saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Honest to God With... The Sigil Club
1st December 2012
Views From The Gods recently met up with The Sigil Club, responsible for the rather excellent Full Stage Splash - the potted history of comics in about an hour, featuring sketches, puppets and manic drawing. We joined the company ahead of their first revisitation of the show following its success at the Camden Fringe.
Writer/director/co-founder Michael Eckett, producer/co-founder Jackie O'Sullivan, actors Kate Quinn, Daniel Farley and Kris Wood and lights/sound Julian Adams were all in high spirits before the show and, unsurprisingly, our conversation went off on a few tangents.
We chatted to the fantastic group about everything from the genesis of the show to the company's next Brecht-inspired project, stopping along the way to chat about the challenges of playing multiple characters, the Reduced Shakespeare Company and, of course, Batman. We also discovered why it isn't the best idea to interview in a pub during the rugby...
The first Full Stage Splash was held on 1st December 2102 at the Hen and Chickens in Islington, at 9.30pm. The second is set to go ahead on 8th December 2012 at the same Bat-time in the same Bat-venue, so be sure to check it out.
As all of these things do, we started at the beginning, with The Sigil Club giving us the thought process behind the show...
Photography supplied by The Sigil Club
ME: It just comes from having a deep knowledge of comics - that there's so much in it that people don't know about - and wanting to contextualise it. Kris and I have a background in doing theatre where we've done reductions like Richard III, a History of something or other, so it felt like an actual thing I wanted to try. Also, we did the Camden Fringe last year and I wanted to make a show that would suit that festival. Low on set, something I could carry around.
JA: This is so interesting because I didn't know about the reductions.
KW: Richard III was the main one.
ME: In which Kris played Tyrrell...
KW: As Ty-Rell, The Original Gangster G.
ME: In which he rapped.
KW: In which I rapped, yeah.
ME: It wasn't necessarily the greatest production of Richard III.
KW: But it was the greatest portrayal of Tyrrell there had ever been on stage. I don't want to blow my own trumpet but I'm pretty sure no one has ever done it like that before.
ALL: Or will again.
ME: So this reduction felt like it would work, however, even though I had this idea, I didn't know how to crack it. Up until January this year, I resigned myself to the fact it wasn't going to work until my friend Grace, who runs another production company, was saying: "Isn't this such a shame? They're pushing the Fringe now and we aren't doing anything." I said: "I know, I had this idea but it isn't going to work." She said: "Why isn't it going to work?" and I said: "It's too big, I can't condense it, I have no through line. I'd probably have Dan play the main protagonist, but then I wouldn't know what to do."
Then I stopped talking to her, and one second later thought: "Oh! Dan would be this big bombastic hero in the 50s, then this dark, gritty hero in the 80s and that's the through line." Dan could be that, then the rest of the show was how about the society, history and politics of the time, in comics and outside of it, affected that archetype.
Then I got my two idiots together, Dan and Kris, and checked whether they thought it would work. They were... hesitant...
KW: Dan was hesitant.
ME: Dan's always hesitant. Then we called Kate...
KQ: Then you sent me the script, and I read it, and I liked it and I said yes.
JOS: It was a very easy phone call really.
VFTG: So have you all done productions all together before?
KQ: I've worked with them once before in which I played a really crazy character in a very weird play (Stripped).
ME: It was an absurdist comedy about a man...
KW: Played by me!
ME: Played by Kris... who is having breakfast and two psychopomps appear...
KQ: And that was me!
ME: ...And that was Kate... who told him if he could tell them the meaning of his life in nine days, he gets to live again.
DF: Kate relished the role, she got to beat up Kris quite a lot.
KQ: And considering I'm 5ft 3in and he's 7ft 3in, that was absolutely hilarious. He's definitely huge!
One of the things we admired so much about the production was just how much they managed to cram into the show, how the facts were actually correct and how it managed to create a balance so as not to alienate the audience. We wondered if that was difficult or put any pressure on the team.
Photography supplied by The Sigil Club
KQ: There were so many people nodding along in the audience. I'd say something and was praying I'd got the facts right. Then someone in the front row would say: "That's right, you know", and I was like: "Yes!"
DF: I think it was you (VFTG) I saw that did that for a couple of things!
ME: I was so worried I'd slip up.
