• British Broadway theatre director Alexandra Spencer-Jones talks bossing it internationally

    British theatre director Alexandra Spencer-Jones has enjoyed success with her productions both in England and America – here she tells Mandy News how.

    20th Oct 2017By James Collins

    If you wouldn’t mind just introducing yourself, and telling us a little bit about yourself, that’d be fantastic.

    My name is Alexandra Spencer-Jones, I’m a Liverpool-born theatre director and choreographer, and I guess musician as well. I run a theatre company called Action to the Word, which was established in 2008, and they were built to originally create Shakespearean retellings, but that’s evolved and they’re now an actor-musician physical theatre company, with Shakespeare at its heart but primarily our work at the moment is actor musician.

    How did you first get into theatre?

    I was a child actor, and I didn’t go to theatre school or to drama school, I went down the University route, I studied English at Cambridge University. I was by no means from a privileged background, to the point where my mum used to clean the dance studio in lieu of payment. At Cambridge I managed to get a couple of music scholarships and things like that to help me through it, financially, and then when I graduated I created the company. It was pretty much immediate actually, like the week after I graduated I wanted to set up a company.

    Where was that, was that back in Merseyside or was that down in London?

    It was in London, actually. When I left Cambridge I moved to London, and there’d been a couple of creatives in Cambridge, a musician, a technician and an actor that I loved working with, and they become the sort of artistic crux of Action to the Word. I still work with both of them now, and even though one of them has gone off into something that’s not theatrical, he’s still very much a part of the company’s management. The other guy’s inherently of the company, he’s my other half, basically, in terms of the company itself, James Smoker.

    How did you end up making A Clockwork Orange? How did that first surface? Was there an interest from yourself in the book, or the previous stage play, or the Kubrick film?

    First and foremost, I was introduced to the book when I was studying for my GCSEs. I was introduced to it in a very secretive, strange way. My English teacher was amazing, but he was a total rebel, and he didn’t care for the education system and he didn’t care for the curriculum. Our GCSE set text was The Catcher in the Rye, and he said ‘Look, I can’t get you guys in good conscience reading Salinger, American renegade literature if you won’t read British renegade literature, you’ll have to read A Clockwork Orange.’ He said, ‘but by God, don’t tell your parents. Hide it.’ So it was me, 14, reading this under the bedsheets, thinking it was the most wonderful thing of all time. That’s one part of the story, it’s always been a part of my life, the controversy of it.

    The other part of the story is, my company in 2009 was staging Romeo and Juliet, so I set it across Merton Abbey Mills, and Colliers Wood, I don’t know whether you know that site. Very strange site called the Merton Abbey Mills, it’s sort of majestic, honestly. We were staging this really wonderful, mad, audience-following-the-action-round version of Romeo and Juliet, which was so real feeling that the police came and thought that Tybalt’s murder was real. It was this amazing rock and roll, "we’re all 21 and don’t give a s***" piece of theatre. A guy came up to me at the end of one of the shows, and he says ‘I’ve always thought that Shakespeare was too posh for me, and that’s the first time I’ve ever understood what happens in this play.’ He was an older man, he said ‘I’ve been trying to understand it for the last 45 years, and fortunately you just brought Romeo and Juliet alive,’ and he said ‘If you’re ever interested in staging something a bit more modern, I might be able to help you find a bit of funding,’ and I was like ‘Okay. Wow. This is the sort of thing people dream about.’

    As it happens, you’ve got them talking about a great deal of money, and what he was talking about was just a basic cushion for the next project, a matter of two or three hundred pounds. It was next to nothing, but it was a start, and what it meant was that my friend, who ran Proud Galleries in Camden – they’d never done theatre ever – and she said to me, when I was moaning about how few opportunities young theatre directors who aren’t rich get, they never get a place to showcase their work, and she said ‘I mean, you can do it at the gallery.’ She said ‘Obviously, there’s no technical facilities there and you wouldn’t have to pay rent but you would have to make a certain amount on the bar. You’d be very welcome to do it there, anyway.’

    So this is me at 21 going ‘Okay, I’ll take £600 of risk,’ petrified, but trusting the brand. I was living in a squat at the time, in Elephant and Castle, and interestingly the lads came round to rehearse there. We were doing a rehearsal so it was my living and work space really.

    We staged it for three nights only, in 2009 at the Proud Galleries in Camden, and it went down like a storm. Everyone in the theatre industry that I invited was like ‘This is unique, nothing like this has ever been staged,’ and of course, I’m 21 so I believe every single word everyone’s saying. I manage to convince that group of lads, and not just those, a whole group of girls that worked with them, to go up to the Edinburgh festival, two years later, to do a season of three shows. We took Clockwork Orange and we doubled up with my version of Titus Andronicus, which I’d been doing on the London Fringe. We thought we’d play them in rep, that we’d do two shows a day.

