Interview: Red Ladder Theatre’s Rod Dixon, Part II

In Part II of this interview with Red Ladder Theatre’s Rod Dixon, we talk love of dark clowns, Madame Gilles, his acting man-crush and his best ‘the show must go on’ tales. If you missed Part I, you can get caught up here but for now, grab brew number II and settle in…

So, lighter questions now… Do you have any hidden talents you’d now like to declare to the world?

Oh my God… I wish I’d had time to think about that! (much thought follows) I’m such an extrovert I’ve probably shown off all my life anyway. I’m really good at making pancakes! I may need to set up as a pancake business after this!

I’ll take it! And what makes you belly laugh?

I really really really love dark clowns so I went to see Red Bastard and it was so scary and so funny. My partner is also a performer and she’s kind of given it up and isn’t really interested anymore so we went to see Butt Kapinski at Edinburgh Fringe and she’d been directed by Red Bastard and she was so funny, Ella said ‘I wanna do that! I wanna be a dark clown!’ So that kind of live clowning really does make me double over.

Can you name a specific, sparkling highlight from your career to date?

There have been three occasions (this is a bit cheat-y) but there’ve been three occasions when an audience’s response to a Red Ladder show has been breath-taking. So we performed a show which was a beautiful musical comedy about the women in a miner’s strike called We’re Not Going Back, which Boff from Chumbawamba wrote.

We performed it at the Durham Miner’s Gala in the Durham Miner’s Hall to an audience of National Union of Miners workers, Labour Party people – big wigs basically – and we were a bit nervous about doing it for them because they might have been insulted by it. There was a beautiful song about Orgreave called This is War which one of the women sang, and the scene was set at a fish counter and they sang this song with beautiful harmonies. And then there was this dead silence at the end of it. And then the audience just stood on their feet, all eight hundred of them, whooping and shouting. The women on stage were stunned and almost fell into tears, and they had to get back on because it was the middle of a scene and it was just a moment which took my breath away.

And we did a show called The Shed Crew, which is a true story about a gang of teenagers in the 90s who lived in a garden shed in Leeds, scoring heroine and basically being feral. And the real shed crew, those who are still alive, came to see it. Only a few months before we made it, the lead character, in real life, died from bad heroine and so we re-designed the show as a tribute to him and we did it in a warehouse where we store all our costumes and sets so that the audience weren’t sitting in a comfortable theatre watching the underbelly of society, they were walking alongside it and understanding it. And the real shed crew came and you could feel the tension in the atmosphere as they watched their own lives being performed. Some of what we were performing was very grim, you know, shooting up with heroine and stealing cars and stuff like that – and they loved it. And weirdly, I didn’t know any of them but we had cast actors that looked them by pure fluke and they were having selfies in the bar afterwards, and oh my God it was so moving.

Then Mother Courage getting standing ovations every night. That sounds very trivial but seeing young people and old people seeing a piece of Brecht, which is about war, with tears in their eyes as they watched it – it just couldn’t be better. So those are three occasions. My lighting designer Tim Skelly said of all the companies he’s worked with, those are the few occasions where he’s thought ‘wow, we’ve actually moved an audience here and now and they’ve loved it and we’ve told their story.’ With Mother Courage, it was dangerous, but we invited refugees to come and see it, because it was their story; walking away from battlefields. That could have been really insensitive of us, the same with The Shed crew, but we got it right. And the refugee audiences were coming up to us saying ‘you shared my story, you told my story, and not in a patronising way but in a way that has honoured me, thank you’ and you go ‘wow, theatre can be really, really powerful if you get it right’.

Can you name a production which has had a lasting impact or influence on you?

Shock Headed Peter. I don’t know when it was – probably 2000. That was an Improbable show of Phelim’s and it was just awesome, it was unbelievable and I’ll never ever forget it. And it had an influence of me stylistically as well. I think that’s probably the biggest one – I mean, lots and lots of shows like Pete Postlethwaite being King Lear and Max Wall in Waiting for Godot, but those were just amazing performances. With Shock Headed Peter everything about it was just mind-blowing. When the lights went down you forgot you were in a theatre, you were transported – unbelievable.

The best kind of show! Who inspires you most in the industry?

I think Phelim is a massive influence. I think he’s a wonderful director and a wonderful human being. I have a man crush on Ben Whishaw. He was in a production of Mercury Fur, the first one, when I was working at Plymouth Theatre Royal and it was the first show where I have been genuinely terrified by what was happening on the stage. People were getting up and walking out, not because the show was bad but because it was just too much for them. He is quite remarkable face to face when you see him live – for me he’s one of the best actors ever.

