Jake Francis is both Artistic Director of Skin and Bone Theatre and sole performer of the company’s fiery debut show, Irvine Welsh’s Filth. I saw the show in its earliest days at the Camden Fringe back in 2017 and gave it a deserved glowing write-up. Since then Jake’s one man hurricane of a show has played more (sold out) London dates, enjoyed a run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Amsterdam Storytelling Festival. I caught up with Jake a few weeks ago to talk Filth, Skin and Bone and all things theatre…
So when and how did it all begin for you?
For me, I came into music first because when I was a kid I was a really high soprano, so I was in the school choir and did the school plays and was very much at the forefront because I had a really good singing voice – no teaching, no training, I could just do it.
Wow – that’s impressive.
Yeah, it was great. And then I had a really long voice break and just lost it –
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s really sad… So I couldn’t really sing for a few years, because of the voice break and I had no training or technique but in the meantime, I did a lot of drama at school, went to university and just kept going with it really. I think I was on stage in a Year 6 production and went ‘yeah, this is great, this is good!’
And then onto actor training in some form?
Well I went to the Uni of Exeter, which isn’t traditional actor training but it was great because rather than training you to be an actor, the course trains you to be a theatre maker in general. In the third term, it’s great – there’s no exams, no coursework or anything and if you want to, you can go home. But they have a third term festival where it’s like, ‘if you want to put on a play, pitch it to us and the way you wanna do it, and, do it’. You can act, you can produce, you can write, you can design the lighting, design the sound – anything you want. By the end of it, I think I’d done about thirty plays at uni.
And now you are the Artistic Director of Skin and Bone Theatre Company so talk to me about the origins and journey of the company.
Well, it started really with me wanting to put on a play, which is Filth. So Filth was a play that I’d known about since the end of university because I collaborated with a friend of mine and wrote an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel – of Skag Boys, an unofficial one. So I bought a book of four plays of Irvine Welsh and it had Trainspotting in it and a couple of others that aren’t really well known. And just in the back of this book was a one man show of Filth and I was like ‘okay, well that’s interesting. I’ve not heard that that is a thing’ – because I knew Trainspotting was a play before it was a film but no one had ever talked about Filth.
So fast forward to a little while of just being struggling actor in London as many of us are, and I thought ‘right, I need to either put this play on or stop talking about it’. Because I’d talked about it with a few of my friends and I was like ‘Oh I’ve kind of got this play that I kind of wanna do and you know, it’s cool but, I don’t know when I’ll do it…’ and it’s just like you know what no, I really need to do this.
So I thought about what my values are when it comes to theatre, which is a real connection with the audience and an intensity of performance, like a real live connection, and quite pared back as well; I don’t think you need a hell of a lot to really make a great show. So I ended up booking the Etcetera Theatre at the Camden Fringe and said ‘I’m doing it’. And then the panic set in! (laughs)
And did you direct Filth as well? I can’t remember now!
No, it was a friend of mine called Anna Marshall. She’s a Lecoq trained director. So we put out a call out for directors to see if anyone was interested in it and Anna was the first person I think I met and we just hit it off straight away. We really collaborated on the direction of it and we also had an assistant director, Justin Murray, who was really good in the room. So it was a big collaborative effort and I still work with Anna any chance I get because she’s incredible.
So why is the company called Skin and Bone? I like to dig into company names.
Well, I like really pared back performances; performances that don’t have a lot of frills or anything. That phrase [Skin & Bone] evoked that for me a little bit. And also, it’s a little bit to do with myself, because I’ve always been a very slim, very thin guy and that’s something that people used to say to me – ‘you’re basically skin and bone’ and I was like ‘oh okay, let’s use that as an advantageous thing’.
And moving on to the back catalogue, you’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and classics, so was Filth a release of some kind, to be able to dive into something much more modern and less restrained?
That’s a really good question actually, because there is a feeling that classic theatre, with Shakespeare and everything, is so far removed from contemporary theatre. and in many ways it totally is, but when you delve into a lot of Shakespearean meaning and what he’s actually saying with his characters, it’s really modern.
And in this (the lockdown) I’ve done some Zoom readings of Shakespeare with a Canadian company, which is a really good way to keep up with everything and we’ve been finding the meaning behind some of the phrases and going ‘did he write that or are you making that up?’ because it just pings out as really modern. But yeah, it was a really nice departure from the classical work that I’ve done but I don’t think I really felt a ‘freedom’ from it because it’s just the best sometimes; sometimes there’s nothing better than a great Shakespeare production.
But even if we were seeing the most whacky revamped Shakespeare production, there’s still quite a giant leap to Filth! It’s quite an interesting trajectory, from lots of classical work to Filth.