    Anyway because Clockwork’s all male, the girls who were in Titus kicked off and said, ‘Oh my God, like, any danger of us having a second show?’ and I was said ‘So what you’re asking me to do is design three shows in two months, and stage all three of them a day, on the Edinburgh Festival where we might all die because we you’re doing flyering and all that crap as well?' Anyway, we didn’t have any money to pay for rights for another play, so me and one of the guys I was talking about from University, decided that we’d write a musical for them. The musical, as it turns out, was the most successful of the three shows. It’s a very weird little musical about taxidermy, called Constance and Sinestra and the Cabinet of Screams. Wacky as s***. It’s sort of like Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, Coraline and a bit of Grimm fairy tales in the blender, but with North Western humour.

    I really love it and Patrick wrote the music, and I wrote the lyrics and the script, and I staged it. We actually won an award for it that year, but not just that. That year was when some producers came to see Clockwork and bought it, they licensed it. They said that they’d need to take it back to the Edinburgh Festival as an international showcase, but when they did do that, in 2012, Soho Theatre saw it and immediately booked it for that Christmas. It played nine weeks at Soho Theatre, which were basically sold out. It went on tour with the same lads who’d done it in the squat. It went on to tour Australia for three months, just after that, and then a UK tour, it transferred to Hong Kong, and then we did a cast swap around.

    The lad who played Alex, who’s this amazing actor, who incidentally has also played Romeo in the other show I was talking about, left and became a film star, as you do. We got a younger lad in to do it, and then it turned around one more time, two new members of cast, and we took the show to Scandinavia, then to Singapore and then finally back to Finsbury Park for five weeks, which was earlier this year. Then we secured the Broadway transfer of it, but without our brilliant UK cast. Except for one, we took our Alex, who’s again, a brilliant actor called Jonno Davies. Jonno and I went over to the US, recast the show, and it sort of felt like we were losing our limbs. These were our boys, and this is our ensemble, and it’s been a real challenge, honestly, because I think you go a long way to get the actors for the UK cast, and the Americans are brilliant at the job, but it’s very much a job to them. Those lads are the indisputable skeleton of Clockwork Orange, but Jonno is there, helming them up. They’re playing at the New World stage, until mid January.

    Clockwork’s got a sort of Cinderella story, really, about it. It’s certainly been the beginning of my career, Martin McCreadie’s career, the lad who played the original Alex. I’m extraordinarily proud of it, really. It’s probably got another future to it, as well, after America. We’re talking about an American tour, and we’re talking about transferring the show to the Brazil and into Portugues, which is mad as well. It was a strange one for me, because I went over to rehearse it and of course I’ve turned 30 now, and so it’s a very different play and I’m a very different director from when I was an ingenue and a baby. I’m redirecting stuff from when I was 21, which is mad.

    How did you actually go about getting the play to go internationally, say Hong Kong, Singapore, Norway?

    My producers have a lot to do with that. They’re the people that look after STOMP and have toured that all over the world, and made it the huge success that it is. Also very practically, these people who are in charge of these different domains, they came to see the show, and its showcase as well, enjoyed it, saw potential in it and then approached us. We work with a particular, amazing producer in Hong Kong and Singapore, and we’ve got a continued relationship with him, we’re developing a Shakespeare project with him, that’s this year, coming up. The Australian producer, he saw potential in it when he saw it at the Edinburgh Festival, cast for it, and we adapted the staging for the part. It’s an amazing thing, to talk about, it’s taken on its own life.

    You must be very proud of what it has become.

    It is very much linked to the hard work of loads of lads at the squat, if I’m honest. It’s all the same thing for me now, and what was interesting, what’s very interesting, honestly, as a theatre maker, is seeing how much of that is born from the original company, and the original group of actors that you work with. How much of your choices trickle through the millennia to different casts. It’s so fascinating to me. For example, we staged it at the Esplanade theatre in Singapore, it’s a two and a half thousand seater. I made that show for an art gallery with 150 seats, and so it’s at that point where you start to go ‘How do we let that show land to a full house?’ The truth of the matter is that it just does, but it was interesting because outside the theatre, and we were about to get in, and the team, the amazing Singapore team on stage management, there was 20 of them, they were like ‘Where’s your set?’ I was like ‘It’s that table, and those chairs there.’

