Interview with Nicky Diss, co-producer of Open Bar Theatre
It’s one of those moments that many theatre companies can only dream of: A phone call from Fullers Brewery offering a contract to perform Shakespeare in their pub gardens. So, what have they got that other companies haven’t got? The short answers might be, a unique approach, a passion for Shakespeare, a track record, and slightly less usual – a theatrical family.
First off, some might have thought that Fullers would be put off by the family status. When the theatre company invited Fullers to take a look at their production of TWELFTH NIGHT at The Hope Theatre in 2016, director Nicky Diss and actor Thomas Judd were expecting a baby in four months. For Fuller’s, that’s no obstacle, they were more interested in how the company performed Shakespeare with a cast of just four actors.
It wasn’t long before they were reprising their style of Shakespeare in pub gardens. With just four actors, they call this their ‘compact’ show, but have now added a ‘classic’ show featuring six actors. They are totally different in concept.
“Imagine four people with everything happening in front of you, scene changes, changing costumes, minimal set …” Nicky laughs “One of the actors was playing her own husband and had to do a scene with herself half way through in the final confrontation between husband and wife. We didn’t know it was possible until we did COMEDY OF ERRORS with two sets of twins. One character was played by a hat stand.” It’s bringing that fringe pub theatre ingenuity to audiences that wouldn’t normally go and see that sort of thing.
The compact version has more modern dress, and fits neatly into smaller pub gardens, whereas the classic show is more traditional and looks fab in Fuller’s largest pub gardens. It has full Elizabethan dress, a bigger set, and a tiring house at the back for dressing and stage entrances. it’s a very interactive show, getting an audience member to play a character in the script. At the beginning the role is played by an actor, but later he’s playing the son, so they get an audience member involved, to get that interaction between father and son.
They call them ‘volunteers’ but Nicky admits they don’t actually volunteer – they are carefully selected based on how they are reacting to the show. “They’re usually the biggest laughers” she says. The actors go out as musicians when the show begins, so they’re already interacting with the audience and they gauge from that who is going to be the most receptive to being pulled up on stage. Nicky has a wicked grin on her face. “It’s that lovely combination of just the right level of sossled. The show is so engaging that by that point they love it, and the audience interaction kind of builds up to that point, when suddenly we drag someone up and it works brilliantly.”
Domestically, Nicky and her husband take in turns to look after Luke, who has just turned one. It’s a family affair, as Tom is in the production, Nicky directs and Luke ‘assists’. “Mostly napping and keeping the actors entertained when not needed.” Nicky is fortunate that all the actors are brilliant with him, all of them adore him. "Especially my co-producer Vicky (Gaskin) who is a surrogate aunt," says Nicky. “He’s in that difficult phase, just cruising, climbing all over everything. We’re rehearsing upstairs in a pub so he was investigating the tables and chairs, making himself at home.”
“Luke adores it, rehearsals are like one big nursery rhyme time, he loves watching all the physical comedy, which he already appreciates, anybody gets hit in the head he loves it. Actors with their elastic faces are perfect companions for a child.”
It seems likely that he's going to be joining the family business at any early age. “He’ll either not be able to imagine any other life or go totally the other way” thinks Nicky. “My parents keep saying he’s going to be like Saffy in Ab Fab and work in the city. But all babies have a flare for the dramatic, excellent timing, he knows the timing of a good gag, he’s a good gauge on how good a show is because if he drifts off it’s a sign that things aren’t happening fast enough … but he definitely prefers action over the language.”
Nicky is luminous, and it isn’t just her perfect glowing skin, she’s full of cheer and a great lunch time companion. She’s not currently acting herself which seems a waste, but she’s passionate about her role as co-producer and director. “I never thought I’d be happy directing shows but I found I love it. Tom and I might swap next year, I’ll be in the show next year.”
She likes reinventing the classics, and is currently working on Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, whilst also mulling over which Shakespeare to bring to pub gardens next year. “I like to go back to the original play and make my own decisions considering there are no locations in the original Shakespeare texts; publications make them up based on evidence”.
If you read Romeo and Juliet, you notice there’s no balcony. “’What light through yonder window breaks’, she’s looking out of a window” says Nicky. There is no evidence that Shakespeare actually went to Italy. “It plays very English, she’s obviously looking out of a window so I’d do it with a window.”
She adds that in “Comedy of Errors people often talk about the violent and the nice twin but actually, they are both constantly beating their servants, both have a tendency towards violence”. She has decided that they “have to be faithful to that, because then to some extent they deserve the bad things that happen to them.”
Nicky's love of theatre developed when her parents used to take her. “They’ve always been big theatre goers,” she recalls. “Look Back in Anger with Emma Thomson and Me and My Girl with Emma Thomson and Robert Lyndsey. I must have been mid-teens when he came to Woking in Richard III and I just can’t remember an awful lot but he was wonderful and so funny … it’s rarely done like that, but there’s so much humour in Richard III. I’d love to do that as a winter Shakespeare. You have to do comedies in the summer,” she enthuses. “Normally my favourite play is the one I’ve just done, I love Comedy of Errors, when I was a kid it was Twelfth Night. I used to hate Taming of the Shrew then I saw the Globe production and I just loved it, it really brought the comedy out of it.”
They’ve been having an audience vote on their next play and it’s between Merry Wives (a much bawdier play), Much Ado, and Midsummer Night’s Dream. She loves to bring these plays to unconventional spaces as they are a target for people who think theatre isn’t for them. “Some say to the actors afterwards that they’ve been dragged along as they aren’t interested in Shakespeare but they absolutely loved it”. She recalls when she was working in Caterham, Chrystal palace lost a first game of the season and there was a cloud over the audience at the beginning but it turned to pure joy by the end of show. “They must have thought ‘don’t want to go to the theatre’ but afterwards they were raucous.”
It’s also a very engaging style of theatre for kids, and they have had a number of babies watching. It’s easier to bring them to pub gardens considering some pubs don’t allow under 18 access. “Although it’s not targeted at kids it works very well with them,” says Nicky.
At the moment, the company is booking for A CHRISTMAS CAROL at some of their regular pubs. “Dicken’s had a very dry sense of humour, his writing is alive and very funny”, asserts Nicky. “The Muppets made the most faithful adaptation, because it brings out that humour. Obviously, we haven’t got muppets but there will be an explosion of dancing, Christmas music, cross dressing (both ways). The ghosts will be ghostly and there will be plenty of audience interaction.”
Watch this space for venues and dates
Nicky Diss was chatting with Heather Jeffery, Editor of London Pub Theatres
Here are the current dates for THE COMEDY OF ERRORS in pub gardens:
7th - 9th September
Red Lion, Barnes
White Hart, Harlington
14th - 16th September
Duke of Kent, Ealing
Luke, working on text