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Comedy, classic texts, and side-splitting chaos: we chat to the revered Slapstick Picnic

Read on for our interview with producer Paul, one of the brilliant brains behind Slapstick Picnic

two persons are posing with a food

Slapstick Picnic – the clue’s in the name – puts on outdoor theatre performances with a very untraditional twist. Think classic texts made wickedly fun by delightful comedic genius. Think joyous slapstick moments, a handful of actors playing ten or twenty characters, side-splitting laughter… and your very own picnic (with as much wine as you like) to top it all off. 

As for the backdrop to these chaotic literary adventures? That could be the stunning gardens of a stately home, the bustling centre of Covent Garden, a Roman Amphitheatre... or any number of other impressive destinations near you. These guys do have almost 50 tour dates in the calendar this summer, after all.

What else to expect? Immersive fun – bags of it. Seriously talented performers; seriously intelligent writing; seriously inventive productions; props made from picnic baskets… oh, and the occasional interruption from a peacock, or some other comically apt farmyard animal. (The animals aren’t planned, by the way. Such are the perils of performing out in the open, against a backdrop of beautiful summer sunsets. And on the topic of weather – the occasional unplanned downpour also only adds to the fun.)

Needless to say, this really is a theatre experience like no other. If you’re intrigued to know more – and how could you not be? – read on for our interview with producer Paul, one of the brilliant brains behind Slapstick Picnic (who, as if that weren’t impressive enough, is also one of The HandleBards, a touring collective of Shakespearean actors that travels around the UK by bicycle, props in-tow.)

Here, he talks all things slapstick comedy, tells us about the group’s raucous production of Peter Pan this summer, and imparts some very solid words of wisdom for budding performing arts enthusiasts.

Here we go 👇.

two people performing on stage

Ticket Tailor: Take us back to the beginning… How did Slapstick Picnic start?

Paul: A group of us – Bill, Charlotte, Lucy, myself, Tom and Nel, our director – had all been working with each other for around six or seven years with The HandleBards (which we still run) – and just had a really good relationship with each other. 

We decided we'd set up a new company that was less Shakespeare focused and more just a celebration of classic texts done in a really nice, silly, irreverent and interesting way. We wanted to bring in a lot of comedy and a lot of clowning and a lot of just madcap comedy, really. So yeah, that's how it all began. It was all from the heart of another outdoor stage company.

Ticket Tailor: For those who've never had the pleasure of catching one of your shows, how would you sum up an evening with Slapstick Picnic?

Paul: Picture a beautiful, sunshine-y evening somewhere in rural England, having a lovely picnic, probably with a couple of glasses or bottles of wine, and just enjoying a really good comedy. That’s really the bread and butter of it: spending time together enjoying a good story. 

That’s the thing – there are so many good stories out there and I think in the warmer summer months you don't necessarily want to go and sit inside a theatre and have the lights go down. So we want to bring those stories out into beautiful locations across the country. And we do go to some amazing places – from castles, gardens and stately homes to community centres and pubs and museums. In many ways it’s about celebrating being together, and celebrating amazing places while liberating classic stories. Really it's just about having a good time for a couple of hours and in a beautiful place. 

Ticket Tailor: Sold! It sounds like an amazing opportunity for people to really enjoy locations they’d otherwise be visiting in a more formal way…

Paul: Yeah, exactly. It's almost like an exclusive ticket into a place that you wouldn’t normally get to spend quite as much time in. And it just feels like your back garden for a few hours which is always really nice.

Ticket Tailor: Would you say there’s a crossover between The HandleBards and Slapstick Picnic?

Paul: Yes, definitely. All of the skills and the enjoyment that we found in The HandleBards has been translated directly over to Slapstick Picnic. Shakespeare as many people know it requires quite a lot of textual rigour and concentration. And you really have to get to grips with the script because it was mostly written about 400 years ago. So you have to look at those scripts in very different ways to, say, a piece of new writing or a film or a TV script. Having done that for many years with Shakespeare, we bring that same rigour to the texts we're using now. 

Ticket Tailor: On that note, what texts have you done so far with Slapstick Picnic?

Paul: So far we've done The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, and we’re now doing Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. They're both old texts – at least 70 to 100 years old. And so we're bringing that same sense of concentration to them to unlock them for everyone in the modern age, because there are still references and words and sort of ideas in those scripts that are not necessarily that relevant to today's world. What we often do is lampoon that a little bit or play with those ideas to make them anachronistically modern and a bit stupid and a bit crazy. So we're still bringing that sense of real rigour, but looking at it through a very comedic lens. 

two people in garments on stage

Take Peter Pan – we all know it’s got flying in it and it's got a hook in it and it's got a crocodile in it and what not. As an outdoor theatre company, we can't necessarily do that in quite the same way because we've got a limited amount of space and a limited amount of stuff that we can carry. So we like to play with people’s expectations, presenting things in a slightly different way. 

For example, a lot of Slapstick Picnic’s work is based around having a picnic. So most of our props are made from old picnic hampers, blankets, cups – that sort of thing. I think that sense of invention is always really fun with our shows. 

