Making and Performing Comedic Work with Dave Hearn from Mischief Theatre
In this episode of the Spotlight Podcast, we speak to Dave Hearn, actor and co-founder of Olivier Award winning theatre company, Mischief Theatre.
We discuss Dave's journey with Mischief Theatre, from the early days of performing in rooms above pubs, right through to the West End transfers and TV commissions that followed.
54 minute listen or a full transcript of the episode can be found below.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Hello and welcome to the Spotlight Podcast. My name is Ilayda Arden. I work at Spotlight, and in today's episode I'm going to be chatting to Dave Hearn. Dave is an actor and co-founder of Olivier Award winning theatre company, Mischief Theatre, who you might know from their smash hits, The Play That Goes Wrong, The Play About a Bank Robbery and now, The Goes Wrong Show on the BBC. We will be discussing Dave's journey with Mischief Theatre, from the early days of performing in rooms above pubs, right through to the West End transfers and TV commissions that followed. We'll also chat about the teething pains of trying to make your own work as a performer, and how Dave kept going when he thought about giving it all up.
Dave also gives some insight into how doing some improv could help with all aspects of an actor's performance. It's a humorous deep dive into the world of making your own work and intricacies of comedy performance, so I hope you enjoy it. Dave, Hello, thank you for coming and chatting to me.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yes. Hello. So you would have just done your intro then, wouldn't you? To me?
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yes, I would have just done your intro.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Which you haven't written yet. So anyone listening, that was lying. It's not happening now, that was recorded afterwards the intro.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: It is the mastery of production. So, let's talk about Mischief Theatre and Dave Hearn and all of that. In case anybody is not yet familiar with the story of Mischief Theatre, would you mind giving us a little walkthrough of your journey of where you started, how you were involved, et cetera, et cetera, and how you got to be where you are today?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: A little kind of snapshot?
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Sure.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre:: So, lots of us went to the foundation course in London 2007. And then in 2008, we formed the company under a different name which subsequently we changed because it was a bad name. And then we were doing lots of improv shows and stuff mainly. We would go to Edinburgh every year and do improv shows
and we started doing improv shows in London whilst we all went to our various three year courses on various different drama schools. And yeah, we were an improv company for about five, six years maybe doing the fringe circuit but we always tried to just make enough money to go back to Edinburgh. And then we wrote a very short 50 minute play called, The Murder Before Christmas which later became, The Play That Goes Wrong.
And that built once Kenny Wax and Mark Bentley can see the show and we then took it on tour and went to the West End and then Broadway and other shows developed from that. We have five or six other shows in the West End and on tour and stuff. And then we moved into TV and started doing a lot more stuff for the BBC and we keep going from there. So, that's the super short version and that's how we built up from a tiny little room above a pub to now.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah. That's amazing.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Black Out goes in.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: And this journey from a teeny tiny rooms above pubs to Edinburgh to West End, to Broadway to TV. I mean, emotionally, how was it?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: It was kind of strange, really. It was sort of like each progression, I think when people hear the story, they like to believe it's this fairy tale rocket to the top. But actually it took many, many years. Like I said, those five, six years before The Play That Goes Wrong of just working together. I've known Henry Louis now, who's the artistic director, for nearly 14 years. And so it's crazy to think that he's one of my oldest friends, the people that I've known the longest and the most. And so when we started getting more and more successful in that sense of the word, it felt like the next logical progression, if that makes sense. But there's just a big leap where you need some luck, I think.
So, I think for me, the first time we opened The Play That Goes Wrong on tour was in Canterbury, and that's 1200 seats maybe? The most we performed to was about 200 people, 250. And also, you take The Play That Goes Wrong the first time we ever did in the Old Red Lion, we performed to 12 people. And it was at push of 50 seater venue and then we opened to Canterbury to a completely full house of 1200 people. So it was
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: A huge jump.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: ... It's a crazy, crazy jump.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: And also as well, we did the old Red Lion then we got asked to come back and do another run, then we got transferred to Trap Studios, then we got asked to extend that run and extend it again. Then we went to Edinburgh and then that's just how most theatre companies would have just carried on. All the while you've just got to hope someone comes in, and that's where Kenny and Mark came in. And you're talking a leap of tens of thousands of pounds, if not more, to take those shows towards the West End. Just money that a new theatre company doesn't have. And so that emotional jump, you have these weird way points where you go, "Oh, wow, there's somebody building the set, it's not me anymore."
It's not me and Ken that happened to fix stuff. It's not Nancy having to paint stuff. It's not me and Rob Falconer having to rake 12 lights and me trying to remember my BTech technical theatre course of how to hang a light. There's a guy whose job it is to do that. Having costume designers, having wardrobe and having a dressing room. Crazy things that now are the staple for a theatre show but being paid to do it. We couldn't afford to pay ourselves and so when those things start happening, you are like, "What? Okay. Yeah."
