Dan Freeman is the founder of Radio Static, the creator of acclaimed audio series The Minister of Chance and The Light of September, and a pretty fun guy to interview (even if he doesn’t think so himself). Although his professional history lies in audio production, A Joke sees Freeman taking a bold new step into stage production with frequent collaborators and stars Sylvester McCoy, Robert Picardo, and Richard Oliver signed on for a world premiere of the hilarious new play at The Edinburgh Festival.
With a goal of £7000 set to bring this play to life, crowdfunding and fan-involvement in the independent production of the play is an important step in ensuring A Joke is able to be told. In a rare interview, Freeman answered a few questions for Rogues Portal about A Joke and what the preparation for this project has been like so far.
RP: There’s very little information out there about this play other than the cast and title. What’s it about?
DF: I find it difficult to navigate this question, which is always asked! Of course my answer to what it’s about, expressed in the way I want to express it, is the play itself! Broadly I guess it’s about the commonalities of structure between jokes, stories, music and life: the introduction of an idea; its development; and conclusion. A Joke‘s a weird microcosm: The Englishman introduces the premise, the Scotsman establishes that it’s a rule and the Irishman breaks it. Naturally though I want the audience not to notice that, I want them to just laugh.
RP: You’ve worked with these three leads before. What about them appeals to you?
DF: I love working with actors who are not only chameleonic but weird, and Sylvester McCoy has deep and interesting qualities. I love discovering those things and presenting them to an audience. He’s both an expert in slapstick and a brilliant clown and a very moving tragedian. My daughter took him as her Show and Tell item to school! He honestly had them in solid hysterics, they were screaming for him not to go. I first saw him in Beckett, though, and he’s fantastic at sad stuff. He was the best Fool I’ve ever seen in Lear too. Also, he’s like family, my kids see him as their exciting uncle. It’s very important to me to work with people I get on with, and he’s a deeply good and nice person. We’re such friends that I can say what he’s doing is crap and he can tell me to get stuffed and no-one will get offended and we can improve the play.
Similarly, Richard Oliver is a very lovely man, everybody likes him and the atmosphere when you’re working is relaxed. He’ll go beyond the call for the part, he’ll study unnecessarily, he’ll read-in for the other actors, he’s just a total asset, and of course a very fine actor.
Bob Picardo: I’ve never actually met him, I’ve only ever directed him over Skype. I talked at length with him about this role though, and I was very excited by his ideas. He sang The Norwegian National anthem to me, and my son who was in the room listening was cracking up. There are two real reasons I asked him though: the Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager was hilarious, he’s just a very funny actor; and second, Sylvester and he are great friends so I know I’ll have that chemistry to play with.
RP: Yet they’re mostly known as genre actors. Why comedy? Was it a skill you realised they had while working with them in studio?
DF: I knew they had it, but it’s something I’m comfortable with because I was a standup comedian for many years. I think it’s really good training for writing and editing comedy. I also wanted to write something that would show off Sylvester’s comic skills, I’ve been dying to do that for yonks.
RP: You’ve worked mostly in audio and prose before. Is writing for stage new to you?
It is! But comedy is home ground. I’ve never done a play, though.
RP: Do you feel more comfortable leaping into stage production now that you have an established fanbase?
DF: Yes, I do, although that in itself is a pressure, you don’t want to disappoint!
RP: I know a number of fans of The Minister of Chance in particular have wondered if there’s any chance of returning to that world and story, but you keep pushing forward. How do you balance those desires?
DF: That’s a great question. I’m not sure I know the answer. I am writing The Minister as a novel now, because I saw a way to do that and I wanted to, and also so that I could read it to my son. I feel that I’ll come back to The Minister but I’m not quite sure how or when. Also, economics dictate a lot of it! What can I afford to work on, etc…
RP: What are the challenges of writing for audio? What are the fun bits?
DF: The challenges are that it’s very difficult to make it pay! The fun bits are all of it, really. Working with actors in the studio is great, because it’s unlike film in that you can do as many takes as you want. They can really explore the character. Sound design is REALLY time-consuming, but that’s my own fault because I overdo it :).
RP: How do you successfully fundraise a project like this? Is the money covering upcoming costs or is it essentially already spent? The Light of September seemed to be the latter.
DF: We have to just get an overdraft and spend on some things, and hope that we get the money back. We had to put down a deposit on our accommodation in Edinburgh, so if we don’t make the target I’m a bit screwed. I guess the secret to crowdfunding is to make sure you actually provide real value and treasure the faith that people put in you. It’s a terrific but nerve-wracking way to work!
RP: What’s the difference between writing for stage as opposed to audio?
DF: Well, the drama in my audio is kind of huge and world-shattering and epic, you can have armies and other worlds and stuff. On stage it’s more interpersonal and very focused on the acting. In the case of A Joke, there are no props or scenery, so it’s totally centred on the actors.
RP: What’s been the best moment you’ve had since starting this project?
DF: It’s only just started, but there have already been a few. I was thrilled when I got the chicken crossing the road logo from Kev (Oscar-nominated animator and Henry’s Cat Art Director Kevin Baldwin). I think that poor little chicken is so full of character it’s amazing! Of course I was very excited too when all the actors agreed to be in the play.
RP: What’s your favourite joke?
DF: It’s a Jewish joke: Sisyphus finally gets the rock to the top of the mountain. His mother says “You call that a rock?”.
RP: And finally, why did the chicken cross the road?
DF: It didn’t cross the road, there was no road, and anyway Barack Obama secretly made the chicken cross the road, and YOU ARE FAKE NEWS!