Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Neil Connolly: Lamplighters

By | Published on Sunday 22 July 2018

Up next over at The Old Red Lion Theatre is a new show from interactive and immersive specialists, Rogue Productions. It’s a comedic one man show about a spy that promises to be a great experience for those who love interactive, but even those who don’t.

To find out more about the show, I spoke to the show’s performer and co-writer, Neil Connolly, who’s a bit of a legend when it comes to this sort of stuff.

CM: Right, so, this is a very interesting sounding show and I am not sure quite how to categorise it, so I will ask you: how would you categorise it?
NC: It’s interactive comedy. I’ve worked for years as a compere and improv performer, I also teach interactive theatre and improvisation to university students and for youth programmes at places like the National Theatre Education Department. Dean (Rodgers, co-writer and director) has worked for years as a games designer and theatre maker. We have combined all our skills, passions and talents to make a very silly show all about spies.

CM: And can you tell us a bit about the decision to do an immersive show in a traditional theatre space?
NC: We are theatre makers and the world of immersive is at the heart of everything we do.. Immersive can mean interactive, it can mean promenade, it can mean escape rooms, it can mean…. well, you get it, a lot of things. No one really knows what it means. I always title my shows as interactive, as that’s specific and clear.

There’s a whole community of audiences that chomp at the bit to come to our experiences, they love PunchDrunk, Shunt and anything immersive. They also don’t tend to go to traditional theatre pieces as audiences are changing. Modern audiences want to play. Not watch.

Yet there’s also a section of traditional theatre audiences who are reticent to come to shows that we do because they don’t want to interact, they don’t want to seen, they don’t want to do. They want to hide in the shadows, to spectate, to be given space to think and breathe. They always say after I invite them to shows “Can I just come and watch? I don’t want to do anything.” So we set about making a show that doesn’t compromise on our practices or ideals but is inclusive, so that the spectators can watch but join in when they are ready. And it’s up to me as a performer to draw them in and ensure they’re comfortable. I’m sort of like a Magician or Mentalist in that respect.

CM: Can you give us an idea of the story the show is based on?
NC: Theres a new story EVERY night as I take suggestions from the audience in order shape our rough framework. The best bit is that inevitably the audience want to change the narrative to suit themselves. Or they’ll change it just for the craic!

The show is based on John Le Carré spies. Not Bond or Bourne spies. People who are fundamentally flawed, complex and believable. It’s set in the Cold War of the 1960s, so an era of cigarettes, whiskey, Europe getting used to peace, and the rise of Super Powers. There are betrayals, seductions and quite a lot of mistakes.

CM: What inspired you to create this show? What gave you the idea for it?
NC: Dean Rodgers, director of ‘Lamplighters’, approached me and asked if I was working on anything and did I want to team up. This was an instant 100% yes as Dean had the missing piece to the puzzle. Having worked in interactive and immersive theatre for years we had realised that no-one was making comedies in the form. They’re normally quite sinister and dark. Don’t get me wrong, I love it! But I was always the manipulator, the evil one, or the right hand of Satan. I wanted to make people laugh, not cry. So we set out to make ‘Lamplighters’.

With regard to the theme, my initial steps with ‘Lamplighters’ were fuelled by my obsession with the worlds of John Le Carré spies. Everyone loves spies and spy stories. They think they’re sexy and cool. Le Carré’s worlds are anything but. They’re normal people doing ordinary things, sometimes extraordinary things. I was obsessed with trying to get an audience to understand how ordinary lives can become extraordinary. I wanted them to see the real work of the intelligence community. I also wanted to prove that I could get an audience to improvise a scene on stage with me that has depth and meaning and is not all punchline based.

CM: What kind of audience members do you think it will appeal to?
NC: Comedy goers! Cabaret crowds! The immersive and alternative theatre lovers! Also makers of interactive theatre as it sets out my ideals of how we as makers should and need to interact with our audiences in order to safe-guard us and them.

It should also have great appeal for the crowds of traditional theatre goers mentioned earlier, who shy away from shows with buzzwords like interaction or immersive. Remember, at this you can sit and spectate, but you’ll quickly see that if you do volunteer, you’ll have more fun.

CM: Would you say that performing in an immersive show requires different skills than performing in more conventional work?


In every show I’m having to wear many different hats.

There’s my performers hat; which are the beats of the scene I have to hit?

There’s my writers hat: now the story is changing where can I push it or where are they going with it and how can I best facilitate that adventure?