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: You want to give me money?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: You want to give me money for that? And then someone comes in, it's just like, "Yeah, just hang your costumes up. Any kind of laundry just chuck in here." And you're like, "Yeah. Okay, I don't have to do it?" "No, no, no. Someone will do that for you." And so, "Okay, thanks very much." And then you come in every day and your costume is just hanging on the rail. It's all ironed, it's all clean. It's not still wet from the day before because you haven't had time to dry it because if you get help, you also don't have to take the set down of the every show and put it on the roof which is what we had to do at The Old Red Lions.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yes.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: And cover it in tarpaulin because it was winter and we worried that it would get rained on. And so we had to do a get in and get out every day and you don't do that anymore. So yeah, there's those kind of crazy small things that really, really stick with you. And now we're just a bunch of divas, do you know what I mean? We expect so much.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: I'm sure you're very down to earth still.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: We try.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Okay, so I've picked up two things. The first is, what was the old name that you said wasn't very good?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: So, the company originally was called the Scat Pack, right?
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Okay.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Which stick with me now. I will absolve myself of all responsibility because I didn't want to be called that but it was done by some of the guys. Scat is from improvisational jazz.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yes.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: But it's also faecal pornography.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: It is, isn't it?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah. And so occasionally, we were just stung by this name. People would just be like, "And next up we have... Okay, the Scat Pack." And we were just like, "No. We've got to change it." And so, we'd written a few other sketches that were a bit more edgy and a bit more offensive and not our usual traditional family friendly style. And we kind of came up with this name for this sketch, we called 'The Despicable's' which we quite liked as a name but obviously, as a company, we're not despicable. You know what I mean? So we sat around the table one night and we were coming up with loads and loads of different names. Loads of cool, young people, theatre names. And then I think someone literally picked up a thesaurus and went through the word despicable and one of the synonyms was mischievous. And so we were like, "Mischief is a really good..." We cause mischief, we create mischief. Mischief is fun, mischief isn't like, "Oh, that's despicable." That's a bunch of silly people trying to mess around and so that's how it came from there.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Mischief is definitely more palatable than despicable which definitely ties into where you've ended up in this very rounded, family friendly genre I suppose. But I really like that. I like the idea that you guys had something and you kind of realised it wasn't working and you were willing to go with the change, rather than kind of, "No, this is who we are. We are not compromising on Scat Pack or whatever it was." Well, it's a lesson that I think a lot of early career, either actors or artists or something like that, it's something that they struggle with where they want to be flexible but they also want to stick to their guns in terms of principle and I think it's a really nice lesson that you're revealing. We were willing to see the flaws in something that was early and beloved.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah. You've got to shift with it. And I think, at the time, you expand into the world that is available. And so at the time, we were like, "We've got this following of people and we've been doing Edinburgh for five, six years and people knew who we were and if we change the name, is it going to confuse people?" I'd say, now, if we change the name, it might be a bit difficult but actually the impact that it had on the industry was minimal. And so you just go, "Okay. This one thing." It's not a huge problem, the name wasn't a huge problem but it was something that was causing a problem.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah, I think that's a really good thing to bear in mind when people are starting out. I used to have my own theatre company and we used to go round and round in circles about whether we should change our name or not. We ended up not and probably to our detriment.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Sure. What was it called?
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: It was called Block Stop. They won't mind me sharing it, we are no longer. But yeah, a lot of people would be like, "Is it Lock Stock?" It popped in the all the wrong ways, I suppose. And it's a lesson that I think we should have taken with us in the early days. Okay, and the other thing that I picked up on was the BTech in stage lighting. Let's talk a little bit about your background and about the training or the lack of training that you might have had in areas that you suddenly found yourself being like, "Oh, my God, I have to do this?" How do you think some of that informed other areas? What informed what, let's say?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: What informed what? So I think when we got to choose our GCSE, I swapped at last minute, IT for drama and it was because I was quite shy kid and at that stage, I was going through a transition that I wanted to hang out with the cool kids. And I started playing rugby and I started going drinking in parks and talking to girls and figuring out where I was in the social hierarchy. And I wasn't a popular kid but I was part of that crew. And I was very lucky that it had a quite really healthy dynamic. And within that I wanted to use drama as an excuse to boost my confidence basically, and I got an A* in GCSE drama. And so, I still remember, I think I must have enjoyed it. And then when I went to sixth form, I just kind of hated being in a classroom and I think I didn't want to do that anymore.
