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FRINGE REPORT INTERVIEW: EMMA TAYLOR
Emma Taylor, director and actor, is Artistic Director of London's leading comedy drama venue Canal Café Theatre. John Park met her ...
It's a shock to find the Canal Café's artistic director sober and fully dressed. Last time I saw her, she was on the bottle, lipstick streaked, looking around for a shag.
Mind you, Emma Taylor was playing Blanche Dubois (brilliantly) in a melange of Tennessee Williams (Desire, Desire, Desire) at the the time. Today she's wearing a different hat, surrounded by small people. Actor, artistic director, director, producer: how does the girl find time to teach tiny tots theatre on her day off?.
Emma Taylor's classically beautiful in that relaxed, sophisticated way that points to European rather than Anglo-Saxon lineage, and it's true. Her dad's Hungarian, mum's English, she was brought up here and spent some time teaching children drama. Now that she's a full-time director and actor, she still likes to squeeze in a couple of hours putting the dream of theatre into the very young.
There are 20 or so little tantrum-bearers surrounding her when I arrive: they're curiously silent, a little awe-struck. Taylor's in the centre, impeccable in Armani suit, a trace of make-up, silky blonde hair resting elegantly on her shoulders. She radiates quiet authority and inspiration. It's a fine moment: it's clear the children adore her.
So what does an Artistic Director actually do? 'It's largely administrative: I'm programming 14 shows a week.' Fourteen? 'NewsRevue's our in-house show, that's four of them. I produce and cast it. There's a new director and musical director and four actors - 2 girls, 2 boys - to find every 6 weeks. There are about 30-40 writers who send material to the show. I've been doing it 2 years: it's been going for 23.'
And you direct? 'It wasn't possible at first, because there was a lot of admin. I did Lucky Stiff.' It was ambitious, with a large cast - and a resounding success. At the other extreme, American Trio focused on 2- and 4-handers.
'I found the plays for American Trio about 3 years ago.' Taylor directed 2 of the 3 short plays involved and acted in the third. It became one of the most popular shows at the theatre, and evolved into American Shorts. That's made up of 4 plays, with Taylor acting Blanche in the finale.
Comedy dramatist Marc Blakewill is hugely impressed by Taylor's artistic versatility: 'Emma can bring to life and marshall the high-camp of a musical like Lucky Stiff and then tighten the focus with her deft direction of a one-woman show like Dulcas's Women.' That's Genevieve Swallow's one-woman show, which Taylor has just directed.
'I'd never worked with her before,' says Swallow. 'I needed someone I could trust - I needn't have worried. Emma's an actress herself and knows what it's like to be up there performing.' The show did excellently despite two tube strikes, picked up a producer on the strength of its Canal Café run, and is now set for Edinburgh 03.
Swallow says: 'Emma makes you feel she not only listens, but really listens. She never tries to impose her own way of performing on you: she lets you discover things for yourself.' Dulcas's Women's writer Terry Newman (aka comedy writer Terry Franks-Newman) praises Taylor's ability to work easily with actors and writers 'to the benefit of the whole production: she has a good eye, and there's a keen intelligence at work.' Swallow picks up the theme. 'She's patient, level-headed. She knows how to compromise. And when not to.' She laughs: 'Oh yeah, she's also good fun.'
Taylor's role on NewsRevue (NR) escalates in August when she's producing two major comedy shows at opposite ends of the island. Marc Blakewill (co-producer of Revolution and a regular NR writer) is a huge fan: 'Emma's produced two very good Edinburgh NewsRevues'. The audience agreed: the 2002 Edinburgh NewsRevue, directed by Odette Abbott, was C-Venues's biggest grossing adult show.
At the same time, Taylor was also producing the separate 2002 London NewsRevue, directed by Andrew Byron.
A lot of Fringe shows use the Canal Café Theatre as a springboard to Edinburgh. It's a trend that's built up under Taylor's stewardship, and that of her predecessor as Artistic Director, Rohan Acharya producer of Edinburgh 02's The Establishment. It's rare in the arts for one director to be uninhibited in their affection for another, but get Acharya on the subject of Taylor and you can't contain his enthusiasm.
Acharya: 'She deserves widespread recognition. I'm immensely impressed with Emma's stabilisation of the theatre and expansion of its profile. Her programming's improved on a long history of picking out the finest emerging talent on the comedy scene.' He loves her riskiness: 'Emma's fearless about programming alternatives to the comedy genre - with great success'; and her imagination: 'One of the things I admire most about Emma is - she brings a much-needed creative aspect to the position of Artistic Director; producing, directing and performing shows at the venue herself. I'm overwhelmingly impressed by Em's achievements, ability and professionalism.'
