Next week sees the West End debut of Drew Gasparini's I Could Use A Drink. Originally an album, it was adapted into a streamed production in May starring new and established talent alike. That production has now transferred into a West End production that enjoys a one night stand at the Garrick Theatre on Monday 2nd August.
I caught up with the shows director, Alex Conder and two of the shows stars, Billy Nevers and Olivia Lallo to discuss the transition from the streamed production to the stage:
How did the idea for the streamed production of I Could Use A Drink first come about?
Alex Conder: It first came about getting in contact with Drew. Me and Liam (Gartland) have known the album for years since before I came over to England and started training. We both love the album and we both love the music and ended up having a mutual friend of ours who got in contact with Drew and asked him if we could do something with his songs. He was more than happy to let that happen and so we really just took it and ran to see what we can do. It's not a licenced show so there's so much we can do with it, especially with Drew on board encouraging us to continue pushing the boundaries.
Billy and Olivia, how did you get involved?
Olivia Lallo: When the email came through from my agent, I was so excited as it's somethin you never really think would happen. I was so excited to be involved as I loved the album for years.
Billy Nevers: I knew a lot of music because I feel like it's one of those albums that seems to do the rounds when in training. It seems to be the staple songs that everyone goes to. I feel like I heard a lot of the music but I can't say I would have listened to the album as a whole so when I was approached I used it as a way to familiarise myself with the real versions of these songs and the music in itself is so amazing, it would be stupid not to be a part of it. I was familiar but only from being a part of this project I found my love for this music.
What were the challenges of streaming the production? BN: I think it comes with its pros and cons. As a performer, you're very used to allowing yourself to have time to work yourself into a piece of material or find differences in your performances throughout long periods of time so when you're doing a streamed performance we did it all in one day and rehearsed the day before. It wasn't a long period of time to be familiar with the music in this format so to do it and perform it and film it all in the space of 48 hours is a very dfferent feeling to performing it 8 shows a week and having a different outlook on it by week 5. The pros are it's now there forever - you have that version forever. I know a lot of people are very happy with the version that's out there.
OL: With the stream it's also the pressure to be vocally perfect. In theatre it's in the moment, it's live. People are watching and it's not going to be replayed and watched again. With a stream, it's recorded and people can watch it and rewatch it. If you hit one bum note you have to hear it over and over again.
AC: We tried to do it as live as possible. I think out of 17 songs we had 8 or 9 that were one take wonders. They came in, sang the song, it was incredible and we were happy with it. We recorded it at Friction Studios which normally hosts pop punk bands. When we were telling them we were going to do 17 songs in one day, he laughed and told us there's no way. We said watch us and we did. At the time of filming we were still in restrictions in terms of contact and still trying to distance as much as possible. Now that we're going to be live I'm being able to direct a different show, I'm being able to put people where they can be close to eachother. This whole piece is about feeling like you're a part of a group. When you're not able to do that because of restrictions, we couldn't have some people in the studio to see some of the songs. The first time everyone got to see everything at the same time in that stream was the opening night. From my perspective, it was a little less theatre directing as it was TV/Film editing. I felt like I was directing the editing.
As performers, how did you find filming it and not having the instant response from a live audience?
BN: It's interesting because you as the performer are the only response you can get in that moment. Esecially during the pandemic and being lucky enough to beinf part of quite a few streamed projects, I've learnt to get used to that lack of audience response. It took me a long time to srill out of my head how much I rely on audience reaction especially on this project, I was petrified to see the final product because you don't have anything to go by other than the thoughts in your head and how you perceived your audience. It is a good test to allow yourself to think more positively about your performance and think about the things you did great and will read well. We're very lucky as performers that we are used to applause and used to laughs but it's been nice to not have that because it's grounded me as a performer and allowed me to now be fully be in control of my performance. It's difficult at first to get used to no audience reaction because you feel that you've just used sung everything you have out of your mouth and you get silence.