    We’ve had the option to change the set and actually it’s still got the fabric of what we created to start with, which is hard work from 10 lads that play forty something, fifty something roles between them. It’s a huge actor experiment. Growing up, I was in love with Peter Brook, I was in love Steven Berkoff, Matthew Borne, people that tells stories with their bodies as well as with their words. If you lace all that with Shakespeare, which is the other huge passion of my life, that’s where Clockwork comes in, because obviously a huge amount of it’s about the language and the prowess of language as well, and so what we’re left with in Clockwork is sort of- A lot of the American press talk about homoeroticism, that’s really never been in my mind. I was talking about original practice of Shakespearean boy companies and things like that. It was so interesting to see how Clockwork was received differently in every territory. In Hong Kong they thought it was incredibly political, it’s been about gender and sexuality in America. Here, it’s been about the story. It’s so interesting.

    You’ve touched briefly on how it’s been received in the states. It opened on the 25th of September, and it’s been running for just under a month, now, so how has it been received other than the focus or the potential homoeroticism of the play, how do you feel its been received, what have the reviews been like?

    The reviews have always been incredibly varied, ranging from ‘This is disgusting theatre,’ to ‘this is sublime theatre’ so, it’s always split people, because I think, like the film, like the book, people really don’t want to have one set opinion about A Clockwork Orange. Let’s remember that the film and the book were both banned in this country, as well as every other country. It was a brand, it comes with it’s own ignominy. The show’s been incredibly well received, over there, it’s filling up houses, theatre people, young people, revolutionary people, dance people, gender liberation people, they enjoy the show. People who go in there, I think, wanting to experience a bit of- Edinburgh, you know, ‘Watch a girl get raped,’ really don’t get what they were asking for. In Edinburgh, a stag group came to see the show in 2012, and they literally left the theatre shouting ‘You f***ing f*****s!’ Certainly, that wasn’t where any of our choices came from, it’s a sensationalised piece of literature where gender means nothing, power’s everything.

    I was actually looking at an interview you did recently about the play, in it you mentioned gender and how the gender wasn’t an important issue with regards to the play, and how you were actually contemplating doing the entire play with an entirely female cast, possibly in the future.

    It’s gone through an evolution in my last decade, basically. When I started it, I didn’t think twice about the casting decision, because the majority of people I was working with, as was traditional casting Shakespeare, were male. So, it made sense to me that it would be the boys company. The girls in the novel, the women in the novel are sort of a bit faceless, and it makes me angry, really. They’re talked about in really dismissive terms, separated terms, often in terms of their bodies rather than their humanity. So to start with it was a very practical decision, over the course of time and listening to people’s responses to it, I’m fascinated by the concept of doing it all female, because for me it’s just got nothing to do with gender, except in the way the audience responds. You bet ya, if I did exactly the same piece, same movements and same decisions, with females, I’d be called sexist. I almost want more to do it, because it’s not sexist to do the show the way I’ve done it, I’ve never been called anti-men, I’ve been called sensationalist, I’ve been called homoerotic. You bet that if I did it with all women, it would be a sexist thing.

    I’m so interested in that, because I do a lot of work with women in my other show, called Dracula, I’m doing a production of The Lost Boy this Christmas up in Islington, it’s Peter Pan. There’s women in that. I love working with women, as we speak I’m about to launch a US tour that’s got three powerhouses of women in it. Certainly gender equality in theatre is very important to me, to the point where I insisted, with the Broadway cast, that the backstage team was primarily female. I made a point of it, as a woman myself. Gender conversations in America are so interesting, and sort of started off believing that the show’s post gender and that gender doesn’t matter whatsoever, it’s sort of a polymorphous thing. With that in mind, an all female cast makes total sense to me, because it’s an actor experiment. It’s not about whether you’re male or female.

    I’d love to do it. Mainly not because of the action itself, but rather I’d want to see how it lands with the general public. I never feel like that about theatre, I’m always thinking about the craft, and the project itself, I guess because Clockwork has been out there for quite some time, the audience reaction is one of the only things that’s new.

    It must be really interesting, as you say, to see the different reactions every time it goes somewhere else.

    They’re quite contrary, as well. As I said, one can receive on the same day a review that says that it made them nauseated because of how violent it was, and another review can say it doesn’t touch the violence of the film. I think Clockwork is so much about yourself, it’s such an everyman play, and how you respond to it tells you more about you than the piece itself. It’s bizarre. I’m so close to the protagonist, now, because I’ve spent so much time in his head, with the various different actors who’ve played him. It’s funny, I have to remind myself that he’s a villain, because his choices in our world are all rationalised. I’m going to see the show in New York, in a approximately three weeks time, and it’ll take me that long, having been here for three weeks, it’ll take me a good month, to sit objectively watching, rather than thinking ‘He’s doing that because, he’s doing that because.’ That’s where I and the audience differ slightly. I’d be a very bad director if I wasn’t empathetic, though.

