Guy Masterson is pleasant and prolific – and something of a legend at the Edinburgh Fringe. Over 21 consecutive seasons, his company, Theatre Tours International, has become the Fringe’s most highly-awarded and nominated independent theatre producer, with his prizes ranging from a Stage Best Actor Award for Fern Hill & Other Dylan Thomas in 2001 & The Stage Best Ensemble Award in 2014, numerous Scotsman Fringe First Awards, to the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment for his production of Morecambe in 2010.
But it all took off with his 1994 production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, which returns to the Fringe this August at the Assembly Roxy Upstairs, along with a new production about Thomas’s life (also at the Roxy). Chatting to Laura Ingram about his earliest inspirations, Guy reveals that the Welsh writer’s influence was more than a patriotic one – the connection is also personal.
Your association with Dylan Thomas goes back a long time. Not only is there a family connection, with your great-uncle – Welsh actor, Richard Burton – being a famous performer of Thomas’ work, but you already have two long-established Thomas-related pieces under your belt. Now, at this coming Edinburgh Fringe, you are premiering a brand new work, Dylan Thomas – The Man, The Myth. What is it about his life and work that particularly inspires you?
Firstly, there is the Welsh connection. I’m fiercely attached to my ex-pat Welsh roots, and being linked to Dylan Thomas helps me to feel this connection. I had heard Thomas all my life, but I didn’t know I was hearing it. It was my uncle, actor Richard Burton, who introduced me to him “properly” when I was twenty years old [Burton’s renowned recording of Under Milk Wood aired for the first time on BBC radio in 1954].
Richard had come to stay with us in 1981 and, recovering from a neck operation, he asked my mother to let me drive him back home to Switzerland. I spent six weeks with him driving him around in his newly acquired Mini Cooper-S, getting to know him like a second father. He introduced me to a lot of literature: in the mornings, he liked to get up very early, and make a cup of tea and go up to his library, where he’d sit and read for hours. I’d join him, and sit reading beside him. Once in a while, he’d say, “listen to this, Guy,” and he’d begin reading out loud. One day, he read me the opening monologue from Under Milk Wood.
This was obviously a pivotal time of my life, and, I suppose, instrumental in my later decision to become an actor. After leaving uni in 1982, where I’d studied Biochemistry, I moved to Los Angeles and took a job in the restaurant business, where I found myself working around a lot of actors. My girlfriend at that time was also an actress and she persuaded me to audition for her high-profile acting class, which was run, it turned out, by Milton Katselas – who had worked with my Uncle Richard and Elizabeth Taylor as the original director of the play, Private Lives. Apparently, he’d been “let go” from the production before it opened, but I did not know that! Anyway, Milton encouraged me further and so I (successfully) auditioned for drama school at UCLA. By complete coincidence, the passage I was asked to read was an excerpt from Under Milk Wood. My relationship with Dylan Thomas, I suppose, was destined!
Your award-winning production of Under Milk Wood has been a huge hit for you as a solo performance, but Thomas’s original work famously contains 69 characters, and is not – technically speaking – a play. What makes it work as a theatrical performance, as opposed to a spoken word piece, or a poetry recital?
I was always very interested in what an actor can do with his body and voice. Up to that time, I had been what I call a ‘neck-up actor’! In the early nineties, I was very inspired by Steven Berkoff, Complicité, and various other physical theatre companies, and there was a trend to stage physical theatre with no words. I wanted to see what I could achieve physically with a piece of literature that I loved. So my Under Milk Wood started out purely as an experiment to blend physical theatre with literature. I set myself two rules: 1) I would use the full literary work with no cuts or edits, and 2) I would restrict the use of sets, props or costume changes, so as not to disrupt the flow of the piece. It was designed to flow both physically and aurally.
Under Milk Wood is beautifully written, seamless in style, and it lends itself perfectly to the narrator segueing into character, like a dream sequence. So, my production is an amalgamation of performance style and classic literature, and because of this, I think it works better as a solo performance – you can’t possibly cast 69 actors for the 69 parts! And the doubling/tripling up of actors in normal productions can get very confusing in terms of audience recognition – which character is the actor playing now? Especially as some of the “characters” only speak a line or two. In my version, once you get used to the format of the single actor doing all the parts, it actually gets clearer. I worked hard to ensure that I would not confuse the audience with who is who, so that they’d be able to focus on Thomas’s words – where all the descriptions as to who is speaking are already in the text. So, my principal characters were very clearly drawn. I had to be assiduous in devising each character’s conventions and keeping them consistent. Each was distinguished by repeating physical and vocal characteristics so that as they crop up, they are immediately recognised. The other characters flash out once or twice and disappear again. The rest took care of itself. I had done a few performances in small arts centres before my first performance at the Traverse in February 1994, but I always consider the Traverse as being my World Premiere because the critics came. The response to that first performance at the Trav was amazing. It absolutely changed my life.
How did you come to open at the Traverse?
The Traverse had had a cancellation, so they had a week free for another production. Someone there had heard about my one man Milk Wood and they called me. I hadn’t pushed for high profile venues before that point, wanting to get the work right first. That first show, the place was packed with all of Scotland’s main reviewers, including Joyce McMillan & Mark Fisher, but BBC Radio Scotland had also sent a group from their weekly arts review programme – The Usual Suspects – and during my curtain call they all got up and dashed out! It was very disconcerting!
