Sam Brooks caught up with David Ladderman and Lizzie Tollemache, husband and wife creators of circus-magic-sideshow-theatre hybrid Mr. and Mrs Alexander, currently at Wellington’s Circa Theatre as part of the Comedy Festival.
How did you get into circus?
David Ladderman: So, all those years ago at uni which I went to go to learn to be a serious actor, they had a circus minor and the tutors were awesome and they were really encouraging and I just learned to juggle and I just kept absorbing everything they had on offer, because you know, they were really supportive, and like, once they noticed that one or two students were uber keen they gave them lots of extra attention, not rejecting the others, just like, okay if you want more, here’s more, here’s more.
And so, the next thing you knew I was way into it. I was way into unicycle, stilt walking, anything they had. And then inevitably you leave university. So, you’ve got two choices you can wait for the phone to ring or you can go out on to street and make some money. And every town has a fair a fete, a festival, there’s kid’s birthdays. There was just so many more opportunities to work with juggling or stilt walking or even magic or anything and that sort of things than there was waiting for the next gig. So, it wasn’t really a conscious decision, it just sort of happened.
Lizzie Tollemache: And mine was an accident. I was working as a mainstage actor, like, real boring and normal and I got hired to be in this weird arts festival show that was kind of a post-apocalyptic version of Macbeth, by the Loons Circus Theatre company. They needed some actors, not to do any circus, just some regular actors. That was just a couple of months after the quakes in Christchurch.
So, the post-apocalyptic thing ended up being that we were actually performing outside. It was winter, we were performing outside, the audience was covered and we took over this rubble filled corner.
But when we extended one of the performers had to go to Rome to do the Guinness World Record show, and she had been doing the fire eating and this epic fight scene where she’d jump off a roof and stage combat with another actor all the way down the bottom of this gravel slope. So I had 48 hours to learn how to do all those things.
How did you deal with that?
Lizzie: Well, there wasn’t time to think about it. So it was like okay, do it this exact way, this angle with the fire and so on and so forth. And because I was already in the show suddenly it was just happening. And it was like crack, the rush you get from doing a physical, circus based thing was just different to anything else and so I immediately started hassling the other performers in the circus part of the circus company to show me stuff and I’ve just been hassling people to show my things ever since. Before too long I was writing a show with David and getting into all the sideshow that I could.
David: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s not like the two worlds are totally devoid from one another. My first job after leaving university was at a touring Shakespeare company, an outdoor company, and the way they’d keep themselves afloat was doing Shakespeare classics in the evenings, in these gorgeous outdoor venues, venues that suited it. So for example we did The Tempest in a place called Loch Ard Gorge [in Australia], which is the site of a really famous shipwreck.
But the only way we could stay afloat financially was by doing these medicine shows in the town where the local council would put us up. And so we’d advertise our Shakespeare plays by doing these medicine shows, the snake oil kind of thing. Of course, in those days, with the medicine shows you had a barker which was always played by the guy who played Prospero, with the big beard, and then all the rest of us had to be like, German acrobats or jugglers. It took a while for these two worlds to come together and you start to notice that people love it, you know?
And it was a great way to always get yourself employed. It was my way of doing that thing that musos do, how musos have always keep themselves employed, you’re like oh you cunning little devil. It’s just an extra string to your bow that you use.
And how do you actually write this kind of a play, like with the magic and the sideshow element?
Lizzie: I suppose our process is a little bit weird. Dave and I will usually come up with a concept together just by jamming and brainstorming ideas. We’ll settle on a kind of vague idea and then we’ll throw together a lot of quite loose material, say ten pages’ worth.
With this particular one we took it to Mike Friend, who is the director of Mr and Mrs Alexander and the director of what was the Loons Circus Theatre Company and what is now the Lyttelton Arts Factory, and he would, over the course of a day, rip to shreds what we’d done and reduce ten pages to about one page just by being like, “that’s terrible! get rid of that! I don’t believe it, fuck off with that.” He’s like, ruthless, but brilliant…
David: But you can trust him, because when he says it’s worth it…
Lizzie: Yeah, because when he says that that one bit is really good you go, “oh, okay.” And so, that process kind of went on for about three weeks and by the end of it we had a show. But it was definitely developed on the floor, but not devised. It was I guess a kind of semi scripted thing…
David: Yeah, there’s a slight challenge to that. I know writing an actual play must come with a whole world of other challenges that we sort of haven’t had to worry about at this point. But if you’re writing magic-type circus shows…
Lizzie: With acts in them…
David: That’s been our challenge. Taking what lives the the variety world and here’s just a juggling routine.