So I took some time out and I was a bit lost, I didn't really know what to do. I've got some good jobs and bad jobs and I decided to go to my local college and do a BTech in performing arts. And part of the reason for that was because I just remember thinking, "Well, I enjoyed doing drama." And also because it was a vocational course that didn't really have much written work and that I didn't want to do that. And so part of that course was a technical theatre section which was only about an hour or two a week. But weirdly I remember so much from that, because I found just the practical application of how to hang a light, what the different lights were called, what they did, difference between a 'source for' and a 'Par Can' or a floodlight or how to fit a gel or what the point of a safety chain was and all that kind of stuff. And so I think it just meant that those kind of skills early on gave us enough ammunition for our own identity to be like, "This is really important to us for the show." Even though it's a little fringe show, it's probably only going to get 10 people in.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: But it's the show that we want to do.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah, I mean, what I'm hearing is this idea that as a performer, you can walk into a space and be told to say lines and maybe input in your own kind of performative way into how something takes shape but as that transition between performer into theatre maker is quite distinct in so far as you have to be willing to have that vision. I mean, you've already described this with the kind of difference between the early days and the old days, you have to be willing to kind of get stuck in and do a little bit of everything in order to realise that vision. And how easy was it for you guys to come together and bring those visions to the table? Was it an intensive process? Was it hierarchical? Was that non hierarchical? How did it all work?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: We went through quite a few changes, actually. I think really early on, Henry Lewis did a lot of the work. Particularly a lot of the admin and stuff, a lot of driving stuff forward, booking venues, things like that. And we were just sort of along for the ride, really. And then Jono, Jonathan Sayer, he's the company director. He joined, probably about six months after the company was founded. And he worked with Hen, took on a lot of the work as well. So, they're still the directors of the company, so they sit at the top of the pyramid and they deserve to as well because they did so much work early on and they do so much work now. Sometimes more than they need to but they're learning because they're in meetings with producers and big West End producers, big Broadway producers, BBC and commissioning editors, and all this kind of crazy stuff. And people with crazy titles, but they're learning. They're learning how to run a show. And so they worked really, really hard early on. But also we were able to meet every Saturday or every Sunday, for four or five years straight. Like we never really missed a week. And we would come together, we would improvise work on new ideas for the show, improvised scenes together and just practise together. I think go and do a show in the evening, that Hen and John had booked, the Hen&Chickens or Canal Cafe or whatever.
And John had the really difficult job of sort of being like, "Okay, guys, so we've only sold six tonight. So we need to... How can we get that to 10 or 12 or 20? Text your friends, text your family? They're the ones making decisions? Can we afford to do a two for one? Can we afford to do... Is it actually better, we're going to lose money anyway. So let's just give away a couple of free tickets and get people in." You have people like me being like, "I can't, I need to get paid to do this kind of stuff." And just be like, well, we can't pay people because we can't afford to do the show.
So you're kind of constantly redrawing boundaries between who are your friends and who's your boss kind of thing. But it was real, I think the company wasn't, and to a degree still is a real kind of democracy in that sense. And we share the responsibility. And really early on, there was a point where Hen, for example, he became quite emotional at one point where the workload for him personally was becoming too much, and I think there was a conflict. Particularly I remember being quite upset, because I remember thinking Hen was not delegating and not trusting other people to do stuff. And through probably some fault of his own, some fault of other people, it sort of ended up cornering himself into being the person who could [be the] only one to do it, you know what I mean. So he knew the people at the venue. So if I was in charge of booking a venue, actually Hen had to handle that information over to me, I would have to contact the person at the venue, introduce myself, and they're kind of going, "Okay, I can just call Hen and book this."
And I'm going, "Then you don't need to speak to me." And they're going, "Okay, I need this, this and this." And I go, "Oh, I don't know what any of that is." I go back to Hen. And so there's all those kind of teething problems. It ended up just Hen being like, it's just easier if I just keep doing it.
And yeah, I remember him saying he was just like, "I don't know if I can do this anymore, because we're not being paid. The company isn't this huge, successful global thing, and the workload is huge for very little return."
And so what we did was we had an uncomfortable conversation where me and a few other people got to say, "You're not delegating, we're trying to do stuff. And he's like, "Okay, I need you to try harder." And so then what ended up happening was we created kind of... Me and Charlie became head of press and marketing and stuff like that. And John became head of booking venues and other people became head of some other little mini departments and stuff. And Hen, kind of then delegate, and we would be able to just say like, "Okay, here's something where it's going to take longer, but you need to just hand me all the information." And it just started to run a bit smoother then.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah, I mean, those, they're growing pains really, aren't they? Because initially, when everyone starts doing something you're, that's fine. Because as you say, you're playing to a crowd of 12. And then it gets to 20 and then it gets to 50. And you're like, this is still cool, I can handle it and I'm inviting in X amount of press or whatever. But the more you grow, the more that work belts up.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah, increases.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: You talked about that idea of everyone giving in X amount and it being quite kind of difficult to get anything back be it financially, be it I suppose you know you're grafting and you're wondering why haven't we taken over the world yet? And obviously, now you're in a place where you've got the magic show coming up. I watched the YouTube trailer for that that was posted the other day, I think.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Right now I haven't seen it, I'm sure it's amazing. Perhaps I should have seen it, had a press, I've seen it.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: But and you've done International, et cetera. But in those days when you were kind of early, and you were starting off, and it felt like too much, and what was it that kept you going? I'm sure that it's one of those things that I'm sure a lot of Spotlight members think a lot of anyone in any creative industry faces that question of like, how should I keep going?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: I think it's really hard, I think when you're at drama school, when you have this kind of company. And we were quite unique in the sense that we were doing shows at the weekends, those are the times that are actually quite easy, because you have a support network, when you're at drama school, the tricky bit as you say is when you leave. And I think sometimes for some actors individually, it's about patience, sometimes their casting bracket won't come for another four or five years.
