saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Honest to God With... Chris Hislop
8th March 2015
It's fair to say PR man Chris Hislop has pulled his weight in London's theatrical community in the last few years. At just 27, he has written, directed, critiqued, done a touch of performing and acted as press officer for a multitude of shows. With his own plays bubbling away in the background, he is devoting his professional time and energy to the PR game these days - arguably an odd choice for a creative. The latest show he's handling press for, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, is running at the King's Head Theatre, Islington, from 17th March to 11th April 2015.
Here, we took some time to talk to Chris about his emerging role while covering the future of blogging, whether there's such a thing as bad press, more bloody Snoo Wilson and, for some reason, spend far far too much time on jukebox musicals.
Photography provided by Chris Hislop
VFTG: So the obvious question for you as a PR man. Why set aside the lovely, creative world of writing and directing and go into the hard-nosed, capitalist scumbag world of PR?
CH: Well, I haven't stopped being a creative, that's the first thing.
VFTG: Fine then, why focus on it?
CH: I've done a terrible amount of theatre jobs. I'm only 27 but I've done so many. I used to be a stage manager, a producer, director, writer, actor, I've been all sorts of different things. And I've enjoyed doing all of them. There have been times when they've been hugely financially viable but there's never been a situation creatively where I've looked at a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, and gone "This can sustain my lifestyle". I used to do PR as a younger man...
Following some brief bickering about what constitutes a younger man, already being considerably younger than us, Chris continued.
CH: ...There was a time when I was doing film writing and concept writing in my early 20s because I did a really good Edinburgh show. I did fantastically well and paid a fortune to write a movie that never got made. I thought "I've got a career now, this is my life". Then got back from it, and the guy I was working with got done for tax fraud and I thought "This isn't sustainable".
The more I get involved in the more commercial side of theatre, producing, PR, looking at what I can achieve in my life, it makes more sense. And the two wonderfully amalgamate. I do think theatre is moving away from that mad, creative vibe it had in the 70s and 80s when money was free-flowing and anyone could have a crazy idea and put it on. That vibe today is so hard to tap into and the money to make it is so hard to get, so repressed and such a tiny pot. If you can be business-orientated and ask "What can I do to get as many people as possible to walk through the front door?", it's that kind of business side that allows the creative side to achieve. I'm happier than I've ever been knowing more about how the industry works.
VFTG: Do you not think there's an argument to be made that when people come from it from a commercial side, especially in a big ticket show, and you have a Phantom sequel that fails miserably, or Stephen Ward, which fails miserably, or the latest jukebox musical which fails miserably, that there needs to be a drive in creativity? I mean, it doesn't help that all of my examples are bad shows...
CH: The three examples you picked there are particularly horrendous examples. The point is, it's the marriage of the two. In the marriage of the two is where the industry flourishes. Look at Loserville, I really enjoyed it. It's a new musical by writers who did a little bit but not much, got picked up for the West End, got okay reviews and made a bit of money, it's now toured, and they're selling the script now and putting it on everywhere.
VFTG: Yes, that's a good example, it did have the "bums on seats" idea of Busted behind it too.
What continued was a rather long chat on jukebox musicals which was incredibly entertaining, but slightly less on-point. CliffsNotes, everything that we hate - Rock of Ages, We Will Rock You, McBusted - Chris Hislop seems to like, or at least think "are not terrible". Except Viva Forever! which we agree is tripe despite the best of intentions. So maybe he's not a total idiot. He also countered our reference to the exceptional Brian Pern: A Life in Rock as a Jukebox Musical spoof with Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade's AD/BC, so fair play to him.
VFTG: I looked at your blog to get some questions - just so we have it, what's your blog name?
Photography provided by Grubby Strugglers
The blog's called Grubby Strugglers which is a nice reference. I did a play with Snoo Wilson about six years ago, which was called More Light. It's one of his surreal, mad plays about Giordano Bruno, a monk who invented the idea of memory palaces, who was burned at the stake for being a heretic. In Snoo's play he escapes into a memory palace which is actually English Heaven after transcending his body. Queen Elizabeth rules it, and Shakespeare's a woman and they all have this gay old time up there. Meanwhile, the Pope is trying to break a hole into space-time to get up there and save him from himself.
We did this whole show where the Pope was a Russian cosmonaut, because in my mind there was a 60s us-and-them vibe and I played off that. It was all very silly and good fun, and I was working with Snoo quite closely. He was an idol of mine from since I was very young, and we sat down, had a chat and in one of the interviews we did before the show, he said "We're all grubby strugglers", these little people with grand ideas. He died two years ago, and now the producer on that has produced Lovesong of the Electric Bear at The Hope and I wish her the best of luck on that because the more Snoo that gets out there, the better.
