As EUTCO’s production of Angels In America fast approaches, we decide to have a catch up with the cast to gain an insight into their reasons for getting involved, what we should expect from the show and the challenges they have had to face so far…
Name and (Character/Production Role)
Isobel Knight (Director)
Caroline Lang (Director)
Henry Smith (Prior Walter)
Ollie McLellan (Louis)
Jason Pallari (Roy Cohn)
Nick Cope (Joe)
Sophy Dexter (Harper)
Hi! Can you give us a brief synopsis of the play?
The play follows the intertwining lives of Louis and his boyfriend Prior, as well as Joe and his agoraphobic wife, Harper. When Prior is diagnosed with AIDS, Louis struggles to come to terms with his mortality and meets Joe, who happens to be in the wrong place at the right time. As they are forced to confront the hardships of the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York, as well as mental health issues, the play confronts the difficult relationship between love, guilt and responsibility.
The play deals with some serious and provocative themes, have you found it a challenging production?
Caroline: Having done extensive research and picked apart each theme individually, it doesn’t seem that challenging afterall. When choosing the play in the first place, we knew we weren’t going to be able to shy away from those scenes that are more graphic and provocative, but that only fueled our excitement to play around with ways of staging this disease and its syndromes. We were lucky enough to meet with individuals from the Eddystone Trust, an HIV charity in Devon, who provided incredibly valuable insight into the nature of HIV and allowed for some real first-hand research for the actors.
Isobel: I’ve always thought that provocative themes make for the best plays, novels and films – so I wasn’t necessarily scared of tackling the issues that Angels in America discusses. What I was absolutely determined to do though was provide the cast with as much information as possible, so we could deal with the topics of HIV, Reaganism and homophobia in religion as truthfully and respectfully as possible. Organising talks from Keeks Beach from the Eddystone trust gave the actors invaluable insight into what it is like to live with AIDS/HIV, and I am so thankful for them to giving up their time to come and talk to us.
What’s going to surprise people the most about the show?
Caroline: Personally, I think we’ve been daring with the staging of the play. A lot of the scenes call for split staging, so rather than having the set change with blackouts and curtain drops throughout, we’ve actually endeavored to have as many scenes as possible happening at the same time on stage. It’s been a challenge to create the organised chaos that we so love in the script – but one that has certainly paid off!
Isobel: I think sometimes student/amateur theatre has a bit of a reputation for being naff or cliche – assumptions that shouldn’t be associated with our production! I hope people are surprised at the level of professionalism in every aspect of this show. From an amazing set, to stunning costumes and of course, absolutely heartbreaking and gut wrenching performances from the talented cast – there isn’t one element of this entire production that is ‘dull’ or ‘amateur’.
Why did you decide to get involved?
Caroline: For me, doing a Northcott show was the ultimate dream. In first year I could have never imagined putting myself forward to direct, but it’s crazy what a couple years of theatre at Exeter can do. There isn’t anything quite like being involved in such a large-scale show – and to be able to finish my final year here with the same people I met in auditions for my course is really rewarding.
Isobel: I think it is just such a perfect way to end my time at Exeter! This is like the pinnacle of directing roles within EUTCO and I am just so simultaneously honoured and terrified to have been given the chance to direct ‘Angels in America’ alongside Caroline. We’ve come a long way since our first ever directing stint in first year – and hopefully we’ve improved!
What’s your favorite part of being involved in the production?
Caroline: Definitely the new people you meet – so many of the cast and production team are people I’ve never worked with, and those I did know before, I’ve become even closer to. It’s really great to have this group of people who know exactly what you’re going through, who are all working towards the same goal together.
Isobel: I wish I could properly put into words the feeling I get in the rehearsal room when something clicks. It’s a bit like finally untangling a necklace, or finding your favourite top that you were convinced had been lost forever. Uncertainty and worry is suddenly replaced with relief and euphoria as the actor finds something new and exciting in a passage that was previously dull, for a moment the fear and frustration has gone. It is these eureka moments that make directing so enjoyable.
