Interview: Oddsocks Productions’ Elli Mackenzie & Andy Barrow, Part I

As an outdoor theatre company priding themselves on a party atmosphere and accessible entertainment for all, Oddsocks have been delighting audiences as an independent theatre company for just over 30 years. Their wonderful work bringing Shakespeare’s plays to life in brave and whacky ways places them firmly in my top five theatre companies line-up, so it was a real joy to chat with founders Elli Mackenzie (Creative Producer) and Andy Barrow (Artistic Director) on a sunny Saturday morning. Here in Part I we talk origins, values and the importance of adapting to survive no matter what the world throws at you…

Let’s start with the big question. In terms of values, your site tells us that you passionately believe ‘every person in society has the right to access and enjoy theatre in an entertaining, informative and inclusive environment’. That is obviously a brilliant mission statement for a theatre company, and I want to know how the both of you formed that love of theatre initially?

Elli: My love of theatre happened when I was 4. My dad was a professional actor way before I came on the scene. My mum was a very keen amateur director so it was kind of in our blood and our family. I was one of the three children who really picked up on it and loved the stage work of it, so I was involved in amateur theatre and met some amazing amateur actors. There are some amazing amateur actors who I think choose not to do it professionally because it’s too much of a leap but could do. I always sort of sniffed those out and thought ‘ooh, they’re good. I’ll watch them’. It was just in my blood, so going to drama school was a natural next step. In terms of making the company, I don’t think that would have happened for me had I not met Andy, that was sort of our baby –

Andy – (mock shame) Sorry… (laughs) Well it’s a similar story for me because my parents both did acting. My dad actually worked with Sir Donald Wolfit all those years ago, as a spear carrier. They asked him to go and join the company and he kind of stayed behind and became a teacher. But it was in the blood –

Elli: It’s the same profession essentially isn’t it?

Yes – plenty of cross-over there!

Andy: (laughs) Yeah! I did school plays and it was only come the sixth form that I discovered that you could do it professionally, when an older girl was going to drama college and I said (donning school tyke voice) ‘what’s drama college?’ Being from a mining town in Yorkshire, there really wasn’t a lot of culture around. It didn’t feel like a real possibility – but then it was!

And you’ve never looked back…

Andy: Exactly! And then at some point after drama college, I did have this burning desire to set up a company. It was always in my head kind of ‘The Northern Shakespeare Company’ – we were never called that, but somehow I always had that idea, but I didn’t want to limit us at the same time.

So with the clowning and classical acting influences in your combined backgrounds, when did the lightbulb flicker in terms of applying those elements to Shakespeare specifically?

Elli: It was at drama school. I was always involved in Shakespeare (to Andy) more than you were. Shakespeare was something I’d done a lot of as an amateur; I played Juliet in the local amateur company and also another amateur company further afield called Pendley Shakespeare Company (which is still going strong). So my love of Shakespeare was already there, but at drama school there was a project at Webber Douglas, which is the drama school we met at, whereby this (adopts Dowager Countess voice) terribly formidable old ‘queen of the theatre’ – (to Andy) she had a wobbly chin didn’t she? What was she called?

Andy: Judith Gick?

Elli: No, Judith Gick was 187 and she taught as a regular tutor. And her friend (the voice again) Sheila Moriarty, who seemed so old she probably trained with Sarah Bernhardt I think, came along and did a series of workshops whereby your project as a student was to take a character of Shakespeare’s and write the backstory and perform the backstory rather than the front story, which was brilliant and it lit my candle – I loved it. I did Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, which has always been a favourite of mine. (To Andy) Who did you do? You did Claudius from Hamlet. It was a one person show which was done to the entire rest of the school. And we got chosen! (a rather lovely smile of shared nostalgic pride here)…

Andy: It was a big thing at drama college.

Elli: And then Sheila Moriarty would get up at the end and sort of do this big critique of what you did.

Andy: – And I think as a student joining drama college, you saw the older students perform their one person shows and you’d go ‘(gasp) that could be us, wow!’ and then it was, later on. And the adrenaline of standing in front of your peers performing a one person show under a lot of pressure was a real moment, as an actor, to get through. And when it goes well, you come out of it like ‘wow, I can do this’.

