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Interview: Earl Carpenter Chats VOICES OF THE WEST END TOUR

The Les Mis and Phantom Star shares what it takes to stage a show post-lockdown

Interview: Earl Carpenter Chats VOICES OF THE WEST END TOUR
Earl Carpenter, Kerry Ellis,
John Owen-Jones and
Katie Hall in Voices of the West End

Earl Carpenter is known for his leading roles in The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, and most recently appeared in The Pirate Queen at the London Coliseum.

He is now preparing to tour England with John Owen-Jones, Kerry Ellis and Katie Hall in Voices of the West End. We spoke to Earl about the challenges of producing shows in these uncertain times.

How did you find lockdown?

It was really weird. It was odd because I didn't really notice much of a change, since I'm used to gaps between securing work. I have a default aloofness about it. Then, as the days rolled on, I truly realised that normal life as we knew it had gone.

And then I thought, "Well hang on a minute, I was struggling to find work before this, and now the industry has literally overnight been wiped off the face of the earth." It was really bizarre, but I think I turned it around quite quickly. That's because I was coming from the point of view of needing to do something. Really do something.

Through that focus, I became more aware of the lockdown because of the limitations. Overall, I don't think I had it as bad as some close friends have had handling it. Essentially, it's been challenging - let's put it that way.

How did Voices of the West End come about?

This is probably one of the scariest projects I've ever taken on. We have no point of reference. We don't know how this will be received. We have the risk of new lightening lockdowns that authorities have the power enforce. There's a multitude of things that are unknown.

That said, I just felt being who I am in my industry, I needed to do something. I felt that it was the right thing to do to reach out to some dear friends, both performers and theatre managers, to understand how different the environment is now.

I thought I really needed to try and pull everything together to see what we could do. Originally, we were going to do a drive-in show with live pre-shows, short introductions from stars associated with that musical, before a musical theatre film.

Then there was a massive resurgence of drive-in shows. I couldn't really understand how successful an experience that would be for musical theatre shows and their audiences. A couple of venues encouraged me to look at how we could safely deliver a fully live event once we were allowed.

As a producer, I'm used to putting on concerts. It was a case of taking that experience, and the small amount of experience I've had with outdoor concerts, and putting it into practice.

Now, I'm fully committed to delivering these four concerts in these four amazing venues with the support of four amazing musical theatre singers - plus all the technical personnel and others I have involved in this. We're off. No turning back now!

How does it feel to be putting on one of the first touring shows since lockdown?

Even if it's piddling with rain, we are doing this. I just hope people understand the reasons why we're doing this. It's about positivity and, ultimately, survival. I have nothing else.

I was very fortunate to have work as a handyman at a local stable during the initial period of lockdown. I was so thankful for that and the money it brought, but I wanted to be out and about, being productive.

I felt I needed to step up, not just as an ambassador of my industry but as one who has been involved in and is very grateful to my industry over the years.

What has working with the venues been like?

When I reached out to various venues around the country, their support was incredible. They really wanted to be involved.

We sadly lost a couple along the way due to licensing issues. The Government gave us three days' notice to do outdoor concerts. Local authorities understandably have a duty to look after the general public and so couldn't work to that deadline. There is a process to make sure all the safety advisory groups are on the same page.

Of the venues that we do have - Broadlands Park in Romsey; Bywell in Stocksfield; the British Motor Museum in Warwick; and then we're heading up towards Newcastle - their authorities have been incredibly open. Also nervous, understandably. I've actually been complimented by the police for providing the best event management plan that they've seen in years.

I've spent what felt like weeks coming up with an event management plan particularly focussed on Covid-19 and the precautions. With all of that in mind, how do you create a very safe environment? That work seems to have paid off.

How are you reassuring audiences that it's safe to come to Voices of the West End?

Audience confidence takes precedence over the event itself. There are, understandably, a lot of people who are nervous about venturing out from the new normal that they've become used to. All they need to do is visit my website to clearly see the detail that has gone into creating a very safe, socially distanced, but still enjoyable environment.

Will audiences get to hear some music from Phantom? Les Mis?

Absolutely. It will all be in there. Phantom and Les Mis. It's a 90-minute show, on purpose, to eliminate the interval. This should minimise the flow of traffic on site. By eliminating 20 minutes of meandering and potential contamination opportunities, we'll instead do a jam-packed 90 minutes of great selection of stuff associated with us and the roles we've played.

John Owen-Jones and I will be up to our usual shenanigans! There will be a couple of songs where we flex that relationship. Kerry Ellis and Katie Hall will also be doing their stuff. Katie was our Christine when John and I played the Phantom in London and on the UK tour.

The show will finish with a nice selection from Les Misérables. Being part of Les Misérables: The Staged Concert last year was extraordinary. The whole thing was somewhat bizarre.

Are you looking forward to being reunited with John, Kerry and Katie?

John and I have been chatting constantly. It's really weird. I don't think I'll fully feel and understand the joy of performing again until I'm actually on stage.

