This month, we chatted to Paul O’Donnell, the theatre-maker and producer who’s a man on a mission to fly the flag for his beloved Coventry. We caught up with him during the initial tour of his latest project, We’ve Got Each Other, to talk about solo shows, Jon Bon Jovi and some grand plans for the UK City of Culture.
Gareth: How would you describe We’ve Got Each Other for anyone hearing about it for the first time?
Paul: We’ve Got Each Other is a full scale, no expenses spared, Bon Jovi musical… that is almost entirely imagined by the audience.
With the modern jukebox musical traditionally comes a multi-talented cast, a live band (or orchestra if you are lucky), opulent sets and decadent costumes, extravagant dance routines, dramatic key changes and the odd hydraulic lift or two. We’ve Got Each Other has none of these things (they cost a lot of money that independent solo artist Paul O’Donnell doesn’t have), but I still try to create this all singing, all dancing spectacle drawing upon the powers of your imagination to fill the voids.
People have described it before as an ‘austerity’ musical. That link wasn’t really intentional but I guess it does sum it up in a way.
Despite all its flaws, and its empty presentation, you still should leave We’ve Got Each Other with the sense that you ‘have’ experienced a full Bon Jovi musical show. And that is the magic of the show; you still fall in love with our principal characters Tommy and Gina, you are still blown away by the spectacle of it all, and if nothing else you certainly leave with a catchy song stuck firmly in your head. It creates the whole musical experience… on pretty much nothing.
People have described it before as an ‘austerity’ musical. That link wasn’t really intentional but I guess it does sum it up in a way.
Gareth: What is your favourite Bon Jovi lyric, and why?
Paul: “Now he’s holdin’ in what he used to make it talk, so tough, it’s tough.”
I went for this line from Livin on a Prayer (of course), because… well… it doesn’t even make sense does it? And that’s what I absolutely love about it.
You get completely swept up in the magic of this classic hit that it no longer matters that Jon isn’t even speaking English anymore. It doesn’t matter because you’re too focused on belting out whatever you’ve guessed those lyrics were at the very top of your voices.
In the same way I think We’ve Got Each Other has a similar effect. It is equally as nonsensical, and empty, and flawed, but somehow it completely doesn’t matter because you’re too busy sweeping yourself up in the magic of the full ‘musical theatre’ experience.
Gareth: We’ve Got Each Other was partly developed through China Plate’s First Bite and Bite Size process. How do you think that process has helped, influenced and shaped the piece?
Paul: First Bite and Bite Size were incredibly important towards the development of this piece, and also my career as an artist over the past year, particularly the guidance and advice that China Plate have offered.
I think it’s important to say here that First Bite is what I’d describe as a *meaningful* Scratch event. I sometimes get frustrated when venues or organisations offer ‘artist opportunities’ in the form of scratch nights, which essentially translates into “we offer you a spot to perform in”. That to me has a use, but is in no way meaningful or really useful in ensuring a future for the work beyond that event. First Bite goes beyond this; among other things it offers documentation in the form of photographs (to use as marketing materials), introduces you to a number of new venues (for me, Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre which is where I performed), and brought a collective of programmers and potential partners to see the work (many of whom have helped shape this tour). These are all things that support a future for this show beyond just that ‘scratch night’. First Bite also offered three of the eighteen First Bite artists a commission and support leading towards Bite Size Festival…
The project certainly wouldn’t be what it is today without this support from China Plate.
I just happened to be one of the artists to be given a Bite Size Festival commission, and this has meant that China Plate has supported me in a number of ways: financially offering a commission; producer-ly advice in that whenever I faced problems I could talk it through with folk who are a lot more experienced than I; and also with their range of contacts, helping to structure the tour and build a strong team around the show. For a start they put me in touch with Nick Walker for dramaturgical support (who I already knew but in other capacities) and lighting designer Arnim Friess, who have formed the team for this project and have enhanced the quality of what I have presented. They’ve helped me do what I’ve been doing for some time… but a lot better.
The project certainly wouldn’t be what it is today without this support from China Plate… at a guess, right now I’d probably still be scrambling for funding to support the show.
Gareth: Beyond these initial tour dates for We’ve Got Each Other, what are your plans for the show?
Paul: This is the initial tour of the show, which I hope will lead into further touring. At BE Festival this year I won the Early Ideas Award for the show, voted for by the audience, which means I get to return to perform a fuller extract of the show at 2018’s BE Festival. I am looking forward to that, and hoping I can create some international interest in my work. At BE Festival this year I was surprised to find that international audiences also really responded to the show (I think because of the Spanish references throughout it). It was a surprise to find that the musical theatre experience I’ve come to know and love is also highly recognisable across Europe.