Elli: And doing a one person show, it’s kind of like stand up – it’s a real test – it’s that and doing TIE (Theatre in Education) – two tests of being a good actor I think; being able to entertain a theatre on your own and to be able to entertain a group of 7-11 year olds on a Monday morning at 9 o’clock. If you can crack that, you’re worthy of any stage in the world. But we were really swotty so we did a two person show as well, as Prospero and Ariel – I think (laughing) it was the most physically agile I’d ever pretended to be!

Andy: We did have a love of Shakespeare from drama college really.

Elli: And then what happened, the real genesis of Oddsocks is Andy was working for an English speaking theatre in Frankfurt a couple of years later, doing a Neil Simon play –

Andy: Yeah, so we were doing this Neil Simon play and it went over the Christmas period and the theatre was approached by a group of Irish business people saying could we put on any Christmas Eve entertainment for them. And they approached the cast and asked if anybody was interested and I said ‘yeah, it’s worth a few quid’. Four of us said we’d do two two-person shows and we ended up, I don’t know why, but I guess I was kind of thinking about what we’d done at drama college, me and another actress did a two person show of The Taming of the Shrew.

We ended up performing this to about 20 Irish business people in the library of a classic German castle, which was incredibly beautiful and [it was] quite an quite eye opening experience to suddenly be performing a two person show in the glare of no spotlights – because there was no theatre lighting, you could see them, they could see you, and it was warts and all, but good humoured. So we rehearsed this two person show and didn’t know if it was gonna work…did it once, and it was so much fun, they loved it and we’d improvised and again it lit a little fire down below –

Elli: It was a series of things wasn’t it? There was that, there was the start at drama school and then we both got involved as free arts actors in a company called The Marching Lord’s Historical Recreation Unit –

-That must have fit very nicely on a flyer!

Andy: Those were the days when you didn’t have to think about algorithms! (laughs)

Elli: And it was performing in castles – an event where people would go along to a castle on Saturday afternoon, watch all sorts of stuff and then watch the long bow archers of the period – re-enactment kind of stuff. This director wanted a theatre company, so he gave us the run of the place to create theatre, and we started to do that very much in a kind of Medieval, in your face, telling old stories. So we ended up combining skills that we learned from him essentially and drama school and Germany and put it together and thought ‘yeah we can do this somehow’.

Andy: Mmm. On one particular day, we had two spots at Rochester Castle; one was a scripted spot and one was scripted but looser and we discovered that that one went down better, when we simply improvised and made mistakes and went with the flow. And that kind of taught us about the joy of letting people in –

Elli: – breaking down the fourth wall.

Andy: Yeah, and that combination has obviously been the style of Oddsocks for many years.

And when I talk about Oddsocks, that’s what I talk about – that sense of spontaneity and fun. So my next question then is when did those brave, stark style choices come into play? You know, you’ve had Mods and Rockers Romeo and Juliet, Sci-Fi The Tempest and Steam Punk Macbeth – how do those influences arrive?

Elli: It’s from the people we work with I would say. We worked with a particular style for 25 odd years – Andy built a replica of a Medieval pageant wagon, the kind of vehicle people went out on during the plague (ironic pause and raised eyebrow here)…which they performed on because they weren’t allowed to perform in towns. So in our flat in Walthamstow in the next door neighbour’s driveway he single-handedly built this wagon which we then used for 25 years and performed on. Then to cut a very long story short about how a guy came along and joined us, he joined us as an accountant and book keeper but then pulled of the disguise and went (dons anxious voice of this dark horse) ‘I’m really an actor can I audition?’ (laughs) – but he was brilliant. He was actually a brilliant musician and he said ‘I think you can use more music in this’ –

Andy: – It was a combination again of things happening at the right time. The video influence used in our production of Hamlet (now online to view). It was only ten years ago but we had a big influx of video into the performances and that became technically more demanding – and that was down to one of our guys who worked with us as an actor and stayed on. Again, a digital time was happening where we were doing more filming and film was coming into theatre. Again, we were sort of flexible about how do we use it/ what’s it gonna work like and so we played with that. Music has always been a part of the performances, but [in] meeting Dom and him working with us, it became more important and a bigger part of the performance.

