Cartoon de Salvo are a touring theatre company that love to mess with the live theatre experience, through their love of story-telling and improvisation. Jo Trainor talks to their Artistic Director Alex Murdoch, as they celebrate their fifteenth Birthday!
Cartoon de Salvo is quite a unique theatre company, so for those who don’t know, how would you sum up what you’re like and how you’re different from other theatre companies?
We’re interested in two things mainly which are improvisation and story-telling. We want to mess with the live theatre experience. When we got together we felt that a lot of theatre is, and still is I suppose, a little bit elitist and a little bit cold. We wanted to play around with the experiences of going to theatre, and we’ve done that by doing site specific work on allotments and in shopping centres. We’ve also done that through improvisation, one show we’ve got coming up called Made Up, is completely improvised from scratch. But it’s not sketch based improv, it’s a whole story in one night because we love telling stories.
Why is performing in small village halls so important to you. How does the audiences and atmosphere differ from a theatre?
We like to do shows that feel like a party or a school reunion. It’s that thing about making the audience feel more welcome. When we first did shows in village halls, you get the whole community up for it. We’ve taken that spirit and it’s become hard wired into our DNA as a theatre company. To make every show feel like it’s one night only, and a proper event not just one performance of many.
15 years is a long time, what is your top tip for staying afloat in the industry?
I think the main one is that we keep re-inventing ourselves but the heart of the work stays intact. We know what we really care about and what we really love and we know what we don’t like either. You can change into different things as long as you don’t lose the heart and soul of what you’re about. I think if we’d always been a devising company or an improv company we’d have probably have fizzled out by now, but because we keep popping up in different contexts then we can keep it fresh for us and for the audience. So it’s just important that you’re making honest work that you still believe in, rather than keep rattling out a formula that works.
You’ve got two shows to celebrate your birthday. Firstly Made Up which is a completely improvised piece. What goes into preparing for this, and what goes on in rehearsals?
We just basically play a lot of games and improvise a lot of whole shows and they all go into the ether and never exist again. We certainly don’t have a single thing that’s rehearsed in any of our shows. We’re pretty basic Keith Johnstone based improvisers; we believe in ‘guess and…’ and not blocking ideas so we just keep trying anything. ‘That’s a beginning of a show, so let’s do another one and another one.’ Sometimes that’s really frustrating when you do a really good one. We’re kind of superstitious about coming up with material that we want to do again, but we’re also addicted to making it completely different every night. The game playing is all about training like a sports team so that we’re really fast with each other and trust each other and make each other laugh.
Your second piece The Irish Giant is your first piece based on a true story. What made you decide to do this and what drew you to that particular story?
It’s an amazing story; in a way it’s the opposite of ‘Made Up’ because it is a true story so it’s fixed so you can’t say ‘let’s change it!’ It’s an extraordinary story of a giant called Charles Byrne from Ireland who came over to Georgian London to exhibit himself as a freak, I guess, for their entertainment. At that same time there was the enlightenment period for science and all sorts of other things of course. And there was a doctor called John Hunter, who was one of the first people to cut up bodies to find out how we’re made up inside and he asked Charles if he would donate his body to medical science on his death, so he could find out what made Charles a giant. But Charles being a religious man, as most people were at that time, was horrified at this idea because he wanted to go to heaven. His belief was that he couldn’t do that if he was cut up. So it was one of the first times in history where science and religion went head to head. In the story the doctor doesn’t come off very well, he basically pursues the giant for the rest of his short life. This is all true; he had his servant follow him around and literally waited for the moment when he died so he could be there to grab the body when it hit the floor. Which is terribly unethical, but in the grand scheme of things John Hunter was one of these crucial figures that changed the way science operates forever. So it’s got quite a lot of issues in it, but we try to make those kinds of things fun, rather than preachy!
Your acting training was far from traditional. What made you choose to go to Ecole Phillipe Gaulier? And who would you recommend?
I went to Gaulier because I saw a few actors who had this amazing fun on stage and seemed to have license to mess around and enjoy their job. Gaulier is a wonderful teacher, he’s quite rude to people though. He makes you discover that you shouldn’t take theatre too seriously and to always have fun on stage because otherwise you don’t deserve to be there; it’s a privilege to play games for a living. I think clowning training is very good acting training, clowning isn’t just about messing around it’s also about being quite fragile and open. I’d recommend Angela de Castro as one of the best clowning teachers in the world, she runs a course called How To Be Stupid. She’s amazing, Gaulier’s amazing, and I haven’t been to Jaque LeCoq school but that’s another school that teaches clowning! It’s quite good for actors because you have to recognise what’s ridiculous in yourself and you’re quite vulnerable.
You’ve taught at several drama schools. Do you think it’s important for an actor to go & get professional training, or do you think there are other ways to get into the industry?
In my theatre company we’re split down the middle between people who have trained a lot and people who haven’t trained at all and we all have fun together. I think I come down on the side of training is a good thing. There’s no shortcut to experience though, having experience is the best thing and staying open to learning things. That’s a tricky question!
What has been your favourite role?
That’s really difficult because one of the beautiful things about doing the completely improvised shows is there’s no end to the number of characters you could be called upon to play! Whereas when you come from a clowning background you end playing a lot of low status characters that are a lot of fun to play. What’s great about the improv thing is that you could be the King of England, or a Spaceman, or an Alien, or a Cowboy or a glamorous woman from the 1920s. That’s what’s so exciting! I tell you what though I do love the character I play in The Irish Giant, I play the servant who follows the Giant around and is completely ruthless! It’s always fun to play a baddie!
What is the best piece of theatre you have seen?
There are so many things! I think it would have to be Kneehigh’s The Red Shoes, that was a big life-changing show. I loved the way they were on stage, the five clowns in their pants. The simplicity of it! It was because it was so stripped down, so bare in the way it was told that it became so much richer and deeper. Just a gobsmacking piece of theatre!
What is the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to you on stage?
One of the things you have to leave at the door is shame in improvisation because there’s no end to it and there’s no room for it either! You have to go along with every scenario that happens. And something we say in the company anyway is when things go wrong it’s really right. We really love mistakes, things that get lost, things that break, props that don’t come on, light’s that suddenly go off. Everything that goes wrong in the theatre reminds us that it’s live and for me that’s the best bit. So actually I can’t answer that question because some of the most embarrassing things are often the best and the funniest.
Ten/ eleven years ago we did this play where a key moment in the story is a huge poster reveals that two boxers are fighting and it changes the whole course of the play. But this poster would frequently fall on our heads because we couldn’t get the mechanism to work, but it always so funny! The audience know they’re in the same room as you, I hate this idea of a fourth wall. When we’re doing The Irish Giant, yes it’s a real factual tale but everything about it is about being playful with the audience and bring them along with you. Yes we might have period costumes on, but it’s not Downton Abbey.
What would you say is the best way to create your own theatre company?
I guess you want to find people that you like to play with and material you believe in. Sometimes it’s quite obvious when people have put on shows just to give themselves a good number so they get seen by agents. But if you find a piece of work that you want to do, or a story or a subject or a world that you want to play around with, that’s more important than being seen. You’ve got to be in the show that you’re in, not looking to the next one. And then there’s The Independent Theatre council that have really good training courses for how to set up a theatre company. And then that everyone understands that there is a lot of paperwork that goes into it too!
Cartoon de Salvo are celebrating their 15th Birthday with two upcoming productions:
4th April - 21st April
Soho Upstairs, Soho Theatre
Tickets from £10
The Irish Giant
23rd May - 9th June
The Vault, Southwark Playhouse
Tickets £9 - £17