If you’re looking for more interactive theatre online, you might like to check out Open Mic. The live digital show was announced recently by ETT (English Touring Theatre) and Soho Theatre, in association with HOME. It’s going to be streamed live through TicketCo from the Cabaret Space at Soho Theatre April 1 – 3.
Open Mic is an opportunity to share one of your stories, songs, or poems with others tuning in for the show. Rob Drummond, actor and playwright, joined me on a transatlantic call to tell me more about his career and how the production came together.
What’s a big lesson you learned in your career that’s really stuck with you?
I suppose when you’re doing improvised work that relies on conversation with an audience, the big lesson I learned doing shows all over the world is that there’s no answer an audience member can give that’s wrong. Some of the greatest moments I’ve experienced in my career performing were moments you couldn’t have predicted would ever happen. It’s because you kind of go with the audience member no matter what they say. You follow that route and that impulse to what they want to say. They always come up with something more profound that what I could have written. It’s trusting your audience.
Where did you get the idea for Open Mic?
We knew that the show would necessarily have no audience live in the space. Most of my work involves interacting with an audience. I was trying to find a form that would allow that, but in a digital show. Of course, you think about a Zoom call, but that’s very dry and boring. You can’t really do a theatre show that is just a Zoom call. You could, but it’s not my style. I thought it could be radio call in show, where the audience chat to me about problems they’ve been having, but that’s a bit boring.
The idea became obvious that we actually allow the audience to perform and take ownership of the show. The open mic night seemed to have a perfect combination of fun and the ability to chat and interact with them, while keeping it natural.
Talk a bit more about working with other creatives. You’re acting in this and writing this, so how do you balance out what you want in your vision with how others want to help you?
I think the key to that is just trusting that their vision is just as valuable as mine. I talk to them a lot. Richard Twyman is the director. He’s been fantastic at listening to me in the early days about what I wanted the show to be. Then at a certain point, I just have to step back and be the performer. If I continue and try be the creator and the director, it’s not going to work. It’s going to be stepping on his toes.
It’s about trusting the people you work with, that their insight may take the show to a place that’s even better than you’d imagined. From now on at this point in the tech week, I’m no longer a creative, a writer, director, or a theatre maker. I’m the actor in the room. In that way, I make sure I’m doing the acting job as best as I can.
Are you operating like a host of the programme?
I am the compere for Open Mic. I welcome the audience, interacting with them a bit, and I introduce each act. Throughout the night, I’ll also weave in a personal story from my own time in lockdown. That’s the way it functions.
Are there any personalities on TV that you like their hosting style or you incorporate from them?
You may not have heard of Dave Gorman. He’s a British standup. I wouldn’t call what I do stand up comedy by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just genuine on stage. I play versions of me on stage. I tap into a specific aspect of my personality for each show. I did a show about In Fidelity, so I tapped into that aspect of me that actually is quite tempted to cheat on my partner. I amplified that to like a hundred.
For this show, a person has been through a bad, anxious time in lockdown. I tap into that. I don’t even need to do any acting in that, because I’ve been through it. I amplify that side of my personality. It’s not so much about performing as is it about being myself. I know there’s a thin line between those two sometimes, but the more I can be myself onstage, the less problems I have up there.
You’ve talked about trusting the audience and being impressed with what they brought. What’s a really interesting thing that you weren’t expecting someone to do?
I did a show in which I trusted an audience member to take a gun and shoot me in the face. It was called Bullet Catch. It was a magic show. You know, it was a safe, magic illusion. But it’s still very scary to give an audience member a weapon and trust them on stage.
One night it kind of went a little bit wrong. It was early on in the run and we hadn’t quite grasped how scary it would be for them until we started doing the show. People started saying they weren’t going to do it. In that moment, you would think that the show would collapse and fail. Actually, that’s one of my favorite shows because in essence what happened was a human being refused to do violence towards me. They embarrassed themselves in the doing of that. Everyone else in the audience was hating them for that moment. But they still stood strong and said, “No, I’m not going to risk this guy’s life.”
It crystalized into a moment where I thanked the person for not killing me. We ended the show without a bullet catch. That’s the only night we’ve done that, and I think it’s still one of my favorite shows.
How did it take to write everything when you were putting this idea together?
The show is about an hour and 15 minutes. The audience plays such a huge part in this that the writing of the show didn’t take very long at all. I basically tell a story from my life and in the compering intervals between acts. What the biggest job was for me on this project was not sitting down and writing. It was intellectually working out how to balance giving the show over to the audience and still controlling it with my story. The dramaturgy and the intricacies of the planning of how to execute the show took longer.
Since we’ve talked about improv, I’m curious. What was your first encounter with improv?
I was obsessed with it from the age of about eight, when Whose Line is It Anyway? came on. It started as a British TV show with a host called Clive Anderson. Then they took it to America. It’s still going in America. Colin Mochrie is in his sixties now with white hair. When I used to watch, he must have been in his late 30s with a lot more hair. [laughs] It’s just lovely to see that show still going.
I was always obsessed with being able to do it. I found quite quickly that the secret to it is not to try to be funny or make jokes. It’s to try and listen. Once I realized that actually your job as an improv is not to get yourself across, it’s to get the other person across, especially when you’re talking to live audience members and you’re not just playing for laughs. You’re playing for poignancy. Listen to what they’re saying and allow them to speak. It’s a little like a police interview when you leave big pauses and the suspect admits what they’ve done. Leave big pauses and the audience member will fill it with absolute profundity that they didn’t even know they had in them.