Elli: Again, we realised the audience hooked into it more. We were doing a production with Dom of The Comedy of Errors using familiar music, which we’d never used before because of the expense of using it. But we paid for a couple of songs in that and the audience reaction to it was so strong and so positive that it really gave us an angle and a hook. So we thought we’ve got to build on this because it’s obviously what people want.

Andy: And I went to see a production of Twelfth Night by another theatre company, Filter, and I watched it and thought I would like to do this my way, because I’d enjoy it more. So that gave me the confidence to go ‘yeah, I think what we can do will be strong’ and that’s when we did Twelfth Night with a new stage and the music, and suddenly we had a style again that we could take forward for another few years.

Elli: Which was more twenty first century than we had been – you know, we’d been taking Shakespeare back to its roots a little bit, and now it was time to move forward. Bold design decisions with tongues firmly in cheeks…

Well my first show of yours was Macbeth –

Andy: – The steam punk Macbeth?

Yes, so that was mind blown… I’m guessing there’s been more than one Macbeth for Oddsocks then?

Elli: (laughing) Ooooh yes, about ten times in various guises! Andy is actually editing and deciding whether to put online a production that we did a few years before the one you saw which was very…what would you say that was?

Andy: It was kind of quite rough and ready if you compare that production and the production values that we were able to achieve outdoors with five people in the windswept gardens compared to suddenly having the size of the stage and the solidity of the new structure and knowing what we’ve learnt in twenty odd years. The production values are very different.

Elli: We made a big leap in 2014 to clean up our edges. A really good friend who has worked with Bill Kenwright for years saw it in the West End in 2009 – a production of Romeo and Juliet – and he was really open and honest at the end of it and said ‘great, loved it but to me Oddsocks has always been moments of genius surrounded by fuzzy edges’ and so we decided that was quite right and that what we wanted to do was clean up those fuzzy edges. And I think making clear bold design decisions and doing the work recently that we’ve been doing with our summer shows has aimed to do that.

Well it’s certainly felt very sharp to me.

So I was going to ask what makes you so loyal to the outdoor scene but from listening to your answers so far, I’m guessing it’s bred from the experiences of early work in castle grounds and such?

Andy: Well for me, the live nature of working outdoors does work very well with our style of performance, because you can’t ignore it. You can’t pretend there’s a fourth wall there when there’s a peacock or something flying by or it’s peeing it down with rain – you cannot be precious, and it makes you engage with everything so that suited our style. Or perhaps created our style, or helped to.

But also, from past experience I know that outdoor theatre, when it’s good, it’s amazing. When it’s bad, it’s the worst! You know, when it is horizontal sheet rain or a howling gale, it’s absolutely awful and exhausting. But there are times when – I still remember performing Henry V in Warwick Castle for a week, and every night, we hadn’t planned this or anything, it just happened on the first night and repeated for the rest of the week. As the French Ambassador reeled off the list of the dead in the Battle of Agincourt – bearing in mind that we were making people laugh and having fun with this – there was always a moment when the roll of the dead was read out and the church clock was bonging in the background and it was shivers through every spine in the audience and a pin could drop.

And it’s THAT and moments like that which make you go ‘wow, mind blown’ because it’s about everything coming together, which it sometimes does. And you know, Margaret in Richard III comes up on stage and bangs her staff and in the background and lightening comes down and you go ‘WHAT – How did we do that?’ (laughs)

Elli: Or we were performing Richard III – we did a week at a palace in Damascus in Syria – the Azam Palace which is just a beautiful place. Same sort of thing; we had to bring the first half to an end and it’s always difficult timing for us because of the interaction with the audience and we had to make sure that it happened just before the call to prayer happened. So part of my job as performer but also as producer was to make people speed up certain things if we weren’t going to time, and that was just great. The buzz of that immediacy and that was something that we didn’t have to do at any other venue on that tour.