KQ: I think the play for the uninitiated to the comic world is quite good, because it gives them that base level of understanding. Most people have seen the big comic book films that have come out like Avengers, Iron Man, Thor and everything and there were enough of those characters that meant people thought: "I know him, brilliant!"
VFTG: So how did you pitch it so it was accessible, but at the same time appeals to people like me?
KW: There was a discussion right at the start as to whether me and Dan should read up on comics. And it was decided no. It'd be easier, a) because we didn't have to read anything and b) because we have very basic loose knowledge of superheroes, it'd be easier if we were the bar by which you set the average person.
ME: Yeah, I thought that if they understand it, somebody else should understand it. We tried not to get too specific. We've got archetypes, vague genres. I think the most specific we did get was a scene with Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man.
KQ: And Spider-Man!
ME: And the Fantastic Four. Whenever we're specific, it's with those that are within the wider Zeitgeist.
VFTG: Saying that, you did have a bit with...
JOS: Luke Cage?
VFTG: That and Image [a comics company] splitting from Marvel and then the DC Multiverse.
For the uninitiated, the DC Multiverse is the separate versions of Earth that all DC characters inhabited, before the company decided to reboot. After the reboot, they all got put on the same Earth. But that barely scratches the surface. For a better idea, see the show. Or perhaps not...
ME: Firstly, the thing about the Multiverse piece is that it's intentionally confusing.
KQ: It is incredibly confusing! Even if you follow it from the moment you start reading comics, it's still hard to know which Earth you're on.
JOS: It's weird because one of the first things one of my friends said to me when we came out after seeing the show was: "Now I understand the DC Multiverse" and I was like: "Really? You weren't supposed to!"
ME: Yeah, at the end of that scene everything gets ripped up because it's so confusing, so that I didn't worry about. There's always something that someone won't know but even if you knew it, we tried to package it in an entertaining way. I think it's always fun for those who like comics to watch it and enjoy it, laugh at the jokes and enjoy the presentation. Hopefully they learn something new or at least think about something new.
KQ: I'm not an avid comic reader but I grew up watching Spider-Man, Batman and X-Men cartoons. Reading the play I was really interested in the actual history of everything and how the Multiverse did get destroyed and rebooted. How Marvel did nearly go bankrupt and had to pull itself back. And if I was to watch the...
At this point, the rugby fans roar. Sport probably did a win or something.
JOS: They agree with you!
KQ: And even if I was watching this play, I wouldn't be lost or confused with my just very limited background knowledge. I'd be going: "That's amazing, I didn't know anything about this!" And I think Michael did that quite well.
ME: And I threw in a couple of things for me just in the hope that someone else out there would enjoy it and...that was you specifically. You loved Luke Cage getting his money from Doctor Doom.
JOS: I think what allows us to get away with it is that the script has such a high gag rate is that if you don't get one, you'll get another one.
The show is a potted history of comics with a varied presentational style, which includes a puppet show about the now infamous Fredric Wertham. Following his criticism of comic book violence in the 1950s, a US congressional inquiry into the industry was set up, leading to the Comics Code. With such an irreverent style,the comparisons are inevitable to The Reduced Shakespeare Company. We wondered how The Sigil Club approached this connection.
ME: Yeah... well...
VFTG: Sorry, have I touched a nerve there?
ME: No, We pitched it like that. It was in the press release. When you're aware of them, it's impossible to ignore the comparison but I didn't want to do things the same. I worked with Dan, Kris and Kate so much I wanted to find something that I know they can do.
One of the things the Reduced Shakespeare Company do so well is that they do so many things in a short time. I also want to do so many things in a short time just to keep it interesting and test what we do. I like thinking that there were puppet shows, comedies and sketch shows at the Camden Fringe this year but we did it all. If you only want to see one, see us!
JOS: I had a few responses like that. They'd just say: "Oh, it's the whole fringe!"
DF: When you pitched it to me, I remember you saying this is like the Reduced Shakespeare Company-slash-Horrible Histories and because Horrible Histories is so well known, you probably know that, so you're probably comfortable with the format.
ME: I tried to do things differently. I think I wrote a puppet show because, well, that was great. Not that I'm great.