High praise indeed there. Now, what’s the most enjoyably challenging part of your job?

Sometimes it’s not really enjoyable, but I think the key to my job is keeping fear out of the room. And any time fear comes into the room in a big way, it challenges me in a different way. So with Andrea, she had a major wobble on Day 1 of rehearsal and I could see why; it was daunting, what she had to do.

The first production of The Damned United was mid-scale and it had six dancers on stage from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance doing football movements during the football match. Both of the lead actors – quite experienced – were really against the idea. They were trying to persuade me, in front of the other actors, not to do it because they felt it would pull focus from them… and they were wrong because it was perfect. But they were just frightened. They weren’t undermining me, they were just frightened that it would ruin the show and so it came from a good place – it always comes from a good place, because everybody wants the show to be the best show that’s ever been, that’s why we do it.

So managing fear is a big challenge and it’s a big part of a director’s job. It’s not an exact science. It’s just about making people feel safe, and making the room safe, and letting them feel empowered, so it’s important that those actors had the opportunity to say we don’t think this is gonna work and for me to then have to try and persuade them. I did actually manage it but when you’re in that place it’s a pretty uncomfortable place for everybody. That’s why I think, in a way, we as theatre makers, our job is to examine human behaviour. That’s what our job is. It opens the doorways to bullying and all kinds of things happen in rehearsal rooms that I’ve experienced as an actor as well as a director and how you manage that is part of your skill and I think after quite a number of years, I’m still struggling with it.

I love ending with this question so I hope you’ve got a doozy. Do you have a really good ‘the show must go on’ story?

Quite a few actually… We do this exercise that Mike Shepherd from Kneehigh taught me called Madame Gilles which is about maintaining the rhythm and the metre of a scene. Because Kneehigh used to always perform outdoors, you sometimes had to re-block entire scenes because you were performing on a cliff or in a quarry or wherever and you go ‘I’m gonna do Scene 6 up there in that castle window and shout it down’, so you’d have to build in that time to let the actor climb the steps and get to that window or light a fire torch on the top of a cliff where it wouldn’t blow out. So you’d have to change things constantly. It’s a beautiful exercise involving people re-building the scene over and over again according to what happens.

We made a comedy a few years ago called Sex and Docks and Rock and Roll, which was about a dock strike and it was very funny. There was a reveal in it and a policeman got hit on the head in Scene 1, was then bundled into a cupboard for the whole play and spent the whole play banging on the cupboard door trying to get out. The reveal was that – all the way through the play Auntie Mona talked about ‘Spotty John’ who left her in the lurch and left her with an illegitimate child and all this kind of thing. The reveal was that the policeman was Spotty John and when he opened up the cupboard she was supposed to go ‘(gasp) SPOTTY JOHN!’. And she was just about to go (gasp) when somebody’s phone went off in the audience –

– Oh no…

– So what they did was a Madame Gilles and they re-wound the whole scene in front of the audience. Without planning it, they just looked at each other and went ‘Gilles!’ and went backwards and then replayed the whole scene and the audience just absolutely loved it – it was just a show must go on moment and I loved them for it, it was amazing.

Oh and there was one more! We were performing a show at a working men’s club in Wakefield the week after students got kettled in 2010 or 2011. And in the interval, a young man came up to us and said ‘can I make an announcement please?’ And we said ‘ok’ and he stood up and got hold of one of the mics and said ‘yesterday I was kettled by the police and I missed my train and I had to borrow money from all the people around me to get home. It cost me £250 to get home and I want to pay all those people back. Could you put some money in this bucket?’ And he’s brought this bucket with him and the interval lasted 45 minutes as people got up and gave speeches about police brutality and it was so radical and left wing and it was ridiculous. In the end we had to stand up and say can we finish the show now? And they said yeah – you couldn’t write that!

And with my neighbours taking this ripe opportunity to hammer in some nails, Rod’s neighbours jumping to their lawn mowing marathon and son Noah arriving to raid the fridge, this cracking interview drew to an entertainingly eventful close, no doubt representative of all ‘working from home’ Zoom calls the world over right now…

Rod Dixon and Red Ladder Theatre will be back to thrill audiences another day on the other side of Covid-19 lockdowns. Why not take a look at their site for some more great background and keep yourselves entertained by rooting around in the past shows section? You can also keep up to date with Rod’s blogs and such via the Twitter page.

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