BWW Interviews: POTTED POTTER's Dan Clarkson & Jeff Turner
Playing to sold out houses all over the world, the Olivier Award nominated POTTED POTTER takes on the ultimate challenge of condensing all seven Harry Potter books (and a real life game of Quidditch) into seventy hilarious minutes. And now, two-time Olivier Award-nominated actors and show creators Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner have brought this rollicking parody to the Off-Broadway stage for American audiences to enjoy.
The hilarious duo chatted with BWW about saving a nightly theater seat for JK Rowling and the pressures of performing a Harry Potter piece in front of some of the world's most obsessive fans.
Let me begin by saying that I am not really a Harry Potter fan, but I cannot remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did at your show the other day.
Dan Clarkson - And now you're a huge Harry Potter fan, right?
Well I don't know if I'd go that far! So, are your backgrounds more in theater or more in comedy?
Jeff Turner - Certainly in my case it would be acting. I kind of came at comedy from the theater angle but comedic acting is by far my favorite thing to do. And to be honest, that's all I've done for about the last seven or eight years.
DC - And I went to drama school and trained as an actor and then I started doing comedy and a bit of work in the Comedy Clubs just as a way to make money. And then I really enjoyed it more and more and like Jeff, sort of found a love in the comedy theater, comedy acting. I'd say half and half, mixed. I just like the chance to mess around, wherever it comes from.
How did the two of you meet and when did you decide to collaborate?
JT - Back in 2005, I was chancing my arm in Covent Garden in London, trying to earn a bit of money. I was sort of a struggling actor and I was doing a bit of one-man story telling with props and silly things like that. Dan watched me struggling in front of three Japanese tourists who didn't understand what I was doing and claims he liked what I was doing and he offered to take me for coffee. So we had coffee and we chatted and it seemed we had the same influences and liked the same comedy and it went from there.
DC - And on that day I'd been chatting with the PR company where 'Potted Potter' came about because it was going to be the launch of the sixth book. I was looking to find someone to play Harry Potter and saw Jeff and, well I guess I was really more his savior I like to think, looking back on it, almost floated down the road and helped him and took him to a better way of life.
JT - And you're so modest.
DC - Yes.
Who were some of your comedic influences?
DC - Well Monty Python is an obvious one. I think they crossed the pond over here. But also there's a lot of American influences. I love the guys who do 'Spinal Tap', sort of improvised comedy. And there's a few British sort of duos and comedians that we grew up with. And I love old school comedy and I love the Vaudeville stuff, that kind of very slap stick, double act Vaudeville comedy which we grew up on from watching with our dads. My dad was an actor so when I was young he used to take me to rehearsals to the latest show he was doing as opposed to other dads who took their sons to sporting matches and football games. So I used to watch and know these routines back when I was five or six and I just thought that was what every dad did. That they got dressed up in silly costumes and hit people with pies. It made complete sense to me.
JT - With me, it's pretty much the same influences as Dan. I would throw in, well I was a huge Steve Martin fan and Robin Williams as well. And then some more modern things as well, things like The Simpsons, that kind of comedy that both children and adults alike seem to enjoy. It's like I"m regressing when I watch it but I enjoy the clever jokes as well.
DC - I remember my friend at school, he used to bring in videos of 'Saturday Night Live' because we didn't get that in London and we thought that was amazing. I think this was around the time with Mike Myers and Jim Carrey, and we'd all sit around his VHS player and watch this very sort of crackly version of 'Saturday Night Live.' That sort of made us fall in love with all that stuff. Even now, we watch Will Ferrell with awe. I was going to say we "lovingly borrow" things off of him.
JT - Yeah - we steal.
I was wondering how much of the show is improv and how much is scripted.
DC - Well what I can definitely say is everything that looked like it was improvised would have, at some stage, been an improvisation. Because during the show, moments will happen and you find yourself ad libbing or improvising and it's quite funny and often funnier than what we're actually doing originally, so we'll change it. And sometimes there are some genuine ad libs, especially things like Quidditch, when we bring up children from the audience. You can't write what two children are going to say and do. We notice since we've been in New York that New York children are not scared or as shy as British children. They don't know fear.
JT - Yes, they're more forward aren't they?
DC - Yes, they have no fear and they're really good at taking Jeff down hard. Quite brilliant!
Dan, you play a character who doesn't have a great deal of knowledge of the Potter series, but I assume that's not true in real life.
DC - No, I'm a huge fan. I'm a, I was going to say 100% closet geek, but I'm not, I'm completely open about it. I queued up to get the fifth book outside the bookstore dressed as a wizard, I cannot wait to go to Harry Potter World so I can go and get my wand measured and find out if I need a dragon wand. I mean I was one of the people when Pottermore was started and you know they were letting a few people in, I stayed up until like 3 in the morning so I could get the password to get on and find out if I was in Hufflepuff House.
JD - When we started all this back in 2005, when Dan first brought the idea of doing the job to me, I hadn't read any of the books back then. I wasn't a fan.
Oh, so it's the opposite of what we see on stage!
DC- Yeah, it's the other way around.
JT - So at that stage I read all five Harry Potter books in I think, four days. I felt I should have at least read them before we did the job. Once you read the first five Harry Potter books in four days its quite difficult not to be a fan. I can't say I'm as big a fan as Dan, because there's not many people who are, but I'm still very much a Harry Potter fan.
DC - And I also think to play someone who doesn't know what they're talking about, you need to know what you're talking about so you are able to keep one step ahead of those who do know, if that makes any sense. It's very easy to say you don't know, but to play someone who doesn't know, yeah, that's skill right there.
JT - You've elevated yourself there Dan.
