In 2015, I went to All Gods Are Fallen and all Safety Gone at the Camden People’s Theatre. I loved that play and took home the playwrights work – Selma Dimitrijevic - which had a play in it called A Prayer and it was just something I desperately wanted to do. It was a one-man, so I knew the production costs would be low! And that’s how it started.
Having seen you perform in ‘A Prayer’ (Hen and Chickens 2015), you held pauses forever (to mesmerising effect). How does an actor manage pauses of unusual lengths?
The first playwright I really got into was Harold Pinter. And in this country the Pinter Pause is a national institution almost. For A Prayer it was different. It was a one man show, where I was playing an atheist and the audience was God – so you got a very different God every night! So, in a way they weren’t long pauses for the sake of it. I would ask the audience a question and have to wait for a response which may or may not come. David Loumgair, who directed it, always spoke about being brave and waiting for a response, which made me as a performer feel very vulnerable. But that was the whole idea, I had to respond in the moment to what I was being given and wait for that response to come back. It thought me a lot of things, but in most regular form or ‘straight’ theatre I think pauses should be earned. But silence is never an absence of meaning.
You also had direct audience address with big risks, so how does an actor psyche himself up for that?
I’m not sure psyching up is the right word. For me it was about letting go, knowing that there were large parts of the show where I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen. One particular night, I remember I picked out a guy in the audience and asked him to draw something on a piece of paper for me, and he sat there with his arms folded and didn’t budge, not even a blink of an eye. I was literally climbing over the people in the front two rows offering this to him. Another day, we had a Saturday matinee where literally only one guy turned up – just me, him and our stage manager in the theatre. It was one of my favourite performances. I met him recently and he said it was a performance he never forgot. I said I wasn’t surprised as it’s not every Saturday someone gets to play God for an hour!
You’re collaborating with David Loumgair again on the professional revival of Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite at the Old Red Lion in January. Your production company, Time Productions, is also producing it. What has that experience been like?
It’s been hard work, but I have loved it and learned so much. David and I started talking about Tiny Dynamite two and a half years ago, and we both agreed they were themes in it that appealed to both of us – themes around trauma and how it never really leaves us or the people we share it with and how we choose to move forward with our lives, bearing that load. It’s one of Abi Morgan’s earliest plays and is a very powerful piece. Around the same time, a good friend of mine Ian Grant and I were talking about setting up something that would allow us to do shows that had a commercial and creative life beyond an initial fringe run. People pour their heart and soul into a week or two-week fringe run and then that’s it. We set up Time Productions to put a structure around the plays we wanted to bring to life and hopefully extend that life beyond an initial run. And as it has turned out Tiny Dynamite will be our first production, before going onto After the Ball – a play Ian wrote about love and loss during World War 1 – at The Gatehouse in Highgate in March 2018. It’s exciting and we’re very much learning as we go.
How do you separate your work as a producer and as an actor on something Like Tiny Dynamite?
Usually, I just stop answering the phone! It can be tricky, but luckily Ian takes up the slack once I go into rehearsals, which I did this week so I just dump it on his desk! I’m very fortunate, I’m part of a very good team in Ian as a producing partner and Amy Hunter, our company manager. We’re all producers at the start of our careers whether we like it or not anyway. If you put on a show in your living room for your mates that makes you a producer, if you put it on upstairs at a pub that makes you a producer, if you shoot a short on your phone that makes you a producer. People get too hung up on titles and being a creative will involve understanding the business as a whole, being many things at the same time – not just the piece you love the most, which for me is acting. But it takes a village. You need a team of diverse, creative and collaborative people who want to do good work and take a few risks, so it’s about finding your tribe which takes a bit of time. You have to keep looking and give the time waster a wide berth. We’re absolutely blessed on Tiny Dynamite though – we’ve been able to pull together an incredible team of creatives, which is a testament to Abi’s work obviously and the amount of creative talent that is out there. It’s humbling.
In Tiny Dynamite you’re in the unusual place of being in the minority as a man – it’s a 3 hander with the other two lead roles being women. What kind of dynamic does that bring to preparing for the play?
It wasn’t always that way. The character of Lucien was played by a man in the original 2001 staging. When we were looking for the rights, we asked Abi whether she would be open to changing the character to female and she was. David Loumgair, the director, was very much of the view from the start that it would make for an intriguing dynamic between the three characters, making that change. And if you’re reviving a piece it’s important to try and put your own stamp on it – without making the writer run a mile. So, in a way, it doesn’t feel strange for me as I obviously wasn’t involved in the original staging. If anything, it just focuses the energy on the relationships between all three and how complex they are – regardless of whether it’s a man or woman playing Lucien. Eva-Jane Willis, who plays Lucien, brings a genuine truth which is a joy to watch in rehearsals each day. And Tanya Fear brings a wonderfully confident and engaging presence to Madeleine, so I think anyone that comes to see it – whether they saw the original or not – will be in for a treat. Those two are worth the admission fee alone. But for me, I just try and be as open, responsive, present and receptive as I can in rehearsals – which is easier said than done, but going in each day that’s what I try to do.
You can see Niall Bishop in
TINY DYNAMITE by Abi Morgan at
Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ
Tuesday 9th January – Saturday 3rd February 2018
Tiny Dynamite, by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan, returns to London for its first professional revival in 15 years. This play, one of her early works, explores how tiny events from our pasts can have explosive effects on our futures. David Loumgair directs.
You create your own work as an actor. Is that something you’ve always done or just necessity?
A bit of both, definitely. I came to acting late in life, at the age of 32, so when you’re in your 30’s you are less inclined to wait around for someone else to give you opportunities. And I can be pretty impatient, so I got to grips with the idea fairly quickly that if I was going to build a career as a creative, that wasn’t going to happen by relying on or waiting on other people to give me opportunities to be creative.
Niall Bishop with the cast and director for Tiny Dynamite. From left Eva-Jane Willis, Tanya Fear, Niall Bishop and director David Loumgair.