My fascination with the theatre and the acting job brings me to virtually meet interesting, fascinating people from time to time and I can't resist the temptation to discover more about their world. This is why I have invited Antonia and Noel Byrne, The Box Tale Soup, to tell us about their experience and everyday life as actors. Their new show, Casting the Runes, is going to debut soon and they are really busy with the rehearsals. They have accepted anyway to answer my questions and I thank them heartily.
What is the history of your Box Tale Soup Productions?
Antonia - Noel and I met performing together in 2009 (we were playing Romeo and Juliet!) and after a while doing freelance acting work for theatre and television, we realised what we really wanted to do was make our own theatre. We decided, first of all, that we wanted our shows to be extremely portable, so that we might turn up almost anywhere and be able to perform. The first item we purchased, therefore, was a vintage trunk (seen in Northanger Abbey) and we decided that all the props, costume and set we used in the show had to fit inside it. We chose Northanger Abbey, as it's one of Antonia's favourites, and then everything else, including the decision to use puppets, flowed on from there. We now have three productions, Northanger Abbey, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and our newest, Casting the Runes.
What is it like to be "pretenders" as your chosen profession? It is not any job, you know, and we ordinary people are always curious about and fascinated by it.
Antonia - You're right, it is a very unusual job and one that certainly wouldn't appeal to everyone. A very good friend of ours used to describe her realisation that she wanted to be an actor in a great way. She would say that when she was a young girl she would change what she 'wanted to be when she grew up' on a daily basis. She fancied being a nurse, then a police woman, an astronaught, a hairdresser, and then one day she realised, she wanted to have a go at all of these things and many more, but she'd much rather pretend to be them all than have to choose just one. This is the beauty of our job, we have the unique opportunity to explore so many different professions, personalities, emotions and characters, and it's fascinating!
Have you always wanted to be performers, to be under the spotlight?
Antonia - Yes I think so, I've enjoyed performing ever since I was very young, but then it was really any kind of performing – singing, acting, playing the piano. It was only when I got a bit older, and perhaps more self conscious, that I realised I wanted to be an actor, as I was perfectly confident getting up on a stage in front of lots of people when I could pretend to be someone else, but performing as myself began to terrify me, I felt too exposed.
Noel - I've always been interested in acting and performing, and was involved in a lot of youth theatre as a child. When I realised that it was possible to actually do this stuff for a living, I knew I'd found my desired profession. I love storytelling in all forms too, and really enjoy the fact that our work now allows us to explore different aspects of this as writers, designers, performers and so on.
What is the aspect of your profession that most appeals to you and what is instead the one you still have to come to terms with?
Antonia - It's a wonderful profession in so many ways. Perhaps the most brilliant thing about it is that you make your living by doing something that you truly love, that for many people is perhaps just a hobby. Therefore, you rarely wake up in the morning feeling that you don't want to go to work, instead you are excited by the prospect and the many challenges it brings. The one major downside is it's instability, it's a job that constantly keeps you on your toes and one that you feel you can never rely on. Starting our own company has definitely helped us to become more in control of our own careers, but it's still quite a precarious lifestyle!
To be an actor, then, is it more art or craft?
Antonia - Definitely a mixture of both. There is certainly a tool kit for the craft, one which you dip in and out of as needed. Especially for the kind of work we do, there is a necessity not to get so deeply immersed in the character that you are unaware of what else is going on around you. For our shows you have to be more than one thing at every moment, most often the main character you're portraying, the puppet character on your right hand, and the performer who is overseeing and working it all – this is definitely all about the craft. None of this would be possible, however, without artistic instincts.
Noel - Craft can take you so far, but feeling and reacting in the moment, adapting according to what is happening around you, is more of an art.
First time I interviewed you (here), you were engaged in a brilliant Jane Austen stage adaptation, Northanger Abbey. What was that experience like?
Antonia - Northanger is still going strong and performing all over England, and even beginning to travel the world! We will always have an extreme fondness for the show, partly because it was our first, and partly because we just love performing it. We thought we may have become bored of it by now, after so many performances, but we really haven't.
Now you are, instead, working on another classic story dealing with the uncanny, "Casting the Runes". How do you usually choose the texts to stage?
