TNT Theater - A History (2018)
TNT theatre was founded in the 1980’s in Britain. Three actors split off from the physical theatre company TRIPLE ACTION, which was probably the first properly funded experimental theatre company in the UK. We borrowed my mother’s Mini and put together a tour of Britain, using contacts from Triple Action. Our first production was a manifesto piece based on the life of the Russian director Meyerhold and his struggles with Stalin and Stansislavski. We attracted Arts Council funding, which we maintained for 13 years. But our background and impetus came from abroad especially the work of Grotowski (with whom I had done some training in Poland and UK with Triple Action) but also Brecht and Barba (Odin theatre). We were touring to Germany and Holland almost straight away and soon were invited to New York. We created three strong shows and a couple of hesitant experiments in the first phase, these three productions: the Meyerhold commedia dell’arte biography HARLEQUIN, the pantomime about free markets and Keynesianism THE MYSTERY (or FUNNY MONEY as it became) and the music hall nightmare about personal responsibility in wartime HITLER KILLED MY CANARY (or an English Tea Party). These productions moved in and out of repertoire for 15 years. HKMC was last performed three years ago. I still work with Phil Smith, TNT Dramaturg, for these three productions. The essence of the company’s work arises from this period. However grand we appear to be, however many National theatre that we perform in, we remain a large small scale company and draw on our roots for both artistic inspiration and organisational flexibility and sheer “mucking in” attitude. Perhaps we are the world’s largest small scale company. We have been called: “the most popular touring theatre company in the world.” China National TV.
The next phase: we had always been interested in music, not just for the songs we integrated in the plays (such as the first world war performed to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture on kazoos by dancing Russian bears) but for theatrical timing that is related to music and structures non realism. In 1983 we were invited to be resident theatre group by the Royal College of Music for their composers symposium on music theatre. There we met John Kenny and the result was our first integrated music theatre piece CABARET FAUST – a setting of Klaus Mann’s novel MEPHISTO in Britain in the 1930’s, exploring an artist’s seduction by fascism and weaving Marlow’e FAUSTUS with a new play. There were puppets by SPITTING IMAGE and above all a new score by John Kenny for live trombone, cello and classical guitar. The success of this piece on an 8-month UK tour resulted in increased funding and a platform to develop music theatre. From then on most new productions included an original score, either live or recorded.
Meanwhile our international work was growing just as Thatcher and her philistine government was undermining not just the Arts Council but the venues that supported our touring in the UK. By 1985 we were regularly performing in Munich at Tams theatre in Schwabing, and had an agent in Hamburg to coordinate national German touring. In 1987 we made our first international collaboration: THE CHARLIE CHAPLIN PUTSCH (or Amerika!) which mixed up the American Dream with the Nazi nightmare and used a lot of small moustaches. We won awards and ran for months in Munich. The play was revived in Russia and toured Britain in the 1990s. The text was in English and German (or Russian!). We began to realise that Germany was a more fertile theatrical environment than England.
But the Welsh Arts Council was less Thatcherised than the English one and in 1987 they commissioned a major new music theatre piece: THE WIZARD OF JAZZ. The production explored white men playing black music, Al Jolson and the American Dream and was all set in a Welsh pub on the eve of D day. John Kenny assembled a five piece jazz band of international quality and these worked with just two actors. One of the musicians was pianist/composer Paul Flush who has worked with TNT ever since. The production was a milestone for TNT, it won several awards at the most prestigious music theatre festival in Europe, the Munich Biennale, attracted repeat funding in the UK, and was invited to the Tokyo International Theatre Festival as well as several European festivals and frequently toured Germany as well as performing in what was then the USSR.
In 1989 we were invited to stage a long semi-underground tour of Poland with a revival and expansion of HARLEQUIN which we renamed GLASNOST HARLEQUIN. The tour took place as the Berlin Wall fell and was completed despite too much snow, lack of petrol and food and political chaos. As a result we were invited to Leningrad and began a collaboration with the St Petersburg State Comedy Theatre that lasted several years (in Russian and English). We also toured Russia and the Ukraine. TNT were the first foreign theatre company to present Stalin critically in the Soviet Union/Russia.
We were now spending less and less time in the UK and gave our last arts council tour in 1993. From 1989 to 93 we revived and toured our core repertoire internationally and marginally in the UK and also created a trilingual production with Tams theatre in Munich (VIDEO & JULIET). A chief collaborator at this time was Enzo Scala the Neapolitan commedia’dell arte actor who played Meyerhold in HARLEQUIN and other roles for us. In 1992 we toured Japan with WIZARD OF JAZZ, the start of our Asia touring.
