I saw the possibility of creating a funny and poignant homage to two great comedy legends in a highly theatrical piece
Delighting audiences since 1993, Told by an Idiot Theatre are renowned for their wonderfully spontaneous productions that playfully weave together laughter and pain. Touring across England until the end of March, they present, with a twinkle in their eye, ‘The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’.
Unknown to many, Stan Laurel worked as Chaplin’s understudy, touring North America together. Slicing up segments of fact with fiction we follow a hilarious and deeply moving homage to two men who changed the world of comedy forever. An inventive piece with incredible physical comedy and a live piano score, we caught up with writer and director Paul Hunter to chat about the unique process.
What attracted you to tell this story?
I was drawn to this story of two extraordinary figures colliding for a brief time in their early years. Stan understudied Charlie on and off for eighteen months, and spoke about him reverentially all his life. But in his highly detailed autobiography, Charlie never mentioned Stan once. It was this apparent difference that intrigued me. I saw the possibility of creating a funny and poignant homage to two great comedy legends in a highly theatrical piece that would move backwards and forwards in time and into the world of the imagination
When casting for the roles of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin, was it essential for the performers to have certain physical skills?
When casting the roles I was obviously looking for performers with a strong comic physicality, and – given the style of the piece – performers who were comfortable playing without words. It is also good to be open to skills you weren’t expecting. For instance, Jerone (who plays Stan) has a strong background in break dancing and hip hop – and these proved really useful skills to have in the room as the show was being created.
Is the use of a comedy director in theatre common and how does the process work?
The role of a comedy director in shows is becoming more common. I think it is great to have people involved in a project who bring very particular skills. On ‘Charlie and Stan’ we worked with the brilliant Jos Houben (who, as one of the founding members of Complicite, had a big influence on my career) as Physical Comedy Consultant. His role was to look at very specific moments rather than to direct the comedy in general. I believe if you are going to direct a comedy then you have to have a feel for comedy. You’d never see a production of ‘Hamlet’ with a Tragedy Director attached.
You have an original piano score composed by MOBO Award winner and Mercury nominee Zoe Rahman. Was the musical score created prior to the play or during the process?
Zoe works out of the Jazz idiom and all her compositions are deeply rooted in spontaneity. There was a certain amount of composing before rehearsal provoked by a rehearsal script that I had written, and then a lot of creating in the room responding to what was happening and the skills of Sara Alexander (the pianist in the show).
As the piece has no spoken word, how do you create a direct relationship with the audience?
Having no spoken words creates a really interesting atmosphere in the space. The audience and performers listen in a different way, and in some ways the relationship becomes simpler, more direct. Facial expressions become crucial and the shared responses and reactions with the audience create a unique bond.
And finally, for people who haven’t had the joy of yet seeing a Told by an Idiot production, what can they expect?
A really great night’s entertainment from ‘The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’. A totally original Idiot version of a silent movie reinvented for the stage, anarchic, funny, tender, and moving. And unlike anything you have seen before.
The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is touring nationwide, full dates can be found on their website here. It stops off in London at Wilton’s Music Hall between 14 and 18 January, tickets can be purchased here