Interview: John Schwab and Matt Humphrey Talk A SEPARATE PEACE

By: Apr. 30, 2020
Interview: John Schwab and Matt Humphrey Talk A SEPARATE PEACE
Matt Humphrey and John Schwab

This Saturday night, a revival of Sir Tom Stoppard's A Separate Peace - his 1966 play, set in a nursing home - will be broadcast live, starring David Morrissey, Jenna Coleman, Denise Gough, Ed Stoppard, and Maggie Service; Sam Yates directs.

This is the first in a new virtual series, The Remote Read, offering performances with full creative and production elements - but all performed from the actors' homes. Producers Matt Humphrey and John Schwab talk to BroadwayWorld about this unique presentation.

Matt - you're working with John on this project as part of The Remote Read?

Matt: John and I founded Curtain Call five years ago and this is primarily a Curtain Call production. We came up with the idea and then had to figure out how to do it. We've been working on it for about a month.

We've known each other for many years. I'm a photographer, John's an actor. We met at the Old Vic, worked on a few different projects and founded Curtain Call. We set about documenting a year in the life of London Theatre and produced a photographic book that came out in 2016 called Curtain Call - A Year Backstage in London Theatre. That book was the genesis of our company and, in time, we built a network for theatre professionals, onstage and backstage.

That was launchpad for this project, because, in this strange time of lockdown, we were thinking about what we could do to get technicians and creatives working again, what we could do to produce something. Instead of pre-recorded content, we wanted to develop and produce a new piece of theatre - and we had the platform to get to the people we could work with to do that.

Interview: John Schwab and Matt Humphrey Talk A SEPARATE PEACE
Tom Stoppard

So how are you actually doing this?

Matt: We don't want to reveal too much...

Every member of the creative team, every member of the production team and every actor is in their own home. Everybody is contributing to this remotely.

We have a full team behind this though. We've been rehearsing through Zoom and liaising via email and videoconferencing. With everything done remotely, we've had to reimagine and rethink the roles found within a theatre setting. Instead of having a proscenium arch, we have a screen. So, what does that mean for a director's vision? How will they come to a piece and present it? Everything must come through the medium of a Zoom webinar.

John: To add on to that, every production that reaches a stage starts with a black box. The people who come together - designers, technicians, performers - collaborate on that and, from day one, we wanted to keep that process intact, even though we couldn't be in the same room. We knew that the collaborative nature of theatre had to survive isolation.

Matt: We knew from the beginning that we'd need certain people involved in this team. We've been fortunate in being a part of the Broadway Tech Accelerator programme in New York. We went over in February for the first part of that. The other partner in that programme is Apples and Oranges Arts, run by Tim Kashani, and they're a co-producer on this show. Tim has done several of these virtual productions before, so he brings a lot of tech experience with him.

We're also partnering with UK non-profit Platform Presents, who champion new writing and new talent, so that was a really important alignment for us in terms of the ethos of why we're doing this.

In terms of the production team, we advertised the jobs through our site, because we have people on there who apply for jobs, but it's come to a standstill since Covid hit. We realised that we needed a team of designers, a stage manager and a production manager - who would all have a role.

We had been very clear that we didn't want it to be an ordinary "actors on Zoom reading a script". We wanted to add an element of design and coordination - the technical collaboration you would get on any other theatre production.

Interview: John Schwab and Matt Humphrey Talk A SEPARATE PEACE
A Separate Peace

You're doing the whole lot as if we're at the theatre, albeit mediated through Zoom. When did you decide to "fly without a safety net"?

John: Right at the beginning. I completely agree that all the stuff done with backing tracks and people coming together online is wonderful, but they're edited and they take a long time to make. We know that live theatre has a buzz that comes from knowing that this is a one-time event, live and special. Anything could happen.

We're bringing in the technical elements you would expect in a theatre - so the audience can get the best experience, as they would if they came to a theatre and watched a production.

Matt: It is a bold decision. We made that at the start and then figured out how to do it. There have been challenges on the way, but it's such an exciting ride because everybody bought into it from the beginning for the right reasons.

That's always been the ethos of theatre - you have the idea and then work out how to do it... live. This will be my first experience of seeing that done online.

