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‘It’s a show that can make you belly laugh one minute & cry the next’: Dean Johnson is busy staging digital production First Date

The director chats to Emma Clarendon about creating digital theatre and directing a digital production First Date, set to star Samantha Barks and Simon Lipkin.

First of all thank you so much for talking to me. How does it feel to be directing under these circumstances?
I think ultimately, I’m feeling very fortunate to be working at all at the moment, given what we’ve been through these past months. There are challenges, but I am grateful for those challenges. It is a reminder of how great it is we can make theatre as a job at all. My hope is that all my friends and colleagues in our industry will get to experience this too soon. We all deserve it, I think.

Have there been more challenges in directing a digital piece of theatre than a live piece or is it simply different challenges?
The biggest challenge with digital theatre is not accidentally making a movie. The magic of theatre is that it exists in a playful box of shared experience with meta narratives and suspension of disbelief, so I think we have to honour that in a recorded format by ensuring the project is rooted in theatricality. I like to think of the screen in digital theatre as a portable proscenium arch, and we want to fill that with as much detail and immersion as any venue.

How did you come to be involved with First Date?
It’s a show that’s been on my radar for a while to explore. I discovered the Broadway cast album and libretto many years ago and fell in love with its charm and wit. I discussed the project with Eliza and Jamie of Lambert Jackson Productions, who have been incredible in lockdown and are not only brilliant at their jobs, but also are fantastic human beings. They loved the idea and we got to work on making it happen.

For those who don’t know what can they expect from First Date?
The beauty of the show is we all know exactly what to expect. We’ve all been on first dates and will have stories to share of lovely ones, unique ones and the ones so awful we refuse to even accept they happened. We’ve all felt the difficulty of starting the first conversation, the “who’s paying” exchange and the voice of your disapproving family members in the back of your head. But we have also felt the butterflies and the vulnerabilities and the joys. It’s universal, and this show wraps it all up into one hilarious and heartwarming musical.

What was it about the musical that caught your attention?
I adore a show that can make you belly laugh one minute and cry the next. One of the first shows I saw as a kid was Blood Brothers, and it showed me the interconnected power of laughter and pain. This show is a comedy, but it teaches us a lot about the human experience. It’s fun but cathartic. I like that a lot.

You’ve got a great cast lined up – how has it been dealing with rehearsals while still dealing with the restrictions in place?
It’s been tricky, of course, but the trick to any good show is a good team, and when I am surrounded by such wonderful collaborators in the cast and creative team, each bringing their own expertise, each solving problems, it doesn’t feel that mammoth a task. We’ve had to be creative with how we achieve things, but sometimes barriers can force you into better ideas than what you might have without them.

Although it has been obviously great to have digital theatre – what have you missed about live theatre? This is a really interesting question because my answer isn’t what I thought it might have been at the start of lockdown.  I thought I would miss the buildings, but while I cannot wait to be back in a space,  the advent of a theatre in your living room has provided cheap drinks, queue-less toilets and very short journeys home.
I thought I might miss the shared experience but I have loved how we have innovated in lockdown by watching shows together on twitter and live commenting.  So what I miss most is the chaos. The lunacy of hundreds of people packed into a room, agreeing to mostly be quiet and clap/laugh/cry at mostly the same times and then clamour haplessly to the nearest bar or tube station. It’s messy and chaotic, but it’s human and it’s tangible and it’s irreplaceable. I can’t wait to share a shambolic evening of chaos with everyone again soon.

By Emma Clarendon

First Date will be available to watch from the 22nd to the 24th October. Tickets are available here

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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