Lizzie: Yeah, but the thing is no one cares if you’re just like, “Now I’m doing a magic trick. There it is.” There’s nothing to make the audience care about it. But if it serves part of the story, and if it’s part of the narrative or it’s metaphor for something else that happens in the show and you’ve got that hook then it’s great, but then suddenly you have to fit these acts in with a storyline and the extra challenge for us with Mr and Mrs Alexander, because it’s the story of this long con, is that the whole show has to work if you watch it a second time knowing the story and knowing what they eventually do at the end.
So every single thing has to work on both layers, but as well as performing the show and pulling off the acts, the trick, you’re also watching the audience and adapting what you’re saying constantly throughout in order to influence the audience here and there, and keeping an eye out for your volunteers and making sure that those audience-dependent things are working the way you need them to. So the script has to be adaptable constantly every night with the different volunteers.
Wow, how do you do that? How do you even rehearse that?
Lizzie: Oh god, it’s hard! We just brought people into the room, not in the sense of “we’re doing a public season” but we’re continually bringing people into the room and testing.
We have to improvise within a formula, knowing that hitting certain things will achieve a certain result with the audience, but make it natural enough that it just seems like we’re responding in the moment to the audience, while still planting the seeds of things that have to happen later on from a mentalism kind of capacity.
David: And that’s really difficult when a season opens because it’s all theory, but after a show has been done x amount of times, and it does need to be quite a few times, your audience starts to teach you what the difference is. It’s like a choose your own adventure: there’ll be four or five or eight different ways this might go and you’ll start to get tactics for each one.
Lizzie: And we’ve adapted it so many different times and tweaked it so many times. In Canada we did six different cities, so that by the time we finished there had been so many different changes made.
There was the dude in Calgary that in the bit where we have the possum trap, we lay a possum trap in the show, and he just didn’t think that our props were real and he was being a bit of a dick about it up on stage and at the end of that section he was like “hahahahaha” and he put his hand into the possum trap which, you know, is real.
David: And he couldn’t get his hand out.
Lizzie: And he couldn’t get his hand out and he just had this horrible scream that went right across the theatre…
Oh my God!
Lizzie: And so we very quickly, after that incident, put in a bit that emphasised that the possum trap was functional. So, like, all of theses bits, heaps of them have arisen out of real life situations…
David: The bit in the script where I say, “Catherine Alexander, my darling wife, I’m now speaking to you and you alone” came out of an event in Ottawa where Mr. Alexander is putting Mrs. Alexander down [in hypnosis] and the volunteer who was following her pulse was just so susceptible that she started listening to me and then when I put Lizzie’s character down, she just went out, like hypnotised.
Lizzie: Yeah, fully unconscious.
David: Just stood there, relaxed, because if you know a thing about hypnosis, you can’t go under unless you give your permission, you know? And she just went under and so, the next two minutes was like noticing that, bringing her back. We have some experience with hypnosis so it wasn’t too much of an issue and we just brought her back, very calmly, took her to the other side, sat her down… and so yeah, then the show had to evolve again after that.
Lizzie: And it happened accidentally, although we’ve had audience members…
David: Just in Dunedin, just two weeks ago…
Lizzie: …we have had audience members who during that section start to feel themselves dropping off…
David: But it’s only a very small portion.
Lizzie: Yeah, it takes a certain type of person.
So how do you structure a show, like with the acts and with the story?
David: With Mr and Mrs Alexander we knew we wanted to write a story about two 19th Century mind reader con artists and then we did research on what type of routines were being done by 19th Century con artists and then we kinda tried to seed together, separate from the magic world, [the question] what would Agatha Christie do with this?
And then, once we had sketched out way more than we needed, we started taking it to Mike, and then he’s shredding it and cutting it, cutting back and cutting it back. With the kid’s show The Messy Magic Adventure we just wanted to write the messiest, craziest thing that our six year old brains wanted to see. And with our ghost story show we just wanted to write a seance, you know, how on earth could you get a modern audience to do a seance together? So it starts with seeds and concepts and then you try and find stories and a way in.