DC - Oh yeah absolutely. I'm just stroking my ego. Also, I think by playing my character as not really knowing what's going on, you're suddenly opening it up to a much broader spectrum of people who might also not know, so they come on the same journey with me and can enjoy me getting things wrong.
Have you had any reaction or communication from JK Rowling?
JT - Some of her team have seen the show and very much seem to enjoy it. There's a story when we were at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, playing a sixty-seater theater, we sold out quite early on. After one show, a box office girl, she could only have been about 18, 19, came over looking quite sheepish and her manager said, 'Tell them what you've done' and it turns out that she may have turned JK Rowling away because we were sold out. We don't how true that is, but when we heard, we were quite distraught, especially Dan. He just wanted his book signed really. So now every single show we do there's always a seat that isn't sold so that if she EVER wants to turn up, she can.
Before opening in the U.S., did you make many changes to the show?
DC - Well, yeah, I mean let's be honest. The first change is that it's 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' here and we have 'Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone.' And after doing the show six years where I always saying 'Book One, Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone', and then have to change my brain to say 'Sorcerer's.' I have written in black marker across my hand "Sorcerer's' so I can remember it.
But its weird how the same comedy seems to work in both the States and the UK. You have different references for like hair cream. When I say something about Frodo using hair cream for Hobbits we use 'Nair' here as opposed to a brand we have in the UK. So it's very small branding things like that we have to change, but mainly it seems to be very similar. Although it's always great to see the different things that New York audiences react to as opposed to a London audience. And so it's really interesting. Like stuff we haven't got a strong laugh from in the UK suddenly here there's this big laugh and you're like 'Oh, oh that works now. Well that's brilliant'.
You also wrote 'Potted Pirates' and 'Potted Panto.' Could you tell me a little bit about them?
JT - 'Potted Pirates' was our second show. We did that at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of times and then toured the UK with it. But then our third show 'Potted Panto' is doing quite well as well. We toured that in the UK and we do that in the West End in London at Christmas because it's all based on pantomime, which is a British tradition that happens over Chirstmas time. There's a limited time period we can do it, but it's so much fun.
DC - 'Potted Pirates' is about pirates.
JT - Thanks for clarifying that Dan.
DC - Since Jeff didn't say it, I didn't want people to get confused.
So they're both original scripts that you wrote?
DC - Yeah, 'Potted Pirates' was everything you wanted to know about pirates in sort of eighty minutes. It covered everything from historical pirates as well as doing all three of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, as well as Treasure Island. It was mainly because we wanted the chance to dress up as Johnny Depp.
JT - Which we achieved.
DC - Yes. Because while it's great doing Harry Potter because we have all the fans and the wizards and things, when you dress up as Johnny Depp as a pirate, that's when really you have girls waiting at the stage door for you. And that's the reason I did it.
You seem to like the concept of setting a time limit and then trying to condense certain material within that.
JT - There is definitely a lot of comedy in that sort of urgency, everything in .. and so much that I play on stage is this very anal, uptight character who insists that we've got to get everything done in time and then you've got Dan who's like the lost labrador puppy, who's just sort of walking around and forgetting all about the time. Yeah, it seems to work very nicely with our double act. With the urgency comes the comedy.
DC - And I think its great to take someone's life work that they worked really, really hard on and shorten it down to 70 minutes.
Yes, I'm sure they appreciate that.
DC - Yes I'm sure they LOVE the fact that we do that.
Were there any copyright or licensing issues you had to deal with?
DC - Well we are the unauthorized Harry experience, and we are also a parody, but like Jeff said earlier, her (Rowling's) people have come to see the show and they seem happy. But more for us, I think the real problem is the fans. Because the fans are the ones who will quite happily set up a lynch mob and come and hunt you down if you do anything wrong in that show if you get any facts wrong. At our first show last week they had a whole line of people all dressed up as wizards to the point that for the first time in my life ever, I saw a middle-aged woman dressed up as Dumbledore. A white beard and the gown and boots and...
JT - And she made a much better Dumbledore than you.
DC - Yes she did. I remember one show I said 'Bucklebeak' instead of 'Buckbeak' and about four or five people shouted out straight away, one of them standing up, he was ready to come out and, I think I'm not exaggerating when I say, rip my head off.
JT - If you are on stage and daring to do something about Harry Potter you have to be very careful to get everything right. And yes, if it wasn't obvious that we loved the Harry Potter books, the fans wouldn't let us get away with anything. They would have hunted us down and stopped us from doing this a long time ago.
So you're basically putting your lives at risk every night.
DC - Oh yeah. I mean I love the fans, and I think of myself as one of them, but they are scary people! They want to think they actually are wizards.
JT - Yes, some of them think they are wizards. That's when it does become really terrifying.
DC - And whether or not a wand can perform magic, it can still do a lot of damage.
JT - Yes to the back of your legs, can't it.
DC - Yes!
Do you find the show is constantly changing?
JT - We've done the show just about 1000 times now. If it was exactly the same every single time I just don't think we'd be doing it anymore. You can get bored of a show,but because we keep it interesting and because Dan enjoys messing around and trying to make me laugh, it keeps it fresh, it keeps it fun and that's where we find more bits and if the audience likes it then we'll try it again.
How did you decide which part of each book you would include in the show?
We'd love to say that we thought about it and went through it and went through it again with a fine tooth comb but a lot of the time we are sort of ripping out 500 pages of very important dialogue just to use the silly hats.
That's what it comes down to?
JT - Yeah, absolutely!
POTTED POTTER is now playing for a limited engagement at the Little Shubert Theatre, 4222 West 42 Street. For tickets, visit Telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.