There’s my director’s hat: is what were doing still on brand and on message? Is the writer out of control or completely lost? Have we fallen too far down the rabbit hole?

There’s my Stage Managers hat: Is everything where it needs to be? Is the audience where they need to be? What’s happening behind the scenes that i need to be aware of? Are the audience in a safe situation? Has the performer put themselves in a dangerous place? Can I foresee any hazards and possibly rectify it before we move forward?

There’s also my existentialist hat: how do I embrace the rising feeling of disorientation, confusion or dread in the face of a an apparently meaningless and absurd world?

Essentially, it’s utter chaos. And that’s where I’m most happy.

CM: How do you you go about creating this sort of show? What’s the process?
NC: Trial and error. And diving so far into the chaos that all the juicy bits stick. Usually, Dean and I start a conversation with “this will sound utterly ridiculous and I have no plan for achieving it but go with me….”

It’s an incredibly ambitious show. In a way it’s the smallest show we’ve ever done but in others it’s also the biggest. We can only ever get a show like this 90% ready before opening night as the show can’t exist without an audience. How very Peter Brook of me. Ugh!

The process is always evolving as we grow as theatre makers, and we make sure to learn from our mistakes. Devising and writing new shows is hard. We all know that. Dean and I just smile in the face of adversity and make sure that we always keep each other buoyed. Especially when there’s only 2 of you in a room, it’s good to laugh and support when the answers are never clear. I’ve rambled a lot for this answer but what I’m trying to say is: it’s good to spend time with mates.

And don’t be a dick.

CM: I think it’s fair to call you a specialist in this type of interactive work – how did you come to do so much of it? Was it just a question of doing what you enjoy?
NC: Wow. A specialist? Thank you. Yeah, people have said that for some time now. I’ll be honest, though, I’m only as good as the people I’m surrounded by and I have some incredible friends also making incredible work.

I may only be a specialist because I’m so passionate about this area of the theatre industry and I really bloody care. I’ve ended up doing so much of this work because of the aforementioned friends. We all met in a professional capacity, mostly during the early days of Theatre Delicatessen as we all pretty much lived in the Marylebone building, the old BBC London HQ. Lots of companies gathered there who were making interactive and immersive work, The Lab Collective, Speficiq, Dank Parish, DifferencEngine. Great friendships were formed over those years. When one company makes a show invariably we’ll all rally round to help.

I don’t just enjoy this work. I love it! I’d go mad (nay sane) without it.

CM: Did you always want to be a performer? How did your career begin?
NC: I started out as a bookie on horses and dogs in Ireland, I was also a street-theatre performer – stilt-walking, puppeteering, clowning etc. I eventually ended up on a classical acting course at Rose Bruford College in London. Following graduation I did what any young actor would do, anything and everything. Opera (I can’t sing), Physical theatre (I’m not a dancer), Off-West End, Fringe, touring, children’s theatre (I can play with children but can’t spend extended periods of time in their company), T.I.E. (I should not be allowed teach in a conventional environment). All the while I was making small pieces of performance art and interactive theatre but not giving it my full attention.

I became disillusioned and jaded with the theatre industry, left, and became a desk-jockey for a few years. I became deeply unhappy. I wanted to return to the arts, after my time away and time to think, and one day I received a call to ask if I wanted to audition for an immersive production of Henry V in a basement at Theatre Delicatessen. I got it. Took a sabbatical from my office job (I NEVER RETURNED) and returned to theatre.

This was the point when everything came into focus and I set off in this path. I’ve been doing it ever since, bouncing from project to project.

CM: What would you say have been the highlights thus far?
NC: I’ll give this one a try.
Ermmmmmm…. Turning the computer game ‘Battlefield: Hardline’ into a real life event complete with a £10,000 cash prize for the most badass team. Being a part of Boomtown Festival’s ever evolving storyline! Becoming Artistic Director of the ‘Crystal Maze Live Experience’ (the younger me inside me is delighted about that one).

As I left Ireland, my dad left me an inscription inside a copy of the Da Vinci Code (we all have questionable tastes) he bought me at the airport: “don’t dream your life, son, live your dreams”, it said. It’s corny, he’s not. He’s a very tough man. But I bring it up because I live in a time when all this is happening. Keep pushing, never stop.

CM: Do you have any grand ambitions for the future? Are there any other avenues you’d like to explore?
NC: Yes. NDAs are a real thing and I literally cannot reveal anything. Sorry.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
NC: See the above answer.

‘Lamplighters’ is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 24 Jul-18 Aug, see the venue website here for all the info.

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