Sophy: I couldn’t narrow it down! Getting to work with such a talented cast and crew, speaking with Keeks from the Eddystone Trust and learning more about an issue that sadly often goes undiscussed, and being allowed to wear pyjamas for most of my scenes.
Ollie: Getting to work with two wonderful directors has been hugely rewarding. So much of this play involves really intricate scenes between just two or three people, so rehearsals have been really focused and attentive, and Issy and Caroline both have such an eye for detail which has been so helpful. They didn’t bribe me to say that I promise… I also think being a part of such a massive and hard working cast has been amazing. Every single member of the cast brings something so incredible into the room, and it’s such a privilege to watch your friends and learn from them in rehearsal.
Henry: I’m so grateful to have been chosen to play Prior and so overwhelmed by the talent of the cast in general, it’s been an absolute pleasure. The entire process has been wonderful, but I think the times I have enjoyed the most have been when acting with my perfect Louis and Harper. They’re incredibly hard parts and both actors continue to find truth and depth within them.
Nick: I’ve really enjoyed the rehearsals. The structure has allowed myself, and the rest of the cast, to properly understand what each of our characters go through during the play. The chance to work so closely with good actors has been so much fun as well! It’s been great to have the chance to work on finer details in scenes.
What are you finding the most challenging part of your role?
Caroline: Probably the assumption that directing is just a creative role – while leading rehearsals and working with the actors is a large chunk of the process, it requires a huge amount of organisation, planning, liasoning and general admin that can get pretty overwhelming.
Isobel: Without a doubt the rehearsal schedule! Trying to combine 16 different schedules, and take into account the casts other commitments and then trying to make those work with yours… It takes some time! And like Caroline said, directing is more than just leading rehearsals, and the amount of time that everything else takes is pretty amazing. Balancing this alongside my degree has been a challenge. Major shout out to our producers Helen Callaghan and Eleanor Davies for making this all so easy.
Henry: Portraying Prior is especially difficult because of his health and his AIDS diagnosis in act one. His deterioration is extremely upsetting and challenging to embody, made worse by my ridiculous fear of needles and blood. I spend the entire play essentially being rejected by everything and everybody, and so often leave the rehearsals feeling exceptionally unloved. I am so lucky to have such talented actors to work alongside and for the constant support of our wonderful directors.
Jason: Generally the most challenging part of the role is playing someone forty years my senior, having to try and adapt my physicality to represent that certainly hasn’t come easy, and has been an ongoing director’s note throughout the rehearsal process. On top of that to then try and portray a 60 year old man going through the ordeal of AIDS has been even more difficult, but luckily for me the audience only really see that in one scene.
Sophy: Probably maintaining a character whose perception of reality is so warped. Harper really is in her own world for the majority of the play and conveying that truthfully has certainly been a challenge. Also, trying not to laugh in the middle of quite serious scenes, I’m definitely one of worst at staying in character!
Ollie: What I find most challenging is how much Louis goes from one extreme to another: he’ll be crying in the bathroom, and five seconds later he’s flirting shamelessly. That’s taken a while to get my head around. It’s been fun though – a good challenge!
Nick: I’m finding it hardest to maintain the balance in the character’s mindset. Joe lives two lives, to a certain extent, and it’s been challenging remembering that in every scene and altering the way I am depending on who the scene is with.
When did you first get into acting?
Henry: School really helped me grow in confidence regarding acting; we’d do two major performances every year and we had a fantastic venue to perform in called the Bridge House Theatre. I was never the main role, but I was always doing something I enjoyed. My first role was Moses in Animal Farm, I sang about Heaven and sort of pranced around for a bit.
Jason: I’ve been acting since before I can remember, think my mum had me enrolled in Stage Coach by the time I was four, and against my will kept me in it til I picked up the gold medal for ten years service. Stage Coach provided me with the confidence that allowed me to flourish in school productions in later years, where I gained my first major role of the Artful Dodger in Oliver!