Or they will figure out how to sell themselves, a 25 year old leaving drama school is going to be very different to what you're like when you're 30. Your casting is going to be different, you might be a better actor by then, I don't know. It is really hard and so what keeps you going is each other for one, and luck. So when we were doing the kind of weekly shows and stuff, it was fine. It was kind of okay, you can book it around work, and you can kind of make it work and it's fine. And no one wants to work in a bar or restaurant, but you kind of do it and you do whatever you need to. When we started doing the weekly shows, when we started doing The Play That Goes Wrong and that's when things got really, really tricky.
And I'll kind of give you the short version, I say this in every interview, but anyone listening to has really heard it 1000 times. But when we were doing The Play That Goes Wrong, I was working in a restaurant who were very supportive of me and my career in Sloane Square. And I would get up at five o'clock every day. And I would do the breakfast shift at the restaurant from like 6:00 AM/7:00 AM until about 6:00, 7:00 at night. I would then go to the theatre and do two shows a night, one is 7:45 and one at 9:00PM. Go home, probably 11 o'clock midnight, sleep start the whole thing again. My day off from the show was a Sunday where I do probably a 14 to 15 hour shifts at the restaurant. And my day off from the restaurant was Thursdays and Saturdays where I would do three shows a day. And so that continued for many, many weeks. And I probably lost about two stone-
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Oh my God.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: ... In that time, because I smoked at the time, and I didn't have really any money at the time. And so you're just living a very unhealthy lifestyle. And we've only actually really managed to be able to pay ourselves a very, very small amount for that first round of the [inaudible 00:23:18] which was about three weeks.
And then you get asked to come back and do another three weeks, and then you get transferred to Trafalgar Studios and you do two weeks, then three weeks, then for another two weeks, and then you're going to Edinburgh. So by the time you get to Edinburgh, you've lost two stone and you've got no money. And you haven't even started Edinburgh yet. And so it's like I remember having a conversation with John, I was like people keep telling me on the Fringe circuit and stuff that I must be really happy and that I'm that I'm successful and I'm doing really well. I was just like if this is what being successful actor means then I don't want to be an actor, can't sustain this lifestyle. And I used to have this... John used to joke me like, "It's just one more push, it's one more push." And I was like, "You've been saying that for six months, what does it mean?" He was like, "Let's get to Edinburgh, let's see what happens when we get back from Edinburgh."
And yeah, sure enough, Kenny and Mach came to see the show. And none of us knew at the time that that was going to be the catalyst to change everything. And that's where the luck element came in. So, had they not come to see the show, I probably wouldn't be an actor. And so the thing to keep you going, I would say is sustain it for as long as it makes you happy. But don't feel disappointed or if you have failed if you don't want to do it anymore, because that is okay. I can't think of any other profession in the world where if I decided I want to be a doctor, and then after two or three years I go, this is really hard, I don't want to be a doctor. No one says they've given up being a doctor. They go, oh, they've stopped being doctor, I do give up acting or I give up being a painter or I do give up being a dancer. Because we have this social kind of coating of going, it's fanciful, it's stupid, it's not a real job to go into the arts and be creative. So eventually, you're going to have to give up. But actually, it's not giving up. It's just going, "Oh, it's not worked out for me, or I'm not encouraging people to stop doing it". But also, don't press yourselves into feeling like air quotes, because you can't see me but the love of it it's not practically enough to keep you going.
I'm sort of now aware that this is a podcast for actors, and creatives, and I'm sort of encouraging you to stop doing it. And I really want to say, I really, really want to sit here and tell you that the burning desire to deliver comedy, and make people laugh is what fuelled me to keep going. But ultimately, that didn't pay my rent. But John was right, he said, there was several final pushes to be fair, but I can sit here and profess humility and say, oh, yeah, we worked hard. But we got really, really lucky. But also, had we not done all of those extra runs for free. Had we not been working 20 hour days, our other jobs and doing the theatre show, then had we not turned our... The reason we were doing two shows a night was because it was the only way to make money. We had 100 seater theatre that we did two shows, and we turned it into a 200 seat theatre.
