photo: Raphael Achache
How did Sheep Soup start?
Nic: I’d written a play called The Curse of the Devil’s Verse that we wanted to take to the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe, so we set up Sheep Soup. So called because it was part of a tongue-twister that we used to do, “For sheep soup, shoot sheep.”
How has the training you received at the Workshop fed into your work?
Nic: The naturalistic thing is about an audience believing and recognising our characters. Our first musical, Mrs Green, was set entirely in one room and all the music is created on stage – there’s no suspension of disbelief necessary.
Ben: Musical theatre is traditionally quite tits and teeth, so everyone has that preconception. What’s so exciting about what we’re doing is that it proves musical theatre can be natural. There might be some larger than life characters, but they’re rooted in reality.
Nic: The sketch show is a break away from what we normally do, we just had a lot of funny material that we wanted to put together. It’s a little taster of us, and though it’s not our usual style, it’s got the same vibe.
You’ve worked with Rob Green, Nina Smith, Youthoracle and your logo was designed by Elliott Caine of FTS.co. Is collaboration intrinsic to your ethos?
Ben: Yeah. Nottingham has such a wicked creative community. When we were doing Mrs Green, we had no money and were going into it almost blind so we asked for favours from other artists, musicians and recording technicians. Our style is about finding ways that music can happen naturally in a performance, and this lends itself to creating songs that stand alone outside of the show. We can then use those songs to gig and promote the show – Mrs Green is still gigging all over the shop.
Sheep Soup is a Leicester Curve Breakthrough Artist, and you performed at Mercury Musical Development and Musical Theatre Network’s inaugural BEAM this year. To what do you attribute your success?
Ben: Graft. For quite a few years we were working without getting paid for it – for the love. Then, we had two of our Arts Council bids accepted, which has been integral to the development of the company and our new material.
Nic: Leicester is the regional home of musical theatre, and Artistic Director, Nikolai Foster, has a strong musical background. Since we became one of the Curve’s Breakthrough Companies they’ve helped us no end. They gave us a showcase, selected us to perform at the InsideOut Festival, and helped us shape the company from a business perspective. We’ve been in some really productive talks with them about the development of our new stuff, and we’re really excited about where that’s going to take us.
Are musicals something that you’ve benched for now?
Ben: Not at all. We’re focusing on our new musical, The Leftovers, as a large scale project. We received some Arts Council funding at the beginning of the year to take the project through a research and development week.
Nic: With Mrs Green, Ben and I had discussed the idea and we had a lot of it written before we went to rehearsal. This time round, we wanted everyone to start with a blank page. We got a team together and spent two weeks bouncing around ideas and characters, working in an improvised way which is what we enjoy and what we’re used to. That threw up an idea that deals with grief and the interpretation of literature: a young woman has passed away, and her friends from different periods of her life come together to give her a bit of a send-off. They’ve found a collection of writings among her possessions – songs, poetry and diary entries – and decide to put music to them to give them life.
Ben: It sounds really morbid, but we promise it’s still a fun night out.
Nic, as Artistic Director, you write everything from the songs to the script. What’s your writing process like?
Nic: I have no idea. Sometimes there’s a lyric that becomes a song, but sometimes it can float around in the atmosphere for weeks, months, even years before you find the right place to put it. Mrs Green started with a bunch of songs that we built a script around, and although that was enjoyable, I think the best way to do it is to find out how the two can work together, otherwise the story can end up forced or predictable. The whole play should have a score and the music should be part of the story.
Ben: Rob Green is the musical director on the new show, and has been working with Nic to develop the new songs. We’ve also been working with Harleighblu, improvisational pianist Ben James, and spoken word artist, Ben Norris.
Ben, you equally have your fingers in all the pies as General Manager, often producing alongside taking the lead role...
Ben: At the beginning we had no money so we had to do it all ourselves. I’m interested in all different aspects of developing work, and this process allows me to keep my options open. Plus, as an actor, you’re often waiting around for jobs, so why not make stuff while you’re waiting? We’ve realised that producing and performing isn’t ideal. Moving forward, providing we secure funding, we’ll employ a producer.
Is it important to you to create work for Nottingham actors, or more specifically, Television Workshop actors?
Nic: We started out working with people from Workshop because they were the closest people to us. Since then, we’ve branched out and appreciate that people with a completely different training background to us will have a different outlook.
Ben: But, the Television Workshop breeds good talent. It’s not just a case of we use who we’ve got – we want to use these actors. They’re brilliant.
Nic: As for creating work specifically for Nottingham actors, it’s not something that we force onto what we do, but our work is set in places we know – we learn the most about places we’ve never been through theatre and television. We want to represent Nottingham, but our stories aren’t limited to being around here.
Ben: I saw Henry Normal at the Nottingham Poetry Festival last year saying you should write what you know. We have to be aware, though, of creating something that doesn’t translate to other areas of the country.
What can we expect from the new sketch show, The Invention of Acting?
Ben: Three humans discover the art of pretending. Picture monkey opera, arguing buskers and a new cow on Neil’s farm. Plus a couple of dead funny songs.
Nic: Zara White, a local actress who recently starred in The Powder Room alongside Sheridan Smith, Trev from D.I.D, and Ben are all really talented musicians, so it would be silly not to use their skills. The invention of acting is the theme, and it very loosely and clumsily ties it all together. We’ve been making jokes about some of this stuff for years – we’re finally getting it out there.
The Invention of Acting, Television Workshop, Thursday 4 - Saturday 6 August, £7.