Sophy: Similarly to Jason, one of my first roles was playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver! I think as an 11 year old girl I was probably more convincing…
Ollie: When I was little I was ridiculously shy, so my first memory of acting was crying in fear when I had to play Joseph in the nativity… But when I was 9 I played the Pussycat in ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, and ended up quite enjoying it, so started to going to Saturday acting classes.
Nick: Drama club at school for me. I played Jim in ‘Treasure Island’ when I was 13 and did a lot of sweeping up, from there I just continued with school plays.
Do you have any pre-show rituals to calm your nerves?
Henry: I urinate constantly. Think Niagara. I also breathe and stretch a lot, and generally look a little anxious while doing so.
Jason: In short: no. I don’t tend to get a massive build up of nerves, I tend to only really get nervous right before I go on stage, but maybe that’s more adrenaline than anything. In terms of ritual, sorry if it’s TMI, but I have to do a “pre-stage poo”, as I’ve coined it over the years…
Ollie: I have to wee seven times. I don’t know why that number specifically, but after the seventh one I’m ready to go. I also have this weird thing where I have to touch every seat in the theatre – the Northcott has 460 seats, so I may be gone for some time…
Nick: Repeat my lines over and over and over again. Although since seeing that chest thing Matthew Mcconaughy does I might reconsider a cooler one.
What is your ideal show, and who would you most like to play?
Henry: I would love to play M in ‘Cock’ by Mike Bartlett, which essentially would be like playing a British Prior. He’s such a clever character who has a wonderfully catty demeanor, and was played initially by Andrew Scott. Contemporary plays hold the most interest for me and would be thrilled to be a part of anything Bartlett based.
Sophy: Honestly, Harper will probably be one of the best roles i’ll ever get to play; she’s spirited, funny and volatile but also vulnerable, which is such a great challenge for an actor. However, I did recently watch ‘People, Places and Things’ by Duncan Macmillan and would love to play the central character of Emma, who incidentally shares some similar characteristics with Harper.
Caroline: To be honest, I’d love to give Harper a go myself – she’s such an intricate character and from the looks of it, very fun to play! If I was more musically inclined and spoke better Spanish I’d also kill to play Anita in West Side Story.
Isobel: It would 100% be Rizzo from Grease; but I can’t sing, act or dance – so I’ll probably stick to directing!
Jason: I did a lot of musicals at school, so if I’m being musically I’d say Fagin in Oliver!, but again, maybe a bit too old for me just yet. If it was a play it would either be Posner from History Boys, I did that at school and I’ve never had so much fun putting on a production (second to Angels…) or Edmund from King Lear, because he’s just such a poisonous character and he has one of my favourite monologues.
Ollie: I don’t think I’ve ever had a more fascinating part than Louis – he’s so interesting and complicated. Definitely a hard act to follow. There is a character called Baby in a play called ‘Mojo’ by Jez Butterworth that I’m obsessed with, and would love to play.
Nick: I briefly worked on Equus and found the relationship between Dysart and Alan really interesting. Not sure how I feel about Alan, with the nakedness and all, would like to give Dysart a whack though.
And finally, how would you like the audience to leave the show? What is the lasting impression you want to leave?
Sophy: For the audience to prefer me to Nick.
Henry: I want them to be moved by the show as a whole, and to appreciate how important Tony Kushner’s words were to the world in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis. I’d really love someone who has a limited knowledge of 1980s America to leave feeling fulfilled and insightful, but to also have laughed considerably too.
Jason: For the audience to have gained as visceral an insight into the 80s AIDS epidemic as I have – and for them to think: for a Business & Management fresher – he’s not bad at acting.
Ollie: I’d like them to have enjoyed themselves mostly, and to have been intrigued by the story and for it have held their attention. I hope that they don’t see Louis as a villain, but as a flawed person, and that by understanding his struggle they can understand just how immense the issue of AIDS was and is.
Nick: I would like them to enjoy the story, the performances and just enjoy how much has gone into the show in general really. If the audience prefer me to Sophy it wouldn’t be the worst thing…
Don’t miss Angel’s In America at Exeter Northcott Theatre from 20-23 January!