Ticket Tailor: Your interpretation of Peter Pan sounds like a lot of fun. Tell us a bit more about that…

Paul: So Peter Pan is a sprawling story with multiple characters and swashbuckling fights and English nurseries and all of this sort of thing. And we’ve only got three actors to do all of that story. We take inspiration from a huge amount of influences – ranging from say, Monty Python and Morecambe and Wise all the way through to all the modern day sitcoms and Netflix shows – even shows like Family Guy. So, we're constantly pulling in ideas from all over the place, but it's only three actors doing the entire story, which means they each play about six or seven different characters. We've got choreographers, movement directors and fight directors all coming in over the next few weeks to get them swashbuckling and dancing and all that sort of thing. It's going to be a feat of theatrical skill to watch these three do the entire story… while dressed up in picnic blankets!

Ticket Tailor: Is that something that’s quite normal for you guys – having a handful of actors playing so many characters?

Paul: Yes, we’ve always specialised in very small cast productions because we just really enjoy that dance of watching fewer people than is necessary try and tell these epic stories. We’ve specialised in this for many years now. 

I don't want to give too much away – but The Importance of Being Earnest was originally a two actor performance, but the stage manager ended up having to get quite involved in that show. Those who’ve seen it will know that the stage manager has quite the starring role by the end of the show. I promise you, it’s just the three actors in Peter Pan. There's no stage manager, but there may be occasions where we need a little helping hand from the audience – just a warning. 

Ticket Tailor: Intriguing! Now tell us – what have been some of the biggest milestones or highlights of Slapstick Picnic so far?

Paul: The fact the company was born out of lockdowns and COVID feels like a pretty big achievement. We’d been running The Handlebards for about seven or eight years at that point, and we knew we had more in our arsenal to bring to people. We figured – why don't we take a little a little turn and try something else as well? So that's how Slapstick Picnic was born and this is now our third year of touring. 

For the first two years we took The Importance of Being Earnest around the country and toured as far south as Penzance and as far north as Inverness, I think. So it's been all over the UK, which we really enjoyed. Then we decided to work on Peter Pan.

We now have plans in the works for taking these shows on tour internationally and into UK theatres as well. So there’s a lot going on behind the scenes at the moment, which is all very exciting. 

the person wears the performance costume and looks at the wig

Ticket Tailor: What about some of the challenges you face?

Paul: Naturally, some of the evenings aren’t quite as sunshine-y and pleasant as we’d like them to be! So obviously there’s stuff like rain to contend with – and every single day we perform at a new venue. We’re building a show in every location, probably five or six days a week for the best part of two to three months. So that is a big challenge, and a huge feat of logistics. 

And then in each location we've obviously got to deal with the environment that we're dealt with that night. We've had dogs join in the performance, and peacocks. We've had rainstorms, thunderstorms, winds, all sorts. But that all adds to the fun. It does mean that every single night is pretty different to the night before. There's always a sense of having to deal with what you're dealt, I suppose. How crazy things get depends on how the weather is or how keen the local farm animals are to join in – that sort of thing! 

Ticket Tailor: On the topic of challenges – do you have any words of advice for budding performing arts enthusiasts?

Paul: Yeah – I mean, we all came from a world of just trying things out, and the backgrounds of everyone in the company are all really, really different. Some went straight to drama school after school, others –  including me – didn't go to drama school. I went to university and studied chemistry. So my route into the performing arts has been very different. But for me, it’s really about seeing what's out there and exploring the different options within the industry and sort of trying things out and not being afraid to spend a couple of months touring around the country in a van, going to castles and gardens, stately homes, for example. 

There are many different ways to get into the industry, and it's really worth just exploring that because it is a tough industry. Particularly at the moment – I think COVID has really given the industry a hit. So some things are just still getting back on their feet, which is the most difficult part, but there’s still plenty going on. And there are many, many different ways to get into it. I think it's just about having fun in the end. If you're not having fun in this industry, then I think you can probably get better paid elsewhere. So my main piece of advice is: when the fun stops, stop. 

Ticket Tailor: Very wise words indeed! We have to ask – why use Ticket Tailor?

Paul: As a company, we’re always on the move, so having the ease of just being able to hop on Ticket Tailor is great – creating a show on the platform is so quick. We use Ticket Tailor in conjunction with Squarespace as well – all of our listings are on our website as well as being on Ticket Tailor so everything just sort of fits together quite nicely.

It’s all tech that we've probably only experienced in the past three or four years, which has just made everything so much quicker and easier to manage. Being able to share ticket lists with venue managers is really useful – it means they can feel like they're a collaborator in the project. So it's not just us holding all the reins. We’ve used Ticket Tailor since the start of Slapstick Picnic, and there's been no reason for us to go elsewhere because it’s been so easy and straightforward to use. Long may it continue. 

Ticket Tailor: That’s brilliant to hear! Finally, what does the future hold for Slapstick Picnic?

Paul: We’re taking Peter Pan around the UK summer – and then who knows where things will go from there. As a group, we've been touring internationally with different companies for almost a decade. So there's a good chance that our Slapstick Picnic shows will potentially go around the world as well, as well as going into theatres in the UK. We've also got The HandleBards on the road with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, which are touring around the UK this summer until about mid-September. So yes – plenty going on! Which is really nice after a few not-very busy summers during the pandemic. Be sure to check out our tour dates at SlapstickPicnic.com and HandleBards.com

Ticket Tailor: Thanks, Paul! We can’t wait to see what Slapstick Picnic cooks up next. 

Head here to find out more about Slapstick Picnic >

And head here to find out about ticketing with Ticket Tailor >

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