Interview: Rick Bland

Most writers and actors would claim personal investment in the projects they undertake. But few could do so with the same legitimacy as Rick Bland, whose first stab at play-writing, dark comedy Thick, almost bankrupted him when the Arts Council refused to fund an eight-week tour of the USA in 2005.

But Bland, his credit cards and the show survived to fight another day. Following its successful premiere at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it has won glowing critical acclaim in New York and, most recently, the 2010 Brighton Fringe. And now London audiences will get to see it and Bland – as main character Rudolph – at the New Diorama, from 13 September to 1 October.

Since graduating from drama school in Canada 20 years ago, Bland’s career has included a lengthy stint with the Reduced Shakespeare Company and originating the role of Jerry Springer in Jerry Springer the Opera, at the Battersea Arts Centre and the Edinburgh Fringe. He has also starred in Generous, at the Finborough Theatre, and recently completed his second play, Full of Bees. As well as acting and writing, he works as an animation producer at award-winning studio Tandem.
One week before the end of rehearsals, I spoke with Bland about his excitement at bringing Thick to London, how a play changes through performance, the importance of comedy and his dislike of celebrity casting in the West End.

What was the inspiration for Thick?
When I was 13 years old I was a competitive swimmer in a small town in Canada. Every day, for a year, I was driven to practice by this incredibly lovely Catholic nurse, who also took her daughter. Six years later, my mother rang me to tell me that this woman had done something terrible. I was fascinated because she was treated in the papers as a horrifically evil human being and I had known her and thought she was really nice! If she did something absolutely monstrous, did that make her a monster? Or was it a lot more complicated than that? Ultimately, Thick explores this question with a female character who is fully fleshed out and complicated and who is a product of a time when women had less rights and possibilities than they have now.

Has Thick evolved over time?
Yes. When you go back to a show, you know immediately that there are things that you want to change. You start to fill in the gaps in the original journey. The play started off as a monologue, but when I did a reading everyone said that it was bigger than that – so I made it into a two-hander where I played two main characters and a friend of mine from drama school played everyone else. When we did it in Brighton we decided that we wanted four people, so we added a whole new scene. The mother, father, brother and sister have quite an odd relationship so I thought it was important to see them in the same room, together and loving. It made a world of difference; it gave the play more depth. It also meant that the role of the mother – a powerful, brilliant, strange and sick character – was played by a woman. Although my friend had done it brilliantly, I was thrilled to be able to do that, because women need good, meaty parts! Even in this version, there are small changes.

We’re also adapting the set. It was originally designed by Phil Eddolls, a brilliant designer who I worked with as part of Improbable Theatre Company. He did something very basic for me: a backdrop, like a child’s drawing, of Toronto and an on-stage house. Basically, now we’re trying to renovate it! We’re looking to raise its property value. If the show were to continue I’d invest money in updating the backdrop. It was supposed just to do Edinburgh, in 2003, and now it’s travelled more than most Americans.

Throughout your career you’ve taken jobs that involve playing multiple roles. Why is that?
Recently, I did a show at the Finborough where that wasn’t the case, and it was really nice to be able to sit down! When you start as an actor and you go to drama school, you have dreams of what you want to be. Then you graduate and, while you can push certain things, your career just happens to you. I just ended up in shows where I was on stage from beginning to end, over and over again. In part, it was because of the Reduced Shakespeare Company: there were only three of us and we used to run around like idiots, playing a billion different characters.

When you were with the Reduced Shakespeare Company, did you ever forget who you were playing?
I never forgot who I was playing, but I’ve definitely forgotten my lines and had to make something up. God, it was crazy. Ultimately, a lot of that show consisted of a billion mistakes that happened along the way; and every so often, one of those mistakes would be a gem and become part of the fabric of the show. It must be very frustrating to be a filmmaker: once you’ve made a film it’s done. I know a lot of animators and all they see are the mistakes in something they’ve made, even though you may think it’s brilliant. With live theatre, you have the joy and privilege of being able to make it better and hone it constantly. Thick has been through that: the audience’s reaction has helped to make it stronger each time it’s come out.

Why is now a good time to stage Thick again?
Although I thought it might be quite timeless, I wasn’t really sure until we did it in Brighton last year. And I was shocked to discover that it might be even more relevant: the issues of racism, abuse and alcoholism, they show up in life at all points. I live in Tottenham right now and, after the riots… while there’s nothing explicitly about rioting, the play touches upon the terrible consequences that so-called gentle racism can trigger. But at the same time, it’s funny!

Comedy has been a constant in your career, particularly dark comedy. What’s the appeal?
They go so hand in hand. I don’t know if it’s because of my upbringing (my family is evil and hilarious) but I just find humour to be very truthful. When I was frustrated as a kid, I would turn it into something positive and funny, and make people laugh. And I really love movies or shows that reflect the world that I see. I’m fascinated by the dark side of life; and I know from my childhood that behind beautiful closed doors weird things happen. People can be so nice and then so horrible. Writing comedy is almost therapeutic in that regard. There’s this evil old lady in the show, who swears like mad, who’s based on a woman I asked for directions on a street in Toronto. She said: ‘leave me alone, I’m in a f**king hurry’. She was just so rude that I replied, ‘you don’t look like you’re in a hurry, you old bag.’ And she dropped her things and started to chase me down the street! That kind of anger and rage, as much as it’s horrible, is also hilarious. A lot of the world is like that: the raging craziness of the Underground, for example. That thing of being incredibly, passionately furious about something and then realising how small it is – there’s something between those two states that can be really funny. It can flip so easy.