And we had a six minute turnaround to get audience out. So we gave ourselves the best chance possible for Kenny and Mark to come and see the show. And Henry Lewis knew that there was interest from producers. So it was like, guys, I really think if we just extend by another two weeks, with someone's going to come and see it. And someone who matters and someone who has money and someone who believes in us is going to come and see it. And so we took a collective breath. And we went, great we're doing another two weeks of this in the hope that someone comes in. And they did. So I think in terms of what keeps you going it is the idea that you will get lucky. And you create enough opportunity for yourself to be lucky. But also if it doesn't happen, don't feel like you've failed, that's okay.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah, I think that it's a lovely sentiment and I love the idea of... There's a quote somewhere that someone said, I don't know who I'm not learned enough to just immediately remember that they say that, luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
And I mean it sounds like you guys as a collective team were very much in that space where you had prepared, prepared, prepared. And also then off the back of it sort of found yourselves facing opportunity, and boom, luck.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah, I think that's right. And as well, you have that thing of kind of realising I didn't realise this until maybe four years ago, maybe more. You linked to almost believing and control so much of the industry.
And actually all you do is you kind of frustrate yourself. And I think that's why I was really frustrated because I was like, why can't I get more auditions? Why can't I get more jobs? Why can't we be paid for this? Why can't this fun thing that I love to do help practically live my life? Why can't it, why can't it, why can't it? And then actually the moment you realise that all of these external factors like whether or not a producer comes and sees your show, you'll just live your life so much karma when you realise there are so many things you don't have control over.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: I love that because I can taste it in the what you're describing of that, extending the run again, extending the run again, finessing it, working through the staff and rehearsing on the weekends. And then all of this stuff sounds exactly like what you just said, which is I want to make and do the best possible job that I can. And I think that personally I find that very inspiring. So I hope that everybody else listening does as well.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yes.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Let's talk about I've got like a zillion other questions, but I'm just going to kind of go with what's jumping out at me, improvising. How much does it help? Doing an improv class or being part of an improvising troupe, how much does it help as a performer, as an actor when it comes to just performing comedically?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: I would say improv as a creative in any sense is worth doing even if you hate it. Even if you just do it a couple of times and go, oh God, I definitely don't want to improvise. It's totally fine, one just because you'll get yourself out of your comfort zone and it's great to do things that were not good at.
In terms of being an improviser, specifically in terms of the science of comedy, if you will, the mechanics of it. I think what it does is basically it kind of teaches you in a really sharp, acute way, what your clown is, what your comedic clown is, and what your go to is. When you're panicked and under pressure, do you defend or do you attack? Do you try and make a bad joke at someone else's expense? Do you just shut down, do you panic? Is the fact that you panic funny? Is the fact that you don't quite know what to do next really, really funny? Is the fact that you lash out and say something completely irrelevant, is it funny? And so you're kind of learning what your unfiltered comedic talent is. And you might not have a comedic talent. And so you might need to develop it. And that's fine. But you kind of learn that in a really sharp way.
The second thing it does is it hones your mechanical understanding of timing. So in terms of the space between... It's like music, it's like dancing, you can feel it. And you can learn how to feel it as well. So the more you deliver jokes when you're improvising and the more they fail. And the more people come up to you afterwards and say, "Oh, that joke he did, it didn't get as big a laugh as it deserved."
And you can kind of go, "Okay, did I mess up the timing or?" You'll be forgiven for messing up the timing, because you're literally making up as you go along, you're inventing a punchline on the spot. But the time, you probably got sometimes between probably about, if we're talking practically between half a second and maybe two seconds to think of something and then deliver it. But that tiny amount of time starts to feel much longer, starts to feel much bigger. And I sort of imagine it in my head is like, you're opening the drawer of like a filing cabinet, and you're looking in, and there's hundreds of thousands of files, and you're just kind of like, just kind of rolling down them. And eventually, your brain picks one and you deliver it.
The speed at which you can go through those files becomes much, much faster, but the drawer is still the same size. And so you learn in that moment of panic, or whatever it is. Which one you can pick, which one is funny or which one is, you almost get to a point where you can actually start rejecting ideas. And looking for funnier ones and going, no, let's go back to the first one I rejected.
Because that tiny fraction of a second feels much longer, then you link that back to the first thing you learned, which is how do I apply that to my crown. So is my thing that I panic under pressure. Rather than just having uncontrolled wild panic, am I now able to control that in a way that I can deliver as being funny. And then the other people on stage with me know that I'm really good at panicking under pressure, so they're going to start putting me under pressure, they're going to start making me panic. And I'm going to start doing things under pressure. And you can start serving people up things that their clowns are really, really good at. So I think like if anyone's seen any of the Mischief movie nights we did over the last couple of weeks months. Harry Kershaw is a brilliant clown, he's just a posh man, who is able to make himself look very, very foolish.