In 1992 I was invited to direct the mammoth music theatre piece MUSICAL SEMINAR for Paragon ensemble Glasgow (composer Costinescou). It was there I met dancer/actor/choreographer Eric Tessier-Lavigne who became a key member of the company from that time on.
In 1993 I crossed paths with Grantly Marshall as one of our actors from Tams theatre Munich was playing Scrooge for his CHRISTMAS CAROL. Grantly was producer for the ADG-Europe which had been touring a varied repertoire of chiefly American plays in Germany and surrounding countries since the late 1970’s, when it grew out of Munich University. The gradual repositioning of TNT within that umbrella organisation until I became artistic director of both is too complex to describe here but the exchange was mutually beneficial: giving TNT a far wider platform in larger theatres and ADGE a proven international artistic team. From TNT’s point of view we were also propelled into taking our approach and applying it to known works of literature. This was what we needed because our own productions were fully formed at that time, like a rock band people wanted our greatest hits. Could the TNT style be extended to classics? Our first joint production was THE MURDER OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, in many ways a standard TNT work with an entirely original script that examined our fascination with violent crime through a grotesque comic take on the Baker street duo. It ran and ran and even won awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. I modestly cast myself as Sherlock, the last time I created a main role before concentrating on directing. The composer and also an actor in this long running production was Thomas Johnson, who has worked with TNT ever since (specialising on the integration of live music and performance).
If THE MURDER OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was really an old style TNT production under the aegis of ADGE, the first marker for the future was the creation of our “savage” version of OLIVER TWIST. The production took Grotowski’s statement that “theatre must confront classic texts” not slavishly present them and added a Brechtian a capella score by Thomas Johnson. Grotesque humour mixes with brutal psychology and political passion. It has become TNT's most performed production and has run for 26 years.
Now the floodgates were open and a large repertoire of classics were presented, many adaptations of novels were in reality new plays that used themes and episodes from the originals to confront their deeper meanings. Notable examples were THE GRAPES OF WRATH, BRAVE NEW WORLD and GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. Even that old chestnut A CHRISTMAS CAROL was dusted off and returned to its purpose, pointless carols and cute sentiment banished and a proper music theatre piece (nods to Brecht again) was created which has run every year across the globe since 2001. Christian Flint joined TNT half way through BRAVE NEW WORLD and has been with us ever since as actor and director.
Some actual plays by other writers were staged, but in our own style, such as DEATH OF A SALESMAN and STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – each given a musical score.
From 1996 to 2001 we worked on MOBY DICK, our most integrated music/dance/theatre piece with a cast of three dances, four actors and three musicians - many of the core TNT members amongst them.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall opened up eastern Europe, and the Asian economic resurgence led us East. The whole centre of the work shifted to Munich, an ideal geographic and cultural location.
In 2001, after much soul searching, I thought we should try Shakespeare. TNT’s MACBETH was the result. Taking physical theatre, music theatre and pushing the supernatural while staying within the historical context that Shakespeare intended proved a success. This has been the most performed version of that tragedy worldwide since its premier. Eric Tessier-Lavigne, Paul Flush and Christian Flint were all involved in its creation as well as myself as director and editor.
From then on we created a string of Shakespeare productions, the sequence of which is as follows: MACBETH, MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, HAMLET, ROMEO & JULIET, KING LEAR, TAMING OF THE SHREW, OTHELLO, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, THE TEMPEST, TWELFTH NIGHT and the current widely acclaimed version of JULIUS CAESAR. Most of these productions have been revived and developed, sometimes in a different language. At the heart of the work is a desire to tell the story, to bring TNT’s style to the plays but also to let the plays breathe and not burden them with a director’s (or designer’s) ego, to search for their essence and to play to the text. TNT's Shakespeare cycle has been seen by more people in more countries than any other Shakespeare company’s work in the last ten years. It seems TNT’s style is especially suited to the Bard’s work and this has been appreciated in wildly different venues across the planet from Nicaragua to Cambodia, from Berlin to Atlanta and London to Shanghai.
Since 1992 Grantly Marshall has been building his unique CASTLE TOUR, Europe’s most wide-ranging outdoor touring theatre event. The company has its own theatre set up and can perform in any castle or palace with a few hours get in time. There are now over 50 castles in 12 European countries each summer. Shakespeare is what the public want to see in a castle so that is what they get. Each year we set out on an unparalleled open air tour to more than 50 castles and palaces across Europe from Stockholm’s royal palace to a charming chateaux in Poitiers and from King Ludwig’s Fairy tale castles to a windswept Atlantic fortress on the Isle of Man.
