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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Honest to God With... Niall Phillips
9th January 2017

Given his extensive experience as a director, producer, performer and acting coach, even the most cursory of glances at his stage CV reveals that Niall Phillips is incredibly passionate about the performing arts. What you might not realise - mainly because it's hard to believe he finds the time to do this - is that Niall also dedicates a large chunk of his life to supporting individuals with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (EBD). We can only assume he's somehow got hold of a real life Time Turner.

Niall is currently directing HE(ART), his latest collaboration with Andrew Maddock, a playwright whose idiosyncratic, lyrical style of writing has caught the attention of many (us included). One of the protagonists in this new play has EBD and Niall is keen to ensure that any theatre goers with the same condition are comfortable seeing the production. There will be a relaxed performance every Tuesday during the show's three-week run at Theatre N16, so anyone who feels the need to move around and/or make a bit of noise will be free to do so without fear of death by glaring.

Oh yes, if Carlsberg made Venn diagrams of things that mean a lot to Niall, HE(ART) would be slap bang in the middle of it. Super worthy? Maybe. But the worthiness seems to be an added bonus rather than the point of the play and we're looking forward to seeing what Niall and Andrew have created. We chatted to Niall about HE(ART), Theatre N16, widening participation in the arts and what motivates him to keep making theatre.

VFTG: Could you tell us about this latest play you're working on; what it's about and why you think it'll appeal to audiences?

Alex Reynolds as Alice

Photography © Jesse Night

NP: It's called HE(ART) by Andrew Maddock, it's a play about relationships, it's about love, it's about doing anything for the people that we love. It's honest - it's brutally honest - and it's like a family drama, I suppose. The reason why I think it appeals is because at the heart of it, without sounding awful, because that's what it's called - there's a real big heart in it. It's a really honest, truthful play. It's about people wearing their hearts on their sleeves, people needing to get something and they'll do anything to get what they want. When I first read it, I thought it's heartbreaking.

VFTG: You open on 10th January?

NP: We do, yeah.

VFTG: How has the process been?

NP: We had our official, first ever rehearsals all day on 19th December and we've done table work. The process that I, as a theatre director, have always worked from is Uta Hagen and the steps. The first two days, it's just table work, loads of questions, loads of discussions, loads of ideas. We drink a lot of coffee and we just chat. I think sometimes, because we've got four incredible actors and some know each other, some don't, we've got a real kind of wall to get over in the sense that they don't know each other. So the first two days, it's chatting, getting to know each other, do some exercises, do some games and knock that wall down.

VFTG: You've previously worked with Andrew on In/Out (A Feeling). His writing is just so poetic and really distinctive. Does that make it easier or more difficult to work with him?

NP: It makes it easier in the sense that there's no one that I know of that's got a voice like Andy. No one. The play's the thing. I have to make it as wonderful as it can be. So I think it's a very difficult job. It helps that Andy is unbelievably supportive - I'd call him one of my best mates. We've got quite an honest relationship, we have quite an argumentative relationship and I think that's why the work is so good. This is the the third show I've done of his. The last two were so successful because we are brutally honest. He tells me what he wants, I say what I want and we meet in the middle. It's a beautiful relationship and I love him.

VFTG: Outside of directing, you do a lot of work with EBD. One of the characters, Sam, played by Flora Dawson, has EBD. Did you change anything based on your experiences?

Shane Noone and Flora Dawson as Kev and Sam

Photography © Jesse Night

NP: Originally, it was two brothers. Andy and I were talking about what Denise Gough was saying about putting females on stage that aren't reliant on a man and I thought, let's do more of that because I 100% agree with that as a feminist. We made Flora a female and as I read it, because I've worked with EBD for years, I thought, there's something odd about this character. There's something quite mysteriously beautiful, I want to put my stamp on it and make her have EBD and Andy said, let's do it.

Because of the background I come from, working with young people with EBD or even adults with EBD, it was something that I really wanted to do because I think there's such a uniquely beautiful thing within that. I think it's my right as a creative with an imagination and an idea to put that on stage. Flora is incredible. She's so detailed and so disciplined with her work that her performance will be gobsmacking.

