A Chat With Stephen Smith

A Chat With Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith, an actor from Hertfordshire, is also the artistic director of Threedumb Theatre. During the pandemic the company has specialised in creating live “one shot filmmaking theatre” and streaming the results via Facebook Live. I caught up with Stephen (online naturally) in between rehearsals for his new show The Black Cat which opens (again, online) on Tuesday 23rd March, the anniversary of the first lockdown.

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We started by talking about the birth of the company which happened while Stephen and his two colleagues were at LIPA (Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts) in 2017. The trio learned to create their own opportunities which certainly must have come in handy when the pandemic struck and any possible work more or less dried up. A planned 13 venue and 8 festival tour of Berkoff’s Dog/Actor had to go on hold when everything kicked off this time last year.

All the cancellation/reschedule emails started arriving and it was all pretty soul destroying. It was a big shock to my momentum but then I looked round and got a bit of perspective on how lucky I was compared to others. I know people who were literally doing their tech run when Boris Johnson said “Don’t go to theatres!”

Showing a level of determination to carry on creating, Threedumb’s first foray into online theatre was a production of The Tell Tale Heart a short story by Edgar Allan Poe – one of Stephen’s literary heroes.

I’d always loved Gothic horror ever since I was this introverted kid, and the Universal horror movies with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney. I used to make these home movies. So, I already had this knowledge that I could make something around the house. And with Facebook Live you can create a live streamed show. At the time I felt some disappointment with a lot of the online material I was seeing. If you’re doing a Zoom show and it isn’t set in an internet chat room it doesn’t really make sense. I wanted to do a show where I had to learn my lines and was also made specifically for people at home. I was locked down with my girlfriend and brother and got them on board and the rest is history. I got great feedback and the fact that it’s live is what I take great pride in.

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Next up was a more substantial piece called Within, a modern day horror tale written by Joseph Furey which tapped into the development of Artificial Intelligence and featured some clever special effects all of which were performed live. Stephen again played the only role and, once again the show drew many critical plaudits. Both this and the previous show were awarded OnComm commendations for digital theatre by OffWestEnd.com and the filmed version of  Within was shortlisted as an end of year finalist in the recorded online theatre category. A return to Gothic fiction followed with The Strange Case Of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This time round he decided to direct.

In mid-July things started to open up again but I needed to earn a bit of money so online theatre went on the back burner for a while. The original idea for the show was with me once more at home playing both Jekyll and Hyde because I liked the idea of doing the transformation completely live. Then we got the green light to take it to The Pumphouse (in Watford), announced it at Halloween but that was the same day that Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown. We thought it was cancelled but then we heard that live streaming could go ahead and it had always been planned as a “one shot” in an empty theatre so…. I knew where I wanted the camera to be at all points before we even arrived at the theatre and I thought that I could film it myself knowing that we only had about four days to create the play. I also wanted to include someone else, so it didn’t just become the Stephen Smith show again.

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And now the circle of the year has turned and Threedumb are heading back for a return visit to Poe’s work with The Black Cat.

One of the other two “dumbs”, Duncan, had seen that The Space (a venue converted from a deconsecrated church in Docklands) was looking for stuff and made an application. We were shortlisted with the idea of doing Jekyll and Hyde again, but I didn’t really see the point and thought we should try and show off the gorgeous venue somehow. It was too tight to get anything new written, so I went back to Poe. It’s a very weird and wacky story and not as well-known as some of his other stuff and because I wanted it to be word perfect it made sense to do it myself.

One of the main concerns was that Stephen had never been to the venue and visiting was obviously tricky. But in December a site visit took place where possibilities could be gauged, particularly the wi-fi capabilities around the building. For this show there have been some new elements introduced and I asked what could be expected.

There’s going to be a lot more scenes, because the story moves around so we’re going to use lighting for time changes and go to certain parts of the building as specific locations. We’re going to start the livestream outside on the other side of the road and then go in as if you’re an audience member. I haven’t got any cats in it unfortunately… or fortunately, if you’re a cat. But I have got someone else playing the wife character – an apparition as he tells the tale. The big challenge is that the main character is so unlikeable. He’s very misogynistic and domestic violence is prominent in the whole thing. I don’t try to hop on to “the hot topic” but I suppose that’s what it is at the moment. He does get his comeuppance though …

At this point Stephen revealed what he’s planning for the end of the show, but I’ve taken the view that, as it’s a live event, I wouldn’t want any spoilers –  so we’ll rejoin the conversation a little further down the line after this teaser

The theme of alcoholism in this is an interesting one. (The central character) explains pointedly that it is because of alcohol that he does what he does. And, of course, Poe was also notorious for his own  issues. I did develop an alcohol problem myself but have stopped now for fifteen months having hit rock bottom in 2019. So, even with the pandemic, 2020 was a case of the only way is up. I would never have dreamed of doing something digital without lockdown; any opportunity was better than nothing and so we developed this relatively new way of presenting theatre. The fact that it is live makes it theatre rather than film and as an audience member you have to use your imagination for a lot of the stuff I do. Also, the one shot focus means the camera becomes another character who has moves and only one go at getting it right. That’s why I’m  keen to develop the style as it’s really exciting. But if it goes wrong, like in any theatre, then it goes wrong.

Past experience tells me that’s unlikely. Plans are already in place for the next show in Threedumb’s bid for excellence. This will be a collaboration with Watford Palace Theatre of the original 1910 novel version of The Phantom Of The Opera. Details are still under wraps but from what I heard it’s certainly going to be another exciting development.

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Meanwhile thanks to Stephen for taking the time to share his insights. If you’d like to support some innovative live theatre by experiencing one of the live streamed performances of The Black Cat  (March 23-26), then tickets are on a pay what you choose basis and available via The Space . As a taster why not try one of the previous Threedumb Theatre shows created in lockdown which are free to view on the Scenesaver platform (click on the titles below)

The Tell Tale HeartReview here
WithinReview here
The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeReview here

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