Meanwhile geographic expansion continued apace. France was so successful it spawned its own independent producer, Theatre En Anglais, as we could not satisfy the demand we created. Malta became a welcome English-speaking bastion, and we even returned to Britain, while almost all of Eastern Europe became our stamping ground – much of it due to the tenacity of our Czech producer Svata. Northern Italy and Hungary succumbed to the charm of Grantly’s old pal and co-producer Gunnar Kheun. And now Southern Italy, Iberia and Sicily have joined the circuit thanks to Federica Parise. These are part of an international network of producers, notably Myriam Woker in Singapore/Switzerand. Asia has boomed with bi-annual tours to Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey and China. We have toured to Israel every year since first performing there in 2008. We have also visited Iran, Australia, the USA and India. China has been our biggest new market, and TNT are the number one foreign theatre company at work there, presenting 16 weeks of performances across the country in 2017. I am also associated with the main theatre in Shanghai as a regular director in Mandarin (Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre). Our producers in China are Milky Way productions Beijing and they have presented TNT several times at the new National Theatre of China. This spring saw our largest collaboration in China: a double project, I and Eric Tessier Lavigne directed A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM for the Shanghai State Farce Troupe and I directed the “old style” TNT hit THE MURDER OF SHERLOCK HOLMES for the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, which transferred to the National Centre of Performing Arts in Beijing. Both plays were and are presented in Mandarin. The TNT SDAC production of TAMING OF THE SHREW (set in 1930's Shanghai) has been in repertoire for 6 years and is the most performed Shakespeare production in China in the last decade.
TNT is known in Japan as I.T.C.L (for rather curious historical reasons !). Japan was our first Asian destination and we have given over 45 tours there since our WIZARD OF JAZZ performed at the Tokyo Theatre Festival in 1992.
Since 2006 TNT have performed annually in Costa Rica and Central America at the invitation of Steve Aronsen of the Café Britt company, who was the founder of the Teatro Teruno Espressivo. I have also frequently directed in Spanish for the company. Tours extended to Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. This process kick started TNT’s own work in Spanish. We presented our version of DON QUIJOTE in Europe and Costa Rica as well as Lorca’s CASA DE BERNARDA ALBA. DON QUIJOTE will run and run – a two-hour version of the world’s longest classic novel and an ideal subject for the company’s style. Next season see a new play in Spanish about Costa Rica and Nicaragua’s dramatic history during the Californian Gold Rush for the Teatro Nacional in San José.
2014/15 saw a new departure for the company: the powerful drama THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, a political tragedy rather than a drama documentary. The production also broke new stylistic ground with its multi racial cast playing with and against type using masks. The production was in huge demand across Europe and will be revived (for the third consecutive year).
Other recent highlights include the commissioning of a new play for Manx Heritage in the UK THE GHOST OF ILLIAM DHONE, THE WAVE which examined the roots of fascism, DRACULA AND THE ECO WARRIOR used the Dracula myth to tackle global warming and environmental politics and MY SISTER SYRIA, which used Arabic and English actors to create a tragic thriller set in the war torn Middle East. In 2015 TNT produced our first French production LE PETIT PRINCE, last season saw the spectacular success of our version of NOTRE DAME DE PARIS (directed by our Gaspard Legendre, written by Paul Stebbings). The autumn of 2018 sees a new production of Shaw's PYGMALION, a revival of Stebing's FRANKENSTEIN - the Monster and the Myth, and more Shakespeares: ROMEO & JULIET, MACBETH and a MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. All these productions play internationally, but we never forget that Germany is the core domain of the company and tickets sold in the great German Schauspielhauses allow us to do what we do.
If this all seems like a triumphant progress we are also aware of our problems and failures. Such a huge unfunded structure suffers from weaknesses such as not enough central administration. Things will always go wrong in theatre as there are so many variables, shocks and surprises. Some, (most) actors will enjoy the challenge and elements of creative chaos, others not. It is crucial that we have developed a large group of veterans who are happy to work inside the ensemble. Our strength is our flexibility and ability to be large and small at the same time. Plus of course our artistic integrity and the strong line that connects our early work with what we do now. We have always aimed to be both popular and original, that is the heart of Meyerhold’s legacy. We combine education and art. We care about those tricky morning audiences, they not only pay our bills they provide us with the audience of the future to persuade them that theatre is worth their time. We aim to present theatre in English that makes no concessions to its chiefly foreign audience. Any play of ours can (and does) perform in Britain or Malta to an adult first language audience as well as to a teenage audience in eastern Slovakia at 9 am. We can take equal pleasure in performing in in a National Theatre as a community hall. We are as fragile and alive as theatre itself. We hope we offer something truly alive in the sterile digital world to which we seem doomed.
