Putting the Funn in Fringe Theatre: How Eric Chapman Brought Wooden Overcoats to VAULT Festival 2016
In 2015, I worked with David K Barnes twice. The first time was on a work-in-progress staging of his play Monster Hunters; a rich, tightly-woven family-drama-slash-yeti-search. The second time was as a writer and an actor on the sitcom he created, Wooden Overcoats, a podcast which, to this day, has been downloaded over 30,000 times worldwide. Having worked with David’s scripts as an actor and director (and having had him improve my own Overcoats episode immeasurably), I knew what a keenly observant and empathetic comedy writer he was. So when I was offered the chance to curate two weeks of 2016′s VAULT Festival, I knew that one of the shows had to be a brand new David K Barnes comedy, and I knew I wouldn’t let anybody else direct it.
In both Overcoats and Monster Hunters, David showed a penchant for writing deeply dysfunctional and eminently relatable characters. The neuroses and flaws which we all see within ourselves taken to their logical extremes, often in larger-than-life scenarios (involving Bigfoot and ghosts, to name but two), with whip-smart attention to detail. As a director, whenever I first read his scripts, the comic and tragic beats seem to leap off the page and implore a group of actors to gather them up and fling them at one another like so much rice pudding. So, yes, a new David K Barnes comedy, loaded with as much misery, loathing and la-ha-ha-haughter as Wooden Overcoats, but what should it be?
After lots of discussion over what kind of play we might want to put on and what sorts of words we’d like to force people to say out loud in front of other people, we settled on the idea of a ghost obsessed with the person they’re haunting, desperate not to be discovered lest they upset their still-living housemate. An element of the supernatural has often been key to the kinds of stories Crowley & Co. likes to tell, and in David’s script I saw the chance to turn the classic ghost story on its head. As for a lead actor, David and I simply called up the funniest and most spectral performer we could think of. Another of our Overcoats brethren — none other than Antigone Funn herself, Beth Eyre.
After her fan-pleasing, bravura vocal performance as Antigone, David and I reckoned the world was crying out for more neurotic, misanthropic, prickly Beth Eyre characters. She just has this knack, you know? Beth was also in Monster Hunters all those months before, so I knew we worked well together and she and I were both fairly sure she could work with David’s writing. After all, nobody says “It’s disgusssstinnnggg” like Beth. So is Jo, that most awkward of ghosts, the same as Antigone? No, not quite. Jo is defensive, Jo is insecure, Jo wants to shut herself away from the world. So far, so Funn. However, with Jo, Beth has been able to explore a character on a very different wavelength. Where there’s Charles Addams glamour to Antigone’s strangeness and isolation, Jo’s is far more recognisable, and more common. You probably walked past a Jo on the street today — someone for whom society and people are a daily struggle, and an unavoidable one. For every invitation, there’s a shrug. For every compliment, there’s the thought ‘they just want something’. Jo’s is an everyday tragedy, and seeing the character emerge in rehearsal has been somewhat heartbreaking and very compelling indeed. Not to mention funny. Very, very funny.
Every performer in The Awkward Ghost (pictured left) has thrown themselves into the play’s domestic setting as well as its epic thematic questions, and has also literally thrown themselves into all the falling-over they have to do. In full, from left to right, there’s Ed Sheridan (Brett), Sarah Sorensen (Linda), Beth Eyre (Jo) and Peter Wicks (Robin). Overcoats superfans will recognise Peter as our live understudy Reverend Wavering (and very good he was too, filling Andy Secombe’s sizeable loafers). Each of them is something of a comic genius, and I can’t help but feel like a very smug little director.
The Awkward Ghost is performing as part of Crowley & Co.’s The Locker Takeover at VAULT Festival 2016. A GUIDE TO THE WHOLE SEASON, AND TICKETS TO EVERY PERFORMANCE, CAN BE FOUND HERE.