Matt: It's going well, but it's hard to say that it's going to plan, because we're writing the plan as we go along! We had ideas of course, but - like any start-up - we have to iterate as we go. But it is going very well!

It's a piece of theatre that the writer himself [Sir Tom Stoppard] said he hadn't considered for 50 years, and he's so excited that we're doing this. We're giving new life to a play that has not seen the light of day in decades.

Sam Yates is such an exciting young director, and he's brought his vision and energy to how he wants to present this. The cast have been amazing - they've got behind this. They're having to adapt the way they work, but we're all doing that anyway, so it feels like the right time to be doing this.

John: Every rehearsal is a technical rehearsal. We go through and find new challenges every day. I have to commend our cast, who are stellar not only in their talent, but in their resolve to get to the best possible end to this journey. Hopefully we'll have some fantastic behind-the-scenes moments that we can show, because they're going above and beyond to meet these technical challenges.

I can guarantee that when our stage manager gives them their five-minute call, they'll be just as nervous and just as anxious as they would be standing in the wings on the Olivier stage.

Interview: John Schwab and Matt Humphrey Talk A SEPARATE PEACE
David Morrissey

In the audience, we'll be feeling that too - it gives the project real bite. It's an extraordinary cast - how did you assemble them?

Matt: We've had working relationships with a lot of these guys over the past few years. David [Morrissey] was the first person we reached out to. I had photographed him about ten years ago, and John and I had covered him on a couple of shows. I pitched it to him before anyone else. He was keen to be involved.

He brought on The Felix Project, with the suggestion to raise money for them. We always wanted to support a charity and that one was on the shortlist, and David had done a lot of work with them before.

Denise [Gough] and Jenna [Coleman] likewise, I had photographed them before - Tom Stoppard too. Ed Stoppard is a good friend of John's - they'd worked on a show together. Maggie Service was excellent in Quiz, and our paths had crossed when I was on the crew at the Old Vic and she was in A Flea In Her Ear and we'd stayed in touch.

I'd taken on the role of casting director a bit, and it was incredible to see the support for the vision that John and I had come up with.

John: Theatre is such a great community. Matt and I have, collectively, over the past 35 years, done our jobs well and we haven't upset anybody. [laughs] I did Latitude Festival with David Morrissey, and if you can sleep in a tent with someone for four days and wake up after a big night out and go and perform, you can get through this!

The play goes back 60 years to the start of Sir Tom Stoppard's career, but the outline makes it sound extremely on point for these extraordinary days. How did you choose this play?

Matt: It's incredible how relevant this play is right now. Health services are going above and beyond all over the world, and it highlights the care that is given by those professionals.

We were looking for a piece that had a sense of gravitas to it, so we wanted to work with an established playwright. We also wanted a piece that wasn't too long, to be honest, because we wanted to capture the imagination of the audience and hold their attention in the way we would in a theatre.

Given my connection with Tom, we started looking at his short plays and this one really stood out. He was over the moon about our plan. He told us that it came as such a delightful surprise. The original idea behind the play was to do with finding a kind of sanctuary in a closed world - something a lot of people can connect with right now.

The production streams at 7pm on Saturday - do you have to watch it then or can you pick it up on Sunday morning?

Matt: It's a one-off live performance.

John: It's just like a theatre show. You have to want to be there - the people who have bought tickets want to be there, just as they would in going to a show that you really want to see. If Mark Rylance said he was doing Jerusalem for one performance, you'd go and buy a ticket.

So you don't necessarily have to wear a tuxedo, but you've got to be there and on time!

John: If I can say this, theatre is my church and I used to go to it regularly, and now I'm not allowed to go. This is something I've needed to do personally and I know that other people will get something valuable too. And it's supporting a fantastic charity and theatre-makers who have entertained us for years and who cannot stop now, because it's in their blood.

Matt: One of the primary goals for this project is to show that it can be done and, in doing so, provide a blueprint for others to use. It's a big part of why we're doing it. Theatre can make new work and find an audience for it digitally.

Sir Tom Stoppard's A Separate Peace is broadcast online at 7pm on Saturday, 2 May. The Felix Project is the main charitable beneficiary of this production. It is a charitable organisation powered by volunteers, that saves surplus food from suppliers and redistributes it to charities and schools. For ticket information, click here

Photo credit: Alex O'Neal, Matt Humphrey

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