AC: I now look at the claps and response from the audience as a luxury now. It's something I really appreciated a lot more as far as feedback and instant gratifcation, we're almost spoiled in the theatre world as far as getting that right
How have you found translating the streamed production ready for a live audience next week?
AC: It's been really hard because me and Liam have been going through and trying to figure out what connects with the audiences that are coming in. It all comes back to bringing across Drews music because that does the storytelling we need by itself. Everything else on top of that is fanfare to an extent. Putting on a show for just Drews music would be enough but the extra things we're going to get as far as a live performance now as opposed to a stream such as we're going to have all the performers on stage as a group at all times so it's really personal to the group. Being able to do that has been really great as far as translating Drews music. It's been really great to find the throughline not only in the piece I'm directing but in the journey of the production.
Have there been any changes since the original stream?
AC: Tonnes of changes. We had Flynn Sturgeon reorchestrate every single song. We've added 2 songs - a song called 'Dear Tom' and 'Last Loser In The Universe" that Drew has written that are both beautiful and fantastic songs. We've switched round the order and added some ensemble bits so everyone can be singing at the same time. We've added 4 more band members to make a 7 piece band. It's going to be bigger, better and a lot more fun.
How do you feel about the way streams grew massively during the lockdowns?
AC: I for one was really happy to see people creating things and the accessibility it was creating. I'm doing my Masters course right now and a really big thing is accessibility. Being able to have it with captioning on stream has been really encouraging to see people really open up to the idea of being able to have it for a wider audience instead of a fixed place. I'm not so precious about the actual place in theatres, it's more about the work you're creating so to see that being to be shared a lot more freely has been really encouraging to me. With the disappointment that theatres are closed has been hard to balance.
OL: It really became the norm for a while. Everyone was doing streams. It was really nice that we were able to have that platform and carry on performing even if it wasn't for a live audience and showed that the theatre community weren't going to stop.
How does being in a stream compare to live audiences?
BN: I think a lot of them are quicker processes because of the nature of the work we are creating. They are very much once they're filmed, they're done. Not a lot have had the privilege that we have had to get to revisit a stream that we have done to do live. At that specific time where the world was at, that was probably the best thing for us as performers to do to still be able to do our job safely and for a lot of people that could not access it from around the country, streaming was the best and the most useless way of using our talent to share. I'm also going to be a lot more appreciative of live theatre because it's been missed big time and it will be really nice to do this specific production to live people. I do think streaming saved a lot of peoples love and paid a lot of peoples rent - it did what it needed to do, I'm very grateful for the opportunities that came from streamed productions.
OL: Streams feel a lot more intimate because it feels more like you're doing it for you. You become very self-aware of your own performance because you've not got people clapping and whooping, whether you think that went well. It's going to be interesting doing this show live but also very exciting seeing the changes we're going to make and doing it as a group and being all together on stage instead of individually recording things.
How was it graduating into an industry that for a time that didn't exist and you had to find this new normal you hadn't prepared for?
OL: It was bizarre. It was March of my 3rd year with auditions getting going and then nothing was happening. I was lucky enough to have signed with an agent before lockdown. A lot of people didn't know what to do with themselves - whether to move to London and hope things were going to get better. It was definitely strange and still is now. Now it's our year and 2021 graduates so I feel like it's going to rake a while to feel we're fully back to normal. Doing my final 3rd year show on Zoom was surreal and weird.
AC: When we graduated last year, it was a scramble to see what was gonna be next. You had that picture in your mind of what was about to happen and then the path just disappeared that none of us had even imagined. I had lived here for 3 years and wanted to stay here but my chances of staying came from getting jobs and when that wasn't an option it was a scramble to see what I can do as far as my future here in this country and my future of my career here which was very scary. But that's a good reason why I'm now inside of the production. I'm still a performer but it's not as often anymore. It's been a crazy, wild year for us.
Billy, were you at the theatre when you found out all the shows were closing?
