Interview with Theatre Alibi Artistic Director Nikki Sved

At the end of February, Theatre Alibi are back at Exeter Phoenix with their new production, Hammer & Tongs. For anyone who’s ever craved the last word, Hammer & Tongs is a very human comedy about arguing.

Read what Nikki Sved, Artistic Director of Theatre Alibi has to say about the play, among other things…

Tell us more about your background – where are you from? Where did you study etc.?

I grew up in Harrow but both my parents are Hungarian. They came over to Britain after the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. My parents passed on to me a love of theatre and after I left school I went on to study at Exeter University Drama Department.

How and when did you become involved with Theatre Alibi?

After University I went to teach Drama at Bangor University for a while but had always wanted to work in theatre. So I jumped at the chance to work as a performer with Theatre Alibi, whose work I knew from being a student in Exeter. I worked with the company for two years and it was a tremendous apprenticeship. Alongside performing in lots of shows we also travelled to Poland to train with the acclaimed physical theatre company, Gardzienice, who produce extraordinary work. I went with the three other performers who were the Alibi ensemble at the time, two of whom Daniel Jamieson (now Theatre Alibi’s Associate Writer and the writer of Hammer & Tongs) and Emma Rice (Kneehigh’s Artistic Director) I worked with later on many projects. When I was offered the opportunity to direct at Theatre Alibi I seized it with both hands. My time as a performer had given me good experience of what directing entailed and I was really keen to try it. I went on to direct Birthday, a show about Marc and Bella Chagall, written by Daniel Jamieson and performed by him and Emma Rice. The show went down a storm. Daniel’s script was nominated for a Fringe First, and with Theatre Alibi’s support Birthday toured nationally the following year. When Alison Hodge and Tim Spicer, who had set up Theatre Alibi, left the company, Daniel and I were appointed as Joint Artistic Directors and I haven’t looked back. I’m now Theatre Alibi’s sole Artistic Director, as Daniel decided to go freelance to concentrate on his writing career after a few years and is now Theatre Alibi’s Associate Writer.

Describe what your role as Artistic Director involves.

The best bit, of course, is dreaming up and creating shows. But I also find immensely satisfying, the whole business of keeping a theatre company on its feet day to day, making sure we have the resources to do what we want to do. I’m lucky in that I manage the company jointly with two other people which means you get to share the responsibility for running the company. I know we make better decisions because there are three heads on it with three hats, artistic, financial and marketing.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love working with a strong team to create a show – it’s like going on an adventure every time, even when it’s a bit of a white knuckle ride! I enjoy the puzzle to be solved in figuring out how to best tell a good yarn – and sometimes even getting a chair on and off stage can be a teaser that takes a lot of time and thought. I get a huge amount from working with actors. They often offer up more than you could ever have imagined when you’re staring a script before rehearsals and it’s also hugely rewarding and moving, helping performers find their feet in a role and watching their development. At the core of the company’s work is a determination to use the ‘liveness’ of theatre to the hilt. We never ignore the fact that we’re storytellers and that our audience is with us in the room. Our actors tend to remain on stage throughout and we make visible many aspects of theatre making that are often hidden, creating sound effects live on stage for example. This means it’s possible to make all sorts of things, even things of quite an epic nature, happen because you’ve already conscripted the audiences’ imagination through being open with them. So… why not make a piece of theatre where a supermarket burns to the ground or a beached narwhal is returned to the sea or a dastardly villain comes to the stickiest of ends in a car crusher. You can bring any image to life with a good dose of skill and invention. Another thing that’s special is the way in which we tightly integrate art forms like live music, puppetry, animation, photography and film. One of our recent shows, Goucher’s War, about a vicar, who is co-opted into the dirty tricks brigade (otherwise known as the SOE) during the Second World War included brilliant animation by Forkbeard Fantasy’s Tim Britton. Another thing I really enjoy about my job is the end of rehearsals, when you first see a show in front of an audiences. It’s nerve wracking, of course, but also exciting – the final part of the jigsaw. Audiences are always different, interesting and surprising. No two performances are ever the same because of that special chemistry between performers and audience. For me it’s the thing that’s most magical about theatre – how a show can at its best engage an audience emotionally and intellectually so completely.

What was the inspiration behind Hammer & Tongs?

Daniel Jamieson and I work very closely together on Theatre Alibi shows. Daniel came to me with the idea of a show about arguing. Our first show together as Artistic Directors was about lying – it was called Little White Lies and was nominated for a Fringe First. So I guess we’re interested in bad behaviour, along with most people. Other people’s bad behaviour and pratfalls can be hugely entertaining, that’s why it’s the basis of most comedy. Just how far will people go to prove they’re right and sometimes, just how low are they prepared to sink. We’re calling Hammer & Tongs “a human comedy” and it’s a series of stories that together form a kind of “riff” on arguing. It’s very funny, very off-the-wall and really wrestles, sometimes quite literally, with the idiocy that constitutes most arguments. Even the musician and the stage manager get dragged into it… But there’s a dark side too, of course, when you’re pitching one soul against another and the show doesn’t shirk away from that, with moments that are both moving and poignant.

What can audiences expect from the show?

I think everyone in the audience , whether they like a good argument or not, will recognise something of themselves in there and I think they will have a really enjoyable time with the show. It’s a bit like Father Ted in tone – the four characters are way over the top at times. It’s got everything – some quite extraordinary visual surprises that I shouldn’t reveal before people see the show, great live music from boogie to blues and there’s even a hilarious contemporary dance sequence.

How much of the show was based on personal experiences?

Well, when Daniel first started work on Hammer & Tongs, he asked people to tell him stories of their biggest and best arguments. Some of those stories have made their way into the show. One of my favourites is the wedding disco from hell, where the worst DJ in the world tries to make the bridegroom lead the first dance, in spite of being categorically told that the bridegroom, like many men, didn’t, and wouldn’t dance… Without it being a spoiler, let’s just say that the disco degenerates into the mother of all barneys to the rhythm of the Cha Cha Slide… There are some very moving bits too, one of which is a love story that always brings a lump to my throat.

How long have you worked with Daniel Jamieson and what other projects have you worked on together?

I’ve known Daniel since we both studied at Exeter University Drama Department and then, as I said before, we worked at Theatre Alibi together as performers for a couple of years before going on to make Birthday. We’ve worked together on many shows since, including Shelf Life, Caught, Cobbo, Goucher’s War and most recently Curiosity Shop, a contemporary make-over of Dickens’s classic novel. Daniel has also adapted books for the company including Michael Morpurgo’s I Believe in Unicorns, Michael Frayn’s Spies, Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Dick King-Smith’s The Crowstarver. Theatre Alibi makes work for children too, and Daniel has written lots of children’s shows for us, including next year’s Mucky Pup for five to eleven year olds.

What do you think are the key ingredients for a successful argument?

In truth, many arguments are pretty destructive and farcical, even if they are entertaining and enlightening viewed from outside. They can certainly be an important form of emotional release, though. I’m not sure there’s really such a thing as a “successful” argument. More often you win the argument, but lose the battle.

What’s next for Theatre Alibi?

We’ve got two new projects in our sights. The first is a retour of a children’s show. Last autumn we adapted Michael Morpurgo’s I Believe in Unicorns. It proved to be a huge success, both artistically and with audiences, selling out everywhere and so we’re touring that to big theatres around the UK and internationally in 2015. We’re also commissioning a new show for adults from Daniel called Dad Dancing, a piece about the relationship between fathers and daughters and the uniting qualities of a good boogie. That sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it.

To book your seat for the upcoming run of Hammer & Tongs at Exeter Phoenix, click here >>