Phew! All this praise could go to a girl's head. For a breath of sanity, I ask comedy actress Samantha Sanns, who's worked with Taylor numerous times, for a balanced view. Ah, she says, do you want to know the truth? Well, yes, of course. But not too 'Hello', mind.
Sanns: 'When not sniffing crack cocaine out of young actors' butt-cracks, Emma can be found putting young hopefuls through their paces on the casting couch. Her well known catchprase is "It isn't art till it hurts!" Yes, she is a worry.'
This is much more like it, after all, this interview's competing with Princess Di's ex-valet's (literally) fundamental Daily Mirror revelations. Damn: Sanns then immediately says it's all lies and the real truth is 'Emma works tirelessly. She provides a unique venue to experiment with innovative material and a well-respected space for established acts to showcase their talents.'
Samantha's acted NewsRevue twice: 'Ems is particularly supportive of the cast: she selflessly provides them with support, contacts and further employment. She's extremely professional: and she's a good laugh!'
An enduring sense of humour's a must, managing a theatre that does comedy drama. Taylor's booker, coaxer, encourager, builder of fragile egos, and agony aunt for hundreds of shows yearly. Just a few from the Canal Café in the last couple of years:
Monday Weekly (Baker and Finnemore), Amusing Men, Abi Show, Inexplicable, Andy Zaltzman, Caught in the Act, Sam and Cy, Ubersausage, Irish Plays, Spencer Brown, Matt and McKinnon, Natalie Haynes's Six Degrees of Desolation, The Trap, John Shuttleworth, Oram and Meeten's Fit2Burst, Sweethearts and Bodyparts, Kirk and Messingham, Dyball and Kerr, Susan Black, Rebecca Carrington, Instrumental HaHa (Boothby Graffoe, Spencer Earl), Tigco's See You Next Tuesday, The Open Couple, Taking the Wheel, Peter Buckley Hill, McCloud and Black, Dead Landlord, Driscoll and Message, Lipstick / Teeth, Evolution, Sitcom Trials, Cyderdelic, Daniel Kitson (Perrier Nominee 00 and Winner 02), The Dirty Nans, Count Arthur Strong, The Legendary Polowski, The Hollow Men, Cambridge Footlights, Ballet Who? (Iestyn Edwards and Lizzie Roper), Bootleg Comedy, BD and Queer Jazz, Long Time Dead, The Consultants (Perrier Newcomers Award 02), Vanessa Dinning, Fools Gold, McDougal and Donkin, 3 Handed Woman, Navelgazing, Theatre for Mankind, Sophia Koutsaki, Rebecca Carrington, Club Seals, Boxhill and Westhumble, Brit Pol, Animal Pie, Taking out Lennie, Twas The Night Before Christmas, Kepow Theatre Company, John Oliver, Cotton and Hendry, Rob Deering, Simon Lipsom, Neil Neil Mullarkey, Jeff Innocent/Mike Gunn, Mike Gunn/Dom Holland/Rainer Hersch, The Big Briefcase, Live! Girls! Sketch Show, Andrew Clover, Vagina Monologues, Ida Barr and Chris Green, Brian Appleton, Roast, Maryann Devally's Prince His Pussy and Me, Diamond Heist, Cockfight, Arnold Widdowson's Wonderful World of Skill, Ms Dench's Dentures, Shepherd and Farnaby's The Peterford Golf Club, Danny Bhoy, BBC Comedy, Jessica Jufre (cabaret), The Associates, Rhiannon Meades's A View from the Porch, Ego Warriors (John Davie and Neil Innnes (Monty Python and Bonzo Dog)), James Homes, Andrew Clover, Spooks (by Ben Wilbond), Benders (featuring Justyn from the Consultants), Lunatic, Revolution, The Bing Show, LAPA, Maria Sundelin, The Hurricane Club, Dallan & Tilly (Tigco), Gavin & Gavin, Alan Francis, Two Mad Swedes (cabaret), Marianne Levy's musical comedy 5678, Live at the Mausoleum, Cameron Blair, Alistair Barrie, Priorité à Gauche, and Eddie Izzard.
