Sandra Dickinson is known for the unique sound of her squeaky high-pitched voice. That squeaky voice is what made her something special in the business. Of course, time has moved on and although her voice is still her trade mark, it has now taken on a pleasing depth, its grainier now with more gravitas. She was perfect as the ‘dumb blond’ Trillian in the television classic adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and this may have got her typecast for a while.
However, Sandra is a very bright lady and soon persuaded her agent that she should be considered for more serious roles. After he told her she would have to change her voice, she’s always makes sure she speaks “with a very deep voice” whenever she sees him. She has been much in demand for stage work ever since. Her latest role as Lucille Ball in I LOVED LUCY at the Arts Theatre in the West End, received rave reviews.
Sandra’s agent sent her THE UNBUILT CITY for her consideration and it wasn’t long before she got hooked. “The first time I read the script I liked it and then read it again and thought ‘this is a beautiful play’. It just kept getting more and more under my skin.” This time, she wanted to make it as close to herself as possible. She recalls that as a kid she had an ambition to build a salon when she got older. ” I dreamt of a castle in Scotland … filling it with artworks, artists, and intellectuals … the bohemian life”. In the play, Sandra’s character, Claudia is that woman. In this two-hander play she has a secret collection which is she is being persuaded to hand over to a university archive. It’s a brilliant premise. Playwright Keith Bunin has joined the two of us so that he can explain the riches of his play. The inspiration for the play came from three sources.
Firstly, the importance of archives. Secondly, his feelings of responsibility towards those who shaped him and thirdly the neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights. Sandra interjects by explaining that it’s the “chichiest place to live in Brooklyn”, an important point for the development of the character she is playing.
Keith continues to explain what drove him to write the play. He was visiting archives in Texas where he discovered the notebooks of many major artists including Tom Stoppard and Tennessee Williams. He recalls than on another occasion he had a hands-on experience. “I went on a project in Santiago to see Dr Seuss archives. It was all the stuff I grew up with. I could touch sketches for CAT IN THE HAT. Getting things in your hands is amazing.” His enthusiasm shines through so that the words tumble out. On another occasion, also when he was at university, he started reading a book ‘Infinite Jest’ by novelist David Foster Wallace. “Wallis killed himself in the middle of writing a novel. In an archive There was a wonderful article by a graduate student about the unfinished novel. When she came in to archive it, she had to figure out the of order of pages and chapters.” It was edited into a book and published eventually. Keith points out that it was not really the author’s work. “It was unfinished and left with an open end”. Sandra leans forward “It had a gaping middle” she dramatizes perfectly, getting across the poignancy of this lost work. It is this very fact that moved Keith to write a play expressing the urgency of responsibility towards artist’s work.
At the same time, Keith was conscious of his own personal debt to his parents, teachers and all his mentors. “I wanted to rebel but at some level I was working towards being the person they wanted … to be the way they shaped me, to fulfil their legacy”. He explains how the three ideas “hit each other” and fed into the milieu, the story and the theme.
Sandra emphasis that the play is “very very erudite, it’s not just using colloquialisms, it’s very educated English”. Since the early days when Sandra was typecast as the ‘dumb blonde’ she has played “all kinds of stuff” but she’s “probably got more to say in this play even than Blanche DuBois who says a lot.” It was her role in Tennessee Williams play A STEETCAR NAMED DESIRE at Theatre Royal, Haymarket, directed by Peter Hall that set her on her theatrical career. She played Eunice Hubbel starring with Imogen Stubbs. “I heard about A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with Imogen Stubbs and Peter Hall and I wanted to be a part of this.” This is when she had to change her voice. Sandra still does a lot of cartoon work. “It’s still there when I need it. As I aged it got harder to play cutie doll characters and also after many years in theatre the muscle became so advanced there’s no way I could play that as squeaky as before. I had to grow. England had never seen anything quite like me and they thought ‘let’s have more of this’. Later, people said ‘you’re an example to us all about how to change your image’.”
