Interview: RoAm Productions and Madison Theatre Company

Monday 31 May will see the London premiere of American playwright Neil Simon’s celebrated comedy, Rumours, at the Hen and

(Left to right) Charlotte McClimens, Amy Ellen Burnett, Claire Lyons, Roxaneh Renton

Chickens Theatre, Islington.

Directed by Rob Watt, Rumours (first performed in 1984) is a heady concoction of farce and social comment that looks at the lengths to which high-profile people will go to conceal the truth of their private lives from the prying eyes of the media and a gossip-hungry public.

The production also marks the debut association of two of the most exciting theatre companies to have emerged in recent times: RoAm Productions and Madison Theatre Company.

RoAm Productions was founded in early 2011 by Roxaneh Renton and Amy Ellen Burnett, while Claire Lyons and Charlotte McClimens started Madison Theatre Company in early 2010. Friends from their days as students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, the four have taken on the challenge of acting in as well as producing Rumours.

Two weeks before opening night, over a round of apple juice-and-sodas in the Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar, Renton, Burnett, Lyons and McClimens revealed to Tom Wicker why they chose to put on Rumours, the frustrations and joys of re-entering the UK acting scene and just how depressing they find King Lear.

Tom Wicker: So what made Rumours the perfect play to collaborate on?

Roxaneh Renton: Well, we all went to drama school together in New York, so we wanted a show that had a connection with there. And we all love Neil Simon. He’s hilarious. But we didn’t want a cast doing terrible fake American accents. What’s unique about this play is that it’s an English version of the American original, written by Simon himself. It’s also the London premiere. But, mainly, we chose it because it’s bloody funny. We didn’t want to do something too edgy for our first production together. We wanted it to be pure entertainment.

Amy Ellen Burnett: It also has four really good female parts. We wanted to work together and we found it quite difficult to find a play that we liked which offered that. And, actually, it works better as a play about England. The class stuff is more heightened.

TW: The right to privacy is big news at the moment. Do you think Rumours has something to say about today?

RR: Yes. More than anything, it’s about gossip and how misleading it is. One of the characters is a politician and the rumours surrounding his life could destroy his career. And you never really know if they’re based on fact. That’s the point. I mean, look at Jemima Khan: she’s had to deny having an affair with Jeremy Clarkson. This play is relevant today and would have been a hundred years ago, too. The more exciting the story the less important the truth is.

TW:You’re all acting in the play. Were you tough with yourselves when it came to assigning roles?

AEB: It wasn’t up to us. We auditioned. Luckily, though, we all got what we wanted, so it worked out really well!

RR: Our director, Rob Watt, is amazing and we really love and trust him implicitly. We’re so lucky to be working with him. He’s fantastic and has recently been appointed Youth Coordinator at the National Theatre. He really epitomises the expression “up-and-coming”.

TW: Why did you choose to produce the play at the Hen & Chickens Theatre?

Charlotte McClimens: We just loved it. It’s a really neat venue and a great space and it has a great relationship with the bar, which can be unique. We’ve been to some places where, when we’ve asked if we can go upstairs, we’ve been greeted with: “Well, it’s nothing to do with me.” Some bars seem quite threatened by having a theatre above them. But that’s the great thing about the fringe: the theatre above a pub. Even if people aren’t that keen on seeing a show, they can be coaxed into it with a pint!

RR: Basically, it ticked every single box, from the space to the management. I was surprised when we were doing our research by how many rules other venues have in terms of what shows they’ll put on. Once you cross those off the list, there aren’t many quality places left. So we’ve been extremely lucky with Hen and Chickens.

TW:What made you decide to start RoAm Productions and Madison Theatre Company?

Claire Lyons: Charlie and I had moved to London and were having difficulty finding good work that we really wanted to do and that would give us a spotlight as actors. So, a year ago, we decided to create Madison Theatre Company. We thought we could do it ourselves – just as Amy and Roxaneh have done with RoAm Productions. Years ago, I would never have thought about doing this. I’d have thought that it was too complicated. But you just learn as you go, and we’ve learnt so much.