Eddie Izzard? Taylor: 'I got a text in Moscow (she was acting in Moscow Broadway's production of Chekhov's The Wedding) from Eddie's PA saying he'd like to do a couple of secret warm-ups at Canal Café for the Amnesty International show at Wembley'. Within 5 minutes she had a booking for the gig from a fan in California. On the nights there was a massive police presence and the venue was packed.
Izzard had played Canal Café in his early days. It's a place that's fondly remembered by many established greats: The League of Gentlemen did their first ever gigs at Canal Café and came back in May 02 to firm their third BBC series (transmitting November 02).
So, you're a new act and want to put on a show: what are Taylor's criteria for the venue? 'When anyone calls to hire the theatre, I ask what the project 'does'. It's going to have a comic element - that work's well in the Canal Café.' So, not Macbeth? 'Not unless there's a comic element. Having said that we staged one Shakespeare set in a toilet / nightclub - very site specific!' Musical cabaret's another popular billing, particularly on Sunday evenings.
Do you read the script? 'Not if the act's well-known. Most other theatres have to book a 3-4 week run. We don't, because we've got so many slots. So we don't have to be so picky.' She can take measured risks on new acts, which has given the theatre its cutting-edge reputation. However, handling say 5 different acts a week is as much admin per act as for a 3-week run: 'Contract, press release, end-of-show report, invoice, props storage.'
Props are an exacting item for a small theatre. 'It's best if shows have a minimal set and not too many people: but we did one that had a cast of 22.' There's a tiny dressing room and they weren't all on stage at once: a fine piece of stage management.
What about new talent? Taylor: 'My view is - give everyone a chance. We had two young guys, 17/18, desperate to put on a show here. They sent a 6th-form show reel. I gave them a night, they packed it out with masses of friends.' Success? 'Brilliant. The best thing is: it gave them the opportunity to prove to themselves they could do it.'
OK. You have a show with a comic element, a few props, a cast. How much? '£800 for five nights, Tuesday to Saturday, at 7.30.' The slot's about an hour long. The cost includes 'Technical fees; front-of-house; box office; sending the press release; all tickets are available on lastminute.com; if they provide a flyer, distibuting up to 600 through Fringe Theatre Network (FTN)and displaying them in the theatre. The act keeps the box office takings.' Ticket prices are up to the act: Taylor recommends £5, and £4 concessions, and suggests not charging over £10. On top of this the theatre charges £1 annual membership (ie tickets £6/£5), which it retains - it's payable only once a year by each customer, and every fifth show - of any at the venue - is free). Deposit? 'Not huge.'
In the middle of all this admin, how does she find the time - and emotion - to act demanding roles like Blanche Dubois in Desire Desire Desire (DDD)? Taylor: 'I try and make time for analysis and research. With DDD, I was familiar with Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (all of which are lampooned in the play). But I had to read them again, because they were (DDD writer) Christopher Durang's characters now, with his words, and I had to get his mark.'
You ran it as one of a quartet, American Shorts. You were acting in 2, directing the others, and co-directing the ones you were in. What was your methodology? 'I'd start direction with table-work: discussion and analysis with the cast, background of the characters, what makes them do things.' Theatrically she's looking at how to design it, what kind of modelling she's aiming for. So she avoids directing when she's acting: 'With DDD, Tom (actor Tom Bodell) would understudy me as Blanche and swap round so I could see what it looked like ...' Understudy? Tom's a big man, and the thought of him in as a drunken trollope is glorious. Will she do it, direct him as Blanche in a high-camp farce? 'And do myself out of the part!' So, sadly, Tom's stuck with a dummy role only, and doesn't get to put on the dress.
More generally, how does Taylor choose the pieces she stages herself? Taylor: 'They've got to entertain'. What does that mean? 'Effortless attention'. It's a great mantra, and one she disciplines herself with. But how does she choose? 'Reading a hell of a lot.' What? 'Anthologies, I go to drama school showcases. I'm looking for things that stand out - good performances or writing. I've found some great pieces reading, and I'll then read everything that author's written - lots of short plays.' So programming has a punishing lead-time? 'I'm always thinking of programming. I'm focusing on a main slot of an hour, possibly 90 minutes.' Watching hundreds of 60 minute plays - and seeing what can be achieved dramatically with precision, she watches longer stuff with an editor's eye: 'When I see 2-act plays I often think they don't warrant the extra time.'