Beyond that, I am also in conversation with Battersea Arts Centre who saw the show at Bite-Size festival and are really keen to bring the show back in Autumn 2018. I am also looking into other venues to see what future I can create for it.
I am also planning to make my first venture up to Edinburgh with the show in 2018. A scary new world, but people have said “it will do really well in Edinburgh”. I guess lets find out if that’s true or not.
I hope the show continues to tour, I really look forward to performing it. It’s a difficult show (one man on stage throughout with a lot of text to remember) but is packed with fun and energy and what feels like a real community with the audience throughout.
Gareth: Much of the work you have created so far in your career has been for you as a solo performer. Can you tell us a bit about how your work develops from initial idea to presentation? Does most of that work happen alone, or do you bring in collaborators?
Paul: Mainly… from my bedroom desk… or, The Paul O’Donnell studio (AKA: the kitchen).
I tend to start with a concept, for We’ve Got Each Other, as an example, it was the aim to create a ‘beautiful’ performance with no performers, or anything to look at, in it. I was interested in that conflict. Somehow, along the way, it transformed into an imaginary Bon Jovi musical… even I’m unsure as to exactly how. But that’s where it all began.
The audience are my final, and perhaps most crucial, collaborators. The show is made for them after-all.
A lot of the time I work alone, and often in my own head, thinking it through in the shower, on the bus, sipping a coffee or when I really should be sleeping.
However I always like to talk the work through with collaborators. I always value a dramaturgical role assisting my work. In this process it has been Nick Walker who has been incredibly useful in developing We’ve Got Each Other. In talking through stupid ideas to work out why they’re not so stupid, or talking through what might bridge the gap between this scene and that scene and so on, or helping me to cut out 45 minutes to meet festival time limits. All that has been really useful to me.
I’ve also valued the expertise of Arnim Friess (Lighting Designer) who has certainly filled a void that I simply wouldn’t have been able to fill myself. His experience in this area, especially the practicalities of touring the show (from small venues like Camden Peoples Theatre, to huge venues like Contact Theatre’s main stage) is invaluable. I really would have no clue how to make a success of this lighting-wise without Arnim’s collaboration.
Finally, every time I perform the show I learn more about how it works and what doesn’t work from the audience, and edit after every show I do. The audience are my final, and perhaps most crucial, collaborators. The show is made for them after-all.
Gareth: I remember seeing an early version of One Thing On His Mime at a Pilot Nights event a few years ago. I was struck then by how your work encourages the audience to actively engage their own imaginations to help tell the story. The same is true in We’ve Got Each Other. How conscious of this are you when making a new piece?
Paul: I refer back to your speech at the beginning of The East Meets West Symposium when you said that we should aim to put ‘audiences on top’ [you can read that speech here]. I am, and have been, very conscious of this for some time, but hearing you say it out loud refreshed it in my mind.
In We’ve Got Each Other more than any of my other shows the audience play as much, if not more, of a key role in the performance as myself.
In my shows it is not just a case of asking the audience to indulge me for an hour, but to engage their imaginations and invest themselves in the show as a ‘collaborator’ of sorts, alongside me. They not only imagine much of my work (encouraging them to be incredibly creative within the show) but also willingly block out, and accept, my shows for all their flaws, because they really invest themselves in making the show ‘a success’. They made part of it happen after all.
In We’ve Got Each Other more than any of my other shows the audience play as much, if not more, of a key role in the performance as myself. My relationship with them, and their relationship to the show, requires them to invest in it fully and believe in it, otherwise it will honestly ‘fall on its arse’.
Without you, the audience, the show would (quite literally) be nothing. And if that isn’t putting ‘audiences on top’ then I guess I don’t know what is!
“We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot for love”
Gareth: Which three artists have had the biggest influence on your work to date?
But inspiration surprises you, and in actual fact, as much as the above do influence my work in their own special ways, they don’t influence it half as much as:
RuPaul’s Drag Race: The costumes, the spectacle, the sassy performance style. The moments in which the acts get the audience/judges going wild.
Musical Theatre shows: Musical Theatre, despite all its flaws (I’m aware of them), does successfully manage to get across ‘important messages’ in an incredibly accessible, entertaining and heart thumping way. I love the way it creates that goose-bumpy effect via high notes and overacted passion, and that underneath it all it has a message to carry with you. Of course I don’t have the budgets to do this in the same way, but I like to explore ways in which I might be able to create these effects on my own scale. Often, as touched upon before, calling upon the audiences imaginations.
