BWW Interview: Charles Dorfman and Elsie Bennett Talk TWO FOR THE SEESAW
Buckland Theatre Company is making its West End debut in July at Trafalgar Studios with William Gibson's 1950s comedy-drama, Two for the Seesaw.
How did you first become interested in theatre?
Charles Dorfman: I did plays when I was at school all the time and my family are keen theatregoers. I used to go every year on my birthday to Regent's Park Open Air. That was one of the big things that really got me into it. I ended up studying theatre and decided to pursue it.
Elsie Bennett: My granny always likes to say that it's her fault that I got involved in acting. She lives in Cornwall in a very small village, and she used to write the pantomime for the local village hall there. As a tiny kid, I loved going along and seeing people onstage. That made me join in at school with all the plays. It never became a decision - I just kept doing it and then ended up going to drama school.
Where did you study?
Charles Dorfman: Trinity College Dublin. It was great - a lot of Beckett. There was a student-run theatre there where I did lots of plays and was involved in lots of student competitions across the country. It was a great learning experience for me.
Elsie Bennett: I actually took a couple of years out from school, just trying to get money together to go. Now, in hindsight, I'm glad I did that. I arrived at drama school, really knowing that's what I wanted.
I went to Arts Educational School in London on the acting course and just absorbed everything they gave me. It sounds really cliché, but you get given the tool bag and put in it what you want. There were a lot of things that maybe didn't work for me and a lot of things that did. It was good ground training before you go off. I personally think you don't ever stop training.
What was your first role?
Charles Dorfman: My first professional role was actually weekly rep in Devon, which was a crazy experience where we did 12 plays in 13 weeks. The results were varied, but it was definitely an incredible experience. Necessity is a great motivator. To have to learn and rehearse a play in a week, you learn to get it done.
Elsie Bennett: My first role was in a TV episode for Sky, in a series called Little Crackers. They basically invite very established actors and actresses to create a show; usually they're comedy. I did Joanna Lumley's one! It was really exciting: to have my first TV job, but also to be working with someone I absolutely idolised my whole life. Funny enough, it was set in the 1960s. It's a recurring theme for me; I'm always doing the 1950s and 1960s period pieces.
You've worked in both theatre and film. How do they differ?
Charles Dorfman: The rehearsal process in theatre is obviously for the most part much longer than film and you really get to explore the text. But with film, it's the excitement of it being much more intimate and generally on a bigger scale.
Elsie Bennett: In theatre, you get to bond with the people you're playing opposite. For example, in this, I'm meant to be half a relationship, and to portray that well, you have to be really comfortable with that person. You get a grace period and you make your mistakes in rehearsals and then the show goes on and that's great.
With this production, we've got six weeks of rehearsals, which is a real luxury. Generally with Gary [Condes], his process is to sit down and take it really steady the first few weeks to get into the text.
With film and television, generally you don't get any rehearsal period and if you do, it's a line run. You do as much research as you can and then it's just instinct on the day. They're very different things with pros and cons to both. I've done jobs where I'm meant to have been married to someone for ten years and I meet them maybe ten minutes before.
I know it sounds like I'm erring towards theatre - TV and film has just as many pros. For example, you're not in a box pretending you're in a room. You actually are on set or on location and your whole life is spilled out before you. You can take a step back into that. And with TV and film, you get a second take if you make a mistake!
How would you describe Two for the Seesaw?
Charles Dorfman: It's really well written. It ran for, I think, over 700 performances when it first happened with Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft in the 1960s. During that period, the writing was so astute and they wrote relationships so well. Obviously, it's from the period, but I think people will be able to recognise themselves in this human love story. It's romantic, it's comedic, but it's a drama. I hope people are really going to enjoy it.
Elsie Bennett: I would say that it's kind of a window into this relationship. You see the start and how it progresses and it's kind of everything that comes with a relationship. You get the giddiness, the comedy, the mundane. (You know, relationships aren't always exciting.) You get the tensions. It's all the beautiful bits and the ugly bits as well.
What drew you to this project and this role?
Charles Dorfman: Me and the director, Gary Condes, are always looking for plays that we respond to. We send them back and forth, and he was the one who discovered the play initially, although we're both fans of the period.