I guess that must keep you on your toes as well, if you’re touring the same show over time, to have to adapt to different spaces like that.

Elli: Yeah, and you know, every theatre show is different because every audience is different but it’s SO different with outdoors.

I would like know if there are particularly rowdy places you tour to… I mean, Harrogate always seems so reserved when you play there…

Andy: It depends. With Harrogate, you generally get one audience that’s quiet and one audience that’s really cocky and confident. Out of the two nights, you get one like that and one like that – it’s not always the first night or anything like that, it just depends on the combination of people.

Elli: What about Workington? Workington can be challenging.

Andy: Workington can be quite challenging because that’s sort of egg sandwiches and lager… They’re a bit like (in character) ‘yeah, fantastic! Didn’t understand a word but they were brilliant’.

Elli: And then London is hard! (exhales deeply)

Why is London hard?

Andy: They’re so busy! They’ve got other things to do.

Elli: Most of them come along for a sleep, don’t they?

Andy: Or they’re on their phones… And that’s like, Canary Wharf, then at other times we’ve played Ilford and we’ve got a lovely audience –

Elli: Oh Ilford is great –

Andy: – they’ve been seeing us for years and you know, they’ll bring us a bottle of wine.

Elli: It is like going to see friends – and that’s the same in Harrogate isn’t it? You notice faces. And we have this thing that we do with our regular audiences who’ve signed up to us. When we’re going to their area, we send a flyer and a hand-written post it note to say ‘hope to see you there’ and it’s by far the most effective piece of marketing because people come up to me if I’m on Box Office and go (waves imaginary post-it) I got it! So it’s so nice.

We always say to our actors and any new actors that join us, because we do an introduction at the start of the show, you know: ‘Hello! I’m blah and I’m playing blah blah blah’ and some actors are like ‘what, why?’ and I say ‘If you don’t get this right, then the rest of the show doesn’t happen because what you have to do is say this is our style – going to an Oddsocks show should be like going to a party with us as the hosts’.

Now that is a good pull quote! And it does feel that way – I do seek it out each year and I do spot the returning faces.

And how are you doing more generally in this strange new time?

Elli: We’re, as everybody, surviving! We’re one of the lucky ones who can sit indoors at the moment, just doing what we can that way. Our daughter is in the high risk category so as much as possible we’re trying to stay safe for her sake as much as anything else. But we’re feeling a bit helpless, with friends working on the front line and not knowing how to help!

And with everything on hold as well, it must be difficult.

Andy: Yeah, and from a company point of view, it’s frustrating because we had a lot of bookings lined up and work’s very seasonal, so you don’t know if you’re gonna do that and if the time is gonna go past when you would normally be working, then you’re suddenly into another void. So everything’s up in the air for everybody really and it’s just really polarised people I think; some people are just working crazy hours and others are just sitting doing nothing – it’s just weird, weird situation.

But you guys are the former aren’t you? Still working crazy hours Monday to Friday?

Elli: We have been – we’re at the point now where it’s a little bit odd. We’re doing as much as we can and we’re just waiting. Our bookings this summer have been falling like dominoes and a lot of similar companies to us – open air companies – are pulling their whole seasons saying ‘look we’ll bite the bullet and start again next year’. We’re not doing that so it’s a bit like we’re waiting for it to go… It’s feeling a little bit like a game of chicken at the moment. It gets very quiet and then now and again we’ll get an email from a festival or a venue going ‘well…what are your thoughts?’ (laughs)

Andy: And I think it was about four weeks ago when I did a ring-round on a Monday morning and said ‘So what do you think?’ And just about everyone was saying ‘yeah we’re up for it, we’re still going ahead – it’s still three/four months away’ – and within days the first few started to say ‘oh we’ve had a government this or a council that’ and they’ve said we’re definitely going to cancel or postpone. So we started moving the earlier bookings later if we could and started to squash everything up into July and August – so we’ve still got July and August as a possibility. But we don’t know if there’ll be a re-emergence; whether we’ll come out of lockdown and then have to go back into it; we don’t know if councils or local government are going to have restrictions for safety and also we don’t know what the mood of people will be like. There are ways that we could mitigate and be safe out performing, we just don’t know. So like with everybody it’s all uncertainty, you cannot be absolutely 100% clear. So it’s bizarre!

