The Swell Mob at Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Be transported to a world of bacchanalian debauchery! Acclaimed Flabbergast Theatre use their award-winning mix of clowning, puppetry and cabaret to recreate an historical epoch filled with thieves, fogle-hunters, dandies and deception.
Choose your own adventure through this murky, decaying world in an immersive theatre experience like no other. Dance, sing, gamble, cheat and take the edge off with a London Porter or Bathtub Gin while you’re there. It’s sweaty, sinister and delightfully unsettling.
Lisa spoke with Director and Performer Henry Maynard about founding his company Flabbergast, how he manoeuvres such a large cast, and advice for those coming to the show. Read the full interview below:
What was your training as an artist? Please tell us about your career prior to the founding of Flabbergast in 2010…. and a performance and/or directing highlight pre-Flabbergast?
I trained for three years at The Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London in Acting(BA) from 2003 to 2006. After finishing my training I started the slog of working away as a jobbing actor, I completed 20+ short films in three years and had a great range of roles in various small and medium scale theatre productions ranging from Anton Checkhov in a biopic adaptation of his life, Hippolytus in Racine’s Phaedra and Macduff in Macbeth to Mistress Quickly an aging drag artist in a Christmas anti-panto and the UK’s youngest professional Abanazer in Aladdin, I also understudied Matt Smith (who went on to become the next Dr Who) in a Royal Court Production That Face in the West End.
After about three years I was involved in a motorbike accident which probably changed the course of my career, at the time I was being seen for TV roles in a few English soaps and some movie roles. The accident caused a greenstick fracture and a pin was inserted from my knee to my ankle, I was unable to walk without a limp for 6 months or so. Before the accident I had auditioned for a UK based puppetry company called Blind Summit and I was struck by the power of the puppetry style (Bunraku), at the time I wasn’t right for the role but they asked me to keep in touch. When I was left without the creative outlet of acting and with limitations on my mobility I decided that I would like to try making my own puppets, I have always been handy and enjoyed making things so this seemed like a good way to keep myself busy.
Having made a gloriously impractical puppet, I attended the show that Blind Summit had been auditioning for, dragging my broken leg and heavy puppet with me, I met up with the artistic directors post show for a beer and Nick Barnes the puppet builder, seeing my amateurish attempt (and probably taking pity) asked if I would like to do an internship with him for a week, I readily agreed and we embarked upon my training as a puppet builder and performer, the week internship turned into employment and I made many puppets with Nick including forandby Complicite as well as for all their in house productions and collaborations.
After some months working in the workshop I was offered a role in their production after which I also performed in at the Royal Opera House, my puppetry career went from strength to strength and I performed in many more shows including in the West End for 18 months, the American tour of National Theatre Scotland and recently the Australian and American tour.
What prompted the formation of your company and how do you balance directing and performing? (I did hear a rumour that there was a Bollywood film added to your résumé recently!) I formed the ambition to establish a company whilst training, having a sense of autonomy over my creative path is important to me, I was in a thrash metal band for six years before I went to drama school so I suppose the desire to work collaboratively came from then. I love the work that I do as a performer but also felt like I wanted to have more creative say over what I created and how I did it.
When I was approached by Theatre Delicatessen to create a 20 minute puppet piece as part of their ambitious projectI made two of my own puppets, I based them on the practice puppets we used at Blind Summit but I made them out of leather instead of cloth, so Boris & Sergey were born.
I am quite often in the shows that we create (in fact always at the start) which has its own unique demands, I often rely on at least one other person as either a co or assistant director or even just an outside eye or dramaturg, Jordan Chandler my co-director forhas been a huge asset and I have greatly enjoyed working with her. I also enjoy working with actors and asking them to be as creative as possible I don’t subscribe to the Uber-Marionette school of thinking. Often it is my acting career that forces me to step out of one of our productions which is not always easy but it has been my success as performer that has allowed me to produce the shows that Flabbergast mount, indeed the London run ofis largely self-funded, primarily by the afore mentioned Bollywood Feature film ()is certainly our most ambitious project to date but it has attracted a great deal of interest both nationally and internationally and we are very excited to be beginning, what I hope will be a long Australian adventure, with it in Adelaide.