Crap shows: I love working out why a show absolutely doesn’t work for me, and why I should never, ever, do ‘that thing’ in my show. I think that’s really, really important. As much as it’s important to see really damn good work, it’s great to see some really awful stuff too and I find I get inspired by trying to do the opposite of that bad thing.
I feel that inspiration always surprises me and I can never really understand when it might creep up on me.
These are just three examples that spring to mind, but I feel that inspiration always surprises me and I can never really understand when it might creep up on me. I think my work feels ‘new’ to audiences because it often blends contemporary and radical techniques, inspired by Marina and co, with incredibly accessible and spectacular pleasantries, inspired by RuPaul and co., and somehow I make that work.
Gareth: You’re the Co-Founder and Producer of Shoot, a festival that provides a platform for the best of Coventry and Warwickshire’s up and coming talent. How did Shoot come about?
Paul: Shoot Festival started because there wasn’t anything like it in Coventry. At the time, I had just finished university and returned to Coventry to find that I was quite often travelling up to Manchester, or down to London to showcase my work. I guess in a way I was frustrated that I didn’t have a chance to show my work in my own city, to my own people, as was my partner in crime Jen Davis.
Together, with a great amount of support from Tessa Walker (Associate Director at The Birmingham Rep) and Chris and Julia (Theatre Absolute), we decided to stop just moaning about it, and do something about it. So initially it was intended to be a night for local artists to platform, and network, and perform. But we foolishly kept on applying for funding and finding support, and in our first year we somehow managed to get Coventry City Council and Arts Council England behind it, so immediately and quite violently, the festival grew for us, and still continues to.
We are the starting point for artists in Coventry and Warwickshire, and through our connections we can open doors for early career artists to a number of opportunities across the city and beyond.
It has been incredibly embraced by the community around Coventry and continues to grow with an amazing amount of support in kind from Theatre Absolute, Belgrade Theatre, Tin Music and Arts, and Birmingham Rep to name but a few. We support up and coming artists (I would proudly call us ‘emerging artists’, believing if you’re not still ‘emerging’ you’re probably not testing yourself enough… but understand that this is a contentious term) in any way we are able to, understanding their problems by having experienced many of them ourselves.
We really believe we are the starting point for artists in Coventry and Warwickshire, and that through our connections we can open doors for early career artists to a number of opportunities across the city and beyond.
Gareth: As the Producer of Shoot, how important do you think it is for Theatre Makers to make opportunities available for other Theatre Makers?
Paul: Well, we’ve seen an amazing success rate in the artists that have come through Shoot Festival. We have supported many artists in applications to Arts Council England which have been successful, a number of our artists have gone on to earn places on Birmingham Rep’s Foundry scheme, and many have picked up commissions and opportunities from the arts community across Coventry.
Traum by Theatre Absolute was a show that happened because Chris and Julia, of Theatre Absolute, saw a performance that merged Bboying with storytelling at Shoot Festival 2016. On top of this, a show which we commissioned this year, Beat by Ben Morley, is programmed into a run at a venue in London this month.
Right now there are also two shows which have been commissioned by Birmingham Rep that might not have happened had Shoot Festival not brokered that initial introduction: Sorry by Susie Sillett and Baby Daddy by Elinor Coleman (which won our Artist Development Award in 2016). The Death Show (which won our Artist Development Award in 2017) is also programmed into the Rep in 2018. We are a little key (constantly scrambling for funding) that hopes to open up opportunities for our fellow theatre makers in the city.
We think one of the most important things about us being Theatre Makers supporting other Theatre Makers is the fact that we understand some of the problems they face because we have faced them too, and therefore can think practically about how we might sort those out. Producers or venues, who have never themselves ‘made theatre’ might not be able to understand these as well as we (the Theatre Makers) could. From something simple like the importance of offering a small fee for ‘scratch’ work, through to supporting them meaningfully through the tech time and lead up to ensure that they have all the information they need to make the best possible work. I think that’s where Theatre Makers creating events for Theatre Makers is important – we have been through ‘that’ process, so understand the complexities of showcasing our own work first hand. An hour long tech time might suit most groups, but also might be a manic mad rush for this particular show. At Shoot Festival we try and support artists as best we can for their particular needs. Theatre Makers are aware that one size rarely fits all. That’s why it’s important we keep making things happen for one another, as only we can identify the problems we are facing in order to solve them. (“We’ve got each other… and that’s a lot for love”).
