John Myhill is a name you’ll no doubt know if you’re at all interested or involved with Northampton Amateur Dramatics. And we cornered him for an interview in between rehearsals for Masque’s Anthony and Cleopatra…
You’re a member of both Duston Players and Masque Theatre, as well as being a key member of White Cobra Productions – you’re a busy man! Has theatre always been a big passion of yours?
From a very young age I loved dressing up and playing pretend, and discovered the ability to “be” other people. I was in every possible school production, including a production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as a teenager which was quite ambitious for a school show. I was lucky to have parents and teachers who encouraged a love of the theatre, and got taken to see some brilliant shows, including Anthony Sher’s “Richard III”. Some of my earliest memories are of being taken to see the Masque’s summer Shakespeare shows in the museum, as Mum adored Shakespeare, and I fell in love with the place and the shows. Would never have believed I’d end up appearing in any of those shows, never mind directing one as I am this year!
I’m a great believer in theatre’s importance for both performers and audiences. I’ve seen shy children (and adults) grow in confidence through being on stage, which then translates into other aspects of their lives, and I also think it gives you an appreciation of other people’s points of view and issues they deal with – I don’t know many actors who aren’t compassionate and caring as a result of their getting inside someone else’s head! From an audience point of view, I will always remember the comment of a young boy after watching Duston Players’ performance of “Blackadder Goes Forth”. He said it was better than on telly because it would only ever be performed like that once and never again, it would be different next time, so seeing it live was extra special.
How long have you been involved in Northampton’s theatre scene?
Outside school I got involved with Duston Players at the tender age of 14 (which is, gulp, about 35 years ago). The lovely Glenda Allcock lived in my street and was a friend of my mum’s, and was involved in their first ever panto, “Cinderella”, and they needed non-speaking page boys for a comedy scene with the ugly sisters and a couple of other scenes, so I got a smart gold costume and a wig my mum made from cotton wool stuck to a swimming cap! I joined Duston’s short-lived youth drama group but then school and exams got more serious and I couldn’t do much more. I did a few plays and some stand-up and sketch comedy at University and then when I came back and got a job in the town library I saw Glenda again who was directing another pantomime, “Little Jack Horner” in 1991, and she suggested I audition. Since then I’ve been in 37 Duston shows of all kinds, worked backstage in a few others, and directed (or co-directed) a good dozen.
I was very much a one-group person for a long time, but went to see productions by many other groups, and made friends outside Duston, and when Masque were putting on “Wind In The Willows” in 2010, a real favourite of mine, I decided to audition and ending up playing Toad. The year after I played the Friar in “Romeo & Juliet”, which was surprisingly my first performance in a Shakespeare play. I’ve been in nine Masque shows all told, and directed one before “Antony & Cleopatra”, which was “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder in 2015, a play I’d appeared in myself when at school.
I knew a lot of the people in White Cobra from their appearances in the past with both Duston and Masque, and when they had a new comedy planned they asked me to direct, which was a great honour, and I’ll be acting in their production of “Hi-de-hi”, so I count 2016 as the start of a hopefully long relationship with them.
My busiest year in Northampton theatre was undoubtedly 2015, when I directed “Our Town” in April, then played Salieri in “Amadeus” in May and Banquo in “Macbeth” in July, then appeared as the Wazir in Duston’s “Sinbad the Sailor” in December, which I’d written while directing and acting in the other shows during the first half of the year! Last year I did combine directing “Little Red Riding Hood” for Duston with acting in “It’s A Wonderful Life” for Masque which was on the week afterwards, and although both were fine it was just a little too much and not an experiment I plan to repeat any time soon!
You’re directing the Masque’s upcoming Antony and Cleopatra – how’s that going so far?
Extremely well – as a director with Masque you do have a lot of resources and expertise to call, so with other people sorting out set construction and costumes, for example, I’ve been able to concentrate on the directing side of things more and spend more time with the actors, which is great. I’ve likened the Masque Summer Show to a British Lions Rugby Tour, where you get to pick from the best actors from every group for a world-beating production!
What I’ve really enjoyed is working with each actor to go deep into their characters, looking at their history (real and imagined), their relations to every other character, their motivations, desires and loyalties in every scene. It’s been especially good to work with a few people who’ve never done Shakespeare before and getting them to relax a little more and tone down the “actorly declamation” voice a lot of people think is needed to speak his verse – I always argue that he wrote so well if you just speak it naturally it will sound beautiful without you having to force it.
