I had the chance to sit down with Luke Nixon, the actor cast in Gabriel Blackwell and Coco Cottam’s upcoming play, Cruelty, showing at the Burton Taylor Studio from the 21st to 25th of February. Luke and I sat down on a worn out leather sofa in The Queen’s College common room to discuss his feelings about the unique pressures and experiences of acting in this one man play.
NATASCHA: I’ve had a look at the synopsis for the play and it’s very intriguing. What specifically drew you to Cruelty and what made you want to audition for the play?
LUKE: I thought the synopsis was really cool and I loved the idea of getting involved because Cruelty has a lot to do with theatricality, and it’s obviously a massive dream for an actor to do a one-man play. I also loved the phrasing of the call-out announcement and it felt quite right for me as an actor. It’s quite gritty and creepy but also introspective as well, which I really liked. They sent one of the first monologues in the play as an audition extract about the theatricality of the city. The play is set in a seaside town, and it’s about the ugly side of the city and watching that side of it. Gabe’s writing is also beautiful. He has such a way with words and the voice of Oli, the character I’m playing, is so strong. I think it’s brilliant to have someone like that in new writing.
NATASCHA: You said you’ve started the rehearsal process now. How is it compared to plays that you’ve done in the past, where you might not have had such a heavy role on your shoulders? It must be quite a pressure to be carrying the play solo.
LUKE: Yeah, there was quite a lot of pressure that I felt at first. I remember when I first got cast, I was in the library and I was super excited and then I was like, “Oh my God I’m going to have to learn pages and pages of script”, but the rehearsal process has been brilliant. By working with the text on my own and alongside the two brilliant co-directors Coco and Gabe, it’s become an amalgamation of all our voices. To have such a personal script and be able to be the first person to perform it as well [is something rather special]. I did Carrie: the Musical in Trinity and played Helmer in Dollshouse, both of which had me playing well-known characters, so it was cool to create Oli in Cruelty and to build him around Gabe and Coco’s experiences to bring it all together.
NATASCHA: So you’ve found it quite flexible in the approach to Cruelty so far?
LUKE: Yeah, it’s quite exciting because the script lends itself to being performed. It’s going to be different every night because it’s just going to be me on stage. Gabe and Coco have been really great with letting me play with it and are open to changing it up every time I work with it. It’s just going to be my instinct as an actor. A lot of the play is very theatrical and fun and conversational with the audience. It’s also a very funny script but there are bits that tip funny into creepy and weird so it’s interesting to see how different audiences react to that and how that moulds my character. Lots of the tensions come from the relationship between the actor and the audience and the power they have over each other.
NATASCHA: When I was reading the synopsis it said Cruelty was going to be quite pared back. There’s not going to be much staging, setting or lighting change. How are you approaching the material from a different perspective in those scenes when you don’t have the tactile stimuli of props or costume change?
LUKE: I felt quite a lot of pressure but it’s been a good visceral pressure. There’s a lot of pressure, because a lot of the beats that need to be hit come from me and I have to be able to see this world so clearly around me for the audience to get immersed in it. I’ve had to create these sets within my head and make sure I know what’s happening, where things are and react to that because a lot of live theatre is so reactive. I have to be the one to create those things to react to, which is all super cool but scary as well.
NATASCHA: Just from the synopsis there seems to be some intense, dark and introspective scenes in the play. How has the team approached those topics? How do you as an actor feel about having to take that on?
LUKE: We have a really brilliant Welfare team on the crew who’ve been present since the first read-through. We had the read-through at the beginning of term and I thought it was going to be me and the two directors, but all the crew turned up and there were around fifteen of us in the room. It was such a wonderful atmosphere. I had also read the script before so I knew what was coming up. There are a lot of dark moments and quite horrific images that Oli witnesses and is witnessed creating, but it hasn’t been too harrowing for me because there’s this kind of a barrier in the text as there’s points where it becomes self-referential as a play. It’s nice to fully get into the emotions of the show but there’s always that little wall at the end which is like ‘this is acting’. There’s this note that Gabe’s put at the beginning of the play. I can’t remember it verbatim, but it says something like ‘‘remember you are acting happy, not being happy. You’re acting sad, not being sad.’ You should never be being these things. Gabe’s message is the fact that it is just theatre; there’s a line about halfway through, “that’s all it is theatre, it’s a series of directions on the page”. Oli is a theatre student and likes studying theatre because he doesn’t want to watch it. When it’s on the page he can take everything that’s nasty, but when it becomes real for him that’s when it gets bloody and horrific.
NATASCHA: Those serious moments seem to also be balanced with high moments in the plot. Oli seems to go out clubbing quite a lot. I was wondering, now that you’re embodying the character, where do you think Oli would go clubbing in Oxford?
LUKE: He one hundred percent goes to the Curve floor in ATIK. There’s no doubt in my mind. I don’t know if you know, this is so niche, but there’s that mirror on the right. He is dancing just before the edge of the dance floor. There’s that space and he’s not quite in the space but he’s near the space. He’s there until lights up and goes alone and watches.
NATASCHA: How much longer are you rehearsing for Cruelty?
LUKE: The show is in 5th week at the Burton Taylor Studio, so everything is blocked and finished. We’re just running and tweaking. This text is very character focused, so now that I fully know the shapes of the play it’s all about getting into Oli and understanding all of his psychological quirks as well as mapping where he is and why he is doing what he’s doing. A lot of the play is narratives where Oli is talking in the present tense about something that is happening. He’s in this liminal space between narrating to the audience and also being there, but he’s never quite in either space. So it’s working out how much he is emotionally invested in the story he is telling, how much he is actually there, how much he is talking to the audience and which part of him is occupying the space in between. Oli is such a fun character. I’m so excited.
NATASCHA: I’ve got one final question just from what you’ve said there. Is there a specific thing you do to help you get into character?
LUKE: I actually have a playlist of techno beats. I think that will make sense when you come to see the play. Before rehearsals or when I’m reading the script or learning my lines just having those techno beats in the background because Oli is quite intense outwardly. It’s nice to feel that outward intensity and juxtapose that with an inward insecurity and introspectiveness.
Cruelty will run from the 14th to the 18th of February (week 5) at the Burton Taylor Studio.
The interview has been edited for clarity.