In THE UNBUILT CITY the character of Claudia is not so far from Sandra. “My father went to Cornell and Harvard. We weren’t rich but well educated, part of the intelligentsia.” Other things are not quite the same. She was already doing a lot of acting in High School, before she became an actress. “I got bitten early … I got the acting bug”. She adds “my father is a famous shrink and the other shrinks would say, is your voice for real?”
Sandra thinks that Claudio has also got a slightly nun like quality. “It’s less about abstinence and more about devotion and being happy in her own skin, she doesn’t need all the trappings. It’s a very rich play, and I found myself starting to revere the play as I have with Shakespeare. But you can’t do that, you have to shake it up a bit.”
Keith says that Claudio’s romantic history is quite rich, “… she basically sets out as a kind of fan”. Sandra explains: “Young girls have pictures on walls now, Kate Middleton was smitten with William and eventually married him”. Keith continues “Claudio acquired a collection, and she was at the centre of a network of artists, and one in particular, she fell in love with”.
Although Sandra is from Washington DC she’s been to New York, where the play is set, many times. “My father had a convention there every year, I had auditions, holidays, and even played a role on Broadway.” When asked about the difference in accent, she says that “it really isn’t different, they have a kind of received pronunciation”. Sandra gives me an example of an American accent with broad vowels, she something of an expert on accents including her British accent. “Apparently when I’m doing voice over I sound like Judy Dench … I’m an inch taller than her” says Sandra. Sandra is definitely not languid in appearance, she packs a punch in her small frame topped with the gorgeous gloss of her very blond locks. In this theatre café setting she’s understated but as soon as she speaks, the stage presence kicks in.
Sandra has lived in England for nearly 50 years and she says she’s “a completely different person since coming over to England as a young ignorant woman”. Her life in Washington had been very sheltered and theatre in England was something of an eye opener. She went to see MOVE OVER MRS MARKHAM by Ray Cooney, a farce which shocked her. “Women were running around in their underwear. THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW shocked me, absolutely to the core, to my feet, to see a man in suspenders, stockings. My first husband and I went on honeymoon with my sister and I heard rugby songs which were really filthy, laced with bawdiness I had never known in America.” Her eye brows are suitably raised, yet before in America, she admits, she did a show in which eight of them were “stark bollock naked” and that was before Hair. Even then, she says “it wasn’t fully robust Shakespearian humour”.
“I was brought up I was a total goody-goody, good student good daughter. I was called mercy mild when I was a baby. When I came to England this lusty kind of humour that the English have was a real awakening for me.” She continues to explain how different her life had been before living in UK. “In America any dream you have can be realised. I used to want to be Hollywood star … and Broadway. My boyfriend wanted to be a US president. When I came to England I thought a manhole cover had been put over my head. I had to fight for my dreams again. In England there’s a right and wrong way of doing this. I was sitting with my new family and went to poor some tea. ‘No, no, no, you never touch the teapot, the lady of the house must use the teapot.’ It was a real shock. My father in law was just like Captain Mannering in Dad’s Army, even looked like him.”
One of things Sandra is bringing to the character of Claudia is that she’s “comfortable being American”. There is a “wealth of interest in the UK about the American way of live … the way they welcomed Prince Harry’s new bride”, says Sandra. “Of course, during the war, it used to oversexed and over here” she muses.
The pub theatre experience doesn’t exist in New York but Sandra and Keith both love the pub theatre tradition. Both have worked in other pub theatres. Sandra did a Beth Henley play at The Bush called the MISS FIRECRAKER CONTEST. “Wonderful part, wonderful play” they both enthuse. She was also assistant director on FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS at King’s Head Theatre and some years ago she was in a musical called WONDERLAND at the same venue. Keith’s play THE BUSY WORLD IS HUSHED received its UK premiere last autumn at the Finborough Theatre.
First timer Keith was impressed with the pub theatre experience. “At the Finborough you see the production in a whole different way. You’re 200 feet away from the stage at a Broadway theatre with a proscenium arch. It’s great to see theatre so intimately. It brought out things I just hadn’t seen. There’s a nakedness … much less ability to disguise things, they have fewer things to distract you from how the play works.” He’s very keen to see this kind of theatre survive in these difficult times when funding is scarce.