It’s also been great to have the chance to do some “gender-blind” casting, with five male roles being played by women. As most of them are soldiers it’s allowed them the chance to explore a more masculine side of themselves, and have fun learning how to walk and sit in a more “manly” way. This way we actually have a 50/50 male/female cast split, which I’m really pleased about.
As you do a bit of everything, do you have a favourite role in a theatre company? Writing, directing, acting?
When I’m directing I miss acting, and vice-versa, but if I could only do one it would be directing as that way you get to play all the parts even if only vicariously. Writing can be fun but it’s a bit lonely, whereas acting and directing are very sociable, so that’s definitely in third place. You can’t take your keyboard down the pub for a beer after a writing session!
Who are your acting inspirations?
Michael Sheen is a good role model – he does an incredible range of character parts which he absorbs himself into utterly, but he also buffed up for an action role in the Underworld films, so he’s a great example of versatility. Someone like Robbie Coltrane has also been a big inspiration, starting out as a comic actor and then gradually proving he could manage more serious roles. As someone who got well known locally for comedy and panto, it wasn’t easy for me to get cast in more dramatic roles – but that’s got better in the last few years.
You’re also involved with Duston Players’ next production, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol – can you tell us about that?
It might not be remembered by everyone, but between “Blackadder The Third” (the Georgian one) and “Blackadder Goes Forth” (the First World War one) there was a 45 minute Christmas special set in Victorian times with Ebenezer Blackadder,a kind and generous man (for a change) being shown visions of his ancestors from the Elizabethan and Georgian versions, and a far future version in space! Duston has done two Blackadder adaptations before, both very successful, so we thought if we were going to take a break from our usual annual pantomimes (they are a lot of hard work!) this might be a good replacement.
My involvement so far has been adapting the script for the stage – obviously on television they can jump between scenes quickly and have the same actors playing the same role in different eras with no pause in between, but we can’t do that on stage, so part of the adaptation was padding the changeover scenes to give actors time to change wigs! As it is, we won’t be able to have the same actor playing Ebenezer and the other versions of Blackadder (he can’t watch the visions and be in them!), but it could be the same person playing all the other versions, and we could have the same Baldrick throughout. I’ve also had to add extra material to expand it from the original 45 minutes, and the main way we’ve done that is to add visions for both the original medieval Blackadder and the “Goes Forth” version who weren’t included – it’s new stories and jokes but in the same style as the originals. I’ve also had fun including some old and some new Blackadder songs.
I’m hoping to act in it as well – but that all depends on the auditions!
How was your tour of Dizzy Boo with White Cobra?
Fascinating – great fun working with them all anyway as they’re a talented and entertaining bunch, but also a wonderful experience visiting other venues in different towns, and overcoming the challenges of redesigning and setting up the set on the fly so it suited each different stage or performance area. Makes you really think about the mechanics of staging a play.
And working in the big and beautiful Gaiety Theatre on the Isle of Man was very special –extremely nerve-wracking waiting for the judge’s comments (as it was part of a festival) but a very special experience. Hopefully we’ll do it again some day. I will be working with them again in this year’s “Hi-De-Hi!” which is very exciting, I’ll be playing Fred the ex-jockey.
Are there any plays you’d love to be involved in, either acting or directing?
Lots, including some I’ve already been involved with but would like to do again! I’d really like to either act in or direct “Waiting For Godot” now I’m a lot older and would probably appreciate it more, and I’d jump at the chance to play Salieri in “Amadeus” again, I loved that role.
I fancy directing one of the “big” Shakespeare plays, maybe Richard III, and at the other end of the scale I’d love to do a stage adaptation of a Carry On film, but when I’ve previously tried to get permission it was turned down flat in a curt but personal letter from Peter Rogers – maybe now he’s dead his heirs may be more generous? I always wanted to appear in “The Rocky Horror Show” but no amateur group will ever get permission to do that, so as I also have a desire to play Pilate in “Jesus Christ Superstar” which is available, if any local group fancies doing that, get in touch, I’ll be available!
John is directing Masque’s production of “Antony and Cleopatra” which runs from Thu 27 July – Sat 5 August 2017 at 7.30pm (no performance on Sun July 30th) in the open air in the courtyard at Abington Park Museum, Northampton.
Tickets are only available on-the-door from 7.00pm each evening, by cash or cheques only.
Adults: £10.00, Concessions: £6.00
Masque Theatre members: £6.00
Children (aged 16 and under): £6.00
Family (2 adults + 2 children): £28.00