If we don’t support each other and lead each other towards opportunity, who the heck will?
Shoot Festival is one step in solving what used to be a lack in Coventry… now we alone have 37 acts under our umbrella, and many more artists who have applied, and I am sure many more who will apply in the future. The community around Coventry is paying attention to the artists that come through us and offering them opportunities too. If we don’t support each other and lead each other towards opportunity, who the heck will?
Gareth: You’re a big advocate for Coventry’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021. What impact do you think having a successful bid could have on the independent theatre-making ecology within Coventry?
Paul: Coventry already has a strong independent theatre-making ecology, with companies such as Theatre Absolute and Talking Birds placing themselves in the city. It also has some great venues for supporting the sector, Belgrade Theatre, Warwick Arts Centre, The Shop Front Theatre, Ego etc. It still certainly has gaps to fill, of course.
I cannot fathom what opportunity winning UK City of Culture in 2021 might mean… I get emotional at least twice a week about the prospect of it all, but I know it will only mean good things. And really, not just for Coventry, but for the whole region. It opens opportunities to people who are all across the West Midlands and beyond, we (Coventry) certainly can’t do this all on our own (it’s bloody huge) and will need input from creatives across the whole region. What I think is amazing is that suddenly artists from outside of Coventry might invest their time in little old Cov and realise that it’s a place where really amazing culture can happen (I’ve seen some pretty incredible work here). Which is why I would of course heavily encourage you to back the bid. [You can find out more about Coventry’s bid here and on Twitter.]
I cannot fathom what opportunity winning UK City of Culture in 2021 might mean… I get emotional at least twice a week about the prospect of it all.
Already, through the bidding process, I myself have been encouraged to think more ambitiously about the work I create both as a producer or artist. It’s very easy to get complacent as an artist and be comfortable in just getting by. What the bidding process has done for me, and you can feel it in the other organisations in the city, is it has asked ‘what more can you be doing?’, ‘How can you achieve that?’ and ‘How is that sustainable?’. It has certainly upped my ambition, and that’s only with bidding. Imagine what might happen if we actually win!
And really, that comes not just from the bid, but also from Coventry City Council’s 10 Year Cultural Strategy that has set bold aims as to what we as a city want to do culturally over the next ten years. I am sure that, whether we win City of Culture or not (I really hope we do though), I have no doubt that the ecology of Coventry in 2018 onwards is going to be incredibly different to what it is right now. For you, the only advice I can offer is… be a part of it!
Gareth: If money were no object, what amazing and ambitious project would you create for Coventry in 2021?
Paul: I’ve been thinking of a project for a while that feels a million miles away. It’s called Symphony. It would be me on stage telling you my anti-climactic completely non-eventful life story… but… backed up by a full live orchestra. A sort of concerto in which my life story is the final/main instrument. It’s not as self indulgent as it sounds, as hopefully it’s a story that speaks about a human want to feel important that we can all relate to. A piece that celebrates the ordinary, and mundane, and dull, and somehow makes it all rather incredible… with the help of a full orchestra.
I’m not sure if this is created ‘for Coventry’ per se, or just an idea in my head that I keep thinking about when I should really be thinking about the performance I’m doing right now. Somehow though it would celebrate what it means to grow up and live as a Coventrian whilst merging a one man performance with a thirty-five piece orchestra.
A man can dream right?
Gareth: Many of our blog subscribers are theatre students who plan to go on and make their own work professionally. If you had to give one piece of advice to them, what would it be?
Paul: Learn how to produce. Many people think ‘to be a star I must have a producer who does all the work for me’ (I certainly thought that). I would argue that a producer might be great, but it is equally as important to understand how one produces before thinking getting yourself a producer is necessarily the answer. There’s no real training for producing. It’s very much learnt on the job as you go, out of necessity. But understanding the nature of the beast you’re working in is incredibly important.
You can’t be creative without knowing the limitations of your creativity, practically.
For example: You can’t really create work sustainably without knowing what funders or programmers are looking for and building those relationships with venues and partners yourself. You can’t be ambitious without knowing the logistics of such ambition. You can’t be creative without knowing the limitations of your creativity, practically. As dull and paperwork-y and budget-y and logistic-y as producing may be, the only creatives I know who are still going and are successful, are those who understand what it means to make their own work happen and manage it as it is happening.
Don’t be afraid of it; just keep winging it till you work it out. I am.