Lizzie: And by now we’ve kind of got a catalogue of side show, circus, magic and mind reading skills and tricks that we can pull from when creating a show, and then sometimes the show will need something that we don’t know how to do yet and then it’s just spending a few months being like a nerdy teenage boy alone in our house going over and over and over and over again, and training up new skills.
How do you actually learn those skills?
Lizzie: Secret library.
David: Secret libraries, it’s like any field of interest.
Lizzie: Well, but a bit more paranoid.
David: Yeah, I mean obviously you can find out, in the 21st Century there’s more access to this stuff than ever there was because of…
Lizzie: Yeah, there are people who are doing magician exposes and debunking things all the time.
Those people are monsters!
David: Absolutely. But what we generally like to do is just buy the old books that are almost out of circulation.
Lizzie: A lot of them are…
David: And that are just sort of being cycled amongst the crotchety old dudes.
Lizzie: It’s like a black market of old-school secret magic books, and a lot of them you can only access by knowing the old fellas who’ve still got the original copies.
That is amazing.
David: Some of them aren’t that nice, Sam! And some of them really are! If you stick around long enough then you’re kind of invited into the world and then you can get access to stuff that is a bit beyond what you already have.
Lizzie: There’s also this industry where magicians will sell other magicians certain techniques or certain traditions…
Lizzie: Yeah, so if you belong to certain areas of the internet you can find magicians that are willing to sell you an idea or a concept or a technique and you can buy the method and then use that method to create your own acts, or you have a catalogue of books or of secrets or techniques that you’ve bought and you can combine a few of them together to create a new effect, a new illusion.
David: Yeah, but separate from the commercial world, when we were on tour with this show, Mr and Mrs Alexander, in Canada, there were like, five magicians in town in Vancouver Island and we were all doing shows there and they all came as a gaggle to watch this show…
Lizzie: And then we spent an entire day all sitting down jamming and brainstorming on the magic parts of the show.
David: Yeah, so one or two acts now are much tighter and nicer than they were before hand because of a few magicians going, “I really think it’s an awesome concept but what we need is to make it more immediate or more instant,” and so it was kinda just a fun outing of geeks just trying to help each other out.
So, what is the audience’s reaction to Mr and Mrs Alexander been like?
Lizzie: It varies drastically! At the start we were really nervous with this show, especially taking it to places like the UK where there’s such a wealth of not only magicians, but huge big budget shows all over the place and we were worried if there would be an interest in it at all, because we’ve got that cultural cringe of like “Oh my god, surely a story from here can’t be worth anything overseas!” That terrible thing that we all do. So there was the nerves of that and then there were the nerves of like, this is a show where all of the magic and the effects are lo-fi.
So can you show a modern audience who are used to seeing enormous, big budget effect on a screen, can you interest them and show them something that is lo-fi and real in front of them and will they care? And all the things that we were worried about ended up working in our favour. People who’ve only ever seen flash digital effect or 3D things at the movies… when there’s an actual human in front of them doing something with some everyday object, like pieces of fruit, or cutlery or a hammer and a nail, it’s so tangible and immediate that I think, in a way, these modern audiences react better than what they would have done a couple of decades ago.
Because we’re not used to seeing real things change in front of us anymore, we’ve sort of separated the magical world into a world of screen and digital device stuff which is wonderful but it means that the contrast is so dramatic.
David: Yeah, I absolutely concur with all of that. I think the power of this show comes from it being so uber lo-fi.
Lizzie: And so people can’t explain how we’re doing these things because all of their knowledge around the fantastical is based on electronics.
David: Yeah, there’s no secret cabinets, no trap door or mirrors.
Lizzie: And then also older people get quite excited about it often because it’s the kind of stuff that they remember from when they were kids.
David: Yeah, sometime the older generation are like, “ah I haven’t seen anything like that since the carnivals used to come through town when I was twelve!” which is great because it means that we actually have hit the kind of thing that we were looking towards.
Lizzie: What you often find is that there are a lot of involuntary noises. People will kind of gas or go “Jesus!” or make some kind of bizarre noise and then realise what they’ve done and then laugh at themselves, and so there’s a lot of beautiful energy that often happens with it where people are not only surprised and delighted by what happens on stage but also by their own reactions.
And we also find that people come to it who are not theatre people, who don’t go and watch plays, because there’s tricks and there’s comedy. So they almost end up experiencing…it’s like stealth theatre.
We slip a bit of theatre in while they’re not looking! Spring a story on them!
You can book tickets to Mr and Mrs Alexander here. (Wellington only)