Interview: Ollie Norton-Smith Talks Our Man in Havana & Speed Dial

Spies Like Us are bringing not one but two pieces to the 2020 Vault Festival. One – Our Man in Havana – is a fully fledged production which has already gained significant recognition and the other – Speed Dial – is a work in progress. With both arriving on the Vault scene between 3-7th March (Havana: 3rd-5th, Speed Dial: 6th-7th), I caught up with Co-Artistic Director and Director/Co-Writer for both shows, Ollie Norton-Smith to talk all things Spies Like Us, Speed Dial and Our Man in Havana…

So let’s start at the beginning – when, how and why did Spies Like Us come to be?

Ah, memories! We formed as a company in 2017 as the Pleasance’s XYP Company. On that programme we created and performed our debut show, ‘Our Man in Havana’, which we are bringing back for VAULT festival. All seven of us original members had met making theatre as part of Young Pleasance, the Pleasance’s young company.

You’ve shone as a company pretty quickly and mightily, enjoying sell-out runs, winning various awards and enjoying impressive recognition, including being named one of New Diorama Theatre’s Graduate Emerging Companies 2019-2020 and one of Pleasance’s London Associate Artists. What have been the biggest joys and challenges along the way so far?

The things you mention there have obviously been fantastic, and we’re incredibly privileged to have such fantastic support as a young company. I think the high points as a company both came last year with our performances of ‘Our Man in Havana’ at Artistree in Hong Kong and ‘Woyzeck’ at the Loco Klub in Bristol. Each project is incredibly challenging in its own unique way, but working on 2019’s ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ was a real challenge as our first original piece. We learned a great deal from it and those lessons are writ large in ‘Speed Dial’ I think, particularly with regards to our approach to character and narrative.

As an award-winning ensemble physical theatre company, can you tell us what draws you to physical theatre?

It’s the potential for increased expression through physicality I think. We’re passionate about working in and creating an ensemble and working in a physical style really enables that. None of us are trained dancers, but the different physical languages we create in and for every show allows us to create more emotive, dramatic and exciting drama.

You proudly say that as a company you’re ‘committed to producing endlessly inventive theatre’. As a collective of seven members, where do you tend to draw your devising starting points from and how do you go about merging all of those respective influences?

We’ve been inspired by so many different sources of inspiration for each project. In the case of ‘Our Man in Havana’ and ‘Woyzeck’ we were adapting existing texts, but ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ and ‘Speed Dial’ (even though the latter is inspired by a chapter from ‘If On A Winters Night a Traveler’) came much more from strong emotions we were feeling as a company. We tend to take a very holistic approach to all elements of a production from very early on in the process, creating playlists, visual stimulus and compiling texts that speak to the experience we want an audience to have, an emotion we want to feel, a theme we might be interested, or something totally different.

We are very playful in the way we work, so the experience of merging, discarding and developing some of our early ideas takes place in a very playful rehearsal room after a short R&D period when we experiment and see what we like. We are all collaborators, and in all our projects we try to build teams of people with diverse interests and skills and give everyone the space to express themselves with energy and vitality and without fear..

You’re bringing two shows to Vault Festival this year which is quite a feat. Let’s talk about Our Man in Havana first. It’s a full-speed spy farce – where did the notion of an espionage farce pivoting on an average Joe vacuum salesman come from?

You’d have to ask Graham Greene for the real inspiration! What made us really decide to make this show was a combination of the emergence of ‘fake news’ as a household term, along with the idea that we could use a 1950s vacuum cleaner, the central tool Wormold, to deceive and make mischief, as our only prop, making the entire world of the play from this trivial object and transforming it into so much more.

With the promise of the show ‘dissect[ing] the piercingly relevant themes of misinformation and corruption’, we could be forgiven for mistaking the show for something altogether more dramatic than a farce. Is there serious messaging nestling under the hilarity?

The novel seems to anticipate this idea by decades and is so prescient it’s really quite unnerving. We made this show in 2017 and were drawn to it given the global socio-political climate and its penchant for bending facts and twisting truths. The fact of the matter is that Wormold spreads lies in the story, but they have real consequences: lives are at stake and there is real, pressing danger. It’s funny, and silly, because the very idea of finding out hidden truths is slightly absurd to most of us I think, but the narrative shifts and the potential for imagination to destroy as much as it can create is woven into the fabric of the play, even if things do end rather cheerily.

Pace in farce is a notorious beast to tame – in your view, does the status of physical theatre company give you an added edge in this respect?

It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s certainly something we lent into. We didn’t really have much of a choice at first: we had an hour long slot and a 220-page plot to cram into it! We were really inspired by old school cartoons, particularly Looney Toons, and we wanted to give the sense of the world really spiralling out of control.