It was, because it was such an unknown play and it was unknown to me as well, so I thought ‘well what an opportunity, that no one’s done this play for a very long time’ – I don’t think it had been done since about 2000 when I did it. And I met the guy who performed it originally – Tam Dean Burn. He was so happy and supportive and really rooting for me to do well.
Ah, that’s so lovely.
Yeah, really lovely – and they’re just like a total family of people who are really big fans of Irvine Welsh’s work. But it is a massive departure from Shakespeare I guess in that way.
And then there’s the Scottish accent of yours – does Filth have to be performed in a Scottish accent do you think? Is it stipulated?
I feel like it does, Filth certainly does. But actually Tam Dean Burn told me that a guy in India did Filth – I don’t know how he did it, he may have done it in a different accent, but I feel like you kind of lose the grit and the authenticity of the piece if you don’t address where it’s from.
Yes – and actually, thinking about it, there’s quite a bit of dialect in there isn’t there? So I guess that does make it very specific.
Oh yeah – I had to look up a lot, because they use Cockney rhyming slang and then there’s things like places in Edinburgh that you’d only know if you’d been there. There’s a lot of research going into it.
And you were so dead on with that accent – do you have roots or connections in Scotland?
There’s definitely a Scottish connection in my family, hence the red hair! But actually it came from when we did Skag Boys at university because Trainspotting is written phonetically and in the dialect they use, so I would just read that out loud to myself a lot because I’m very visual and looking at it on the page helped me to translate it into performance. The script itself is also phonetic so you’ve got words like ‘trousers’ spelt with a double ‘o’, so it’s – (switches into accent) ‘troosers’ (laughs) and just doing it again and again. I think it’s about a fifty page script, so just doing it a lot really helps.
I always want to know if actors end up slipping into those on-stage accents off- stage… Filth is such an intensive piece – did you find that accent bleeding into daily life?
Of course it did! (laughs)
So you head to the chippy and the Scot comes out as you place your order?
Oh yeah, I’d be like (accent) ‘aright pal’ but because I’m a red head anyway, it looks right on me. When I did the show at Edinburgh, obviously I was in the accent for the whole performance and then at the end you do the whole ‘thank you so much for coming’ and I had one bloke shout at me at the end, and he went ‘where the f did that accent come from?’ And I was like ‘sorry, this is how I sound!’
To be honest my eyebrows shot up when I took a look at your Spotlight profile and read that RP is your native accent! That must be a real compliment, to have a Scot believe you like that?
It was incredible, because that was a big fear as well, doing it in Edinburgh, especially with so much script; if I’d dropped it for even a second, they be like (sceptical groan)…
And I’m guessing it’s been a while since you’ve done it now so are you missing it?
The show I really miss. I last did it in November last year so it’s not been too long. I totally miss the show itself…the putting it on and the producing side, getting it all up and running, I don’t really miss!
The backstage stuff doesn’t sound quite as fun…
No, especially when it’s a one man show and it’s your company and you’re producing. But the show itself is always fantastic and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, like lines-wise; I think you just get on the ball and you just start going.
You’ll be in that care home, aged ninety, with someone triggering you into doing the full show – off goes the TV and you become the entertainment…
It’ll be cool – they won’t get a sensible word out of me! Five minutes and he’s started on it again… I wouldn’t mind that – that’d be good fun! (laughs)
The brain is a crazy thing and if you can still recite it now, there’s no reason that won’t be coming back in your later years without warning!
Well apparently if you do your lines perfectly fourteen times, you never forget them and I’ve done the show about twenty five times now.
Yes, because the show went on a bit of a journey after I saw it at the Camden Fringe didn’t it?
Yeah, we went from the Camden Fringe, that was its first outing, to the Tristan Bates the following year to do a preview before Edinburgh – they had a really cool initiative with previews. So we had to re-work the sets and everything and then we went to Edinburgh for two weeks. We didn’t do the whole thing because I wasn’t sure I could sustain it for the entire thing. Really, if you have an interval, it’s about a two and a half hour play all told, and we were doing it at ninety minutes with barely any cuts. In Edinburgh we had to do it in 75 minutes.
I’d be interested to know what got cut there…
We didn’t cut anything, that’s the thing! Anna and I looked at it and we went ‘well, we can cut that section, but if you cut that section, that bit doesn’t follow.’ It’s all one whole, so we did little micro-cuts where we took out a line here and there but because it was so fast, I had to speak really really quickly in Edinburgh (laughs) just to get the words out! It was a mile a minute. There’s one point I got to in the play, I remember this really clearly, it’s a bit of a moment where it’s a bit more ‘okay, that bit’s over’ and in Edinburgh it was like (heavy breath) ‘oh God, catch the breath’ – aaaaaand, we’re back on, until the end.
