Derby Theatre Two cast Sean McKenzie and Jo Mousley talk acting to East Midlands Theatre. (interview)

East Midlands Theatre popped over to Derby today to chat to the two actors soon to be appearing in Derby Theatre’s main play for Spring 2018 – Two by Jim Cartwright. After observing a key rehearsal period of the play EMT’s Phil Lowe and Kathryn McAuley settled down to interview actors Sean McKenzie and Jo Mousley about their challenging experiences playing fourteen roles between them in this tragic-comic piece of theatre.

Phil Lowe: Hi there Jo and Sean, what we are interested in today is hearing about your actor experiences and getting to grips with portraying fourteen characters in one play. I am interested to ask if the human politics driven by the characters within the play are still as relevant as when Jim Cartwright wrote them in 1989.

Sean McKenzie. I suppose that the universal theme of the play is about love and that always stands the test of time doesn’t it? It’s about relationships and its about different versions of love within those relationships. Or non-love or affairs or jealousy. Quite a significant part of the play is best not to talk about – the final denouement – but that aspect is a huge part of the Landlord and Landlady relationship. We can’t reveal too much about that!

Phil Lowe: Does that link in to how the audience perceive the unfolding journey of the play?

Jo Mousley: Yeah, the more we dug into it – the more we got out of it. Two is a very popular play because of its duologues and monologues particularly with young drama students. I first started studying drama as a teenager and loved Jim Cartwright’s plays of the time. When you read Jim Cartwright’s plays like Road and Two you can go ‘This is an old lady so I can play this archetype or I can pay the woman who is maybe being a bit more controlled by her husband.’ They seem on first reading very archetypal but the more we are digging deeper into it we are discovering that where he’s putting these characters, between the grand arch of the story of the Landlord and Landlady, is so specific on what the play is saying. It is about love but it is also about what being human is – what being alive is.

We have people at the end of their lives looking back and seeing what love they had. The older characters are sandwiched between young love and how lovely that is. Meanwhile you are getting this bickering Landlord and Landlady. It’s complicated and you are not sure where that’s going. In act two it kinda gets darker and you think you might see a couple on a first date and that turns into something quite different. The love gets more complicated as you go through the play.

Until we did this ‘digging’ work into it I never realised what an absolute genius Jim Cartwright is on human behaviour. It’s incredible because you can play it on the surface but if you really ask all of those questions that we’ve been asking in rehearsals like ‘Why is she coming in now, where is she coming from? What was their relationship like before? You get so much more. Essentially we are only seeing snapshots of the customers (who we play between us) and the only relationship you see until the very end is the Landlord and Landlady. You get that pay off sure but you have to make everything else up in-between. My head’s very full right now! (laughs).

Phil Lowe: Actors often talk about objectives and obstacles within the story they are portraying and reacting and there is also a practice I have been reading about called actioning. Some practitioners really go for it and others find the idea a lot of hard work and aren’t sure of its value in expressing character and text. Do you both find this practice beneficial? *

Sean McKenzie: Sometimes when you get stuck it can help you. You can action all the time if you want but you don’t always need to. If you intrinsically or instinctively know what it is you need to say/do some actors just go with that and build on that in their own way. As well as our objectives and obstacles, as Jo was just saying, there is so much more in the scenes than you first realise in many many respects. That can be tricky – that can be really really tricky. Interestingly too, going against the lines can release things. Not playing it as it first appears. Of course other times it is simply what it is on the page as well. Actioning can definitely help sometimes.

Jo Mousley: I did a bit of actioning before I came to rehearsals only on a couple of scenes, as an exercise. I was really familiar with the script but I don’t think you can make your mind up until you properly know what each other are doing. And I’ve looked back on the actions that I did originally and they have completely changed. Plus, unlocking what the character is and playing the opposite makes the audience work harder because otherwise they can disengage. It’s best for them to go ‘ What’s she about? Why is she…?’ It’s really interesting playing with actions and I wish we had another week to play a bit deeper.

Kathryn McAuley: The thing that struck me most is that he could have written this for fourteen actors and he clearly chose not to. I don’t have any background as to why he chose to do that. I just wondered from an actor’s point of view – what do you think that brings to it: the fact that you have to do all those characters. Does it bring more to the play?

Sean McKenzie: It’s like, you couldn’t film this show because it wouldn’t work. It’s because of the theatrical nature of it. There’s something beautiful about Two’s theatricality and you can only do this in a theatre environment. In the original production everything was more or less invisible. There were maybe a few props here and there and not that much costume neither. But we are doing a very different version. I think what is interesting about the version we are going to do is we’re are gonna kinda mix both worlds of that. Sometimes there will be real customers with real glasses and real money and other times there will be invisible glasses, invisible customers, invisible money. We are drawing the audience into that world of what’s real and what’s not real – what can we see with our imagination – what can’t we see. I think there is something really nice about that. If you get into huge costume changes people know its you anyway. I think there’s something lovely about the swiftness of this show. Jo’s got a really quick change or two and so have I. These will be done all without dressers and I believe that’s all part of the theatricality of it. The audience love that aspect of telling the story. The skill and suprise.

Jo Mousely: I genuinely think he wrote it as a writer with total respect to actors. He’s done it as an ode to actors and a personal heartfelt ‘Look at what actors can do, look.’

Kathryn McAuley: From what you were saying about the characters, what it seems is that they are theatrically informing the key figures of the Landlord and Landlady to progress the story.

Jo Mousley: There are scenes which are quite light which switch to scenes that are painful. We’ve been asking ourselves as actors how it feels to go from the lighter scene to something much more emotional and hard hitting. It’s a different energy completely. At this moment in rehearsals its terrifying but you know, later on it will become normal. It will hopefully make me a better actor and the biggest challenge I could ever ask for. I will try and do it justice.

Written by Phil Lowe

Photo credit: Robert Day.

*Definition of Actioning: Basing everything that you do as an actor on the meaning of the words. In another way you are deciding what the action is, based on your understanding of what you feel the lines of the script mean. But we are not the words that we speak but the intention behind them so transitive verbs are used to test a line for fresher interpretations.

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