No, we struggled with the Comics Code part. Fredric Wertham's testimonial against juvenile delinquency is fascinating. You could do an entire show on that. We had a couple of minutes and I struggled how to represent a human being who had insignificant data, did something that wasn't good for comics and who I disagree with in terms of censorship. But who also gave testimonies in Brown v. Board of Education to stop segregation of schoolchildren in America. I don't want to completely blast that guy, so I had to make it as ridiculous as possible - so I made a Punch and Judy puppet.
VFTG: Was it difficult to continue to push the boundaries and find new ways of doing things in this hour-long show or did it all come naturally?
Photography supplied by The Sigil Club
ME: It all came naturally. I brought up the puppet show then I watched the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Complete Works of shakespeare, which I hadn't seen before. Then I realised they did their play within a play, and Hamlet and a puppet show and I thought: "There's no escaping them! No matter what I try I'm going to be referencing them somehow!"
DF: The joy, though, is that incredibly serious subject matter done in that puppet show way that makes it really funny.
ME: No scenes really came out of the setup first. It was really trying to work out a visually interesting and different way to do some scenes and what suited them best, for example the drawing (of the DC Multiverse).
JOS: You have to make it accessible and look at what pop culture to take.
Take for example the Family Fortunes sketch with the Fantastic Four. It was accessible, the only problem was, there's only four of us. But we thought: "Oh, it's fine, the woman's invisible, we'll work around it."
ME: Jackie actually pitched it...
JOS: Yeah, that's why I'm getting that in...
KW: It took me a stupidly long time to realise that the Invisible Woman was meant to be on stage all the time. I didn't work that out until, I think, it was just before we did it at the Camden Fringe.
Given the complexities of the histories that the cast had to grasp, we were interested to know if anyone was a new convert to comics because of it.
JA: I used to watch the Batman animated series when I was younger.
KQ: So did I! My boyfriend's a huge Batman fan and his proudest moment was when I came back from rehearsals one day and he was trying to explain the DC Multiverse concept to a friend and I just got in there with someone of the worlds and he was like: "I've never loved you more!"
ME: You're welcome!
And then we talked far too much about Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond.
JA: Before I came in, I wouldn't have been able to discuss Batman on any level. You changed my life.
And then we talked far too much about Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
VFTG: In this current climate of geek, do you think that helped or hindered you doing what you were doing?
JOS: I feel it was a good time to do the show.
KQ: Well we sold out...
JOS: When Michael was thinking about doing it at the start of the year, it just felt right. There were so many big movies coming out. People would have more knowledge of who Thor was just by holding a hammer.
ME: I got worried that if I didn't do it, someone else would do it!
KW: There's a lot of twenty-somethings, our generation, that were raised on Saturday morning cartoons - Spider-Man, Batman...
ME: I feel like there's less stigma now, but it's people on the fringes, but that's okay. There's this rich, interesting history. This is an industry founded on gangsters - which I don't mention in the show - but hopefully if anyone likes it, people will have that interest to go beyond what they like now and discover some of this stuff, because it's fascinating.
DF: That's it. If you get people watching the movies, they sit back and enjoy the movie but for a bunch of people that want to know more, there's a huge vein of history for people to go exploring into.
ME: Conversely, with it not being as much a niche thing, I think it would be quite easy for someone who is really interested in the material and look at the show, the flyer, and the idea of it and actually think we might not know what we're doing. That we were just going with the trend.
Photography supplied by The Sigil Club
There's a huge array of characters in the show. Sketches feature established superheroes, but also as mentioned, archetypical superheroes epitomising each era. The conversation turned to how, as actors, they took playing such a spectrum.
KQ: I quite enjoyed playing all those characters, but what did daunt me was all the factual bits between the sketches.
DF and KQ: Yeah, yeah.
KQ: I found it so difficult to learn my lines. It was like I was studying for an exam and if I got it wrong I'd have a whole room of comic book fans shaking their heads and going: "That's not right." So I was very concious that I had to get it spot on. The different characters I loved doing. Spider-Man is one of my favourite comic book heroes.
ME: When we were divvying up the characters, I think everyone else was too afraid to even suggest they might play Spider-Man.
KQ: Come on, there was Thor, Hulk and Spider-Man. You've got your typical hero, Chris is 7 ft 3, he's obviously Hulk and you are obviously Nordic...
