BWW Interview: Drew McOnie And Matthew Needham Talk TORCH SONG at Turbine Theatre
Just before the company of Torch Song started their previews, director Drew McOnie and actor Matthew Needham took some time off from their hectic rehearsal schedule to sit down with us and talk about their show. The play follows drag queen Arnold Beckoff on his quest for true love in 1970s New York.
How and when did you fall in love with theatre?
Matthew: When I was a kid. My mum took me, we used to see a show every Christmas. Our Christmas treat was to go and see a play or a musical. That's when it happened.
Drew: For me, it was very similar, really. But I was always that irritating kid as school who kept making up stories and putting on plays and shows before I even knew what they were, commandeering my poor friends into being in my various productions. My most awful was probably my production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - it was pretty bad.
So, yeah, I used to put on dances and plays on the playground. But my parents took me too when I was young and, very much like Matt, I think it was a treat and an adventure that I was taken to by my family. It was an occasion and we had a special time together.
You're both enjoying a marvellous career - do you have a favourite show and role you've done?
Matthew: You can't have favourites, they're all so different. I've got jobs that I've preferred over others and others that I've had brilliant times on, but I don't think of them as liking one or the other better. I always seek to have a great time whether the show's successful or not. It mainly comes from working with brilliant people. I tend to enjoy them all.
Drew: My favourite shows are the ones I get to learn from. It's an honour to be able to tell these stories, either well known or new ones. My favourite shows are the ones where the play or the musical or the ballet takes on a new meaning when the audience arrives. To me, it will be the kind that taught me the most and that come to life with the audience - that's where theatre magic begins. To list my favourites would feel cruel to the others.
Are there any shows you'd like to be in or put on?
Matthew: I sort of stopped thinking like that a couple of years ago because the most interesting things that have happened to me were shows that I never would have anticipated or predicted. I've learnt that it's best not to try to predict anything at this point.
Drew: I think there's a real danger in that, actually, in this industry. Especially in the modern age where we're all being given these standards on social media that we're supposed to aspire to, this kind of success that it's coming to people very quickly. You can get very locked down on achieving a certain thing. What Matt was saying is very interesting, it's really good advice. What we should be pursuing is the extraordinary experience born out of original moments and stories.
Our industry is full of a lot of dismissal and a lot of rejection, so to hold onto a particular thing that feeds your feelings of success in your mind is actually quite dangerous. It's quite tricky, though. If you asked me that questions a few years ago I would have given you my list of shows that I wanted to direct and choreograph. What I've learnt recently is that it never turns out the way you dreamed and hoped it would. That career-changing moment will always come when you least expect it.
You're opening a new theatre with Torch Song - is there any pressure in that?
Drew: We're both giggling as you're asking this question, because we're literally sitting among what feels like a building site! It's bringing a lot of extraordinary and exciting challenges and obstacles. There's a thrilling energy in the rehearsal room - every day brings something new, whether it's exciting or challenging. It's pushing us all to get into a place where we have to allow our abilities to show and we have to use all our professional strength. It's really all about looking after each other.
We open next week. The dressing rooms are being built tomorrow. The actors are turning up to work without anywhere to put their bags at the moment. And yet, in this amazing space we're finding energy. It's vibrant, Great Performances are happening. It's very exciting - we have the opportunity to set the tone for what this theatre is going to be.
Right from the beginning of the race, we have something that feels full of heart and hope and ambition. I think that we've missed the opportunity to make a documentary here, with all the amazing things we've been going through. There's a kind of rawness in how the show's coming together.
What audiences might find interesting is that every single thing about how the theatre's come together had to be worked out. How will the front doors open? How do we stop rain from coming in? It's such an exciting time and place to be. We had to make exciting creative choices - it's been exhilarating and exhausting.
But to be in tech, as we are today, on a Sunday, and still be giggling, that's the real mark of an extraordinary group of people.
If there was even only one bad egg, this would have been a nightmare. But we're still laughing and we still seem to be liking each other. I'm very proud and very grateful to be in the room.
What's the show about?
Matthew: It's about a young drag queen and singer, Arnold Beckoff, in the late 70s and early 80s in New York, and his relationships. It's about his loves and losses, family and relationships.
Drew: It's a wonderful tapestry of how these things have a knock-on effect. Arnold is like a vessel for all these emotions. He has very complicated relationships with the people who surround him, whether lovers or family or friends. It's also about what the desire for recognition in one's life might do to their social DNA. There are a lot of surprises in the show, and it's become iconic as a very powerful gay play.