VFTG: You mentioned earlier how there's that symbiosis there between creative and commercial, but there must have been some problems there too, they can't always work in harmony. We're looking for human struggle, here, Chris!
CH: I hate to be that guy, but I can't say there has been. I've been very lucky. I'm a firm believer in that you make your own luck, but I've got back whatever I've given out. I started as an actor in Germany, because I went to school in Germany.
When I was there, I realised very quickly I don't like to direct myself so got into directing at the English Speaking Theatre in Frankfurt. I was ADing for a very famous German director and I turned to him at the end of the run of Equus and I said: "How do I do what you do?" His response was: "In this country, you can be my AD for the next 10, 20, 30 years, then in a bit of time you'll be able to do what I do." Then I thought the door slammed in my face, so thought I'd go to England and do it in the country I'm from.
What followed was time at Sussex Uni, his own theatre company (Lebenskuenstler) and collaboration - although he admits he was very "Kenneth Branagh, king of my own castle". Following the success of his Edinburgh show, which included a voice-over by Tim Minchin just as he was gaining traction, the TV and film came. After a stint as theatre editor at One Stop Arts, he joined Chloé Nelkin's PR firm full-time.
CH: It was all finding the right people at the right time. Luckily, finding Chloé, who I'm really grateful to. When One Stop Arts ended and she was a PR, I said: "I'll come and make you coffee," and she said: "Don't be silly, you're much too qualified, come and be my second PR." Then a year followed of working for her, and realising what business practices I liked and didn't like. I thought I'd do it by myself and take a hit in income, but people have responded to the way I'm doing PR which is different to hers and gone: "You, you're right."
I'm suddenly having more respect, kudos, and it's been really lucky every step of the way.
VFTG: So a smooth transition from a company to going it alone?
CH: Yes, like I say, lucky. There were things I was doing with Chloé and she wanted it done in her way - which is natural, it's her company. But she's very corporate, very professional, it's more clean-cut. Whereas I want to come in and be the person who helps them achieve on their own. Because I'm just one guy and don't charge a huge amount as money's fine, I can help on a much more personal level, in a way I couldn't as a second-in-command. Now I'm PRing shows at the King's Head and I didn't expect it.
I also like to define my practice in that I don't promise anything. I had a pitch meeting last year where someone said: "Oh, I want The Guardian," and I said: "I can work with you but can't promise anyone specific." And they went with someone else. That's fine, but I'm not that guy. I want to be the guy who says: "I have all these options." More wholesome, healthy, holistic.
VFTG: So what draws you to something then?
CH: Personal taste. If I don't like something, why would I do it? I really love big, glitzy musicals, so I'd love to PR one at some point. I really like surreal, off-the-wall mad off-West End, but off-West End where it plays with form and plays with idea. Like the Trainspotting in promenade for an hour that I'm working on at the King's Head right now is absolutely my cup of tea.
Photography © Mary F Calvert/ZUMA Wire
But I also like watching political theatre that plays with what political theatre needs to be. I'm doing one in May called The Lonely Solider Monologues at the Cockpit. It's monologues from women who work in the Armed Forces. They were taken verbatim from conversations that the author, Helen Benedict, had with American soldiers. And It's so cutting, so painful to listen to you just go: "Well this is important." Theatre can be about big things. And the fact we're opening that show on election day... there's a reason why.
I've started working with The Lab Collective and Theatre Deli and their new show is called The Candidate, where people have an app on their phone - a polling app - there's a politician and a spin doctor and the entire show is based on what you say on the app during the show. And that's the week before the election. We're now in a really important election run, and so it's good to talk about.
The thing I find really really great as well is new writing - people who go: "I've got this brilliant idea for a play set in a shop... and there's all these people." Shows that make an important point about social life today. Like The Dogs of War, that's going to open in the Old Red Lion in May, that's about living with mental illness, living with people who are mentally ill, but it's also about invisible dogs and video games like Civilisation and pornography. There's so much more than just John Osborne and Mike Leigh "Oh god, everything's a bit crap, innit?"
VFTG: What do you hate then?
CH: Okay, I'll give you a good example. I love Shakespeare because my study of theatre was all at universities and school, so I've studied quite aggressively Beckett, Shakespeare, Greek Theatre, all three I've written 20,000 word essays on. I find, therefore, plays the same old trite "We're just doing another Antigone" so boring - you need to do something with it.
