Interview: Ben Occhipinti

Posted on August 23, 2011


Never work with children or animals, so the old showbiz adage goes. Although youth theatre organisation ‘The Company’ has not yet attempted to bring an elephant on stage, it has spent the four years of its existence successfully challenging the idea that doing a show with young people is a recipe for disaster…

Following a critically-acclaimed 2010 production of Parade at Manchester’s The Lowry, The Company is now making its first foray into London. From 25 to 27 August, a cast of 40 young actors auditioned here and in Manchester will be performing the rarely seen Mack & Mabel, written by Michael Stewart and scored by Jerry Herman, at Greenwich Theatre.

Two weeks before first night, I spoke with director Ben Occhipinti about how he got involved with The Company, working with young people and why he thinks that Mack & Mabel is finally getting the production it deserves.

Hi Ben. How are rehearsals going?
Scarily, we don’t start until next week! We have nine days of rehearsals and then we open. The Company works on a residential basis, from 9am to 9pm every day, which the cast really enjoys. But it’s hard work. We learnt most of the music during a workshop week in April. Now, we’ll try to pull it all together in one week of rehearsals, which should be a lot of fun!

How did you come to be involved with The Company?
I knew Caroline Lesley, who set it up with another group of people. Last year, they decided to put on Parade at The Lowry, in Manchester, and asked if I’d direct that. I’d seen their productions when they first started up and had thought they were an exciting new company, so I was pleased to be given the opportunity to get involved. I must have done a reasonably good job, because they’ve asked me back!

What appealed to you about working with them?
It’s always good to work with young people – I do a lot of it – but this is a really high calibre of young people. And The Company chooses interesting work that you rarely get the opportunity to do with a young cast. They audition all over the country and the level of talent is pretty phenomenal. It really is a chance to work with the stars of the future, in a non-cheesy way. And, obviously, something like Parade was exciting to work on – as is Mack & Mabel, which isn’t often produced.

Why Mack & Mabel
I think it’s important to do productions that challenge the performers as well as the audience; and The Company is always looking for new takes on things. Mack & Mabel, which is about a group of talented young film stars trying to make their way in Hollywood, felt appropriate for the group. It’s also a great showcase for different talents in terms of musical theatre. There have been a few productions of the show but none has done incredibly well, so throwing a cast of 40 really talented young people at it will give it an exciting twist.

Where do you think previous productions have gone wrong?
Normally, they’ve been done with smaller casts, which I don’t really understand. The film industry at that time was full of people working in those ridiculous sheds in Hollywood, in the middle of nowhere. It wouldn’t have been a group of six making movies; you’d have had hundreds making eight films at the same time. That’s possibly where other productions have fallen down, in that you have small scenes followed by big musical showstoppers. When I’ve seen that, it’s always been a disappointment: the numbers feels as though they come from nowhere. So I was keen to see how using a big ensemble to tell the story would alter the drama and make sense of the big production numbers. It’ll make it more about a community starting out in this exciting new art form that is film.

Do you encounter many misconceptions about what it’s like to work with young people?
Inevitably, people think that the work is going to be of a lower standard and not as exciting creatively as a professional show. But what they forget is that you have the incredible luxury of a huge cast, which you just never get in the professional world. I suppose they think that it’s going to be like being at school and having to tell people to be quiet. But, actually, you do just as much of that in a professional rehearsal room. In fact, because young people are eager to learn and take on as much experience as they can, it’s like working in the most exciting rehearsal room ever. In a professional environment, where ultimately everyone is doing their own job, you can lose some of that magic and energy.

What are the challenges when working with a young cast? 
You have to remember that they’re learning, so you have to be prepared to go at the pace that they need. Most of them have been in a huge number of productions, but they haven’t been trained professionally. So what they sometimes lack is a kind of professional discipline, which you have to teach them as you go along – I don’t mean in terms of behaviour, but how you create a character and tell a story. You have to take them through that process, which I suppose can be frustrating for some directors who just want to create their work. But I find it really rewarding not to go on that journey alone. You’re taking a group of people with you, who you can watch grow and develop.

Are there many opportunities for young people to get involved in theatre?
I think that there are more opportunities as financing becomes more difficult and as people realise that young audiences and performers are going to be at the heart of future work. As more youth and community shows get produced – as people see that it’s important for their funding – there’s more investment. Certainly, in the time that I’ve been working with young people I’ve noticed a difference. It does mean that the quality can vary, but there are definitely more opportunities.

In your career you’ve worked all over the country. Do different places approach theatre differently?
It’s been interesting doing The Company’s workshop auditions and seeing the changing attitudes in different regions. The one thing that doesn’t change is the level of people’s talent, but what does differ is how they see and understand theatre, if you go to a small town where there isn’t much. There’s a real shift from city to city in how young people work and how they appreciate different art forms.

This is the first time that The Company has staged a show in London. Why now?
To raise awareness of what they’re doing. Last year, we were at the Lowry – which is an incredible space – and sold out; but we work in theatre and, of course, funders and the press don’t like to leave London to see anything. So, at a base level, it’s a really important way of showcasing the work that The Company does. After four years, it felt important to do that; we’re hoping to do more regional work next year, as a result.

Why choose Greenwich Theatre as the venue?
Being somewhere like Greenwich is exciting, because we can bring work with young people into that community. Although there’s a lot going on there already, there’s always room for more opportunities. And the theatre is a really good fit because it has a lot going on in terms of musicals. Also, not being at the heart of the West End takes off some of the pressure. If you’re slightly on the outskirts, you can produce bigger things than you’d be able to in a more mainstream theatre.

What do you hope audiences will get out of seeing Mack & Mabel?
Mainly, I hope that they’ll have a great night out. I also hope that they’ll enjoy seeing a new version of this story. But I think the most exciting thing will be seeing 40 incredibly talented young people starting out on their careers.

Mack & Mabel is at Greenwich Theatre from 25 to 27 August. For tickets, go to: http://www.offwestend.com/index.php/theatres/shows/11 

‘The Company’ is an inclusive youth theatre for musicals performing in major cities in the UK and has come to London for the first time to build upon its previous success at productions at regional theatres. For more information, see: http://thecompanymusictheatre.org.uk/

First published by OffWestEnd.com

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Posted in: Interviews