Noel - Copyright and the rights to perform certain material are a particular restriction for us at the moment, as it can be incredibly expensive to secure these rights.
Antonia - As a small company on a very tight budget, the first step for us is therefore to look at texts which are out of copyright. This, consequently, leads us mainly to the classics. Having enjoyed the element of gothic horror in Northanger Abbey, we decided we wanted to take this further and do a full on ghost story! The work of M. R. James had been recommended to us by a few of our friends, all of whom thought his stories would work well with our style of performance, so we began reading them. Casting the Runes was one of our favourites, although ardent James fans may notice the appearance of elements from some of his other stories in our adaptation.
Antonia - One of the things that facinates us the most is the suspense of the story, the build up of tension and trying to work out exactly why it's scary. Creating a piece of theatre that is truly scary is an enormous challenge for us, and we began this by trying to analyse the terror in Casting the Runes in order to work out how we might be able to replicate this on stage. Not being able to rely on lighting or any special effects has meant we have had to go back to basics, sometimes simplicity is the key.
Can you tell us briefly about the characters you interpret in the play?
Antonia - Noel plays the lead in this one, a Professor named Edward Dunning. He is a sceptic of all things supernatural and spends much of his time debunking fraudulent mystics, psycics and mediums. I then play a variety of characters including Dunning's work colleague, Gayton, the librarian, Johnson, and the mysterious Miss Joanna Harrington. There is also the intimidating Mr. Karswell who makes several unsettling appearances.
How do you personally cope with the uncanny and the supernatural?
Antonia - I find it very interesting, although I am sure I would be completely terrified if I were ever to experience anything ghostly myself! I used to enjoy watching a television programme called 'Strange but True' when I was younger, as the stories would fascinate me.
Noel – It's a very interesting area that I firmly believe we do not entirely understand. Several years ago I had a personal experience that was beyond any normal explanation. It changed the way I look at things to a certain extent, and defnitely made me a little less sceptical than I had been before. I think we are sometimes guilty these days, in this age of incredible science and technology, of thinking we know it all, and we don't. There's a lot of things out there that we still don't have a clue about!
Now something more personal, if I may: What are the pros and cons of being a married couple and a performing in the same company?
Antonia - One of the most difficult things is making sure you draw a definitive line under the working day, so that it doesn't interfere with our personal time. Working for ourselves and with each other means that technically we are able to work all the time, so it's a challenge ensuring that we have some free time together as well. One of the best things about working together, however, is that we understand completely the stresses and strains of our job and can therefore talk about them and help each other out very easily. We also get to go on tour together and experience new places and people together, which is a wonderful thing to be able to do. I think we would find it very stange now if we had to go back to our old lives as freelancers, when we often wouldn't be able to see each other for weeks at a time.
What are Antonia's and Noel's greatest dreams as actors?
Antonia - We would love to be able to tour the world with our shows, and in an ideal world, have a residency in a theatre in England, somewhere that the company could call home.
Where can we see you on stage these days or very soon?
Antonia - The next big outing for the company is Brighton Fringe, where Casting the Runes will premiere on 4th May. We are also performing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland there. The dates for our performances in Brighton are: 4th, 25th & 26th May and 1st June, tickets are available via the links on our website here.
Noel - We will then be back at the Edinburgh Fringe in August with Casting the Runes and Alice, booking links can again be found on our website here.
That's all for now. Thanks a lot to both of you for being my guests. Good luck, best wishes and fingers crossed for all your plans and projects!
Her theatre credits include:
Anne Prospere in Divine Marquis at the Barons Court Theatre, London; Elaine in The Graduate, Buxton Opera House and UK tour; Louise Kendal in My Cousin Rachel at the theatres of Aldeburgh and Southwold; Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield.
Her television credits include:
Mhaegen in the award winning HBO series, Game of Thrones; Miss Peters in the acclaimed BBC drama, The Hour.
Noel has been involved in everything from Shakespeare on stage to voice and motion capture for video games, often creating and devising new work, including pieces for Manchester's Contact Theatre and London's Royal Court. Noel has also worked on television, appearing in the BBC's Doctor Who, The One Show and Mission 2110, among others. He has even been a dinosaur.
In addition, Noel is also an award-winning street performer, who has performed around the world, and can regularly be seen at London's famous Covent Garden.