Niall might be trying to avoid using the word heart, but we're shameless. We'll quite happily jump onto that pun again.

VFTG: EBD is clearly a cause that's quite close to your heart. What made you want to get involved?

NP: There's not a voice in the theatre for EBD. As someone who's worked with it, I've gone wow, you're so creative and interesting, why are you not in this beautiful world that I work in every single day? Lonesome Schoolboy - my company - we did new writing nights. There were lots of autistic guys involved who are incredible, amazing, who learned loads and I learned loads from them, and I thought, I want to do more of that. When I saw this, I thought, I have to do it. Andy and I talked about it in great detail.

As long as you get an actor who's really good and gets it, we can make it so interesting to watch. As a person who works with EBD and is passionate about it, I think I have a duty to all the young people I work with who do come from bad backgrounds or negative environments to give them a kind of voice. Also, I was a really naughty kid, a bit of a nightmare. Then I had my first drama lesson in year eight and I thought, oh my God, that's it. That's what I want to do.

I love going into a room and what I do, working at drama school, at IDSA or Italia Conti, is I get to express this thing and people don't get to do that. Especially with EBD because the walls are up and they're scared. They have that freedom which is amazing. So that's why I think I should do it.

VFTG: Every Tuesday, you're planning to do a relaxed performance. How are you making it "relaxed"? Are you just making sure everyone's welcome, or are you adapting the lighting and sound too?

NP: We will do some adapting. I can't give the show away too much but we as a creative team have said we will be a lot more soft with our noises and our lighting choices and the four actors know that if there is a disturbance, or people are talking, walking around, just to go with it. Because they're so good, they will just go with it.

I've been to some West End shows with some of my EBD guys and been glared at. People stare and it's not about you, as a society, we all work together and chip in. That probably makes it a better place, a lot cooler to live in. I want to do that. The actors are on board. Loads of EBD units in schools have been invited and I would love it if we filled that theatre with kids with EBD and then if even one of them went, wow, that's amazing, I want to do that forever, that'd be wicked.

We've seen (and heard!) all sorts in venues, from people forgetting to turn their phones off to involuntary tics. Some noise is inconsiderate and avoidable, but not all noise. Given Niall's experiences of accompanying people with EBD to the theatre, we asked where he sat in the theatre etiquette debate.

VFTG: There's been a really big drive in "correct" theatre etiquette in recent years. Do you think that's a good thing or that we've gone too far in terms of making sure that theatre is inclusive?

Niall Phillips

Photography provided by Morgan Fraser PR

NP: I think theatre's exclusive. I think it is and that's rubbish. It's such a tough one. I had to go watch a film the other day and there was a guy sat next to me who ate a burger and chicken nuggets and I'm a vegan so I was livid. But I don't know anything about this guy. He could come from the most worst background ever. So I went, do you know what, I'm just going to shut up and just enjoy what I've paid to watch.

That mentality is quite rare. People kick off, they make a fuss, they make an argument, you don't know what that kid is going through. I don't know. So I left it. I think we haven't gone too far, I think it's about respecting each other, isn't it? And about being a human being. That guy might be going through this and OK, maybe leave it.

It's a tough one. All I can do is try to make it a little bit easier. I work with this place called Ian Mikardo High School and we go see shows. There were these kids, they went to see Matilda and they were fascinated. I went, that's incredible, look at them, this is amazing, why is this not happening more?

When you see kids or adults lose themselves film or music or theatre, that's amazing. I lose myself every day in music and theatre. I love music. I love theatre. I was quite lucky because my parents are cool and people don't have that. We should chip in and help each other out. I think that's wicked.

VFTG: You obviously are doing your bit to help widen participation. How do you think your peers in the industry should respond to this?