DF: We'd also done multiple roles in Stripped, so as an ensemble group we were familiar with that.
KQ: I was the only actor who had not done multiple roles in Stripped...
KQ: And it wasn't until about three days before we opened when we got the programme and on the front it said 'four actors, 65 roles' and I just looked at Michael and I said: "Are you serious? Is that how many we're playing all together?" And he said: "Well, yeah." It never ever even occurred to us there were that many.
ME: Some of them were just one line. We were a little concerned that there had been too much focus on the acting and writing, and not enough on that all-important lighting and sound.
VFTG: So just because we've not spoken to Julian much...
DF: Oh, not Julian!
KQ: We don't speak to him much either...
VFTG: How was it technically? It's not a traditional play in any sense, so how did you approach it with all of the different things going on on stage?
JA: The big thing for the show is making sure people have space to move. Often with the more dramatic performances you want to focus the lights. There is one scene that Dan did where the lights are focussed a lot to bring out characterisation, but these guys move around a lot, there is often a lot of dynamic, kinetic movement, so most of the time, it's just nice washes, a little bit of added colour to bring out the mood.
Especially after working at the fringe and having one hour for tech, or in this case an hour and a half, you don't know what the rig is. You know nothing, you can't even plan. Even if there's a tech spec, that changes quickly. People refocus lights without telling you. Keeping it simple is the way to go.
ME: The biggest problem over the summer was when we did the one performance, Julian worked out the lights, and we went in the next day and some people had moved all the lights without telling us. So you be saying: "Oh, is this my mark, Julian?" And he'd turn the light on and it'd be pointing in the other direction.
At this point, the rugby crowd went wild, with more roars, cheering and applause.
KW: People are really excited about Julian's lights...
JA: I'd like to thank everyone for this award. But no, thank God for everyone at the Etcetera Theatre, they were excellent. We got everything fixed up.
VFTG: How does the Hen and Chickens compare?
JW: In terms of teching, they're pretty much the same deal. They're both really well kitted out. They're both fantastic.
KQ: And run by such lovely people as well, it's such a joy to work in.
ME: The reason we go back is because it's home. It's obviously run really well, but everyone there is really nice and welcoming. We just feel like we belong.
JA: I've been in professional theatres where I think that I don't want the production to be in there.
KQ: And the dressing room is massive, and there's a toilet in the dressing room.
At this point, Kate got rather excited and continued to talk about the dressing room in a scarily obsessive fashion for a long period of time.
ME: It's also because I could see what we'd be doing in my head. I also consider this 9.30pm slot an experiment. I thought: "We do well on Saturdays, what's it going to be like if we perform two Saturdays in a row? What's the 9.30 slot going to be like?"
Doing an experiment with your show is probably an irresponsible thing to do. And we didn't feel like we'd be able to pad out a full run. One of the reasons we're doing it again is because I loved doing the show and I adore these people and I wanted an excuse to see them again.
KQ: And all of my friends were at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and none of them could see it. So they'd better come this time!
ME: And I was genuinely interested to see what would happen if we did it with a seven-day gap. Would it make a difference? No, it doesn't! But I know that now! I overthink some things...
With Michael's admission that he overthinks things, we wanted to know whether anything had changed between the run at the Camden Fringe and this new one.
Photography supplied by The Sigil Club
ME: I've not had much time. I've been writing something else, Kate has been in other things, plus I thought it was perfect!
But no, we've changed a couple of setups to scenes and one in particular. There was a scene set in the 80s between Dan and Kris and Kris was a businessman and Dan was a gravelly-voiced hero and it slowed the pace down, which I thought might have been needed after the drawing scene (explaining the DC Multiverse). Now it's still that, but their tête-à-tête is shorter, Kate's in that scene a lot more in a nod to female characters...
KQ: ...And breasts...!
ME: Yeah, Frank Miller's dames, which are empowered! But they're not...
JOS: There's also a nice little reference to a joke earlier in the play, which is nice because you have a cycle to the whole thing.
ME: And one of the things, as Kate mentioned earlier, was being comfortable with the narration. It had been quite stoic. We were so bothered with just getting it right and now it's stuck into our heads a bit more and it's more vibrant.
KQ: Muscle memory has kicked in and we're comfortable with the facts. Now it's just a case of the audience being comfortable with what we're saying.