“New York has got more difficult, more and more expensive to live, it’s hard to establish yourself. I feel like in many great cities there’s an artist’s class. It’s super important that the city has to find a way to support them. The character of Claudia has been a patron of the arts by encouraging, by giving money and space. The character of Jonah, played by co-star, Jonathan Chambers, is desperately in need of that at a time when it’s hard to survive.”
“The Character of Jonah provides surprises, which the audience experience first-hand. At the start of the play Jonah’s holding a lot of cards close to his chest and there's a lot of secrets Claudio hasn’t told anyone. In order for Jonah to get what he wants, she’s going to have to reveal things about herself. Claudio works out a series of tests to decide whether he’s worth it. What she requires from him is a level of revealing something of himself. she won’t feel comfortable unless he’s as open with her, as he wants her to be with him.”
Sandra has already been called away to rehearsals, so it is left to Keith to have the last word. When writing plays Keith’s always thinking about “what a play can do that you can’t do in a book or in a movie”. In THE UNBUILT CITY “It’s a real time conversation between the characters, and at the end of 85 minutes their lives will never be the same.” We all have these life changing days and conversations. In THE UNBUILT CITY we see this journey.
Making Productions & Graffiti Productions
in association with To The Moon present
THE UNBUILT CITY by Keith Bunin
6 June - 30 June 2018
Tuesdays - Saturdays at 7.00pm
Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3.30pm
King’s Head Theatre
115, Upper Street
Box office:0207 226 856
“It’s a real time conversation between the characters, and at the end of 85 minutes their lives will never be the same. We all have these life changing days and conversations. In THE UNBUILT CITY we see this journey."
“I got bitten early … I got the acting bug. My father is a famous shrink and the other shrinks would say, is your voice for real?”
"I heard about A Streetcar Named Desire with Imogen Stubbs and Peter Hall and I wanted to be a part of this, but the agent said I’ll only take you on if you change your voice. I only spoke in a very deep voice whenever I was with him."
"The pub theatre experience doesn’t exist in New York. I love the pub theatre
tradition. You see the production a whole different way. You're 200 feet away from the stage in a Broadway proscenium arch theatre. It's great to see it in such an intimate space and it brought out things I just hadn’t seen before. There’s a nakedness, much less ability to disguise things, there are fewer things to distract you from how the play works."
SANDRA DICKINSON recently starred as Lucille Ball in I Loved Lucy at the Arts Theatre in the West End, receiving a clutch of rave reviews.
Born in Washington DC, Sandra Dickinson found fame in the UK in the 1970s as the star of Birds Eye beef burger TV adverts. They established her in a succession of American ‘dumb blonde’ roles, and it was many years before she was able to shake that image. She has since enjoyed a prolific career on stage and screen. Her West End shows include Singin’ In The Rain, A Streetcar Named Desire, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Not About Nightingales (NT and Broadway) and Orpheus Descending (Donmar Warehouse). Her films include Steven Spielberg’s 2018 release Ready Player One, Malice In Wonderland, Supergirl and Superman III. Among many TV roles she is probably best known as Trillian in the cult sci-fi TV series The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. She can be heard voicing various roles in Gumball, Counterfeit Cat and she is the voice of Grandma Tracy in ITV’s Thunderbirds Are Go.
KEITH BUNIN'S plays The Credeaux Canvas, The World Over, and The Busy World Is Hushed were all originally produced Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. The Busy World Is Hushed received its UK premiere last autumn at the Finborough Theatre. His other plays include Sam Bendrix At The Bon Soir (La Jolla Playhouse & City Theatre Pittsburgh), 10 Million Miles (Atlantic Theatre Company) and The Principality Of Sorrows (Pure Orange Productions). He wrote the screenplay for the film Horns and he was also a writer for the HBO TV series In Treatment. He is currently working on a play commission from La Jolla Playhouse as well as screenplays for HBO Films and Disney Pictures.