Photography provided by English Repertory Theatre
I'm currently working with two companies, for example, who just take Shakespeare and tear it to shreds. The thing I don't like is classics done classically. If you're doing a classic play, you've got to find a vernacular and you've got to do something interesting. I'll tell you what I'd really hate to do - a specific one - a Chichester Festival production of The Importance of Being Earnest where they've not made many changes because they're playing to that audience of 50-plus who want to see the classic done well and then they tour for ages. The PR for that will be so simplistic. I'll be "What is this?" "The Importance of Being Earnest." "Anything clever?" "So-and-so is in the lead." That would be the only thing.
There then followed more discussion on Lovesong of the Electric Bear. And it led Chris to discuss theatre versus film.
CH: Theatre can be abstruse and mad and weird and take you out of your comfort zone but film's made to run. It's distant, it's up there. This, you're involved in. You're complicit in a way. And I like stuff that makes your complicity with theatre scary, where you go: "I'm not sure I understand what's going on." And Snoo was a wonderful man in many ways, and one of the things he was wonderful for was not being afraid to do what he had in his head.
VFTG: Okay, something else I want to cover with you. In an interview with you, I read you said: "All PR is good PR", which for me isn't the same as "There is no such thing as bad publicity". I would argue that...
CH: So this isn't a question...
VFTG: It's a confrontation. I want you to justify it because I'll speak to artists who think five-star reviews are great, and one-star reviews are equally as great for bums on seats because people want to see a car crash but the two or three-star, vaguely wishy washy reviews, that wouldn't make someone want to see it - it raises brand awareness by all means - but equally someone will be less interested in simply reading the review.
CH: Again, unfortunately this is a bit where business trumps creativity. In PR terms, it doesn't matter because it's awareness. And you mentioned brand awareness, and for me, that is more important than what the person says. Infinitely more important because, simply, there's a rule of marketing that if you see something five times, you will know what it is.
Let's say, for example, there's a production of X and I get some reviewers in, some love it, some hate it, but there's overwhelmingly a lot of two and three stars. Is that bad for the show? No. Will it make any difference to ticket sales? It will only increase it. If we break it down, the difference between: "There's a review out there that's five stars and you should all go and see it" depending on where that's published could lead to a ton more ticket sales, or a few, or none. There are some magazines even where you think: "That's really great" but there's no spike in sales.
Photography provided by Chris Hislop
All you need for PR to work well is an awareness that something exists because the thing you're fighting against in theatre PR is obscurity. Show X doesn't mean anything to you, or most of the Londoners out there. It's blank, it's a nothingness. To raise even the slightest bit of awareness, that they did a thing and it wasn't amazing is enough to raise their profile significantly.
VFTG: So it is about futureproofing as well?
CH: Yes, and it's about rising from obscurity. An actual example, and it's not a very pleasant one, and I apologise for that. The first show I picked up, a production of Dante's Inferno by a company called Craft at the Rag Factory, was a cracking production. They're very original physical theatre, they have theories about baring themselves, and the shows are understandably very very raw and difficult to watch.
They had a show last year that got middling reviews where it was: "Oh, that's just a thing." The second show they did, I contacted reviewers asking if they wanted to see the show and their immediate response was: "That company? Oh, I remember that company." They two-starred the show, but they remembered it. And that audience came back and saw Dante. Even if they didn't like it, they went. So we already saw that even the middling reviews drew people in.
However, and this is where it gets a bit crass, one of the actors in the show died two days before it was meant to open. Heart failure during rehearsals. The fact that he died and had been in Skyfall and Star Wars, even in bit parts, went round the world in two days. It was in E! Online, it was everywhere. And the show sold remarkably better than it did beforehand. Is that ghoulish? Yes, people went to see a show because it was in the news. Did they care what the show was about? Did they care what Kan was doing? Not really, it was just awareness.
Saying "there's no such thing as bad PR" is not true for so many reasons. But saying "there's no such thing as PR that you don't want" is different.
VFTG: So again, you mentioned on one of your blogs, quite soon after Kan died, that you didn't have an answer to how to weigh it all up with taste and publicity...
CH: I don't.
VFTG: So you've not come to a conclusion?
CH: The sad thing is - and Kan's death is quite a good example - when he died I spoke to the company director. We talked very candidly the first time and he said to me: "Don't use this." And I said: "I'm not going to, I don't want to. Let's not tell anyone and hold it in ourselves." Then I got a call that evening from the Press Association saying: "There's a story in The Standard, it might be incorrect, call them and see if there's anything you want to change then call me and we'll get it right." I couldn't stop it happening. I couldn't stop the story getting out there. Sometimes they just run. In that case, my role was far more in being the gatekeeper.