To test this, we asked Kate in which year Crisis on Infinite Earths was released. She got it wrong, and a one-upmanship contest ensued. The conversation then turned to some of the more... unusual... rehearsals.
KQ: We did a rehearsal in a coffee shop once.
JA: And I thought: "And this is how the show is meant to run?"
VFTG I would have paid for a site-specific Costa.
KW: We got into a pattern of, rather than performing the show, doing it as if we were talking at a coffee shop.
DF: That wasn't the best moment of a rehearsal. The best moment was very, very recently when we decided to sing one of the rehearsals.
KQ: That was my idea, yeah.
DF: You started going into falsetto and me and Kris picked up on it and went along with it.
KQ: Much to the annoyance of our esteemed director.
ME: I was playing the straight man.
DF: On the plus side, we made our producer crack up.
VFTG: I must say, your esteemed director does seem to get annoyed at a lot of things you do...
KW: We're very annoying!
"Michael. Is. A. Wonderful. Director. And. He. Is. A. Joy. To. Work... With," Kate jokingly added, in a robotic, monotone voice like a child reading an autocue.
The Sigil Club went on to say that they were interested in taking the show to a series of Fringes, such as Manchester. Julian didn't relish the idea of doing Edinburgh - not even if he brought his band, the Tin Can 44s. They had nothing but praise for the Camden Fringe, and the new and diverse audiences they received. As they started the topic, we thought it was a good idea to discuss what lay in store for the Sigil Club members after this short run.
JA: Well, my band, the Tin Can 44s are playing a gig on 22nd December! But in terms of the company, I just want to keep working with Michael, why not?
There's no reason for me to leave and a hell of a lot of reasons for me to stick around. It's always exciting putting yourself through a lot of stress and I'm not going to get that with any other company because they don't do as much crazy s*** as Michael!
ME: I've got a script for you to read...
JA: Oh no!
DF: After this, I don't have any new shows. Just have fun with these shows, then have fun with Christmas. That's as far as I've got. For the audience at home, I'll be back between Christmas and New Year, but I'm working New Year, so I'll see you all... in the New Year... I have no idea why I just did that.
VFTG: It's staying in!
KQ: Well I'll be jetting off to LA... No, next for me, Michael's going to be sending me a script to read, not to be cast, just to see how it reads.
I work very closely with a horror theatre company called Theatre of the Damned and they have a few shows lined up for next year. My track record with them isn't great - I've had my eye stabbed out with a knitting needle, my head plunged into a lathe. But this year, I got to do the killing! But they're a fantastic company and I hope to be working with them and Michael in the near future.
I've also got a feature film hopefully coming out next summer called For Love. An independent feature film, I play the supporting lead and it's set in a sixth form.
JOS: Well I live with Michael, so I'm not going anywhere. We'll keep working away, hopefully take this to Manchester next year. We'll see what the responses are like to the new script.
KW: I go back to being a photographer and wait and hope Mickey isn't so sick of me that he won't send me a script. I tend to do a lot of the promotional photography for the shows, as well as the flyers for the shows. My stuff is at kriswood.co.uk.
ME: Yeah, I think that one of the things that helps us sell the shows is this great looking promotional stuff.
VFTG: So what's this magical script we're hearing about?
ME: We have done four shows in three years. In one of those shows we recast one of the main parts, so it was almost like doing that show again. It's been very busy and I was meant to essentially be taking a year off for new material.
But the last few years have been at the Camden Fringe, and it had to be an hour or less and had lighting you're sharing with everyone else - I just want to get back to doing something over an hour that's completely mine.
It's basically set in the near future in London. The gap between poor and rich is even bigger than it is now, which leads to people becoming highwaymen again. This gang steal something on a train job which isn't what they expected...
In the same way The Threepenny Opera is a recontextualisation of The Beggar's Opera, this show is very similar. It's also self-aware, knowing that it's the third version of this story. It asks: "Why is this story still able to be told as much as it was in the 1700s and when Brecht did it?" It's a Robin Hood figure as well. It'll hopefully work.
With that, we wrapped up. As, annoyingly, did the rugby.
We wish The Sigil Club all the best in their endeavours and if Michael's new piece is anything like Full Stage Splash, it's sure to be excellent.