BN: Yeah, I was at warm up at &Juliet. It just got pulled very quickly from underneath our feet. We had been open for about 6 months. It was a couple of weeks before the Oliviers so we were at a really exciting point of the show. It's very weird to think that was a year and a half ago and we have still not returned. I try to think about what I would have been able to do during my time in that contract so if it wasn't for the pandemic, I wouldn't have got to do some of the amazing things I've done. It's nice to see everything up and running again and we open in 7 weeks time.
What have been your theatre highlights over the past year? BN: I was so lucky to have been a part of the first live performance after the pandemic - Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent's Park. That has to be a career highlight for me because it wasn't just amazing for us as performers to be back on stage but amazing to see everyone at the theatre and everyone's reactions to being at the theatre. That in itself is telling of a lot of work that has happened in this time - it was so quick. I got a phonecall asking if I wanted to do it maybe 3 or 4 days before we started rehearsals and then it was just 3 months of absolute amazingness. It was amazing to be part of the first live show post lockdown. I've seen some amazing things like Hairspray at the Coliseum. It's crazy that these things are happening now - these huge productions from these tiny streams we did.
OL: The first thing I saw post pandemic was Pippin at the Garden Theatre. I was like "We're making moves, we're back" but then we were in and out of lockdown again.Liam set up The Grad Fest when the pandemic started and we did a load of streamed concerts. The first one they put on was this time last year and that was a highlight for me. I remember watching everyone singing live with people there. It was outside, it was summer. I remember it being such an amazing event for Liam and all the grads that were performing and watching. It felt like we were able to get back to doing what we wanted to do again and I remember that being a real highlight. It was amazing to be able to finally meet these people that you'd seen online for the last few months. Also, The Color Purple that was streamed from Leicester Curve was amazing.
AC: I saw Bandstand when it came out on stream.theatre. My God, have I not seen a show like that in a long time. It was incredible - it's Broadway so it's gonna be good I would hope but I was blown away by the filming of it cos it was pre-pandemic and they went full out on it. I'm so glad they did as it's paid off. I think they were very ahead of their time as filming productions go.
Would you like to see streamed shows continue now that theatres are opening their doors again or do you feel there’s no future for it?
BN: I'm such an avid believer that theatre in itself is very accessible for a lot of people. If you go back to the history of theatre, it's very much created for an elitist environment. Tickets are really expensive and a lot of people cannot afford to go to the theatre. Unless yo're in London, people have to travel in. It's very inaccessible. I believe theatre is very important for young people in particular that have a creative mind, they need to see theatre. I think streaming of shows is one of the only ways that it can be broiught to you at home. Take Hamilton on Disney+. For a family to go, it would take a lot of money. I know so many families that have had the opportunity so sit at home and watch that show in the comfort of their own home and still fall in love with it in the same way. I believe this is the start of making theatre accessible for a wider range of people. I hope it floods its way down into producers and ticket companies making theatre more accessible as I think it is really important for young people to be able to go to the theatre. If it wasn't for theatre, I don't think anyone who does perform would be performing. You have to see it to believe it. There's archive filmings of every show in the West End - I think it's easy to make that happen.
AC: I don't think anyone has said that streaming only productions are the answer for anything but I think as a supplemental aspect to productions. Before the pandemic people were calling on productions to be filmed and be more accessible. Accessibility has been called upon for a while now. There just wasn't really a good excuse - another wall the pandemic has torn down a bit has been streaming rights and video rights have been loosened up. That's important as far as publishing departments go and producers. Those departments are working together to be accessible and not be too focused on money. An important thing the pandemic has been able to say is that wall has to be broken down. We're not trying to cater to only one type of audience as that's what these high ticket prices and fixed locations do. With Hamilton, it has taken away the ability to say I have seen the original Broadway cast cos now everyone has and being able to do that breaks down the inherent elitist nature of "I was able to do this". I'm a big fan of doing those barriers in terms of accessibility.
BN: Also there's bootlegs of every show illegally out there so I'd much rather havea professionally filmed performance of mine rather than an iPhone 5 recording of my performance. That is the argument with bootlegs that people can't come and see it won't come and see it. I don't think it affects ticket sales. I've seen Beyoncé on Netflix but it's not going to stop me seeing her live.