And it is, indeed, very powerful. It came about at a time when these stories were not being told and it had a huge impact on the way the gay community was received. What I think is so surprising is that it's relatable across all different types of experiences. The sheer desire to be recognised by one's own mother, the relationship between a father and his child, between a new lover and an old one - the complications he faces become universal.
It's a play that has a really strong identity and presence, but with a surprising element. The things that reveal themselves through this play are incredibly universal.
The original material was reviewed by Harvey Fierstein, the playwright, ahead of its revival in 2017. Have you made any further changes?
Drew: The original material was three plays created at three different times that would turn into about four or four and a half hours. They're completely standalone plays that are linked together by Arnold and his relationship with a man called Ed, without giving anything away. What's happened since then, that material was turned into a one-piece play that we can now experience in two and a half hours.
There's an incredibly rich history that we have been able to call upon, and delve into for these characters. We haven't changed anything else and we haven't done any further development, because the play has already been looked at with a modern sensitivity very recently by its original author, which is a rare and exciting thing to happen.
We're in a really good place because it doesn't feel like we're dealing with a period revival where we have have to suddenly go "Oh, people, this is complicated, this doesn't mean what it used to mean". It feels like we've got the authenticity of the original play. We've been given this material and it's my intention to be very respectful and truthful to that revision.
It's quite different from what you've both done so far. How did you prepare for it?
Drew: This is the first play I've ever directed. When I got approached about it, I was really nervous. Then I read it and fell completely in love with it. It's odd because all the anxiety I had about approaching this form of theatre melted away. I fell in love with the story and the characters - there was something that made me feel like I wanted to spend time with these people. I wanted to do the research.
I felt safe in the arms of the playwright. My biggest anxiety turned into making sure we had the right company to be able to do this - not only because it's a new venue, but also because I was going into what was uncharted territory for me. The casting process for this was relatively long. I thought my preparation was going to be a lot different from what it ultimately was.
I approach all stories I tell with truth and I enjoy finding the right people who have that brilliant, open-hearted honesty I look for, whether they use their bodies, their voices, or their heartbeat to tell it. I acknowledge it's new territory for me, but I fell in love with it and I'm grateful for the opportunity.
Matthew: As far as research, I had all these fantasies about going to New York and see the drag bars and Manhattan, but I was doing something else so there was no time. Luckily, the play is so extraordinary and specific, the syntax and rhythm, the energy - it's a real feast.
The material is so wonderful. I think it's got a reputation, but what strikes me about it is what's happening between and under the lines. I think it's great. There's fun, and pain, and real vulnerability. That was really exciting to get into.
How would you describe the show?
Drew: There's that famous drama symbol, the two masks - happy and sad. I feel like out of all the projects that I've ever worked on, this one's got an incredible razor-sharp line that's somewhere between deeply felt comedy and burning tragedy. There's this amazing thing that something's being able to be delivered that's both wounding and hysterical at the same time.
I think that's the unique thing about this play. And the tone that this wonderful company have found is that they're galloping through painful and completely joyful. It feels so full of life to me. There's a wonderful theatrical edge that runs through it: a kind of expressionistic tone to some of the ways we stage it, these beautiful dreamlike passages of monologues that dart through and bounce off the walls and each time, everything is moving forward.
It's both incredible drama and painful comedy all in one. You find your eyes welling up but you don't know whether you're supposed to be laughing or crying. It's a wonderful heavy mix of both those things. The speed of it all, the joy, they're all in the DNA of the material. It keeps you right on the edge of your seat because you don't know which way it's going to turn next.
What would you like the audience to take from it?
Drew: This is always a really tricky one to answer. Rather than saying what we'd like them to take from it, I'd love them to come with an open mind and an open heart and not to make a decision on what they think the play's about.
What's been really brilliant about the excavation of the piece - especially with these actors who have high levels of intellect and skills - we discovered things about it, messages deep within the play, that surprised all of us.
I'd like the audience to come expecting their minds to be changed about what the play is about. A lot of people will see themselves, however they identify. Coming to it and being open to it, that would be my wish.
Matthew: There's an ambiguity to this play, I think. Audiences are a collection of individuals and I don't like to rope them in in one brushstroke. I hope that every individual will experience what good drama does to people.
Drew: To add to what he just said, that's very much what this play is about. There's this argument happening where you understand both parts. There's a thing that happens, where even the character who has the most painful things to say, you somehow empathise with them.
It's very complicated. I think the desire for the audience to come and be recognised as individuals is important. I think people will take many things away from it. You're bound to have really interesting chats at the bar afterwards!
Matthew: I think the aim of the play is also to make you feel less lonely. I think that's really great too.
Photo credit: Mark Senior