Rock n Roll Theatre’s production of Danny and the Deep Blue Seaat the Phoenix Artists Club in 2010 was a sell-out success, beloved of critics. And now the company has returned to the Phoenix with another play by American writer John Patrick Shanley.
Rarely seen in the UK, Four Dogs and a Bone is an extremely funny satire about the American movie industry in which two hard-edged actresses, a slimy producer and an inexperienced screenwriter plumb the depths of human nature as they battle for power while making a film.
On the eve of Four Dogs and a Bone’s first performance, I spoke with Rock n Roll Theatre’s founder, Amy Tez, about the excitement and challenge of producing as well as acting in the show, why she loves John Patrick Shanley’s writing and her experiences of the seamier side of the theatre world.
This is the second John Patrick Shanley play that you’ve acted in and produced in as many years. How did he come to your attention?
Two years ago I produced my first play in a really small venue in West London. It was Fool for Love, by Sam Shepard. I was drawn to the material and had a very explosive and visceral relationship it. The writing is very American, very dynamic, which is the kind I like. It was a great success and that compelled me to do another play. I wrote to a director friend, who had suggested Fool for Love, and asked if he knew of anything similar. He told me to try Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, saying that it was even tougher. When I heard that, I thought, “Great”! So, I read it. And I absolutely loved it.
What appealed so much?
The writing was wonderful. I’d seen Moonstruck [scripted by Shanley], which is a great film, and really romantic. Danny… has a similar romanticism but with an extra toughness, which is what really drew me in. I like the juxtaposition of those two very different forces in the human psyche – because I kind of embody it myself!
How long had you planned to do a second Shanley?
Well, I did Danny… and then left it for a year. I had a great time but I didn’t know whether I wanted to do another play or not. But then I had a chance meeting with a fellow actress and friend, Laura Pradelska, who said, “Amy, you were so good at producing that play, let’s do another one together.” And because I didn’t think I had the energy to do it again by myself, that was a great idea! She suggested that I look at Four Dogs and a Bone, which was perfect. It was a four-hander, it involved more people and it was going to be a bit more work, which I was ready for. I’d loved Shanley’s writing first time around and, luckily, found another of his plays that suited how I was feeling. The characters are quite different, which is great because it’s a new challenge. But they’re just as crazy, in your face and psychotic! It’s really good fun.
Tell me about your company, Rock n Roll Theatre.
Originally, Rock n Roll was just megalomaniacal me! I was frustrated by the fact that agents, casting directors and the people in power weren’t giving me the work I wanted. It wasn’t to do with me; it’s the ‘needle in a haystack’ syndrome – there are millions like me. So, I thought, either I sit around and get depressed or I say, “Sod this, I’m going to start a company and put something on.” Which is what I did last year, on a shoestring; I literally did it with a grand. I begged, borrowed and stole [laughs]. This time, I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing it with Laura. Once we decided to put on the play we got the ball in motion quickly. It’s been quite last minute – about three months – but I think we’ve pulled it all together. I’ve surrounded myself with amazing people and found the most adorable director in Josh Seymour. It’s a joy. It’s like being five again and being able to dress up!
Four Dogs… presents a scathing picture of the movie industry and people in your position, as a producer! What differentiates you from the characters?
The difference between me and the producer and the actresses in the play is that they will sink to the lowest depths to achieve what they want. They’ll sleep with each other or practically sell their mothers for a part. The similarity, I suppose, is that because I have very little money I’ve had to be ingenious about things, think on my feet and be strong. To me, that feels quite ruthless. But I’m a nice person!
Have you encountered anyone like the characters in the play during your career?
My God, have I? Yes, so many! When I first came to London I met loads of lecherous producers who’d promise you a role just to get into your knickers. They’d do anything. I’ve met the worst kind of guys over the years. I’ve worked in lots of entertainment-type bars where these people like to come in and show off about their jobs. And I’ve based the actress I’m playing on several women I’ve met. I really know these people. But I’d never reveal who they are!
Is that why Four Dogs… chimed with you? Because it portrays in a dark and humorous way what working in the film (or theatre) world can be like?
I think that, in reality, the industry does attract a lot of desperate people. Although the play presents this in an exaggerated way – it’s condensed into an hour and Shanley likes to push things to the limit – there’s a lot of truth in it. But I didn’t want to be clichéd about things; I didn’t want to bring two-dimensional people to the stage. There are reasons why they are the way that they are, which is something I got the actors to look at. But, still, it’s the worst part of the human psyche that’s being shown, because everyone’s so desperate to get to the top and forge their way forward. It’s something I’ve been around and understand. Which is why I wanted to act it – I don’t just want it to be in my personal life.
Has juggling producing with acting been a challenge?
Actually, I find it quite easy because I’m a bit of a chameleon; I’ve had to juggle about a million plates in my life. And it’s a natural progression for me because, before this, I was producing events and parties. Although it was in a different arena, it’s the same kind of job: scheduling, doing budgets, getting people together… that sort of thing. It’s about being a leader and a coordinator. Producing is also a way of getting the parts that I want to do! So, while it’s caused me sleepless nights because I’ve been working really hard, it hasn’t caused me stress. I’ve enjoyed it.
Why did you decide to stage Four Dogs… at the Phoenix Artists Club again?
To put it simply, I had an amazing time there last year. It’s a great venue, I get on really well with the people and I like being in the centre of town. I was able to fill it for Danny…. and I’d like to do the same again this time. It’s just the perfect location for this play, as it was for the previous one, because it’s so intimate: the audience is literally in my face, which is scary and dangerous, and why I like it. I prefer things to be a little renegade because it suits my personality, and the space at the Phoenix offers itself up as that.
What do you hope audiences will get out of the play?
Hopefully, it’ll shine a light on the darker side of the industry that those who aren’t involved in it may not know about; or may think it occurs but have never seen it. There have been films like Hurlyburly that shone a torch on the underbelly of the Hollywood, and this play is similar. It shows a side that isn’t often given to us by the media. When you see interviews it’s all publicity and spin. Four Dogs… asks: why do these people want to be famous? Why do they want to make this movie for a million dollars? What’s driving them?
Four Dogs and a Bone is on at The Phoenix Artists Club from 26 July 2011 to 20 August 2011
First published by OffWestEnd.com