BWW Interviews: Sasha Regan, Director of All-Male PIRATES OF PENZANCE
Sasha Regan's All Male Pirates of Penzance is back and on tour from the middle of April until the end of June. Gary Naylor spoke to her about that production and her life at the Union Theatre, tucked under the arches near Southwark station, a key destination for anyone interested in musical theatre.
"We've been doing British composers this year at the Union Theatre - Howard Goodall, Spend Spend Spend (reviewed here) now and the Pet Shop Boys' Closer to Heaven next. Spend Spend Spend has been great - its story about a woman spending all her money and not being able to look after herself, abused by her father and going through a few husbands, is as relevant as ever today. Now anyone winning that kind of money would get some support at least, but Viv was left all alone and taken for a ride.
"The Union Theatre has been going for 17 years now. It started when I met two actresses at an audition and we hired a theatre in Deptford to put a play on there, then we did another at the Tristan Bates Theatre. My parents kept asking me about what I was going to do with my life, and running a theatre felt like something I could do having hired other places.
"When I thought the Union was going to close (three years or so ago), the memories came rushing towards me: the relationships formed, the friendships made and the work done you remember, especially actors who had had their first job out of drama school and now are big in television or the West End. These friendships will last for life. Every now and again, someone will post old photos and everyone looks so young! It's lovely that people from previous productions still pop in to let us know what they're doing.
"Towards the end of the HMS Pinafore tour last year, I stood in the wings and I was so proud watching something created at the Union with a couple of bunk beds playing to wonderful audiences in beautiful old theatres like the Hackney Empire: no sets, basic costumes with the actors telling the story.
"I've been asked so many times about the all-male casts! People who have seen our Pinafore or Pirates tell us that they can't imagine it being done any way! The humour we can get from the men playing the women is just delicious. We constantly demand that they play it dead straight so it's not hammy - it's very modern and truthful. There's a lovely innocence to it, because the actors look like public schoolboys. As you go round the country, you meet men who tell me that they played Mabel as an 11-year-old at school, and I can imagine how beautiful they sounded with their choirboy voices. Our boys sing in the same score as was originally written so, if you close your eyes and listen, you can't even tell that it's men singing.
!I've worked with Alan Richardson (Mabel in Pirates) for about ten years, so seeing him grow and grow in confidence is very rewarding. His comedic skills can make a thousand people laugh with just a raised eyebrow. It's great that he's being recognised with awards - nobody has a voice like his! I love a really good bass voice too - the other end of the spectrum. We have some beautiful bass voices in Pirates, which you really need for Gilbert and Sullivan - they're like rich chocolate and complement the falsettos perfectly.
!In Canberra on tour in 2012, I was asked if I was promoting homosexuality! I was travelling with my kids and a show around Australia, so I didn't know what to say - I decided to leave the reporter with his own thoughts! Very occasionally, people haven't realised that it's an all-male cast and they get a bit of a shock when 18 boys in white dresses pitch up and start singing. But it's a funny show, so very quickly they enjoy it - despite looking in the programme and saying "Alan? That's a funny name for the actor playing Mabel. What's that all about then?" I do work the rest of the year with companies that are not all male - and it's wonderful to be in a mixed rehearsal room.
!The hardest thing for us is convincing people to buy the tickets. It's Gilbert and Sullivan, which does have a dated reputation and, with the all male cast, people might not think it their cup of tea. But we do get lots of return customers who come on a Tuesday and then bring the family on Friday!
!The marketing is so crucial for us. We need reviews, photos, social media - anything to attract a younger audience. And we are getting there, because the shows are funny, witty pieces of work with fantastic harmonies. Schoolkids don't realise that it's Victorian - they just watch it and enjoy it. They don't need to hear every word - the staging tells them what's going on - and they love the spectacle. And if mums and dads have had a bad experience when younger, once they see one of the operettas today, they love it!
"My next ambition is to do Pirates and Pinafore in rep - each role is written for a specific voice, so if the actors can learn both roles, we could take the shows out together. It'd be a massive challenge for them - but really impressive if we can pull it off! That said, we're always looking for other things to take out on tour.
"We do struggle to cast G&S, because every actor needs to sing both a male and a female register and also move for our choreographer's great routines. I like traditional, legitimate musical theatre voices, which doesn't sit comfortably with many young drama school graduates who are prepped for going into the West End with head mics and amplification - so no projection required. We use just a few floor mics and no individual amplification, but we're going into places like Theatre Royal Bath and Richmond Theatre - theatres designed for singers to stand there and sing, so that's what I expect. There are only three new lads on this tour, so it feels like we're getting a company together that each year I can call back know that we can be flying straight away.
"I'm looking forward to visiting Bath and Brighton and also going back to venues we've visited before, where we're welcomed like family and the techies are really friendly and helpful. We had some lovely receptions from audiences too last year, especially once they knew it was okay to laugh!"