He knows exactly what he's doing. And he is really aware of why people laugh him, and why he's funny. And so I know what I can do is put Harry and really high status position, and then he will undercut himself. And so like, the Harry that's a gift, I'm calling him the king, I'm calling him the gangster leader. And then I get him to do something stupid. And he knows exactly what I'm doing. He's not kind of second guessing there and going, "Oh, what is this?" He just knows the path we're walking down. And so you kind of learn the mechanics of timing, you learn what your clown is. And you also learn the third thing is, I think that you you just learn to fail so much, and you don't have time to wallow in it, you have to move on. And then you can wallow after.
But once you learn that improv is so weird in the sense that it's really sacred and precious, but it also is worth nothing. And so because it's never going to happen again, it's really precious. And those moments are really, really important. Because it's never going to happen again, no one's ever going to see or feel or experience that moment again. It doesn't matter. So if you fail in that moment, it's equally as impressive as succeeding in that moment because it doesn't matter.
And so you kind of start to learn that as crippling as those horrible fate moments of failure are, they're just moments of failure and it's probably actually at the end of the day, it's just the right and it's just the show, you're there to make people laugh and sometimes you won't succeed and that's part of learning.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah, it is. I mean, also, you're talking about failure and accepting, sucking effectively at times. And I can't help but be reminded intrinsically of the actor's journey and kind of the idea of getting acquainted with rejection and learning not to take things personally or understanding when to take them personally. And when to just say actually, they were just after someone who looked slightly different, or whatever it is. And I feel like what you're describing sounds like a fine tuning of that sense of self awareness without then crossing into self consciousness.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the edgy to sort of kind of link to kind of go back and link. So it's almost like a fourth thing that you learn is, you basically learn to create the objective in your mind what is the thing that I can do to make this moment the most fun it can be?
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yes.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: And I think when if you're doing that in an audition for a very serious play, and you don't get the part and you're rejected, but actually, you've gone in with the objective to create enjoyment and fun and entertainment. Then, personally, I don't mind being rejected. I go, I had a lot of fun. I tried really hard, and they just didn't want me, they wanted somebody else. And actually, that feels quite freeing and quite nice.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah. Again, as you say, it does link back to that idea of like, sometimes it is just out of your control as long as you've done the best you can.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Okay, here's something that I'm super interested in. Stage, you've done lots and lots of stage, we started off an improv, we started off in rooms above pubs, we moved to bigger venues, bigger venues still, boom, TV. Let's talk about the transition from stage to screen and what is enhanced, what is lost, what becomes easier, what becomes harder as a performer as a creator? I don't know, I'm just going to throw it at you and let you?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: I guess what you what you gain straight away is the ability to reach a lot larger audience. So you can put out a TV show, and it can go to millions of people, but your theatre is only ever going to have 600 or 1000, or whatever. What you lose is probably the immediacy of the audience's laughter, you lose the rhythm of the whole show, because if you're performing, so we did Peter Pan Goes Wrong. It's like a two hour show with an interval in the West End.
The Play That Goes Wrong is actually probably a better example, the whole thing is built so that basically towards the end of act two, and it happens in bank robberies, well, any kind of brute force, but as an audience, you just don't really know what you're laughing anymore. You're just being smashed, you just get the timing is making you laugh. And something big happens, your brain is unconsciously piecing together the narrative. And you know why it's really important for that man not to show that other man that he doesn't have his trousers on. And they both walk into a room together, and you're just laughing because it's nonsense.
You kind of lose that sense of timing, you have to manufacture it. And so you do lose that. But then also what you gain is you gain the idea of going, you can do a massive stunt that you couldn't do on stage, because you have to do it eight times a week. But actually, you can have someone slide off a stair lift and smash through a wall. Or you can have someone fall off a 30 foot balcony into a pile of boxes, or you can with it with 90 degrees, you can do a whole play set at 90 degrees.
And so it's like, those are the kinds of things that you're able to do you, you couldn't do that in the theatre. And even if you could, it sort of wouldn't matter because you would watch that as a visual gag. And after 20 minutes, you be like I don't get it, you're performing on the wall, like well done, but in TV, you can adapt it and you can make it more exciting.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah, that's so interesting. And how much in the process of moving from stage to screen how much creative control do you guys retain versus how much has been sort of naturally dished out to people who might be for example stunt coordinators for a set or et cetera, et cetera?
Sure. So it kind of varies, we've found the right balance, I think. So when we did, Pan was the first thing we took to TV. But because that was an adaptation of the stage show, we basically kind of had a bit more creative control because it already existed, it was what we wanted it to be. And we kind of coordinated with the director and the BBC. And we're just kind of like, "Okay, so we can't do a two hour show, we're going to do about an hour and a bit."
