoffish or rude or arrogant or think they’re better than people, just when you're randomly talking to them. I think being pleasant all the time to everyone is really crucial.

I suppose the other bit is do stuff that makes you happy. My dad always told me when I was growing up – it’s partly why I followed directing – that you spend a third of your life asleep. If you spend a third of your life at work and a third of your life having fun, there’s no point making work not fun, because it’s so much of your life. If you’re having fun at work and you have fun in the other third and then you're asleep, it’s just so much more fulfilling. 

Finding the fun is really important. When you are having fun, I think that transcends what you’re doing. I think other people pick it up and it enlivens and inspires other people. I’d much rather be known for having a smile on my face and having a lovely time, rather than being a great inspirational director who’s stuffy and farty all the time.

Have fun and be nice.