Interview: Richard Carroll (Spamalot)
Lovingly ripped off from the classic film comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot retells the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Guided by the fabulous belting diva The Lady of the Lake, a diverse, cross-gender cast of heroic/foolish actors (and their assistant stage manager) battle their way past various cows, killer rabbits, and French people in pursuit of claiming the legendary Grail.
Monty Python’s Spamalot was a smash hit in both New York and London, and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Now comes a production that re -defines the word ‘epic’. Really, really really – defines it.
The team behind 2018’s smash hit Calamity Jane bring their anarchic, immersive storytelling style to ancient England, embracing the satirical, home-made spirit of the original movie and the Monty Python TV series.
This production was a sell-out phenomenon in Sydney in 2019, so don’t miss out!
To kick off, what show are you currently working on and what is your role in the production?
I’m the director of a new Australian production of the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot, which premiered in Sydney in 2019.
What drew you to this show and why do you think now is the right time to be bringing this story to the stage?
I have loved Monty Python since I was a kid – especially the movie Monty Python & the Holy Grail, which this show is based on. Their anarchic, relentlessly silly comedy is totally timeless, and is as hilarious now as it was in the 1970s when they first broke out.
What has the experience been like working on this show? What has been unique about this show and your process in comparison to other shows you have worked on?
It’s been a fabulously beautiful chaos! Our cast of comedians, improvisors, musical theatre performers and other actors have brought such an energetic and joyful mood to the production. Having them bring their own strengths to these classic characters has really brought them to life.
What can audiences look forward to in this show or why do you feel it is a story that they need to hear?
We go back to the original Monty Python spirit of home-made, anarchic fun. As we travel on the quest for the Holy Grail, we have painted backdrops that get whisked away, actors playing multiple characters – sometimes in the same scene - and of course two halves of coconut to represent King Arthur’s horse. The most unusual thing about this production is that we have seating banks onstage, so you can book to sit onstage and be a real part of the action! Audiences have loved doing that so much, as it’s such a joyous, inclusive experience.
What has been the most rewarding part of this show to create for you?
Definitely seeing and hearing the laughter of audiences, and having them coming out on a high because of the humour of the show. Having audiences come back to see the show multiple times has also been really thrilling to see. But probably the most rewarding part is seeing multiple generations of families come to the show together, and all enjoy it as much as each other – grandparents who remember Python from the time, parents who grew up with Python, and teenagers who aren’t really familiar with Python at all – they all find it equally hilarious.
Why is this a production that a 2020 audience cannot miss?
How often can you go and see a musical, and find yourself being a part of it?! The whole audience has to help move the plot along at various points. No matter where you sit, you’ll be a part of the show in some way. It’s a riotous night out.
When first beginning a new project, what is the first part of your process in approaching a new work?
Working out why I want to direct the show; what is it that I want to bring out of the show that hasn’t been seen before. That’s always the key to get me into the process. With Spamalot, it was giving these brilliant Australian comic actors from all backgrounds to make these roles their own and showcase Python and these awesome songs for a new generation.
What is a common misconception that people have about your role in the production?
That directors tell actors how to play their roles. The trick is to cast brilliant performers who are open to collaborating and make plenty of offers. If you as a director understand the world you’re trying to create, then you start to shape the show from the offers the performers make in rehearsals. But you never tell an actor how to say a line – that would be death, because as an audience we can tell when a person is doing or saying something onstage that’s not really coming from them.
What has the rehearsal process been like in bringing this story to life? By the time audiences see this show on stage, what has gone into making it happen?
It’s been exhausting! The rehearsal room really was wild. There were some off-the-wall ideas being thrown around that I think the original Pythons would have been proud of! Not all of them made it into the finished show, but some of them did! You can rest assured that every single actor in this show has worked their behinds off to create what you will see – and will be working their behinds off each night to perform it too!
Do you have any opening night rituals? If so, what are they?
Only to remind the cast and crew that whatever has come before, however stressful it’s been, or whatever has gone wrong – our job is to give everyone out there a great time, and that audiences are ready to enjoy themselves. So greet them with joy and they’ll return it.
What is something that you take away from each show that you work on? Do you feel like you take a piece of the production with you each time?
I definitely do. It’s different every time. Sometimes it’s a practical lesson, which seems obvious in retrospect – like how much easier it is to rehearse a 90-minute show than a 3-hour one in the same length rehearsal period. And often it’s more conceptual – from Spamalot, I definitely hold onto the idea that when the actors and the audience are truly going on the journey together, that has magical results.
When was the turning point for you when you realised that theatre was not just a hobby but a passion? How did you go about making it your career and is there any one show that you can attribute this to?
Theatre has been a passion for me since my teenage years. I worked in TV production first, then started to produce small shows, and only started directing in 2016. I’m really fortunate that my second show was a production of Calamity Jane starring Virginia Gay, that won lots of awards and toured all over Australia. It made my name as a director, and gave me the confidence that people enjoyed what I wanted to do.
Across your work, is there one story, thought or theme that keeps you interested in continuing to create? What stories do you find yourself drawn to the most?
I seem to be drawn to stories about identity, either explicitly or implicitly. Stories where people dress up as others or present themselves outwardly in a way they don’t feel inwardly. And then learn to love themselves as they are and be proud. I guess that’s a lesson we all really need to learn at some point in our lives.
What has been the highlight of your career so far and what is still on your Directing bucket list?
Spamalot is definitely a highlight – particularly getting to tour it and bring the show to new audiences. On my bucket list is directing a brand-new, full-blown Australian musical.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that you would like to pass on to aspiring theatre makers?
There are two essential things you must do as a producer or director: Hire great people, and make decisions. If you fall down on either of those two at any point, you’re screwed.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
What is your favourite production you have ever seen?
Taylor Mac’s 24 Decade History of Popular Music at Melbourne Festival.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world - where do you go?
What is your dream show to work on?
One that hasn’t been written yet.
What is a hobby you have beyond the theatre?
I’m a champion chess player.
What’s next for you after this show?
I direct a new production of Oklahoma in Perth for Black Swan State Theatre Company later this year.
Spamalot opens at Home of the Arts (HOTA) in Queensland on March 5, 2020. You can get your tickets here.