    That’s great. You’re talking about, for the future, you’re just about to start touring a production around the US? Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

    That’s not an Action to the Word, show, but I’m directing a show called Gobsmacked, which has enjoyed very successful seasons at the Southbank Centre, and in Edinburgh and in Hong Kong. It’s about to engage on a six month US tour, and it’s going everywhere, basically. It is sort of like, it’s an acapella show, so if you like, it’s borrowing from Glee, the performance acapella, but what I bring to the table is a sort of structure to it. I’ve been in charge of the movement and the feeling, and it’s not as simple as ‘We’ve got to get to a gig, hurry up,’ it’s sort of got an overarching narrative. That’s been my contribution. It’s a beatboxing and acapella show, so it also does have a bit of a concert vibe to it.

    Would you mind me asking who the beatboxers are, for example?

    We’ve got one, and he’s a world champion. His name’s Ball-Zee. He really is the dog’s b******s. It sort of centres around him, his extraordinary talent and tells the story of I guess a maestro that can’t write anymore, and that’s him, in the story. Then he finds his masterpiece and his skill again, it’s quite moving, but it’s also a bloody brilliant gig. A great sort of thing, and it just goes a long way to show his extraordinary talent.

    Straight away, as soon as I’m back from working in Detroit, I’ll come back to New York to check on Clockwork, but when I come back home I’m directing my own production. I wrote it, of The Lost Boy, which is The Pleasance’s alternative to a pantomime this year. It’s for young people and old people, which is different in my work, because even though Constance enjoyed a big children’s audience, it’s actually quite twisty, I’d say for for nine year olds, really, rather than little, little ones. This is a fairy tale, but it mingles the music of the Beatles into an actor musician cast, telling the story of Peter Pan. Not just the Peter Pan story we know, it’s the story of him escaping as a baby, as well. It’s sort of more like the story of the books, I guess, but you never get to see him old. That opens on the 29th of November.

    Anything else that you’d like to tell us about? Possibly anything for next year that you’re looking forward to doing in the future?

    There’s one that I can’t say the name of, but I’m directing an opera this year. As I said, I’m directing Shakespeare next year. It’ll be my first opera as director, I’ve done movement for them before and associate directed.

    What Shakespeare are you directing?

    I’m in a rehearsal space, so I can’t say its name. The Scottish play.

    Next year’s got quite a lot of academic stuff in it as well, because my other sort of hat is that I’m a Shakespearean Professor and I lecture on Shakespeare a lot, so I’m hoping to do a bit more of that next year. I’m writing an actor’s guide to approaching Shakespearean monologues, as well. So, I’ve got a couple of plates spinning this year. Very busy.

    For those younger actors and potential directors coming up, what kind of advice would you have for them?

    I think there’s no excuse not to make art. I think it’s very difficult when you first graduate, those first few years are crucial, because if stuff doesn’t land on your doorstep, or an agent doesn’t pull through, or an agent drops you. Getting a kick in those first few years down is really hard, because your morale hasn’t had the strength to build up yet, but when work’s not at the table, I think you have to make work anyway. Peter Brook says it best, he says ‘If you’ve got one other actor and one member of audience, you’ve got theatre,’ and I think you should always be reading, you should always be writing and improving and honing your skills. There isn’t an opportunity for a bad time, as an actor.

    That survival job that you take in your first six months, might be the thing that inspires you, might be the way you meet someone. You need to keep an open mind in those first two years, and you need to make sure that in the face of I guess artistic drought, that you find your own way to make art, whether that’s composing, whether that’s writing poetry, whether that’s doing a reading or doing what I did, which is a Shakespearean book club. There are ways to maintain your craft. I think it’s really important as well, that there’s just no excuse not to make theatre, because if you’re talking about money being the excuse, you’ve got a major problem. It is prohibitive on paper to hire a fringe theatre, but there’s ways around it.

    You have to bend the rules, is what I’m saying. Also, I think there’s gorgeous quote knocking about by Carrie Fisher, which is ‘Take your broken heart and make it art.’ There’s so much truth in that maxim, because you’re able to go, okay, f***, where am I, what am I, I’ve got this idea, this idea only makes sense if I meet a musician. So you go and find a musician, don’t just sit on it. There’s no excuse. If you have to do that alongside your day job, that’s what people do.

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