Let's discuss what we can lose what we want to keep. And if we can add a few good stunts in and stuff like that. But the show kind of was set in stone, so we sort of had it. So they couldn't change much. Also, they didn't want to change much, because that was the whole reason they wanted to transfer it to TV. Then the boys wrote Christmas carols specifically for TV. And we had a bit of an issue when we were working with BBC studios, because they were kind of producing it. And we weren't a production partner. So it meant that in theatre, the writers and Hen and John as directors of the company have often been involved in budget meetings and more how creative decisions are affected, and they weren't as involved in that. And so we struggled a bit more in Christmas Carol, because decisions were being made without us, which is how a show runs. It's just we're not used to losing that level of control.
And so I think it's fair to say I won't go into too much detail, because I actually don't know a huge amount about it. But I think that process, I think both sides production and creative found quite frustrating. So but everyone's working towards the same goal, it's not like there's some nasty money man at the top telling us what we can't do.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think that a lot of the time people kind of have that impression. And in some cases, or some TV shows, or some settings that may be the case. But it sounds like it was a big talk. Did you say was your production?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yes.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: It sounds like they kind of get you and as collaborators as partners, as co-producers, that you've found a good relationship that works, which I think is probably something that everybody who has an eye on creating their own work, and having it become big, or kind of sort of partnering with people outside of themselves. That's probably worth bearing in mind.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah. I think you have to really believe in what you're making. And I should also say, as well, like Hen and John, again, is directors of Mischief created a really intricate system. So we have there's Mischief Theatre, there's Mischief Worldwide, which looks after our global productions. And there's also Mischief Screen which is the kind of TV arm. So Mischief Screen is co-producing it with Big Talk. And that also means that just on paper we have some autonomy and so it just means that we're not doing the same job that Big Talk are doing. Because they have skills that we don't have the stuff that arrives in the studio, I don't even know how it gets there. But they are providing a huge amount of stuff that we can provide. But creatively we get to work together rather than working against each other. And I think it's really rare, I think to find that, and I think it's really important that's kind of what you all creatives aim for not just like, right, I'm in charge now. It's just like, how do we work together to make this brilliant.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah, sort of interdependent relationship rather than anyone kind of lording over anybody else. You guys have sort of brought back fuss, right? It's
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Very, that's a bold claim, I'll agree with you, I'll take it.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah. Because
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: I'm not going to argue with you.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Up until I don't know what year The Office was, with Ricky Gervais. I don't know when that was but up until then, comedy on TV had been very kind of three cameras, three lights, studio audience. And like British comedy in particular was doing weird and wacky stuff consistently with it, and really fooling around with the concept, and was quite sort of farcical in its performance. But never really acknowledging the fourth wall, the audience et cetera. Then Ricky Gervais happened, The Office happened and everything changed to single location, single camera location, and the idea of like, looking to camera became like we're breaking the fourth wall, but in a very different way. It's very edgy, and you guys have kind of come full circle and play with the audience. Again, but in that kind of old school way, but doing it totally differently. My question is what do you think could come next in terms of the TV comedy or theatrical comedy landscape?
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah, I think the point you make about The Office is really, really good because it sort of gave birth to the... And it had like spinal tap and stuff, but the kind of docu-comedy, that kind of idea of being able to look down the camera, but that's just a classic clown technique of that moment of embarrassment, the moment of shame, just sharing that with the audience.
And then being able to do that, which is kind of what we figured out about The Goes Wrong Show is engaging with the studio audience, when we're able to record in front of a live audience, is actually much less effective than just looking down the barrel of the camera, because everyone in the studio audience is watching it up above on screens anyway. And so by looking at the audience in the room, you disengage with the audience at home. And I think that's particularly my character in season one suffered from that, because I was just so used to engaging with the audience in the room. And it's just finding ways of sharing... The camera enables you to share your inner thoughts. So your inner mischievous characters try to mess about and upset other characters and be silly or whatever. And you're able to share that secret with the audience. And whether that secret is a positive thing, you're being mysterious, or it's a negative thing that you're really, really embarrassed.
You're able to do that. And so I think in terms of what's coming next, there will be more kind of innovative ways of sharing those kind of comedic secrets with the audience. Because the big physical stuff that you get in like Fawlty Towers, and then you get from things like The Goes Wrong Show like big physical stunts, are really, really funny. And they're hot back to kind of Chaplin and Keaton and those kind of big, big physical things. But even Chaplin and Keaton they fall off a huge building of being offloaded awnings and land in a pile of rubbish and get up and the first thing they do is dust settles off, look straight up for the camera, I'm fine. And then they walk up.
And so even they're sharing those moments with the audience. And I think that's what The Office opened up. And I'm hoping that we're kind of trying to open that door of the kind of clown, the inner clown being able to share with the audience kind of what's happening.
