Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Russell Lucas: The Understudy

By | Published on Thursday 16 February 2017

‘The Understudy’ by Theresa Rebeck is the latest show in Canal Cafe Theatre’s ongoing American season, and I am really keen to see it, for a number of reasons, but not least because it’s set in the world of theatre and tackles some interesting and pertinent themes about our relationship with the performing arts.
I spoke to director Russell Lucas to find out more about the play, and a bit about Russell himself.

CM: Tell us about The Understudy – what story does it tell?
RL: ‘The Understudy’ is a love letter to the theatre and its relationship with movies and the celebrity star system. We follow Harry (a Broadway understudy for Hollywood action star Jake), as he embarks on his first rehearsal in a runaway hit of a long-lost Kafka play. Here he must learn all of the pre-determined direction and (in theory) recreate Jake’s performance. Harry is a struggling theatre actor with big opinions and tries to change the show as he thinks he can do better. What’s brilliant about Theresa Rebeck’s play is that she ​uses a ‘play within the play’ that traps the characters in Kafka metaphors at every turn; stuck in situations they did not create.

CM: It’s a comedy isn’t it? Is it just for laughs or does it attack some more serious themes amid the humour?
RL: It’s definitely light and fun with some serious conversations raised about casting big names ​over​ skill. It also shines a light on productions that change roles from female to male and ​debates whether or not it matters ​​if you are famous, or does the audience just want good theatre?​

CM: What made you want to stage this play? What attracted you to it? How did you come across it?
RL: We launched our American season last year with the classic Driving Miss Daisy. From there we wanted to choose a modern ​play that was ​written by a woman. I discovered ‘The Understudy’ after looking at new writing festivals in America. This led me to Theresa’s work. The fact that it’s also a UK premiere and about theatre was icing on the cake.​

CM: Playwright Theresa Rebeck is better known in the US than here, I think – can you tell us a bit about her, and her work?
RL: Theresa has a very ​eclectic career​ encompassing TV, film, books and theatre. She is the creator of TV show ‘Smash’ and has written for many on-going television series including the famous ‘Law & Order’. The theatre is Theresa’s first love, though. having written over 45 plays, including ‘Seminar’ in which our late, great Alan Rickman starred at The Golden Theater. She is passionate about giving back to the industry also and contributes to the study of playwriting and nurturing new writers and is a member of The Dramatists Guild.

CM: And can you also tell us something about your cast? How did you find them?
RL: Emma Taylor who plays the Stage Manager in ‘The Understudy’​ is actually the Canal Cafe Theatre’s artistic director so as you can imagine​ ​t​here’s definitely some life imitating art here! Samuel John and Leonard Sillevis were​ found through the traditional route​, but ironically they actually knew each other so we already have an exciting launch point. What I love about all three of them is that they can totally engage with the plot: actors failing and succeeding at every turn, ongoing unemployment, the joy of finding some work you are passionate about and then the conflict of compromising.

CM: This is part of a wider season of US themed plays, isn’t it? Can you tell us a bit about that and how this show fits into it?
​RL: We launched The American Season last year as a direct response to the Canal Café Theatre wanting to extend its remit. The space is well-known for NewsRevue and comedy, but not many people know you can re-configure the auditorium to a quirky ‘thrust’ or ’round’. Opening with ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ by Alfred Uhry, the season was designed to encompass American work from the past, present and future. The second play (‘The Understudy’) is our present and the third will be a brand new play inspired by the current American political climate. We will be launching details of this very soon!

CM: You seem to have thus far had a very eclectic career, with lots of different elements to it. Would you view yourself primarily as a director, or is that a bit limiting?
RL: ​I guess the term director is the clearest title as I stage work – translate it for an audience, but I’m happiest with ‘theatre-maker’ as I’m more interested in the deeper roles of creating, writing, dramaturgy, audience habits and collaborating with an artist.

CM: Did you always want to have this kind of career, or is that just the way things went?
RL: ​I’ve always been a performer/maker that was attracted to building original ideas and subverting expectations; albeit in my work or career expectations. When I began directing I found I had more opportunities to be involved with or create the type of work I wanted to see. It was also about working environments. I had so many situations where a director didn’t have a clue about working with actors or that they saw themselves as god/tyrants that shouted and made everyone feel terrible – I am a direct response to that!

CM: What are your hopes for the future? What are your unfulfilled ambitions?
​RL: I learned early on that I’m not ambitious per se, more tenacious. I’m only ever seeking two things: interesting projects with inspiring people. I don’t care where it’s on, or who is attached to it – I just want to know what it means if it’s staged in our world today. Someone recently said “Russell, you have a very idiosyncratic career”, and I thought that the best compliment ever.

CM: What’s coming up next?
RL: ​I have a second project bubbling away with artist Henry Davis which includes film and sculpture​; I’m working with Matthew Floyd Jones (Frisky & Mannish) on his new project up at Slung Low in March, and I’ve also got ‘Dollywould’ with Sh!t Theatre; plus my own piece with Martin Malcolm, ‘Warped’, which questions the glamorisation of The Krays.

‘The Understudy’ is on at Canal Cafe Theatre from 21 Feb-11 Mar, see this page here for details.

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Picture: Simon Annand