When Taylor came to the Canal Café, did she want to change things? 'Bill Bentley and Rory Bremner started there. I'd come in from a more theatrical background: I wasn't going to change the theatre to something it wasn't designed for.' Taylor's programmed a lot of fine female comedy acts (Gavin & Gavin, McCloud and Black, Maryann Devally), and she's delighted that as a woman she has that opportunity. But she doesn't have an axe to grind: entertainment as 'effortless attention' is non-gender-specific. Her policy evolved on the job: 'To carry on expanding what the theatre already did brilliantly, while slowly bringing in more plays with a comic element.'
Emma Taylor grew up in a small suburb of Leicester. She attended Liverpool University, graduating in French and Drama and following it up with a work placement at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre. On a year out in France she set up a French-speaking theatre company - A La Carte. They put on Jean Paul Satre's Huis Clos (In Camera / No Exit), with Taylor as Estelle, and toured universities and polytechnics. On her way to Paris to audition for Adrian Mole's Mother, a phone call diverted her to teaching children theatre, which she loved. But for someone of Taylor's talents, it was never going to be enough. She sold the house she'd bought and went full-time to drama school. There were immediate fringe benefits.
First day learning to be an actor/director, she and fellow-student (now star of Cats, London, and Cats in Berlin), now matinee-idol, Jack Rebaldi were sat next to each other. Jack's from the French part of Switzerland, and they lapsed quickly into French. It was love at first sight, if not at first night, and they're married. So how's Berlin? Taylor: 'Vibrant. It's so geared-up for the future. It's efficient - it works. There's a sense of renaissance, especially round Potzdammer Platz.' It's the location of the fabulous new theatre hosting Cats (Jack plays Munkustrap, the leader cat and narrator), built over the former no-mans-land of the Berlin Wall. 'Even New York can't compare. Berlin's unique.'
Back to that fan club. Comedy writer John Cowen's only met her once but was smitten: 'She's a delightful lady'. Royal Academy of Music harpsichord graduate and gifted jazz pianist Pete Smith credits his musical rising-from-the dead ('She got rid of my mothballs for me') exclusively to Taylor: 'I used to make my living as a musician. I gave it up for a different life and no amount of coaxing from anyone could get me to go back to music.' He was out of music for 13 years. 'Except Emma. Because of her charm, encouragement and ability to just make things happen, she persuaded me to MD (musically-direct and play piano for) NewsRevue.' For a few nights. Huh, the girl knows her psychology: 'The few nights turned into 6 months.' He was a ready convert to the Taylor admiration society: 'From acting, directing, managing, to dealing with stalkers, Emma's totally professional and so good at what she does. And she's a great girl to work with.'
Alex Woodhall, who played Robot Hard-On From The Planet Spunk in You Couldn't Make It Up, has acted and directed with Taylor. Woodhall: 'One of Emma's great strengths is her generosity of spirit. She lets people have a relatively free reign over what they do (I'm thinking NewsRevue here). She'll put a person's name forward for other projects she hears about. Two years ago I got a call from Johnny Ball, who was looking for little bouncy actors (like Woodhall) at the time. He'd contacted the Canal Café, and Emma put him onto me. It's very rare to find folks who support actors from a distance, and use their positions to help others along the way. And Emma's very supportive of all the shows she programmes. She shoulders a hell of a lot of work which doesn't get noticed by the public. To turn a theatre that was nigh-bankrupt around into a consistently profit-making venue is a real achievement for Fringe theatre. And beneath that Artistic Director's exterior bubbles a very cheeky sense of humour!
Writer and director Phil Lunn is another Taylor devotee: 'Emma's a pleasure to work with'. Actor Damian Kell calls her 'The rock upon which lies the Canal Café Theatre. She was friendly and encouraging to our NewsRevue cast and is always pleased to welcome us back. Plus, she cast me, so she definitely has a great eye for talent!' Actor Andrea Sadler: Emma's at the helm of a really well-oiled machine with NewsRevue in particular, and the Canal Café in general. She's extremely efficient, organised and focused on the tasks in hand. She also has great staff - technical and box-office - who add to the high production standards and general happy feel of the place.
NewsRevue actor James Oerton backs up Taylor's loyalty to past casts: 'Emma arranged a couple of auditions for me and got us all work for Radio 5. She always struck me as being a very straightforward person and that's something of a rarity in the biz isn't it? I liked her a lot. She's full of life!
Oerton pauses. 'Emma? She's genuine.'
Interview with Emma Taylor by John Park
21 November 02
(c) Fringe Report 2002
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