The most exciting part of making a farce in a physical style is that we have to win the audience over early, to convince them to buy into the style from the downbeat so that we are able to tell our complex story in this stripped-back style. If the audience doesn’t believe that a vacuum cleaner pipe can’t be a bar in the opening 30 seconds, they’re not going to believe that the main body of it can be a dog in the final 10 minutes. Some people find physical theatre to be quite a serious form of storytelling, so for us it’s really a lot of fun to get to be silly, boogying around to cracking Cuban tunes and trying to make people laugh as we do.

Now onwards to Speed Dial! This show is actually a work in progress – how does it feel to bring work to audiences during this early stage and what do you take away from this element of the overall creative process?

It’s so, so exciting, and genuinely a huge honour that the team at VAULT have trusted us enough to program this show at this stage. It’s not going to be something where we’re reading off scripts, it will be just as tightly choreographed and detailed as our previous shows, but we will have more things in there that we’re not *quite* sure about at this stage. At the same time, I have no doubt that this version of ‘Speed Dial’ will feel like a totally different piece in some sections when we make a final version. This is our first time creating something where the first performance in front of an audience isn’t the opening night of a 4 week run. We’re really enjoying the longer-term, more holistic approach.

We want to involve audiences in the creative process, something we always hope to achieve by activating their imaginations during performances, but by giving them an input with their feedback we want to match our (over) ambitiousness with practical responses to what we’re doing, to see whether what we’re aiming for is just a good idea, whether it’s already working in practice, or whether it needs a total rethink. We know what we want the piece to do, and where we want it to get to, but we hope that by having audiences involved at this earlier stage we will be able to respond to their input in a more deliberate, considered way to in our other work.

The show follows a professor on a whodunnit mission to discover the identity of a mystery caller who knows far too much. Is there an Agatha Christie/ Sherlock vibe to the work or is it more playful than that?

At the risk of sounding painfully pretentious, it’s somewhat fluid when it comes to genre. It’s funny, tender, sad, a bit scary, exciting and packed full of heart. We don’t really work our way through the list of suspects one by one to solve the mystery, it’s much more about what else is happening and why.

Speed Dial sounds both a stone’s throw and a healthy mile or two from Our Man in Havana. Billed as an ‘action-packed physical thriller about connection, forgiveness and inter-faculty rivalry‘, it looks set to tackle more dramatic material than its sister show. Was it a conscious decision to strike out and create work of a different tone after the success of Our Man in Havana?

After we made ‘Havana’ we made ‘Woyzeck’, which, as a devastating tragedy about class and mental health, could not have been further away from whatever people thought we were going to be as a company after that first year. Whilst we knew it was a risk when we were making it, we weren’t acting on any kind of desire to avoid easy categorisation. We’ve always been drawn to projects that have inspired us or made us think about the world differently.

All of our shows feel very different I think, even though they’ve retained many formal and stylistic similarities. We don’t want to tell the same stories in the same ways with the same objectives and outcomes. I think the biggest difference between ‘Havana’ and ‘Speed Dial’ is that one is silly, and the other is fun. Both have a lot to say, but there are no fools in ‘Speed Dial’, there’s plenty in the other.

The focus on pace and action remains a constant in your work though – would you say your physical style is set to dedicate itself to that characteristic or do you see delicate, gentle pieces in the future for Spies Like Us too?

There is calmness and gentleness in all of our shows. Without moments of still the fast bits don’t feel fast, it just feels normal and the actors are fighting to keep control of a piece that’s spiralling out of control. My favourite scenes we’ve ever made as a company have been those that are lighter and more delicate. It would be really fun to try and make something where that was the dominant tone, though. Perhaps the next show!

As audiences head home after seeing your shows, what would you like them to be discussing or debating about your work?

At the end of our plays we want audiences to feel something, think something, and act in some way, but it’s very different for both. After ‘Speed Dial’ we hope audiences will be discussing the nature of connection, what it takes to forgive and what feedback they would give us to clarify our narrative and themes. Above all, though, I hope that everyone might just want to pick up the phone to someone they haven’t spoken to for longer than they should.

After ‘Havana’ we hope audiences will be laughing at the absurdity of objective truth, discussing their favourite uses of the vacuum cleaner and planning their trip to Havana (you’re welcome, Cuban tourist board!). Perhaps it’s flippant, but with music being such an integral part of both shows and Oscar, our Sound Designer, being such a genius, we hope audiences will be debating which are their favourite pieces from the soundtrack!

And finally, in just one sentence, why should audiences come to see Our Man in Havana and Speed Dial?

If you want to smile, laugh, or dance, gasp, flinch or cry, there’s something for you in both these pieces, they’re made and performed with a great deal of love and respect for audiences, and are a cracking night at the theatre without compromising on emotional heft.

So there you have it! Remember, both shows play the Vault Festival between 3-7th March. You can find Our Man in Havana (3rd-5th) tickets here and Speed Dial (6th-7th) tickets here.

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