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National Theatre Blog

In conversation with Phelim McDermott

A head shot of Phelim McDermott

In 1996, Phelim McDermott co-founded Improbable, a theatre company whose vision is ‘a world where dreaming is taken seriously’. Their unique, improvisational approach is coming to the NT next month in Lost Without Words, which will be entirely improvised every night by actors in their 70s and 80s. We spoke to Phelim McDermott about the piece, which he is co-directing with Lee Simpson, another Improbable founder member.


How did Lost Without Words come about?


I bumped into Trevor Peacock, an older actor who I used to go and see when I was a young boy at the Royal Exchange – I saw him in Waiting for Godot with Max Wall and he was one of those actors who was an inspiration to me as a performer. And I saw him sitting on this bench outside a café. We got chatting and talked about theatre, and he said, 'I can't do theatre anymore, I wouldn't get past “To be or....”.’

He was basically talking about not being confident about going on stage anymore. And as well as that encounter, there were lots of stories in the press popping up about older actors, for different reasons, not going on stage anymore. Of course, part of that is having no energy for big parts and big plays. I went to Lee our co-director and said, 'This is crazy, we've been teaching people improvisation for 25 years and if people can't go on stage with scripts, then they should go on stage without a script'. The idea that we'd got a chance of doing that with some incredibly experienced older actors who aren't going on stage as much as they could or should, seemed like a very exciting prospect. When we put it to the board it was actually Stephen Daldry who said 'you could call it Lost Without Words'.

Then we spoke to Rufus [Norris, Director of the NT] who thought it was a great idea. If Improbable, the crazy impro company, had approached the calibre of actors we have in our company, there'd be no way they would have said yes. We knew that if we could give it some legs through workshopping it with the NT then those actors – who have all performed at the National – would at least get in the room and try some stuff out with us. After the workshop sessions, there was a small group who we hadn't managed to scare away, and they are our company. 


What have you been exploring in rehearsals and workshops?


The actors have really never improvised in this way before, not in front of an audience anyway. That's what these sessions have been about: learning how to improvise, telling stories and doing scenes, all in front of an audience. Which is different to improvising to a set brief where you might go 'here, be this character'. It's also been about doing scenes where you start from absolutely nothing. They're going on stage with no idea of what that scene they're about to do is going to be about. You might give them a game to work with while they're doing it, but they're always starting from nothing. 


How have the actors found it so far?


They've definitely found it unusual, but they are doing what they've always done which is going out on stage and acting, being characters, but improvising. All the impulses and material is coming from them. If you've got no script, you can only use yourself. 

Charles Kay said, 'Often I get so nervous in rehearsals but here I haven't been nervous at all because there's nothing to be nervous about. There's no script I'm supposed to get right'. It's a very different experience for everyone. They have a wealth of years and experience of playing characters on stage, and when you put them in front of an audience, that's what comes in to play. 


What should audiences expect from Lost Without Words?


This is not going to be comedy improv; it’s the opposite of Whose Line Is It Anyway! The performers don't have to be clever or quick. And out of using their experience of being on stage you'll see active scenes that are moving, simple and clear. Expect to see scenes from extraordinary actors improvised from nothing. Expect something that you've never seen before.


Visit the Lost Without Words page.