BWW Interview: Patsy Ferran Talks SUMMER AND SMOKE
Following a critically acclaimed run earlier this year, Summer and Smoke returns to the London stage this Winter. The journey to this point started a whole summer before that though in rehearsed readings, as Patsy Ferran reveals.
Straight off her win for Best Actress in a New Production of a Play at BroadwayWorld's UK Awards, Patsy shares what it's like to have a character in your head for that long a time. Taking us through how her own impressions of Alma have changed, she also reveals just how Alma has changed her too.
What is your earliest memory of theatre?
Well we moved to England when I was about ten, so it would probably be the first musicals that we went to as a family, like The Lion King. But if there was a play that had that light-bulb moment for it was Coram Boy at the National Theatre, when I was fourteen.
I'd never been to the National before and I remember turning up at this concrete, ugly building! Now I think it's one of the most beautiful buildings, probably because I've had the most special experiences in it in the audience and on stage.
That must have been amazing, going on to perform there yourself with Treasure Island and As You Like It.
Do you know what? Because everything happened quite quickly, I don't think what I was doing hit me until quite far into the run of Treasure Island. I'm someone who doesn't tend to overthink what I'm doing, because if I do then I start to freak out. Because this wasn't supposed to happen necessarily!
So was there every another career path?
My "proper job" was going to be related to languages in some way. Both my parents were Spanish and I was quite good at them in school. Also, embarrassingly I think I watched The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman and went, "I want to work in the UN!"
I remember we had to choose between Latin and Drama at school, and I actually chose Latin and dropped drama for a year. Then a friend of mine said a teacher was upset I wasn't doing Drama for GCSE. And a light bulb went off, a pretty massive one. Memory is a funny old thing and I might be glamorising it, but I remember running through the corridors, flinging doors open going, "I've got to change my GCSE options!"
And that was it from then: university and then drama school followed after.
It might have been at drama school, but had you done much Tennessee Williams before Summer and Smoke?
The first student production I did at university was A Streetcar Named Desire and I played Eunice, which was a lot of fun. In terms of studying it though, no I wouldn't say we did; I don't think we even did it at RADA.
But my first third year production at drama school was In the Summer House by Jane Bowles. She's one of the lesser known playwrights of that time and she's got a very similar heart to him. So I feel like I've done that sort of genre before, but not specifically him.
Summer and Smoke was the first time I got to get to grips with it. And I became a proper geek!
Brilliant! How geeky are we talking in terms of preparing for the show?
Well, I read his autobiography and all his other major plays. I went to Mississippi with my Dad because I had some time off...slash unemployment!
We went for six days on what Rebecca Frecknall has coined my "Tennessee Williams Pilgrimage"! We flew into Memphis and drove down to Clarksdale, which is supposedly where Glorious Hill is based. Then we flew to New Orleans, where he wrote many of his plays.
I just fell head over hills in love with Williams and I think our audiences have done too. I think this play has done so well because a lot of people can relate to it, particularly Alma. Personally, I just felt like I was having some kind of therapy session, just by reading his stuff and getting to know that character. I had my own personal self-realisations going on.
Which is what happens to Alma, essentially...
Yes...it was weird, this odd parallel happening at the same time.
Now it's calmed down, but during the Almeida run I was going through a very positive but odd experience. This character who was forcing me to look at my own self quite closely. That was quite uncomfortable.
It's interesting to hear how your impressions have changed. I remember reading that initially you were somewhat...hesitant about the character, shall we say?
I didn't like the play at all when I first read it!
But that's because there are numerous versions of this play and the version I read didn't have that prologue, where you see the two characters (John and Alma) as ten year olds. And that is mad to me.
Without that scene, you don't understand the foundations of this messy relationship, you don't understand the cruelty of it. So when I actually read it with the prologue at this rehearsed reading, I had the opposite reaction.
It was very odd, to have that polar opposite experience with the same play. And then I started to panic. Because I started to really love the play and the character and we didn't know if the show was going to happen. So I just tried to just detach myself from it back then.
"I didn't even want it anyway!"
Exactly! "I don't want it". That's how I live my life a bit: don't have any expectations and you won't be disappointed.
That's actually the argument which Alma and John have at the end. John goes, "It's best not to ask for too much", and she goes, "I disagree with you. Ask for all, but be prepared to get nothing." I sort of believe actually in John more, because it doesn't mean you're giving up; it just means do everything 100% without the expectation of always being rewarded for it.
So you've been on quite a journey with Alma. With the transfer to the Duke of York's Theatre, how long has she been in your head?
That's a good question! I did the rehearsed reading last year in April or May, so it will be a year and a half by the time we finish...wow! I hadn't thought about that. I only ever really think about the first time we did it, at the Almeida.
What's it been like to bring the show to the Duke of York's?
I've never done a transfer before, I've never revisited a piece of work before. I was very anxious leading up to it, because there's now an expectation (and as we've discussed, I don't like expectation!)
It was probably the most nervous I've been on the first day of a job actually. But then Rebecca did the most wonderful thing on that first day: we were all in a circle with the entire team and she said, "Let's not pretend that we've had six months off. Let's not pretend that we are now different people. I have no intention of recreating what we had at the Almeida. It's going to be different and I think we should embrace that." So she already set the tone and calmed my nerves.
Because I know it so well now, I actually feel freer. I didn't realise until we started doing it this time how fixed I felt at the Almeida.
In what ways?
I'd made these choices and on some level, they were always the same choice. Maybe there was the odd show where things felt very different and it was kind of exciting, but I didn't know how that happened.
Now I feel like there are various ways of doing this and they are all correct, but you have to allow that to happen. And I've got the most amazing company around me, the most amazing scene partner in front of me, and we get to discover that together.
It's lovely that you can still surprise each other and find new things, having worked on it for so long.
Yes and that's why I love acting with him. Matt [Needham] is quite mercurial, I just don't know what he's going to do. So I just have to allow him to throw me off balance, because that's what their dynamic is too, Alma and John.
I just love it. I feel so safe even though I don't know what's going to happen. It's such a bizarre combination and I don't think I've ever had that really on stage before. And to feel utterly safe on that stage is great, because it's hard work. It's a physical, mental obstacle course of a play for me. There are some nights where I'm just like, "I can't do this anymore!"
I can see why there's a bed here in the Green Room!
Yes! I haven't used this one, it looks quite comfy. But upstairs, they've left a little futon for me, which I've only used once.
Rebecca is also meticulous in not allowing me to relax, because that's when it can fall apart a bit. Your body has to be in a constant state of tension and nerves and anxiety (because that's what Alma is).
That feels great in the moment, because it feels like we're driving the story forward and doing it as it should be done. But by the end it's like, "Oh my gosh!" Physically tired, but mentally wired!
I love that turn of phrase!
Yes, it's great...except you can't get to sleep on the futon after that!
Finally, congratulations on winning Best Actress in a New Production of a Play here at BroadwayWorld! How did you find out?
Thank you! I was just warming up, stretching for the show and Matt just goes, "Congratulations!" I was like, "Thank you...for what?" And he was like, "You won the BroadwayWorld award!" And I went, "Really!" It was quite nice to find out that way: in the theatre, on the stage with Matt.
Check out our interview with Matthew Needham from the first few weeks of rehearsals
Photo credit: Marc Brenner