That applies to small-town anywhere; but a lot of your work – like Generous, at the Finborough – has adopted that approach to the big issues, too. 
I have a lot of opinions about a lot of things, which I try to work out by using humour. You can be socially aware and so up your own arse that no one will listen to you, because you’re so serious. But with humour, so much more is possible. Someone like Bill Hicks was so political and yet so funny. When my Dad died we were heartbroken, but we ended up laughing hysterically and then crying two seconds later. I enjoy bringing that sensation to my work.

What are the challenges of acting and writing? Has doing both altered your approach to either?
At the start of my career, I had zero interest in writing. Well, maybe not zero interest, but I never thought that I wanted to be a writer. I was really hyper and energetic, so the idea of sitting still for a long period of time was unbearable. But then I left drama school and discovered through acting that I was good at coming up with ideas and helping people to develop work – which left me wondering if I should try it myself. I can be quite opinionated about what I like and don’t like; so I thought I’d challenge myself. At the time, I was in the West End and didn’t have to be at the theatre until 7pm. I was free every day, so I started playing with the idea of writing. I didn’t really know where it would go, but ultimately it led to Thick. Now, I utterly love it. It’s like exercise – I feel healthier when I write. But I’d never have started if I hadn’t been acting in the first place.

What role do you think theatre should have in the world?
Even if I don’t enjoy something I see, what I do like is that there are a million people in this world with a million different ways of expressing how they perceive it; whether that’s through physical theatre, animation, film or art. I love theatre that says something about our time. It doesn’t necessarily have to be of our time; sometimes, I worry that plays that comment immediately date pretty quickly. When I was writing Thick or Holy Worship, which I’m still working on, things I was reading in the newspaper would somehow find their way in. The world is complicated, and weird, and theatre should explore that, but without giving definitive answers.

Do you feel that this is what Thick does?
Some people love it – and I mean passionately. I’ve been told some of the nicest things in the world. I’ve also had someone who just didn’t understand it at all, hated it and wasn’t afraid to tell me. I’m happy for all of those reactions, to be honest. It’s an interesting play in terms of who it affects, and why. To begin with, I thought that it was for quite young people. But over the years, I’ve learned that old people have a real love for it. I don’t want to sound like a wanker, but I think that’s because there’s a bit of life experience in it. However, teenagers love it, too. When we did it in Croydon, they’d tut like it was talk show, like it was Jerry Springer, every time the mother said something racist. And when the horrible thing happens at the end, their gasp was so big that they almost inhaled us. We almost got sucked into a bunch of teenagers’ mouths!

You’ve worked both on- and off-West End, as well as in North America. What’s your view on the state of British theatre at the moment?
I’m here because there’s nothing better than British theatre in the whole world. For example, my recent experience at the Finborough was brilliant: I met these incredibly inspiring young kids who love theatre, who are all out there producing and making shows now. The West End does some great stuff but, personally, I think it’s a shame that putting star names and movie stars into shows has become so huge. Some people may disagree with me, but I think that’s become more the case since I’ve been here. I was replaced in Jerry Springer for star reasons and that was fine: I moved on and did Thick. It was disappointing, and I didn’t think it was necessary, but if I were putting in the money perhaps I’d have felt different. I still put it on my flyers and posters because I did it, and did it proud. I was very happy to have done it in Edinburgh and really felt that I’d nailed it there.

However, I’ve seen some understudy runs of shows and they’re just brilliant – as good as the actual show or, sometimes, the performances are better. But because these actors aren’t stars, they don’t always get recognized. In the world of theatre, just doing a really good job doesn’t always matter. This is a a fact that I accepted a long time ago but I still marvel at sometimes. If, say, you’re, a really good animator, in general you get to go further and further ahead. Generally, if you are good at something you will reap the rewards. But theatre has a weird quality that means that being good might not be enough. If your show is up for transfer to the West End, the producers will come in and almost certainly change the cast – because they’re taking a risk and they have the right to do that. Do I think it’s a shame that the goodness that got the show recognised is lost along the way? Yes, but that’s been going on for ages. You have to f**king deal with it.. One of the main themes in Thick is that you have to move on; life keeps moving whether you do or not.

Is there an actor that you particularly respect? 
I’m dying to see Jerusalem, because Mark Rylance is in it. He’s like God to me; he’s a proper theatre star. I was too busy to go the first time around, so I bought my bloody ticket the moment I heard the play was on again, because any time I see him on stage, I think: “Ah, so that’s what an actor is.”

What’s up next?
This studio is great because they allow me to do this job and theatre at the same time. The director is a choreographer and if the Arts Council says yes, I’ll have five months of touring with him next year. I’m also working on another show, which I’ve submitted to a couple of play competitions. I’m really looking forward to writing something new as well. Although I’d never again make the mad investment that I did in Thick, I’d never undo it. I almost lost my house at one point, but I got through it with my huge commitment to the play. It sent me on such an amazing trip: I didn’t know I could write and I’ve learned so much by playing Rudolph. The play has the potential to have a great life. But it hasn’t been helped by anyone yet, so I’m working my butt off with this run, to get people in the business to see it.

Thick is at the New Diorama from 13 September to 1 October. For further information and tickets, please see:

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