Steve Green is the artistic director of Fourth Monkey Theatre company, which this year brings five productions to the Fringe including Alice, a site-specific adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story at theSpaceUK. Features Editor James T Harding caught up with him for a cappuccino at his hotel, where they discussed the challenges of directing for the Fringe.
I think when our work’s at its best, like with Clockwork, and 4.48 for example, another one of signature pieces, our ensemble ethos and philosophy is really evident and present.
Fourth Monkey rose to prominence at the Fringe with its 2012 production of A Clockwork Orange. I asked Steve what it was about that production that resonated so much with critics and audiences.
“It was a long time ago, but it laid us a foundation. Do you know what I mean? Of how we wanted to work, I think.
“The general consent is that our stuff tends to be quite visceral. I think Clockwork was very much of that ilk. It was very much about flavour.
“Our roles are assigned relatively gender blind, and we definitely did that with Clockwork, I mean obviously a female Alex and what have you.
“There’s such a dearth of work for females, certainly in a leading capacity, and it’s something that has always interested me, flipping gender. It seems to be something Fourth Monkey has adopted. I think that caught the public’s imagination, along with the visceral approach, and the fact it’s an ensemble piece.
“I think when our work’s at its best, like with Clockwork, and 4.48 for example, another one of signature pieces, our ensemble ethos and philosophy is really evident and present. I’d say those are the three things that stuck with us since.
Our conversation turned to the idea that Clockwork’s early success, alongside 4.48 Psychosis, had stereotyped the company in some ways.
“This year we’ve got two archetypal clown shows. Treasure Island is a clown adaptation.
“Can’t Stay Away is a clown piece as well. Which is something we focus on quite a bit in our training environment, as a practice. It’s nice to be able to employ that in our work, however those who have maybe seen Clockwork or seen 4.48 over the years here, will come and see that and go ‘That’s not a Fourth Monkey show! What’s that! They’ve changed their style, you know, completely.’ Which is both a positive and a negative, you know.
“I mean expectations are great, but I wouldn’t want to do the same thing year on year.
“Bernarda Alba is a classic Spanish drama. We’ve tried to do our own little twist on it. I guess, if anything, that’s the most ‘Fourth Monkey’ of all of them. It’s a bit stylised. It’s a bit abstract. There’s a bit of movement involved. That probably sits more in terms of what people would expect, who have seen those previous shows.”
I wanted to know more about Steve’s site-specific Alice, and how Fourth Monkey chose the Lewis Carroll novel specifically to adapt for it.
“It was definitely a site-responsive choice, which is lovely.
“We went and had a look at North Bridge, had a look at the stairwell, had a look at the access to the four spaces we’re using, and were looking at what could work in a large-scale ensemble way. And Alice just seemed to fit, especially when I introduced the writer, Toby Clarke. He saw the space, and it just fit really nicely within what he intended to do with his adaptation of the script.
“Already we had it in our heads as something we could possibly do. Myself and Toby have been talking about this for a long time. It’s the same with all the work we do - there’s stuff sitting on a shelf, and it’s like, this year with this space, or maybe with this group of actors, this is the time we can actually explore this project. Along with the director Ailin Conant and the collaborative input of the cast the piece has evolved into something really quite different and something we hope we can all be proud of."
“I think Alice is really interesting, because, yes, the wonderland stuff is there, but what’s really nice about the way Toby, Ailin and the cast have approached it is it’s very much an exploration of Carroll's relationship with Alice Liddell.
“From a branding and marketing point of view, of course, we’ve the mad-hattered it and white-rabbited it, and all that sort of stuff, but there’s a darker, more sincere core to the piece which I think justifies where it’s placed in terms of the programming. It’s at night. That’s the intention.”
I was interested in Steve’s personal directing style, what a day in the life of a Fourth Monkey actor would like.
“My theatre tends to be quite physically demanding, taxing on the actor, as a general rule. I think that sense of physical connection is terribly important.
“I’m well aware, as is everyone really who works up here, that time is at a premium when you’re rehearsing. Especially if you’re rehearsing in London where a space costs you an arm and a bloody leg. The last thing you want to do is throw away an hour, an hour and a half on a warm up.
“But actually, after years of doing it, I’ve realised that that hour of focused, dedicated time to get everyone in the space switched on and working properly without distraction is such a large investment for the benefit for the day. There’s nothing worse in the rehearsal room than seeing an actor switch off - it’s horrible. You’re brain’s got to be switched on to have a rehearsal day.
“Some cardio basework, some ensemble focusing, and then a strong vocal warm up would be the ideal scenario. I’m a massive fan of Yoga in terms of centring and focusing and it’s physical benefits.
“I hate table work. I don’t do it, hardly. I’m not going to waste a week sitting around a table, because then it gets in [the head] and not in [the body]. We’ll do that stuff, but we do it on our feet. And we certainly won’t get to a point where the actor gets to a heady experience.
“Too many actors don’t listen, and let’s be honest that’s all it is: it’s listening and responding.
“Collaboration is especially important if you’re work has a movement element to it. Most of my personal work tends to have an ensemble movement quality to it. It’s often much more interesting for the company to find that stuff. So that will happen in rehearsal a lot. They will explore, they will play, they will create, and they will present. And then I come and say ‘Now what happens if we modify this?’ ‘If we take this and then do this with it?’”
To round off, I asked if Steve had any advice for new theatre companies.
“Forming new companies and creating original work is one of the most exciting things theatre has to offer.
“So many people come out a training situation, and they have no idea that they’ve have to do anything other than wait for the phone to ring. That’s twenty years ago. It doesn’t happen any more. You have to go out there and make stuff happen for yourself.
“People sometimes find it very difficult to be open about their naievty or ignorance of something. We all get a little bashful when asking questions. There’s often and unfortunate and inherent arrogance and protectiveness in the theatre world, often borne out of a fear of looking foolish or unknowledgeable. For example how many times have you said you’ve seen a film or a play you haven’t to avoid looking daft or out of the loop? That’s something we need to break down. I say to my cast, ‘I’m learning every day, you’re teaching me stuff’. I genuinely believe if we are open to learning we can all learn from each other massively in life and indeed in this weird and wonderful industry. Theatre should be a community not a collection of protective enclaves. That’s when it works best.
“Don’t be so wrapped up in yourself that you can’t learn from whoever you can. You learn so much just from being connected to people, some who’ve perhaps just started out and those who’ve done it for years.”