Elli: In the meantime, with our own work, we’re posting things online and looking at any which way we can secure a bit of funding which is something totally new to Oddsocks, we’ve not done that ever. So yeah, we’re pretending to work!

Andy: Well I think are actually (laughs). We’re spending probably six to eight hours a day in the office trying to do something, whether we’re looking at how much everything costs and {how} can we save. We’ve been going through insurance documents which I don’t think ANYBODY enjoys doing (laughing) but looking at the fine print and thinking do we really need to insure that and would they pay out anyway? Then on the other side of it, we’re putting a lot of back catalogue stuff on YouTube and just keeping a presence out there. There are people who are out there in a worse position than us, and if we can provide them with a little bit of entertainment on YouTube then great, we’ll help in that way.

Well you’ve been going for a good while – have you faced anything remotely like this in terms of challenges you’ve come through?

Elli: Nothing as daunting, nothing as universal. But there have been times when it’s been difficult; we’ve survived three recessions now and obviously we’re about to go into our fourth –

Andy: – And Foot and Mouth. That was that was interesting –

Elli: – Yeah, for an open air theatre company that was challenging. But no, nothing like this.

Andy: It is quite unique.

Elli: I think what we’ve found within this crisis in terms of access to help, governmental help and things like that, is that we found ourselves frustratingly falling down too many cracks and loopholes. What has kept us going over the thirty years as an unfunded theatre organisation is that we’ve had to be adaptable, we’ve had to be inventive and creative. We’ve sort of written the manual on cutting the cloth and thinking of creative ways to get out of things, because we’ve had to. We’ve had no financial support or guidance from any public body over the years so if we can do anything, it’s survive I think. Thirty years as an unfunded theatre company proves that.

And few can claim that, right?

Andy: It’s certainly a long time. We’ve been through ups and downs and I think one of the things that gives us strength is the network, the community that we have. Before we started putting things online, I contacted many of the past actors who I knew were in the shows and I basically said would they object to things going out on YouTube and the amount of responses we got back was so positive and if anything I think that’s a positive that’s come out of it – we’re reconnecting with people as a community.

Elli: Across the world actually, we’ve got quite a few performers who’ve moved on and moved away to America and places. So it’s creating that network again and who knows what will come of that?

Working with Oddsocks must be as fun as it looks to inspire that loyalty then – graft but fun I should imagine?

Andy: Yes, it is fun, there are good times. We never get away from the fact that it’s a job and there’s a responsibility. For Elli and I, obviously the buck stops with us so there are times – financially or economically or emotionally, whatever you call it – there are times when the responsibility is important. But actually, you’ve shared life on the road in silly situations making people laugh and making entertainment – and that’s been great! That’s why we want to keep doing it. What else is there (laughs)?

Elli: It’s a life and it’s a family business – you can’t separate the two strands really, it’s never felt like going to work, it’s always felt like this is our life.

Andy: It is. It’s a living – you don’t just get up to go to work to make some money, you are part of it 365 days a year.

And on that note, Part I draws to a neat close. Take a look at Part II to find out what the pair have to say about laughter, Laurel and Hardy V Chaplin, and their best ‘the show must go on’ tales… Don’t forget to also head over to their website to learn more about them, their YouTube page to enjoy their postings of previous work and their Twitter page to stay in the loop with all the latest. And finally, please consider donating to Oddsocks Productions if you able; as an independent company with no public funding, Oddsocks now faces trying times. Contributions from those who can are greatly appreciated and you can donate via the website or the ‘donate’ button featured alongside the YouTube videos.

4 thoughts on “Interview: Oddsocks Productions’ Elli Mackenzie & Andy Barrow, Part I

Add yours

  1. Love, love, LOVE The Socks! I had the joy of sitting in on some rehearsals and interviewing them all for my PhD thesis! I hope these moribund days of theatre don’t dampen their amazing progress. Fantastic interview, by the way. I look forward to the second half!

    Liked by 1 person

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