I'm currently sat at my desk, surrounded by oodles of papers. The infrastructure going into this is enormous. We just have to ensure we're doing everything correctly. Until I know I've safely delivered on that and handed over to my acting event manager, I won't be able to focus on the performing aspect.

There will come a point where I actually have to sing! I haven't sung since doing The Pirate Queen at the Coliseum in London. I have to keep reminding myself I'm in this show as well.

At the moment it's all on paper, so when we come to do it, it'll be great. I really do hope we'll all enjoy it for what it is.

We are doing something unique. Nothing else is happening like it at the moment. No one is mad enough to do it. We're in the lucky position where we've had the approvals from all the people, and I think everyone wants this to work. I just hope that audiences come to support it.

Would you ever return to Les Mis?

I don't know. I think I'm done. The concert was amazing. I played the Bishop of Digne and Bamatabois, which was bizarre - they're polar opposites. Les Mis is very much a younger man's game, so I think my custodianship with the show may have come to an end.

I love a challenge. I'd love to play Trunchbull in Matilda. That would be right up my street. I've had an incredible journey with Les Mis going around the world, on Broadway, doing the new version, all the other variations and concerts and more.

It has been quite extraordinary. I feel as though I've enjoyed the best of Les Mis.

How do you think we can best preserve and support the theatre industry at this time?

That's a difficult question. We have to come to terms with the fact that we're in for even greater struggle.

It's terrible the panto season is not happening. So many performers and freelancers rely on that Christmas income, which can equate to 30-40% of people's yearly turnover. Without it, our industry will look very different next year. That's just shocking. It's extraordinary.

It's not just about about theatres reopening, it's also about social confidence. We need people to want to go into theatres. I get the concerns.

There has to be support from the government saying we will help you to reopen safely. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the dialogue at the moment. Our industry is responsible for bringing in millions to the UK economy, yet it seems to be at the end of the Government's list of priorities.

It's not just our industry either. We hired a couple of photographers to come to the British Motor Museum to do some PR shots for us. They are event photographers and currently, they have no work. It's just unbelievable.

I think theatre will look like it did 30 years ago. We will have to start again with small projects. I don't think we'll be seeing big touring musicals for a while. I just don't see it with the current social distancing requirements. It's not viable, and that's just horrific to say, but one has to be realistic. I suspect there will be a lot of outdoor concerts next year, but I really do not know. Nobody knows.

Even if the situation does change, it will only be a privileged few producers able to take the risk and open to a reduced size venue. There aren't many producers or theatres that can handle that. It's bonkers. Absolutely bonkers.

Any other projects on the go?

We were looking at bringing Voices of the West End to Scotland, but outdoor concerts weren't allowed at the time they were allowed in England, so I couldn't take the risk. Maybe next year. I am also thinking of touring my Three Phantoms show as an outdoor concert. At the moment, amongst all of this, I'm just very quietly putting feelers out for things in 2021.

That said, if these concerts aren't a success, I won't be able to do that. I'm risking everything. I'm risking what I have accrued so far. I have no backers. I am funding this myself. If it doesn't go the way I need it to go then I won't be able to promote anything.

This is critical. It is about survival. While I do have some harebrained schemes for next year, I need these four concerts to pay back their original investment. Otherwise, I'll be working in Waitrose for a while!

Any advice for aspiring performers, particularly new graduates at this time?

One has to be unbelievably realistic about the scenario we are in. Something that hasn't changed is that you must always work towards achieving longevity in this industry. Now, more than ever, it's not just about the whole thing with parents saying you should "Get a proper job". No industry is safe in the light of this virus.

You need to think about how you survive as a human, let alone a performer. I think it's more about understanding how to survive. Try to earn money on a daily basis. You should think that every morning as a self-employed person.

Don't moan about having another six months of a contract which will probably be renewed. Those days are gone. For now, you need to get rid of whatever aspirations you have of going to the West End and focus on making the situation work for you.

At college we used to put together street entertainment, just any show. I think we've lost that along the way. It's re-emerged online in recent months, but you should still think about how to create live entertainment in a physical world.

Even if it makes no money, get out there. Get off the computer and put it out in a live format in a safe way. It is feasible. We can do it and we need to do it.

Why should people come to Voices of the West End?

We are potentially the only musical theatre concert tour in the UK. I have no competition. Not many theatres are open at the moment.

If you want to support the arts, this is an ideal opportunity. If you want to have an enjoyable evening listening to your favourite musicals with your favourite musical theatre performers, this is the show for you.

Voices of the West End at these venues has been created to be safe. If you want to sit in a pitch on your own with another pitch a minimum of three metres away, so you feel safe, we have created that environment for you.

We'll be playing some beautiful venues. It will be just glorious to sit there with your Prosecco or sandwiches, in your deckchairs, and listen to us get the words wrong to some of the most famous musical theatre songs ever written! That's why you should come to Voices of the West End.

Voices of the West End is at Broadlands Estates, Romsey, from 4 September and then on tour

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