We could have used it. It could have been so easy and this is where I feel terrible. I could have easily had arranged a feature interview with the director for a big theatre paper or one of the more headliney newspapers saying: "This guy died in my rehearsal, woe is me," and there would have been ways in which that'd be a good thing to do. It might have been cathartic and cleared the story earlier. It made me sad that that's what PR is sometimes. You feel sometimes like you're in the eye of a hurricane and you think: "I'm just going to have to stand back and let this happen around me."
We then went back to an earlier point about the need for star ratings and whether they help or hinder. It was a long chat, however Chris was very happy to bow to public convention and not swim against the tide, suggesting star ratings had their place. But he was equally exultant about sites that write quite deep and personal reviews without star ratings. "There's a side of churn, do as much as you can, and then there's a side that's one a week, one a month, very considered, very thought-through. To run the gamut of reviewing, a star rating fits in somewhere in that."
Confession time again. I switch off the mic when I think things have concluded but then one comment on the way out will spark something again. This time, it was the future of bloggers, and fits quite nicely here, so let's just pretend I was incisive enough to grab the baton the first time, eh?
CH: I do think that the criticism landscape is changing, it's always changing. But recently I've noticed - and I think it's important to note - what used to be: "Ooh, the bloggers are taking over from the newspaper" and it seemed a big problem. But now, the bloggers I see doing the best and having the most impact are ones that aren't just resting on their laurels doing four posts a week - they're engaging with other things, writing reviews about other things, having interviews, engaging articles, Google advertising. They're rising to the head of the pack.
There's really a sort of move towards blogs as alternative online journals. We're in an age of entrepreneurialism, which recession breeds. The more you sell yourself the more people will buy it. I now find when I put blogs forward to theatre reviewers, their response wasn't: "Yuck". The blog has gained so much more value and is so much more important. The war of papers and blogs is over and blogs have won - and now it's up to them to decide how to go forward. And it's really great for the mid-level PR.
VFTG: But there's a worry now of oversaturation of bloggers...
CH: Did you see the poster for Gods and Monsters at the Southwark Playhouse?
VFTG: No, I'm not sure I did.
CH: Posters, traditionally, if they get good reviews, they'll be on the posters. Gods and Monsters - the entire bottom half of the poster was star ratings from some of the smallest blogs I work with. They've conceded "I'm not waiting for that five-star from The Telegraph or The Guardian." They've decided having these 20 billion bloggers who have come to see it and all really like it is our hook. There's so many people saying nice things, who all have their own audience. There hasn't really been a time when that's happened before - except maybe Edinburgh and it's coming to London now.
I love, love, right now that there's a group of 10 - 15 websites that I know, if I invite one or two, six or seven will show up because they've heard about it. But I do think there is a market there that helps all of you and a lovely thing to look in on, and that's building.
In the spirit of raising awareness of shows, we asked Chris what he was currently working on.
CH: We're about to take Hamlet on tour. It's going to the City of London festival, Edinburgh... Keep your eyes peeled for that.
I'm also working with the Sutton Theatre Trust to take over three theatres in Sutton. So they're doing lots of exciting, great new work and it launches properly in October. I also work with a charity called The Brick Box. They're a community arts organisation and have loads of events coming up in May and later - less theatre, more arts. And I'm also working with the Canal Café who are now doing more theatre, and more exciting theatre.
But it didn't stop there, Chris is nothing if not busy. And here's the rest:
Trainspotting, at The King's Head theatre from 17th March to 11th April 2015, co-produced with In Your Face theatre from Scotland. "It's in thick Scots accents, an hour long, in promenade - a really good revival." https://kingsheadtheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows/873524936/events
The Lab Collective's The Candidate, from 29th April to 16th May 2015 at Theatre Delicatessen. "A political piece about the way politicans and their policies change." http://thelabcollective.co.uk/productions/
The Lonely Soldier Monologues, from 6th May to 31st May 2015 at The Cockpit. "A play about female soldiers and the trials they face. It's very hard hitting and opens your eyes to things you'd have thought we'd got beyond." http://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/the_lonely_soldier_monologues
Arrows and Traps' "gender-swapped, having a laugh" Taming of the Shrew at the New Wimbledon Theatre from 26th May to 20th June 2015. http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-taming-of-the-shrew/new-wimbledon-studio
The Dogs of War, at The Old Red Lion from 26th May to 20th June 2015. "Wonderful, very funny and very surreal. It will split the audience." http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/the-dogs-of-war.htm
If the above wasn't quite enough, to find out more about Chris and his current work, visit his PR website here: http://www.chrishislop.com. For more general musings on theatre, take a look at Chris's personal blog here: https://chrishislop.wordpress.com.