How many performers do you have on ‘stage’ for The Swell Mob and what might an audience member most need to know before venturing into the frenetic Dickensian (I admit I had to look up ‘fogle-hunter’ *pickpocket*) atmosphere? Where did the inspiration for this creation come from?
The show and therefore the cast are scalable for different venues and financial constraints, in Edinburgh at one point we had over twenty cast members. There are currently thirty two people who have been a part of the Mob which is set to increase as London and then Adelaide get underway. We currently advise a 10:1 Audience/Actor ratio in order that the audience gets the most out of the show but that can be reduced as the numbers increase. We are bringing eight original cast members to Adelaide and supplementing them with two great actors from the local talent pool – Brittany Plummer and Hew Parham.
My advice would be to throw yourself into the world, talk to characters, ask questions and make good use of the bar (open throughout). There are also distinct benefits in making an effort to dress appropriately.is a concept that has been rattling around my brain for five or so years, ever since I started directing immersive theatre in the Caribbean – I directed a show that played out a narrative over seven days on several different islands every year for a private client and his family.
I have always loved Victoriana and elements of that influence is noticeable in all of Flabbergast Theatre’s work. I have seen a couple of Punch Drunk’s excellent shows but I wanted to make something more freely flowing and inescapable, rather than the slightly voyeuristic experience that Punch Drunk engender with their masks, I also wanted more of a focus on improvisation and acting rather than dance and choreography.
The name comes from a group of people operating in the mid 1800s who dressed in the height of fashion in order to access better-off victims for their cheats, scams and robberies, all this combined with an intensive two week research and development and rehearsal in London gave us the show that we went to Edinburgh with in 2018.
I am gobsmacked at the number of shows you are staging (26 I believe - with either 2 or 3 sessions each day) - quite a feat! How do you and the cast maintain your energy and the consistent quality of the work? The snuff back then had some interesting ingredients in it and I’m a stickler for historical accuracy…
In all honesty, it’s down to our amazingly hard working cast members and creatives, our ensemble spirit and comradery, although it is a physically taxing show and heavy on the improvisation it is a real joy to perform and dividends are paid in the responses that we get from our audiences.
Where in the world are you taking The Swell Mob next and what concepts and notions are inspiring you at the moment that may lead to future productions for Flabbergast Theatre? We hope that the Adelaide run will be an opportunity for other venues and producers in the Antipodes to see the show so that we may be able to return in 2020 on a longer tour with a possible stop overs in Dubai and Bangkok. The London run is currently scheduled for six months and we have interest from Dublin, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Manchester. America would be a great place to tour too.
We have had some preliminary discussions with the Maritime museum in London about ‘The Queen’s House’ ‘The Cutty Sark’ and one of their gallery spaces.
There is the opportunity to theme The Swell Mob, taking the basic structure filling it with new characters and giving it a different spin, frontier town, Asian opium den etc… which I’d be interested in exploring.
We have a physical/clown/mask/puppetry influenced version ofwhich I’m very interested in developing further and touring internationally.
I’m excited about an immersive adaptation ofwhich is about the first penal colony in Australia, I’m frequently told I look like Ned Kelly so perhaps we should do something about him, couldn’t be worse than Steven Tyler…
There is another idea I have had fermenting for a number of years that could see us adaptby Katherine Dunne, which is set in a freak show traversing dustbowl America during the depression.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
All Wear Bowlers – Pig Iron
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Dream role to perform?
Plays or musicals?
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Muay Thai & Woodwork
What’s next for you after this show?
Back to London to give my agent some time to find me some auditions.
The Swell Mob opens at Artspace as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on June 8 2019. You can get your tickets here.