Interview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

Nick Ullett’s The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe world premiered March 2nd @ the Rogue Machine at the Matrix

By: Mar. 05, 2024
Interview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
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Interview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

Nick Ullett’s The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe world premiered March 2, 2024 at the Rogue Machine at the Matrix. Lisa James directs Nick in his real-life account of the cancellation of The Birthday Party in 2014. After a successful opening weekend, Nick found some time to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Nick! There are so many specific questions I’ve love to ask you about The Birthday Party cancellation, but I don’t want you to have to answer, “You have to come see my play.” So, I’ll try to ask you questions ‘around’ your play topic.

The focus of your play is an incident you yourself experienced in 2014. Why did you wait ten years to share your The Birthday Party experience?

The story wasn’t entirely under wraps for that long, but several of the characters have moved on (from this world) in that last ten years and it feels like now is the right moment. At the time, I would routinely offload on a few friends just to keep my sanity during rehearsals.  One of the people I would call after rehearsals was Lisa James, the director of this piece. She actually lived through it with me.

Interview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY When did you first start putting your thoughts of your involvement down on paper?

Maybe I’d made some notes, but only casually. I did start telling it as a story to other actors after we had finished the rehearsals. 

Your wife Jenny O’Hara was initially opposed to you doing this show. When did she come on board with this project? 

She felt that I was naming names in L.A. and she was concerned that it would be the end of my career. So, I went to New York and told the story at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.

WInterview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY ere you familiar with the 1968 film before you were cast in The Birthday Party? Or did you screen it during your prep?

No. I had no idea there was a movie. I did see the play when it opened in 1957 in London when I was 16 and I was knocked out by it. I'd never come across a play like this one before.

What would your three-line pitch for The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe be?

A true story about a theatrical disaster that happened when The Geffen Playhouse decided to mount a star-studded version of Pinter's The Birthday Party, directed by an Oscar-winning movie director. It should have been magnificent but it self-immolated. 

Were you and the other cast members forced to take sides in the William Friedkin/Stephen Berkoff confrontations?

Let’s just say that we all had our leanings, but most of us committed to the goal of making the show a success. An impossible task. 

Did it seem that the director had preconceived plans to duplicate his vision of his 1968 film version in this 2014 stage production?

Interview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY No. The problem here was that he really didn't understand the difference between making a movie and creating a piece of theatre.

Can Matrix audiences expect to see you transform into the various characters of your story? Or will you be more of a storyteller simply reading a nighttime story to your kids? 

Our Rogue Machine audiences can always expect some surprises, and some good stories when they come to the Matrix Theatre. In this case they will be treated to all sorts of differing characters.

You migrated to the U.S. from England in 1964 as part of the comedy duo with Tony Hendra performing in nightclubs and appearing on seven Ed Sullivan shows. Any smaller catastrophes you can recount? 

Interview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY Tony and I played a nightclub in Dallas six months after the assassination of JFK. Dallas was a dry town (if you wanted to drink you brought your own liquor in a brown paper bag) and there was also a law that stated that if you were carrying a concealed weapon, it must be displayed in a public gathering place. We came out on stage to discover people sitting at tables on which were brown paper bags AND GUNS. We immediately took this to be a form of instantly reviewing our act. These people killed a President, they were hardly likely to lose any sleep over a couple of Brit comics. 

Tony and I auditioned a piece for Ed Sullivan before one of his shows that we were on, thinking that the audience reaction would persuade him to give us another booking. It was a “fan dance” done by the two of us, fully dressed using 8 by 10 white cards. The piece killed, the audience loved it, BUT Sullivan hated it. “They’re pretending to be naked,” Ed complained, and he had us thrown off the show until we groveled to him and got reinstated. Pretending to be naked was the entire point! An idea ahead of its time?

You are currently an ensemble member of Ensemble Studio Theatre. When did you first get involved with EST? When they produced the first of your two plays?

Interview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY I’ve worked with EST in New York since Curt Dempster was the Artistic Director, sometime in the 70’s. Then, when I moved out here in the early 80s, I joined EST/LA. I got together with my wife, Jenny O'Hara, when she directed my play The Panda And Amanda De Fanda in an evening of short plays called the Passion Plays in 1982. 

Any unexpected mishaps in any of your EST shows or any other L.A. productions you did that you can laugh about now? 

Not specifically with EST. I was doing Joe Orton’s Loot at the La Jolla Playhouse where I had to open a cupboard for someone to fall out of and I couldn’t get it open. Literally chaos as the audience realizes what’s happening and starts to laugh. Biggest laugh ever.

Any plans to mount your one-man show Gullet without the G in Los Angeles any time soon?

Glad you asked, but no. Truthfully, it's almost an hour and a half long. I sing, play the guitar and the piano, and I don't think that I'm up to it any more.

Do you think you’ll be able to audition for a Geffen production again?

AInterview: Nick Ullett Throws A THEATRICAL CATASTROPHE of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY uditioning for the Geffen, I believe, would be fine. Time heals? Gil Cates Jr., the son of the artistic director who ran the Geffen when this account of The Birthday Party rehearsal experience takes place, is coming to see this show. Maybe that story will be part of a sequel …

What else is in the near future for Nick Ullett?

I have written a novel - The Unlikely Adventure of Blaggard And Bliss. (It's available from Amazon). I intend to do another Moth story, and I'm going on a walking tour of the Imperial Cities of Europe.

Thank you again, Nick! It was a real pleasure attending to your Catastrophic Birthday Party.

For tickets to the live performances of The Birthday Party: A Theatrical Catastrophe through April 8, 2024; click on the button below:




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