Well that’s kind of astonishing really, to think that what I saw could be revved up even more. A two week run in Edinburgh on fast forward like that? I’m surprised you managed to stand up for the bows!
Some days were harder than others; I hit the wall about performance seven and I was just like ‘Oh God, oh God’ but you just have to get through it!
Were you doing two or more show days as well?
No, we didn’t do any two show days, I thought that would be, y’know, suicide! (laughs) I couldn’t have done that. But after Edinburgh actually, we got invited back to the Tristan Bates the following January to do some shows and then the guys from the Amsterdam Storytelling Festival invited me to do it in November.
So what’s next for you then, are we mulling things over or planning?
It’s a tough one at the moment, obviously, but I’ve got a few ideas about what I’d like to do and [I’d like to] maybe start directing as well. I’ve always wanted to do Faustus which I know is a return to classics, but in a really modern way, which is where I’m leaning towards next. Apart from that, there’s a few things in the pipeline that just need a lot of research and a lot of work.
Well, you have time – time for plenty of research and work from the sofa.
Yeah, suddenly I’ve got all this time, it’s brilliant – well, not really, but there you go…
Well that’s the thing now, we have all this time strangely and suddenly but can we actually propel ourselves to do anything in it?
Well I was saying to someone earlier, because we were talking about the fact that there’s so much online contact that people are putting out; people doing monologues and doing one to ones with casting directors which is fabulous for lots of people, that they can get themselves to do that and get a bit more exposure. But I said to my friend I feel like it’s not a hustle at the moment. It’s a pandemic. You don’t need to push yourself out there if you don’t feel that’s right for you – or you don’t need to feel pressured to do that. Just do what you feel will get you through it and for some people it’s different.
Exactly – I think within a week that stand off arrived; some people saying if you’re not doing this you’re just being lazy and it’s a wasted opportunity and other people saying you know what, you need the break, this is intense – just sit with your emotions for a bit and then come back.
There’s no one size-fits-all really, as long as we let each other do what we need to do and don’t have a go if people aren’t doing much – or if they are doing a lot.
So moving on to happier things, do you have any dream roles?
Yes! I think we all do really. A lot of mine are classical roles because I just feel like that’s where it really separates people who are fundamentally skilled and are able to replicate and know what they’re talking about – I just really love classical roles. I would say my dream role is probably Richard III because you just get a lot of different facets in that part and I’ve always thought it’s a really fun part to play as well.
There’s a lot of interaction with the audience and I obviously really get a buzz off being able to look at the audience and say something to them and get that interplay. I’m really into history as well, I love the history of it all – anything I try and work on, I usually try to base it in history because it’s really interesting. So Richard III and maybe Macbeth, but I’m still a bit too young for Macbeth.
You just want to bring that accent back don’t you? I see right through that!
I get really funny about Macbeth because it’s set in Scotland; you should all be Scottish! But you can’t say that because if you’re doing The Merchant of Venice, they’re all Italian so where does it stop?
It’s really interesting to see what an accent does to a text I think.
Absolutely. When I did Macbeth last year with a Canadian company called the Malachites, I played Macduff and I came into the rehearsal room and I was like ‘so you want it in the Scottish accent don’t you? Because I did that in my audition for you?’ and he was like (non- committal) ‘um, I mean, if you want – yeah’. So I was like ‘okay, so I’m gonna make him Scottish’. And the girl playing Lady Macduff is from Glasgow so she said ‘right, well I’m gonna make Lady Macduff Scottish’ so I was like ‘how are we the only Scottish family in the village?!’ (laughs) Everyone else was in thick Canadian accents…
So talk to me about influences then. Any companies/ practitioners/ actors/ performances that have stuck with you?
I get influenced a lot by the people I work with, certainly. I’ve been really influenced by my director, Anna, because of the way she’s directed me and made me think about things differently. I’m very cerebral sometimes so I’ll say to her ‘how about if this this this’ and she’s like ‘okay…show me what that looks like.’ And I go ‘hmmm. Yeah…uh…I don’t know?’ So she really grounded me a lot in that which is really fantastic.
Then I love moments on stage which have stuck with me – there was a Faustus, I think it was an RSC Faustus a couple of years ago, and the two actors, at the start, dressed in black suits – no music no anything, they just came on the stage, each picked up a box of matches, took one out, lit it in front of each other and they just stared at each other as the match went down… And the person whose match went out first played Faustus that night and the other one was Mephistopheles.
