Actor Nick Simpson-Deeks has observed the goings-on of theatre enough to be able to play a multitalented character in a ‘play within a play’ titled The Play That Goes Wrong. His role is of a man of many hats: one who acts, directs, choreographs and designs the production you see unfolding on stage. Confused yet? You won’t be once he clarifies things for us…
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hi Nick, tell me about your role in the new production ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’.
I play Chris Bean, who is the newly elected head of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, and who in turn plays Inspector Carter in The Murder at Haversham Manor… which he has also directed, choreographed and designed. So… it’s probably fair to say Chris is a tad controlling when it comes to “his” theatre company.
I understand that before the play even begins, the audience sees the backstage staff doing last-minute adjustments to the set. This kind of play-inside-a-play and intertextual referencing is getting more common in theatre. Do you consider it form of ‘meta’ when theatre looks in on itself and presents productions about itself?
I think the creators of the show might raise their eyebrows to hear it referred to as “meta”, although I guess it is, in the sense that we’re playing characters who play characters in a play within a play… But I don’t think TPTGW sets out to provoke any sort of introspection on theatre or its forms. I think it’s simpler than that: it’s about a bunch of hapless underdogs struggling on, [even against] impossible odds. The dual character device provides an added layer of comedy as the Cornley actors break character and eventually discard their ‘Murder’ roles altogether. By the end of the play, the audience isn’t seeing any shred of Inspector Carter, they’re seeing Chris in all his pain, as the play, and his whole world, crashes down around him. And that pain is hopefully hilarious.
The play features an ensemble cast. What’s the best thing about working with an ensemble?
Being part of an ensemble is a bit like being part of a family: you don’t get to choose it, and it’s not unusual for personalities to clash or tensions to simmer away and boil over. I’ve been very lucky with the ensembles I’ve worked with in my career, in that we’ve almost always gotten along very well. The TPTGW ensemble is such an eclectic group of talents and types, but it seems to balance out perfectly, and we’re unified by two things in particular, I think: our collective sense of humour – in fact I’ve never laughed so hard on a tour before – and the monumental task of getting through this marathon of a show every night, together. It really is a group effort – more so than any other job I’ve worked on. You’re relying on every single member of the company for not only support but precision, because if something goes wrong for real someone could get hurt. For real. That bonds an ensemble pretty quickly.
What was the greatest factor that drew you to acting?
Well, when I was younger I think it was probably money, girls, and fame but after realising that wasn’t a thing, it became about the great people you get to work with and the stories you help tell. And cool costumes. My elbow-high Inspector Carter pants are a real career highlight!
Have you ever had an awkward moment on stage, and if so how did you overcome it?
My god, there have been so many – but some of the most awkward have taken place on this tour. A lot of the slapstick and sight-gaggery in TPTGW involves the set, with the door being a sort of fulcrum for the physical comedy, and it’s amazing just how many different ways that door can mess with you if it doesn’t behave – it can affect every aspect of the show. In those moments, when a pin doesn’t unclip or a magnet doesn’t find its mark backstage, you can see the eyes of all the actors onstage widen as we try to figure out how to solve the problem on the fly and keep the show going; we’re thrown into this weird world of life mimicking art, where we’re suddenly trying to do for real what our Cornley Polytechnic counterparts have to do each night, namely: Get to the end, just get to the end… without anyone dying.
You’ve been nominated for several awards including Best Supporting Actor in a Musical (for ‘Assassins’ in 2014) and Best Lead Actor in a Musical (for ‘Company’ in 2016). Are awards and recognition in nomination categories important to you?
I’ve always said awards didn’t mean anything to me personally, and that more than anything it’s important that my work speaks for itself. If there are accolades as a result of doing good work, well, that’s a nice bonus but I don’t seek them, and honestly they’re probably unlikely to make a huge difference to my career in Australia anyway. I think most performers feel that awarding something as subjective as acting is a pretty arbitrary exercise. Having said all that, it’s been incredibly reaffirming to have had those nominations; to be recognised by my peers – it means a lot. And, if I’m really honest, after three nominations I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be nice to take a little statue home one time.
A lot of productions these days place classic storylines into contemporary settings. When you are starring in, say, a Shakespeare production, for example, that is set in modern times, does it keep the content fresh for you or do you prefer working in a classic setting?
Setting classic texts in a contemporary setting is usually about making that text more accessible to an audience, and changes very little for the actor, I think, particularly in Shakespeare where the language is so clearly of a different time. As an actor, you are always serving the text, first and foremost, and whilst a good classic play doesn’t require a contemporary setting to remain meaningful, well… if a director has a vision for a contemporary setting that serves the story, or invites comparison with current events or politics, and potentially provides a more immediate entry point for an audience, I’m all for it. But as far as interpreting that vision as an actor goes, the text is still the text, and the challenges of the text will probably remain the same.
Have you ever had to balance jobs – that is, have two or more productions going at the same time? And has it ever gotten confusing what set you’re on?
Most of the actors I know have day jobs that they juggle alongside their artistic pursuits, or return to when a project is over. In my life it’s not unusual to have to balance up to three or four jobs or projects at a time, though these are rarely productions, plural – it’s more likely that if I’m working on a single, say, co-op/profit-share or independent production, I’ll also be teaching weekends and working as a graphic designer, which is my other sometime-job, at night, since the reality is that smaller scale independent theatre and short contracts, like a guest role in a TV series, aren’t going to keep you afloat. It’s difficult to manage and, yeah, it can get confusing, knowing what to prioritise and when. At worst it’s exhausting trying to keep all those balls in the air, but that’s the life of an artist a lot of the time, and I guess you take the good with the bad if you’re going to persist with it.
You’ve worked in all mediums, from film and television to theatre, musical theatre, and cabaret. If you had to pick just one medium to perform in the rest of your life, what would it be?
I love working in live theatre, but if I had to choose, I’d probably say television; serial drama. I love the work environment, and the relative lack of repetition. You may have to do a few takes, but it’s nothing like the challenge of performing the same show eight nights a week for months on end. We’re about to do our 100th performance of TPTGW – and don’t get me wrong, it’s been a pleasure to be able to bring this show to an audience night after night with such an excellent company of actors, but good serial TV is what I find most compelling to watch, so being able to work as an actor in that form is still thrilling when I get the chance. I think that’s because there’s a length and breadth to good ongoing serial TV that allows for complex character and storyline development over time, and that sort of intricacy is what I really love getting my teeth into.
Set photography by Jeff Busby.