OL: It almost encourages people to watch it. People are gonna watch a bootleg and think "I'm going to watch that show live". You don't watch a bootleg and think "I've seen it". I think it would help more than anything to get more people to watch more live theatre.
While the world of theatre has changed drastically over the last year, are there any positives you have taken from it?
BN: I'll never take my job for granted again. That can be seen in many ways but it really has grounded people into thinking tomorrow your job is not guaranteed. This career is very up and down and very unpredictable and this year has shown that for everyone. Everyone always says being an actor is unpredictable but I think universally everyone felt the same thing. Everyone felt that there was no opportunity for anyone because there was no industry for there to be opportunity in. It's allowed everyone to feel grateful for when they are having an oppirtunity to do what they do, it will make people feel a lot more grateful and more appreciative for the position they are in. I know especially I will never be complaining about doing a 2 show day again because I have spent a year and a half without them. It has been really great for recognising how lucky I am to be in the position I am.
OL: A positive for me is coming out of drama school and having that time to think about whether I really want to do this career. A lot of people in my year have found other paths. For me, I feel even more determined to do this and find my way in the industry. A lot of time out gives you time to think. I won't even take any audition for granted. It's that determination and love for this industry.
AC: For me, something I'm really thankful for is all the barriers being broken down and putting everyone on a level playing field as far as these things go. I'm 22 years old and I'm producing and directing a show that's going in the West End which wouldn't have been possible 2 years ago, it wouldn't have even been feasible to think about. Now I'm being taken seriously as far as these things go. Now it's clear that these barriers are broken down and age and race and gender and all these things we used to inherently discriminate again subconsciously are gone. I think it's really important to see those barriers be broken down and this secret society be torn down to a certain extent in terms of people being able to get into the door. It's bee really encouraging to see.
While theatres are opening again, what are the challenges of putting on a show in 2021?
AC: Risk assessments for Covid are the worst thing I've ever had to deal with. Right now, the hardest part - we were supposed to have Drew come over for the concert and these ever changing guidelines haven't gone away. The hardest part is trying to predict the future - it's hard if not impossible, especially with how flaky a Government there is here, it's tough to do.
Why should people see I Could Use A Drink?
BN: The music is exceptional, the cast is disgustingly talented. I don't think I've ever been in a company that are full of peoples work that I appreciate the way that I do. I think the show in itself, we should always try and support new material and this is the first time its ever been done live in the UK. I think people should come and see it to not only support the reopening of live theatre but to support new and upcoming performers. The cast is full of new and upcoming talent, I think that is the key to supporting theatre is supporting peoples journeys. Everyone is at different stages in their career but still all very up and coming in the industry. So why not come and support that? It's a bloody great show so come on down to the Garrick Theatre next Monday and come see the show.
AC: I think you'll see a lot more of Drew in this country now that he's seen there's an audience here for him. I'm a bit selfish in wanting Drew to come over more often. He's doing The Karate Kid on Broadway. From what I've heard it's going to be absolutely insane and I'm really excited to see what else he has in his armory.
What’s next for this show and for all of you?
AC: This show is a hard one to put into the aspect of doing an 8 week run as far as logistics. It's something would take a lot of planning. The thing we are really looking to do in the next year is another cast recording of this version as we've been ble to reorchestrate it and add 2 songs on to it. To do a couple of different things with his music that Drew is really excited aout. If things go correctly, we'll be able to be in a recording booth being able to record this stuff which will be really fun.
OL: I think what's next for me, we shall see. Right now the industry is so unpredictable you just never know what's round the corner, what room you're gonna be in, what audition you're gonna have You just gotta keep positive and hopefully something will come, you just gotta keep working for it.
BN: I'm very lucky to be back at the Shaftesbury doing &Juliet until February. Then after that, we shall see. I'm very excited to be back doing that show
I Could Use A Drink plays at the Garrick Theatre on Monday 2nd August. Tickets available from https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/i-could-use-a-drink/
Photos from the original streamed production