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Brief Encounter with ... Physical comedy director Cal McCrystal

Cal McCrystal is an award-winning clown and comedy director who has worked with the likes of The Mighty Boosh, Spymonkey and Cirque du Soleil.

Among recent projects he directed the physical comedy sequences in the National Theatre's hit production One Man, Two Guvnors, which is currently running in the West End and on tour.

How would you describe your job?
I think of myself as a director specialising in comedy. My job varies a lot according to what project I am working on. If I am doing a devised piece I like to have six weeks to create a show from scratch. Directing an existing text is much easier but I do take the liberty of changing anything I don't like. Naughty! I also work as a comedy consultant in film. Basically, my job is about looking for laughs.

How did you get into it?
I left drama school in 1981 and worked for many years as an actor mainly in Theatre and TV. When I was about 30 I did courses with clown gurus Pierre Byland and Philippe Gaulier. They both invited me to do shows with them. Companies who saw me perform started asking me to direct them and soon directing took over. Sometimes I do miss the selfishness of being a performer.

Is clowning an endangered art?
Far from it. I think people are realising that theatre mustn't compete with film or TV. Theatre needs to be interactive. The audience must be - even in a small way - part of the show. Clowns and comedians are generally better at making this connection than your typical drama school graduate who is happy behind the fourth wall. I hate the fourth wall.

What was your role on One Man, Two Guvnors?
I think Nick Hytner had seen my work with Spymonkey and invited me to be associate director. The script called for a lot of physical comedy and Nick asked me to create a comic vocabulary for the show and create the physical sequences. We worked closely together throughout rehearsals. My title was changed to physical comedy director when we transferred from the RNT to the West End.

Tom Edden as Alfie in One Man, Two Guvnors

Alfie is a brilliant character - how difficult are the moves he performs?
The actor playing Alfie must have a degree of physical confidence and mustn't mind getting the odd bruise. Some of his more spectacular looking stunts are made possible by elaborate mechanics below the stage (I won't give too much away). In the various casts Alfie is played by an actor much younger than the character. If we used a real old man I think we would kill him.

Have there been any mishaps?
Happily not with any of the cast - but the doors are a constant problem. They get treated so roughly during the dinner scene that they have to be constucted on a steel frame. I think they get more maintenance than a jumbo jet. If the lock jams or the knob falls off during a show, the cast usually make the most of it.

What's your favourite moment in the show?
I am very proud of the dinner scene. It is 20 minutes of sheer hilarity. The audience don't just laugh. They scream and laugh at the same time. This is my favourite sound.

What else are you working on currently?
Right now I am working as a comedy consultant on various movies here and in the USA. My favourite show, Spymonkey's Cooped, is being revived in Northampton before coming to Brighton and London. I'm also preparing for new shows - a rarely-performed Ayckbourn called Mr Whatnot at Northampton, and A Little Hotel On The Side at Theatre Royal Bath which I am co-directing with Lindsay Posner.

What advice would you give to people wanting to follow in your footsteps?
If you want to be a director get on the stage and do some performing first - it's important to know how actors work. Look for your characters in the actors, not just the text. Get your head out of the book. Create your own work. Have a short attention span.


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