The role is going to be a challenge to do; it's close to me as a person, but what he goes through is challenging. It's not a big crazy character part, but it's going to test my acting, which is what I look for.
Elsie Bennett: When I first read the play, I was drawn to the fact that it's quite an honest perception of relationships.
I think as humans, we try to put out that we're perfect and we have these perfect lives, like on Instagram. You choose what you put out there - and even with friends, we don't always tell the absolute truth. With this play, you see everything that's in a relationship: the hurt, the messiness, what people are holding back, a real 3D image.
There's bits that I relate to. With Gittel, the way she, and most of us do it actually, gives off this perception of being a very open person, but she's holding so much back and has this big wall up. But what happens when that wall breaks and everything comes tumbling down? I was just drawn to the honesty of it and how relatable it is.
Tell us a bit about your character
Charles Dorfman: He's called Jerry and he's from the Midwest, and he's come to New York - having left a broken home and a failed career - to find himself. The play finds him at his lowest point, and he builds himself up through and for his relationship with Gittel.
He's serious; he's got an acerbic humour, but I think that covers a lot of hurt. He's a professional, a lawyer. In his relationship with Gittel in New York, he's a fish out of water because she's a Beatnik and a free spirit.
Elsie Bennett: Gittel's great. She's a real New Yorker, born in the Bronx. She really does encapsulate that whole Bronx attitude, especially in the late Fifties. She's a tough nut, but she's outgoing and sociable, into the arts, a dancer. She's quite upfront with people. The accent is great; hopefully I'm going to do it justice.
She is a bit of a contradiction. She wears her heart on her sleeve and puts herself forward, and she's very caring and giving and generous, but she can pull all that back in in a second if she feels it's too dangerous. It's that Bronx "You can't mess with me" attitude.
She's taken a lot of figuring out for me to really get into. When she's funny, she's so funny. She's not the most worldly-wise person, compared to Jerry, who is very intelligent and a lawyer. He can debate things and she's like "What are you talking about?". It's an interesting combination.
What's your favourite thing about the show?
Charles Dorfman: Working again with Gary Condes and Elsie Bennett. We all worked on LUV, which was two shows ago. Getting the team back together is definitely my favourite part so far.
Elsie Bennett: I'm loving discovering stuff. Obviously we're still in rehearsals, but also working with the same people again and the team that we have. We've worked together before so we could come into it and get straight on the ball. I'm loving getting into it really, just ripping it apart and putting it back together.
Is there any way you're preparing to play a character from the Fifties?
Charles Dorfman: There is a film of the play, which I'm resisting watching, but I am reading Henry Fonda's biography. I'm not sure if that's going to give me anything, but I'm reading it. I'm working on the accent, and really thinking and looking at how men behaved during the period, not from big cities, is quite telling for this play.
Elsie Bennett: I tend to exhaust Google. I like to read newspaper articles from that time. I like to have a look at the prominent women of the period, what they were doing and what the attitudes were. For example, during the whole Beatnik era, women were putting themselves forward in an artistic way and writing poetry and books. It was kind of a fresh perspective on female independence and what it means to be a woman.
There's quite a lot of material to go through and that can sometimes be overwhelming, but I try not to take too much. Essentially, there's the style and the accents and the attitudes of the period and you've got the text there, but you have to take it all in for yourself, and if it doesn't work with the play, kind of let it go.
Do you think the show's themes are relevant today?
Charles Dorfman: Yeah, I do. I think the experience of trying to build yourself up in a big city, the loneliness that you can experience being surrounded by people and buildings, I don't think is going to be alien to people from London.
The things we do to try and make connections with our other halves and build a life together - which don't always work out well - feels pretty universal.
Elsie Bennett: My god, yes. That was one of the things that attracted me to it. Since the dawn of man, we've been having relationships, and relationships are never easy. That's obvious in this play and it's kind of timeless in that respect. We could have modernised it, but I think it's stronger to keep it where it was.
With plays that were written in that era, like we did LUV before, there were things we questioned and wondered "Is it good to show that?". What we decided is that if we erased everything that conflicted with our modern-day views, we wouldn't remember how far we've come. It's about picking the things that are right to show of the era and getting rid of the things that don't teach us anything or fit well.