Then I was taken up to the lobby by the Trav’s General Manager to listen to their live review. It was terrifying… but thankfully, it was extremely positive. In fact, it was probably the most extraordinary review of my life. It certainly changed things overnight for me. All the tickets for the rest of the week had sold out by lunchtime the next day, and then the famous Mary Shields of the Assembly Rooms saw it on the final night, took me out for a pizza, and persuaded me to present it with them at the Fringe that August, which I duly did. Possibly due to the success at the Traverse back in February, all the tickets for my first Fringe run at Assembly had sold out by my first performance. I was very spoilt!
This year’s Edinburgh Fringe also sees your company’s world premiere of Dylan Thomas: The Man, The Myth, which is written by Thomas’s granddaughter, Hannah Ellis. The show is described on your website as “a very personal illustrated biography, celebrating Dylan Thomas’s life and work.” How did your collaboration with Hannah come about?
I’ve known Hannah for several years, since both of us became more involved with Dylan’s work. Hannah herself was a primary school teacher, and she had avoided the family connection to Thomas for several years, perhaps due in part to her mother’s very heavy involvement in his estate. However, following her mother’s passing, she was invited to participate a lot and particularly during the Centenary Celebrations in 2014, which commemorated Thomas’s 100th birthday. Hannah had seen my Under Milk Wood a few times so she was aware of my work, and she asked me to read excerpts of his work for her lecture, Dylan Thomas and Me, for the British Council at the Royal Society of Arts. Afterwards, I pitched the idea of doing this show. She sent me the script of her narrative from the Centenary and I helped her hone it down to an hour. It’s certainly not a play, but there is definitely an emotional arc. It’s definitely a theatrical event.
So, at this year’s Fringe, you are producing and performing in those two productions, but in previous years, you have been actively involved in up to fifteen Fringe productions at one time, in the various capacities of performer, director, writer and producer. How do you successfully balance the exigencies of multiple shows and professional “hats”? Is there a hat with which you feel the most affinity?
It’s not easy to juggle like that – and my business experience certainly helps, but I would say I am an actor first, and an “accidental producer” second, director third and writer fourth. I never intended to be a producer, but I was inspired by other people’s amazing work from all over the world, and wanted to help make Edinburgh happen for them. Working with talented people rubs off on you, and the audience love it so you keep doing it. I was very, very relieved when my work was well-received critically, but even more thrilled when the stuff that I liked was liked too, and that I could stand up there with them. As an actor, I was very surprised and honoured to be awarded the Stage Award for Best Actor. The Stage Awards recognise performance, not the overall production so, even if a production doesn’t work overall, a fabulous performance can still be recognised. This is great for the actors, but also for their directors. There is no directors’ award yet. I’d love to see that happen.
So my first love was performing, then I became an accidental director/producer because I wanted to work on Playing Burton, a play about my uncle. It was a show written by Mark Jenkins, and performed by my former flatmate at Cardiff University, Josh Richards. When we were flatting together in 1981, Josh was always doing comic impressions of Richard Burton – by sticking his entire head into a Belisha beacon – nabbed from the pedestrian crossing in the street below our flat in Penarth (he used to take it to parties to impress the girls!) – but he didn’t know I was related to Burton ‘cos I never told him.
About ten years later – Richard had been dead for 8 years – I heard about his tribute show and contacted him to talk about it, during which I “confessed”. At this point, Playing Burton was more a stand-up / anecdotal routine – a really good one – and he didn’t need the Belisha beacon. I suggested making it into a proper play, so with Mark’s permission I inserted some personal stuff I’d learned about my uncle – stuff that was not in the public domain, lots of apposite quotes from Burton’s favourite parts and writers – and helped shape the structure of the piece into a proper play with an arc. This was in 1993, and it introduced me to writing and directing.
I then put the show on at the Assembly Rooms that same year as Under Milk Wood and it hit very quickly after the first performance. The eminent critic, the late Jack Tinker, saw it and loved it and other leading critics followed. The show sold out too and this led to other offers to direct. I now absolutely love directing – I think even more than performing. I suppose I direct from an actor’s perspective, but not in that I understand their frailties and insecurities and pander to them. I can see when the bullshit is happening and I won’t suffer it. I don’t offer any special treatment for being an “artiste”. Most actors thank me for it. There is no beating around the bush. Just cut to the chase and do the work. Most find it refreshing. Sometimes egos can be bruised, but mostly the work ends up speaking for itself.
Do feel that you are doing Dylan Thomas a service in bringing him to new audiences, and showing his work in a new light? Is this part of the appeal to you?
It’s certainly not for me to say whether my version of his work is definitive, but I do love the audience’s response, and it’s great if my shows do introduce new audiences to Thomas. His genius was in his inventiveness and assiduousness. He never stopped, never gave up until it was exactly the way he wanted it: perfection. Writing was very much a craft for him, and he called it that. But in his craft (or sullen art) he, more than most, captured and celebrated the human spirit in his words. And his language is so refreshingly original. If I can get anywhere close to that, I can unlock my imagination, and that is the key to all art. [In English], we have the most expressive language in the world, and Dylan Thomas stretched even that. I suppose I would rank him number two in my literary world, second only to Shakespeare. I love to speak his words. It’s a privilege.