RR: I don’t know why we didn’t do it sooner, frankly. I’m quite annoyed with myself!

AEB: Obviously, you’ve got a lot to lose. If you balls it up and it’s absolutely dreadful, you’ve got to face it. That’s you; that’s not someone not casting you because you’re the wrong height or weight. But if the risk is greater, so is the satisfaction. We’re all working 9am-5pm, we’re all producing and we’re all in the play; but I haven’t felt more awake in a long time!

TW: Have the recent ACE cuts had any impact on you?

CL: They haven’t affected us because we only started Madison last year and funded the two shows we did ourselves, which we’re still paying off. We did look into local funding but there’s such a lot of red tape; it really was swings and roundabouts. And there’s so much other stuff to do to produce a show.

CM: We tried to get corporate funding for our shows last year and approached loads of drinks companies about one of them. I managed to speak to a few and they all said that their budget for that had been cut and that if they do give out money, it’s to massive companies or organisations.

RR: If it’s film, they’re more interested; even if it goes straight to DVD. Bankers and wealthy individuals just don’t think there’s any money in theatre. Instead, what we’ve found is that when you reach out to people like actors and directors, people who love what they do, well, they can’t give you any money but they will give you their time.

AEB: And that’s true of off-West End theatre in general. There’s amazing passion and such community.

TW: You’ve all returned to the UK from America fairly recently. As actors, have you noticed any significant differences between there and here?

RR: I think theatre here is better, but I’d say that it’s easier to get an audition in New York. I went for a part on the West End, and it was the most exciting thing, but when I walked in they were like: “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, we thought you were American because you went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts”. And that was that.

AEB: None of us got to do a good London showcase. So when you come back here you’re trying to get agents to see you in anything that you can get your hands on.

RR: You’re a highly trained actor, but with no network. So you have to work your arse off to get into Equity as well.

CL: There’s a lot of off-off-off Broadway stuff in New York. You can probably go for three auditions a week. We all lived there for a year after we finished drama school and we auditioned regularly.

CM:And you don’t need an agent. There are open auditions. In New York, an agent will find you.

RR: But there was no drop in quality. They’re very hardcore and businesslike. During our training, we were taught that you need to go out and market yourself.

AEB: All American actors have websites and cards. It really is a business. I prefer living in London as an actor; I don’t like that “business card and website” mentality.

RR: I prefer it to be less corporate, too. I love the community feel here, the relationships between the theatres. They all know each other.

CM: But the American approach does make you much tougher and more proactive. You learn that you have to make it happen. I mean, you can wait for the work to come to you and nothing will happen. We all have that in common. We were ready to do it ourselves.

TW: So, how do you get through the tough times?

CL: We call each other!

RR: By not looking at Facebook friends in Los Angeles who have just got jobs.

AEB: Don’t look at actors’ updates, because 99.9% of the time they’ll be rubbish. “Oh my God, I’ve just had a really great audition, but I can’t say who it was with.” Whether it’s true or not, the comparison can only lead to unhappiness.

CM: By going to the theatre. We went to the National the other week and saw London Road. It was amazing. Shows like that just wake you up again.

RR: I saw Derek Jacobi in King Lear, which was brilliant in every capacity. But, by God, it’s a depressing play. Who wants to feel suicidal after three hours?

CL: The opposite of our play.

AEB: Or is it?

TW: So, what do you hope audiences will get out of seeing Rumours?

CL: A great big laugh.

CM: I think they’ll look at themselves as well – either to reassure themselves that they’re nothing like those horrible people or to recognise aspects of themselves.

AEB: Hopefully, it’ll inspire people to do their own thing, whether they’re actors or not. We’ve managed to do something that we really love. I don’t know how, but we have!

For tickets and booking information, see:

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