I think what people are starting to do, and I think we're seeing a lot more in stand up. Stand up is, for example, becoming much more narrative based, rather than here's a list of jokes, they're becoming much more socio-politically, is that that's why I'm saying?
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Socio-politically motivated. And then talking about things like depression, anxiety, miscarriage, cancer, really dark things, and finding ways to disarm them with humour. And so I think, and again, this is just another example of us as an audience being let into a secret that the comedian has. I was on Tinder for five years. Here are some of the batshit stories I've got for you that are really embarrassing. Some of them are gross, some of them are exciting, some of them are sexy, some of them are sad. And where we're really kind of engaging with this idea of knowing these... It's so strange. It's just a human thing about somebody else that we've all experienced. But we're starting to see it now. And we're starting to see it used creatively. So I mean, it wouldn't surprise me if there are kind of more things like reality TV, where you have a Office style comedy set in a Love Island style setting.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Right. Yeah.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: But I think what's happening in comedy in general, is it's becoming much more humanised, and much more about personal narrative and personal experience. People are using comedy to teach people about other people's experiences. And rather than just going, here's a freak show, or isn't it funny, Scottish people say this word like this, or racially borderline insensitive comedy, or these kind of things where we're just moving now more towards a much more exciting thing where it's like, are you can make me laugh. And then in the next moment, I'm kind of going, "Oh, my God, I can't believe that happens to you. That is funny. But Wow. Like, how do you deal with that?" And so I think that, to me, is really exciting.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah. I mean, the reason I asked that is because obviously, actors are always being told, go and write your own work, go and create your own work. And I think a lot of the time actors might be like, fine, but where do I start? So this to me sounds like a really good jumping off point of figuring out what could be funny that isn't just two mates hanging out being idiots, but actually has a human story that is kind of underneath at all that kind of connects to some kind of truth.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Yeah, you don't have to kind of, I think this exactly as well the truth is really important, because you don't have to... producers and commissioners and the early stages of TV they're really intelligent people, but they're getting so much stuff in there looking for what is it? What is it like, but what is it not the same as? And so I think the really exciting thing is stuff Fleabag, and even Killing Eve, mostly the same writers but created an environment that was somehow so funny, but also so moving. And I think producers taking a risk on that is amazing, because I would go What is this? Is it a sip? Is it funny? Or is it meant to be like a serious story about this woman's life, because it's quite tragic? And actually, what it was brilliant.
And so I think with writing it's such a cliche, but nobody actually does it. Just write what you think is good and then someone will either agree with you or they won't, and you'll get notes and you'll change it in your first draft is going to be s**t. But don't worry about that, just get it down. And then you can change it. And if you think it's funny, if you think it's good allow other people to help you. But don't try and write for something because you don't know what they're looking for.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Yeah, I think that's really gorgeous advice, actually. Okay, well, I think that we are done. I have a few more questions that I could have asked, but you've already touched on basically everything anyway.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: So good, I talk a lot.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: No, it's great. It's lovely. Because it's much better than having like, yes, no answers, so.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: Mm-hmm (affirmative), you can shop around it.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Exactly.
Dave Hearn, Mischief Theatre: So I give a couple of those just in case you want to put them in, yes, no, possibly, yes, there you go [crosstalk 00:52:20].
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Brilliant, thank you. Okay, so that's it. Thank you so much Dave Hearn for coming and chatting to me. And we will post some bits and bobs of links along with the transcript that we post up on our website, is where if any listeners are interested, they can find out more about Dave, or about Mischief Theatre and their various very, very funny endeavours.
Ilayda Arden, Spotlight: Well, that's it. Thanks for listening to this week's episode. If you have any questions or queries about anything you've heard, feel free to get in touch with us. You can do so by emailing [email protected] Or feel free to send a tweet to @spotlightUK. We have lots of content on our website about making your own work and navigating the acting industry in general. So if you're keen to find out more, go to spotlight.com and navigate to the news and advice section. That's all from us for now. See you next time.
Dave is an actor and founding member the Olivier Award-winning Mischief Theatre. Dave trained at LAMDA on the foundation course and then three years at Rose Bruford. His recent credits include: The Play That Goes Wrong (Broadway, West End & UK/International Tour - winner of Best New Comedy at the Olivier Awards 2015 and What's On Stage Awards 2014), Peter Pan Goes Wrong (BBC1, West End/UK Tour/Pleasance London - nominated for Best New Comedy at the Olivier Awards 2016), The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (West End - nominated Best New Comedy at the Olivier Awards 2017). The Goes Wrong Show (BBC1), Christmas Carol Goes Wrong (BBC1), Magic Goes Wrong (Comic Relief BBC1) Royal Variety Performance (ITV) Mischief Movie Night (West End/UK Tour - nominated for Best New Comedy at the Olivier Awards 2018).
Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash