Interview with Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Mike Evans
Just before the final performance of our Theatre in the Clouds Christmas special at the Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard, I sat down our Revels newbies Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Mike Evans for a chat, 2 actors we were super lucky to have on board. I wanted to find out what the experience had been like, putting something together swiftly and then performing in super intimate and luxurious spaces such as the Shangri-La suite on the 39th floor of the Shard and the loft space of the Club at the Ivy on West Street. What is now common-place to Freddie, Mel and I (and many of our associate artists) is a totally unique experience to most professional actors; I couldn't wait to hear from them what the challenges and highlights had been.
Lucy Eaton: What was the pitch, as you understood it? What were you brought on board for? Kemi-Bo, you kick us off.
Kemi-Bo Jacobs: When you got in touch Lucy, I obviously knew about the work of Revels in Hand and Go People, because you’d been involved in The Darlings Club and I followed you on social media. So I knew you did private theatre, let’s call it "intimate theatre" actually. The brief was to do a fun Christmas show with a small company of people in a wonderful location, and I just thought “well I haven’t done that before, that’ll be fun." And it has been!
Mike Evans: I also knew how you worked, because a lady who had had Revels in Hand in her home saw me in a show and said “You’re brilliant and they’re brilliant and the two of you need to come together”. But essentially when I first emailed Lucy she said “we only work with our mates.”
Lucy: I think I said it in a nicer way than that! But yes, I said that at the moment we tended to work with the same small group and we didn’t have any upcoming opportunities to cast new actors.
Mike: Exactly. But then you got in touch in the summer about an abridged A Midsummer Nights’ Dream.
Lucy: It was one of those serendipitous things: we had just been asked to provide some Shakespeare scenes on a really tight schedule - the event was something like 2 days away - and we were trying to figure out whether to say yes. Could we do it? Who could we call on? And just as we were wondering whether it was manageable, you reached out again.
Mike: An actress called Rose Riley had just put a picture on facebook and it was the most beautiful photograph of her doing a bit of Private Lives with you guys at the Bulgari Hotel and it just reminded me about you. I was coming out of a show and I thought I might as well reach out again.
Lucy: It was perfect timing. I said “you bloody well could help us right now actually!” In the end that event didn’t happen, but by that point we were talking and I just got the feeling that you’d be a great fit with the company.
Mike: Yeah it felt like no time then before you were ringing to offer me this show.
Lucy: For both of you, this show was your first time working with Revels. So what’s been most surprising about the whole experience?
Kemi-Bo: I think the amount we’ve been able to achieve in the time we had. When you look at other models of rehearsal periods, the RSC for example or if you go to Russia, there’s a company that rehearse for a year… So pulling this together in 4 days was amazing. We had the script about 2 weeks beforehand, but even if you know your lines, you need to be in the room with those people, their rhythms, to know who the characters are, how you relate to them. So I think that’s been really interesting to me: the level of focus that each creative has brought into the room. It’s been only about the work, and that’s quite refreshing. Sometimes when you have that long rehearsal process, you can sit back a bit. That can be great because you can really sink into the character, but the way we worked on this is definitely something I’ll take away with me: just how much we were able to achieve in a short time.
Lucy: Did you see the article that came out in the Stage recently that said the National are going to vow to make 50% of their productions not call actors on a Saturday. At the National an average rehearsal period is 6 weeks. I thought “50% of productions? How dare you!” If you have the luxury of a 6 week rehearsal period, in what world can you not get that job done in a Monday-Friday? If you’re having to call people on Saturday too, then at some other point you’re surely wasting time.
Kemi-Bo: Absolutely. It did feel like nothing was wasted here. We can all relate to moments when you’ve been in a production and you get called in and, for whatever reason, you’re hanging around. Sometimes when there is time, you take your time. You fill it. But as artists in our field, it’s nice to be offered the unique challenge - and I have found it a challenge - of working to such tight time constraints. But we did it!
Mike: I agree it’s a challenge, and of course you’d hope that every production you do is a challenge in some respect, but you’re absolutely right - this provided a different challenge. For me though, the thing that most surprised me really was the quality of the work. That’s not because of any pre-judgement of you guys, but more and more there are projects that are turned around in a few days, and oftentimes, in my experience, within those rehearsal rooms there is a lack of experience and professionalism. But actually the craft of each individual here - the creatives, director, writer, producers as well as the cast - was incredible. The audience response surprised me as well. You assume people will think “Oh what a lovely evening, I sat with a lovely view of London behind.” But they are continually very very encouraging about the quality of the work and how much they enjoyed the play, the performances and the writing, not just the setting and champagne. It’s really encouraging and inspiring. To be able to achieve something like that in a short space of time it makes me wonder what else we can do!
Lucy: I'm happy to admit that for a long time Mel, Freddie and I had such imposter syndrome. Every time we had a booking we’d have a sense of “Gosh when are they going to realise that we don’t know what we’re doing.” But the reason we started the company was because we believe in ourselves and our talent, and we have access to friends and people who are remarkable but who are out of work for half the year; we thought "how can we pull these people together to bring that high quality in front of people?" It took us years to relax and know in our heart of hearts that every client was going to find our productions and the whole experience exceptional.
Mike: That’s been really striking here. I’ve been in things where audiences have been complimentary of me after a show but almost questioned why I was doing that job. But here it feels like a given that everyone involved is of a certain standard, and that the work is high quality.
Lucy: What’s been your favourite audience moment then?
Kemi-Bo: I have to say that the whole having to come out and mix with the audience afterwards was one of the most daunting and unusual things for me, and the thing I was looking forward to the least. But having said that, when you go and see a show it’s an exchange: we offer something to the audience, they take that thing, and when you’ve seen a show and you’ve really enjoyed it, you want to be able to say to the performers “that was great”. That’s another part of the exchange. And so in the end, it's been wonderful to come out after the show and have that energy with the audience members. They look so excited, they’re really complimentary and they’ve all had a great time. You rarely get to meet the audience when you do a show, they become this faceless blob behind the lights.
Lucy: These Shangri-La Hotel shows are actually one of the more formal examples of audience interaction that we do actually! When we go and do shows at people’s homes, it’s an even more cosy, personal, informal exchange at the end. At some bookings we’ve joined for dessert after a dinner. And it’s even more that lovely, relaxed thing.
Kemi-Bo: Yeah, it’s a fuller experience I think. You come offstage and the adrenaline is going and to actually have a further exchange with the audience was lovely.
Mike: I definitely also found the idea of the post-show audience mingling a daunting idea at first. Kemi-Bo and I would always wait for each other and come out together and just skulk until somebody made us talk to somebody!
Kemi-Bo: Yes we’d be hiding together backstage.
Mike: I don’t think I’ll ever not struggle with it. I‘m not a presenter, I’m not a singer, I don’t get up and perform as Mike, I get up as a character. So coming out and being myself, I always find it a really vulnerable situation. But it’s a really useful exercise to just get over yourself basically! It’s not out of arrogance. I just don’t know how to be funny or interesting.
Lucy: “I haven’t got any lines!”
Mike: Exactly. “Oli, what do I say!?” The few times that I have had post-show interactions with audience it's normally just “Will you sign this?” It doesn’t feel like an exchange like Kemi-Bo said. There’s a real Us and Them vibe, which is a shame. But to just chat is lovely. Someone mentioned this idea of joining for part of dinner after the show last night and frankly it gave me the heeby-jeebies! But the way you just described it sounded lovely Lucy. I mean you’re obviously very good at selling, which is I presume why you’re a producer, but honestly after this whole experience, I would be really excited to do something like that.
Lucy: Four Calling Birds was a farce, which is dangerous territory regarding possible corpsing. Any really giggly moments for either of you guys?
Kemi-Bo: There’s a moment that always makes me laugh, which is at the end of the whole play when Annie (played by Suzie Preece) says “Where is she?” in reference to her dead cat. And actually my character, Joanna, doesn’t know where Mrs Tiddles is because I’ve left the room before that, but then Freddie (Hutchins) says “She’s in the bin” and I have to hold it back everytime. There are so many funny bits. I’d love to see the show actually!
Mike: There’ve been lots of close corpses for me. Last night I said “We are in a bit of a piddle” rather than “pickle” and I almost set myself off. The characters are very wordy and the play has got such a beautiful musical rhythm to it, as many farces do, but because of that there are lots of moments where we’ve had tiny trip-ups that always tickle me. As soon as one of those moments happens though, the energy pricks up and rises and it makes us all a lot more reactive again.
Lucy: We often find that in Revels shows: putting these productions together and them living for such a short time means they stay so alive and vibrant. I just finished doing A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and the run was 10 weeks. It’s the first time in a couple of years that I’ve done an extended run in a traditional theatre, and I got quite stale quite quickly. I loved the show and I was immensely proud of what we’d done, but I did stagnate quite quickly, because I’m so used to Revels work where we’re in a different venue all the time, doing a different play, a different part.
Mike: Totally. You know what it is? We're really playing here. I always refer to my girlfriend’s job as a “real job” because we get to play for a living, and often in the corporatisation of our job we don’t get to play as much. But with Four Calling Birds we really are playing, which is a joy.
Kemi-Bo: Another amazing thing, which I often forget, is that we are doing the premiere of this play by Oliver Rose, who I’m sure is going to go on to become really formidable and successful because his work is so brilliant (I can’t wait to see what he does next), but I feel quite privileged that I’m the first Joanna, and Mike you’re the first Llewellyn.
Lucy: An audience member actually demanded last night that “this has to go on the West End.” I said “well if you’d like to invest…”
Mike: My mum watched it at the Club at the Ivy and afterwards she said “that’s the funniest play I’ve ever seen” and I said “do you mean it’s the funniest play you’ve seen me in?” She took half a second and said “no it’s the funniest play I’ve ever seen”. At which point Oli started floating, levitating.
Lucy: What’s your mum’s name?
Lucy: Thanks Evelyn! What a perfect way to end this interview. Thanks team, you can go and get ready for the show now.
To read other actor insights, check out Ludo Hughes' account of a Soho Farmhouse show, Ellie Ross' write-up of a special performance for Associated Press TV or Mark Donald's description of a special theatrical summer party.