But I think actually the majority of the play is about a relationship; it's not about the time it's set in. It's about two people meeting in a very busy city and trying to make a connection where we generally don't make connections.
I'm from the countryside originally, and when you talk the dog for a walk, everyone you see says hi to you. Moving to London for me was like, "Oh my god, no one even makes eye contact!". It's just bizarre, but slowly I've adapted and become that. I think it's the same here: two people trying to find something that they're missing in their lives and struggling. It's just as relevant.
What's it like to do a show with only one other actor? Is it more nerve-wracking?
Charles Dorfman: I think I would be more nervous if I didn't know the person that I was going to be embarking on the journey with. There were only three of us in the last show, and only two of us on stage most of the time. I don't feel worried about that; I think there's enough of a journey that the characters go on to engage the audience. Certainly, it's a real roller coaster, even though there's just the two of us.
Elsie Bennett: It certainly feels more focused and I have to be on the ball all the time. There are two people and whatever he's saying, it relates to me. There's never a scene without me. It's slightly more intense, but I'm really enjoying it actually.
Can you tell us a bit more about Buckland Theatre Company?
Charles Dorfman: I started it with Gary a couple of years ago; this will be our fourth show together and fifth show in total. The goal was to make work that Gary and I really wanted to be doing. The long-term vision is to build a group of collaborators that we could continue to work with over a long period.
It's taken time, and we're slowly getting there. This will be Elsie's second show with us, but we met her during auditions for our second show, Same Girls. It's the same designer, lightning designer and stage manager, so we're trying to build a group.
Elsie Bennett: I did LUV with Buckland Theatre and they're great. They choose good plays; that's why I'm always ear to the ground on what they're doing. They find things that we can relate to, whether it's modern or in the past. I like the process they have. The team they've built is really good - everyone cares. That's something that maybe isn't always available with other productions. It seems very close-knit. And they're nice people!
How exciting is it to be launching the show in the West End?
Charles Dorfman: It's very exciting! It's our first West End show. It's amazing to think a couple of years ago we started above a pub. The Park Theatre was a fantastic venue, but there's something amazing about being in the West End. The work that's happening at the Trafalgar Studios is very exciting under the new management. I hope it's our first but not our last show there.
Elsie Bennett: It's so exciting! It just adds an extra buzz to it all. Leaving a West End theatre at night is something I've always wanted to do. It's a great theatre as well; I'm really looking forward to it. The shows that Trafalgar Studios put on can be wildly different, but I've not seen a bad show there. You know if you buy a ticket for something there, you'll still be interested or come out with some sort of opinion or feeling about it.
Why do you think people should come and see Two for the Seesaw?
Charles Dorfman: It's a very well written play done in an intimate space that I hope will draw them in and give them an experience of seeing two people develop and go through a relationship. It's a snapshot, a window into their lives. I think it's funny, I think it will hopefully be quite moving. I feel confident people will leave having experienced something worthwhile.
Elsie Bennett: There's something in it for everyone. No matter what stage of your life you're in, it has elements of relationships, not being in relationships, career. It's funny. Whatever mood you're in, there will be something to either lift you or make you think. It's a play that reaches out and might take people by surprise actually. I don't know if people will know what they're going in for, but it's certainly going to be enjoyable and relatable.
Do you have any plans after the show closing that you can tell us about?
Charles Dorfman: Lots of ideas; we're always reading plays. We would like to do some new work and we're looking to commission some plays also. The hope is to continue building the group of people that we work with. Also, to build an audience who will come and see our shows every time we do them because they enjoy them and they get to know our work.
Elsie Bennett: I have lots of voice work coming up - I do voiceovers for video games. I have a Netflix show coming out in December that I just finished filming. Lots of things going on, but nothing concrete for theatre.
Any advice for aspiring actors?
Charles Dorfman: My advice is nothing is as good as experience. Making your own opportunities is really achievable and doable. If you've got an inkling to do that, I'd recommend giving it a go, because it's been gratifying for us.
Elsie Bennett: It's important to be confident with who you are and what you want to do. Although you're always going for different characters and roles, at the end of the day you have to be able to do the job. And you're always learning. Even when you have bad times - we've all been there - you're still learning. Be active throughout.