NP: Match it. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time did relaxed performances - my friend's in Curious - and I went to a relaxed performance there and it was a phenomenal bubble of excitement and people talking and buzzing. Obviously I'm one guy with a crazy idea. If we all did a relaxed performance, once a month, then I think theatre would be more inclusive. And more people would get a chance to see shows.

The first show I ever saw was at The National when I was 10. People were laughing, a story was being told and there was a heart in the middle. That feeling I had, incredible, I only got it because my mum's a legend and she went, let's go see a show. I got so much from theatre in the sense that it's free, you can do whatever you want

Whether you're an actor or a director or a designer, you can create any world you want. And that's amazing. If everyone did relaxed performances, one per run, like at Theatre 503 or at the Finborough or wherever, how cool would that be? Why not? But It's just me and my crazy ideas. I think it would be nice.

VFTG: Sometimes crazy ideas are the best ideas! You are taking a play by Andrew Maddock who is a great playwright, you're doing relaxed performances, you're staging at show at Theatre N16, which is one of the few venues to sign up to the low pay/no pay initiative. Do you feel like you've ticked every box possible with this latest production?

Niall Phillips

Photography provided by Morgan Fraser PR

NP: I hope so. As a creative I want to build and push myself as far as I can to make the best work possible. My peers push me, other theatres push me, my actors in the show are so good that I have to raise my game. It'll be a success hopefully I don't know, we'll see. And then keep growing, keep building and keep making work then anyone can go wow, I want to do that. When I grow up I want to be an actor, I want to be a director. I want to be a designer. Believe in what you want to do and do it. That's cool.

There's something special about a fringe production where everyone gets paid. With Niall and Andrew having previously worked together at The Hope, a little theatre with big ideas that commits to paying everyone an agreed Equity rate, we wondered if that had influenced them to put on a show at Theatre N16. Having reopened in Balham in September 2015 after a previous life in Stoke Newington, Theatre N16 joined the likes of The Hope in March 2016 by publically committing to pay all actors at least minimum wage rather than the infamous "profit share".

VFTG: Was the low pay/no pay campaign at Theatre N16 part of your reason to stage a show there? You've staged work at The Hope before, which has also bought into that ethos.

NP: Yes, it was. Theatre N16 holds 75 people and The Hope (which is an incredible venue) holds 50. With In/Out, we sold out and in the last week, it was annoying, we had to turn 10 people away each night. So what can we do? That holds more and it's new and it believes in the same policies that we believe in, let's jump on that bandwagon. Also I want to go and see new venues. Jamie Eastlake and Scott Ellis who run it who are legends, amazing blokes, and when I met them, they went, we are on the same page, obviously come and do a show here. When you're met with that enthusiasm, it's the best thing ever because then you can do whatever you want!

Talking about the set design, because I'm designing the set, I went, I want to do this, this and this and they went, yep, cool and when you have that creative freedom, it's the best thing! Because you can do whatever you want. You can create whatever you want and get people to come see your world, your vision and then take away what they think. It's a wicked venue, it's lovely.

VFTG: Is there anything else you would like to add?

NP: If people come and see the show - or any theatre - theatre has so much opportunity in it. Whether or not you need a cry or a good laugh or you want to take someone on a date, the theatre's the place! It's the best place in the world. I watch black box spaces and the paint's coming off, it's dingy, but I get my heart broken because that was so good at storytelling.

VFTG: Remind us one more time. The show opens on 10th January and runs until...?

NP: It runs until Saturday 28th. It's a three-week run and it's every Tuesday to Saturday. It starts at 7.30 and it's going to be wonderful.

We don't doubt it. Review to follow after we see HE(ART) on 11th January, but if you can't wait until then to find out our verdict, you can snap up some tickets now by following this link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/156627.

To find out more about Lonesome Schoolboy, the independent production company founded by Niall, you can visit their website here: http://www.lonesomeschoolboy.com.

You can keep up with Niall's latest work on Twitter @niallpxx. HE(ART)'s playwright Andrew is also on Twitter and you can follow him @andrewmaddock. Both of whom are utterly lovely blokes. As the cool kids say, we <3 them.



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