There is a lot of this, our own contribution is the idea of “audiencentric theatre” – everything happens for and to the audience. There is no reality that is not perceived by the audience in theatre, no backstory of any use or meaning. Storytelling is vital, but also emotional story telling, which our music helps to create and control. We build from the outside towards the centre of the role. Our performances are a combination of all the live arts: drama/dance/music but by that we also mean visual image/text/rhythm. Strip everything away and the essential relationship is one actor and the audience.
All this might seem a little excessive when grappling with 800 teenagers at a matinee’ but we think it helps…
Books – inspirations and ideas:
Meyerhold a biography (murdered by Stalin for his art) - Edward Braun
Meyerhold on theatre edited by Edward Braun
Towards a poor theatre - Jerzy Grotowski
Grotowski a biography (a more digestible read) - Jenny Kumiega
Floating Islands - Eugene Barba (story of his own Odin Theatre by the editor of Towards a Poor theatre)
Brecht on theatre - Willet
And for inspired madness:
The Living Theatre Julian Beck
And of course: The Empty Space - Peter Brook.
The film My Dinner with Andre’ by Louis Malle deals with Grotowski’s influence in New York.
The short text of HARLEQUIN is available from me for our angle on Meyerhold, Stanislavski etc.
TNT selected list of productions:
HAMLET, MACBETH , OTHELLO, KING LEAR, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, TAMING OF THE SHREW, ROMEO AND JULIET, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and THE TEMPEST (planned for 2017: TWELFTH NIGHT).
OLIVER TWIST A CHRISTMAS CAROL DAVID COPPERFIELD
CUENTA DE NAVIDAD (SPANISH)
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY - THE CANTERVILLE GHOST
DEATH OF A SALESMAN - THE CRUCIBLE
DR JEKYL AND MR HYDE
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
BRAVE NEW WORLD
GOOD ADVICE IS RARER THAN RUBIES
DON QUIJOTE (SPANISH)
ORIGINAL PLAYS INCLUDE (ALL BY PAUL STEBBINGS & PHIL SMITH)
THE WIZARD OF JAZZ
HITLER KILLED MY CANARY
FRANKENSTEIN – the monster and the myth
THE MURDER OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
THE CHARLIE CHAPLIN PUTSCH (GERMAN AND RUSSIAN VERSIONS)
MARCOPOLIS (in GREEK and an invented language)
THE GHOST OF ILLIAM DHONE
GOYA in Love War and Silence (in Spanish).
AMERICA: Dreams and Nightmares – the life and death of Martin Luther King.
Most of the above productions were revived and developed usually performed over 100 times – many far more.
TAMING OF THE SHREW, OLIVER TWIST FRANKENSTEIN, THE MURDER OF SHERLOCK HOLMES A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
In French LE PETIT PRINCE
(2016) LA MALADE IMAGINAIRE
Major Theatres/venues include:
Royal National theatre London
National theatre of Scotland (Traverse)
Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica
National Centre for Performing Arts Beijing
Tokyo Metropolitan arts space
Akademie der Kunst Berlin
Gasteig concert hall Munich (Biennale)
Megaron Concert Hall Athens
Raffles Hotel Jubilee hall Singapore
St Petersburg State comedy theatre
Warsaw Palace of Culture
Hanoi Opera House
Theatre Dejazet Paris
Palais des Glaces Paris
National theatre of Malta (Manoel)
Dawn Festival theatre Tehran
Alti Fumin theatre Kyoto
Hong Kong Arts Centre
Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre
Bristol Old Vic theatre Royal
Capitol theatre Beijing
Palazzo Corsini Florence
Podol theatre Kiev
Waterfront Arts Centre Brisbane
Camp Doha US army base Kuwait
The Russian theatre Helsinki
Chateaux de Chillon
Kadikoy theatre Istanbul
Saigon Opera House
Salle Rameau theatre Lyon
Palais Lichtenstein Vienna
Sarah Bernhardt theatre Zurich
Drottningholm Royal Palace Stockholm
Victoria theatre Oslo
The Pleasance at the Edinburgh Festival
The Douglas Fairbanks theatre - New York
And also community and education venues ranging from village halls in the outer Hebrides to a college on Okinawa, from an international school in El Salvador to a bookshop in the Black Forest.