Yeah – to this day I’m just like that may be the best thing I’ve ever seen. As I say, you don’t need much; that was just two guys lighting a match and looking at each other and it was chilling. And brilliant. But I tend to think in terms of the theatre making of it because of my background, rather than just what actor inspires me. I think you take little pieces out of lots of performances that you see – you know, when I’ve watched friends do duologues in classes and all that sort of thing. And Mary Doherty, who runs the actor’s class, has been a big influence as well because she’s just fantastic – and she was in Come From Away recently.
I do want to be nosy for a second though and ask how you deal with being in character and having to deal with really bad audience behaviour like you tweeted about during your Edinburgh run.
I always find the line really hard with audiences. Because I’ve seen lots of really good actors totally shame audience members and I’ve seen them ignore audience members and I always feel like the shaming is such a hard line to walk because for me, about 80% of the people who’ve had their phones go off or anything like that in performances are so mortified and so unhappy that that’s happened – they’re just as unhappy as you are.
In that very show actually, where everything went wrong from the audience, we got really close to the end – everything had already happened and this poor guy in the front row, his phone went off. And he was such a rock for me in the whole performance because he was in it and he was really supportive… and then his phone went off and he was just mortified and I was like (defeated) ‘oh lord’.
So it’s a mixture really, I didn’t generally get annoyed that much, it was just quite saddening that that was going on and that people were thinking that was okay. I mean I had another thing at Tristan Bates actually, where there were some people out in the foyer while the show was going on and they were shouting and singing and I was at quite an emotional bit of the play and this woman on the front row – who remains to this day my absolute hero – this lovely audience member, she got up, she left the theatre, told them to shut up and then came back in and resumed her seat. I was just like ‘oh my God’… But she’s my absolute hero, doing that.
But I’ve always found it difficult to walk the line in shaming people because I have unfortunately shamed people sometimes because in the show, if their phone keeps going off, I’m gonna tell them – and I never feel good about it. It’s always hard – I saw Andrew Scott once when he did Sea Wall and at the highest pitch of the piece, someone’s phone went off. LOUD. Loud loud loud. And he just paused with his hand here and he literally went (disappointed pointed impatient sigh) and we all just waited with him and I though ‘that’s a good way of dealing with it – just wait’.
But you do hear about those uncanny moments when it happens at just the right time for the next line to be directed at the audience member…
I saw that recently actually – Endgame at the Old Vic with Alan Cumming. They had a phone go off and his very next line was (dry) ‘well, this isn’t very fun’ which he directed right at the person, and the place just erupted.
And that’s the beauty of live theatre; sometimes those things can just fall into place.
Final question then. Do you have a best ‘the show must go on story’.
Ooooh. I’ve got a the show didn’t go on story…
I do seem to be getting more of those recently!
It feels kind of appropriate for what’s going on at the moment, where the theatres are closed but we know we’ll be back. When I was at university, I was in a play called Mary Stuart and I didn’t have a massive part in it or anything but I went to the dress rehearsal and I had to walk for about 45 minutes because I got in really late at the halls I was in so I ended up on the Medic’s campus rather than the main campus, which was a… strong decision! I started getting a bit of shoulder pain and chest pain and I was like ‘I’m not sure I’m totally okay here, but it’s fine, it’s fine – I’ll go to the dress rehearsal’ because, you know, the show must go on…
I went to the dress rehearsal in an increasing amount of pain and I took the director aside and said ‘I don’t want to alarm you, but I think I’ve just had a lung collapse – I don’t know, but I think’ – I’d had one before so I was like ‘hmmm, I feel like this is the same thing, but don’t worry, it’ll be fine. I’m just going to go to hospital and see what they say, and I’ll be back, it’ll be fine.’ So I was saying to the doctor ‘this’ll be fine, I’ve had this before; you know the drill, just do what you need to do and I’ll go and be on stage tomorrow’ and he was like ‘yeah, you’re not doing that’ (laughs).
That’s really intense!
Well I guess I kind of remember it in more of a comedy way because I was just so blasé about it – I was like ‘yeah, it’s fine, I’ll just pop to hospital – what? Oh no, I can’t do the show, sorry about that!’ But it was fine, the show was postponed in the end and they were the first people to come and visit me, they brought me a lot of really nice presents! There were other shows I was involved in as well and they were so lovely – nobody re-cast me. I got out after it was all fine again and I did all the shows.
How long does it take to recover from a collapsed lung?
About a week – and then I was a little bit weak but it was fine. And that’s perfect for now because the show doesn’t always have to go on when bigger things take over and we’ll all be back and there’ll be other opportunities and things, which I think is really exciting for when this is over.
A nice reality check with an optimistic lining for us to end on there Jake, thank you…