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Making Your Own Luck - Actor-Producer EJ Martin on Starting Your Own Theatre Company

EJ Martin and Philip Honeywell are the two halves of pluck. productions, a theatre company established in 2014 that is bringing the world premiere of their latest production Alkaline to the Park Theatre from 10th July – 4th August, 2018. Here, EJ talks about making it happen.

The sweet spot in pre-production of any show tends to happen at two distinct points. The first is in auditions when an actor walks into the room and makes flesh the character in precisely the way you saw it in the version in your head, lifting the role off the page and making a very particular kind of magic happen right in front of you in a tiny airless room. The second is at the first production meeting, where the creative team (e.g. the director, the production and lighting designers) all begin to discuss how to make tangible reality of the fantasy world of the play, and you get your first premonition of just how electric and exciting opening night is going to be.

Those moments always send shivers down my spine, and remind me of one of the key pieces of advice that I give whenever I am asked about how to go about building a company or a production - always be the least qualified person in the room. Philip and me have been incredibly fortunate to have managed to surround ourselves from the outset with incredibly talented and kind people on all of our projects, and we have learnt so much from each and every one.

pluck. productions was formed in a crucible of frustration and disappointment. In 2014, we had both worked together once before as actors on a show, and were overjoyed to be cast opposite one another in a production that was going to give us solid employment for two months over the summer. Two weeks before rehearsals started, we got a shifty email from the producers saying that the money had fallen out of the project and it wouldn’t be going ahead after all. We had been hired and fired without ever stepping foot in the rehearsal room. We were pissed off. We went to the pub to drown our sorrows, and by the end of the evening, we had hatched an outlandish plan to see if we could make our own production instead, despite not really having the faintest idea where to start. In the cold hard light of the following morning, the mad emboldening hubris generated by the alcohol had worn off, but the enthusiasm hadn’t.

We got to work putting together our first-ever show, which was a week-long run at a pub theatre. We got a brilliant production designer who built us a working kitchen set for fifty quid, our wonderful director masterminded rehearsal space for free, we played two of the three roles ourselves and a fantastically talented friend of ours stepped in to play the third. We had no idea about marketing or PR, no idea how to get press in, no idea how to rig lights or lay a floor or if anyone would come at all. We made up solutions to all of these problems as we went along – and the show sold out. We were on to something.

As an actor you are essentially never in control of your own destiny or career trajectory. You are, or at least are treated, as an infinitely disposable and replaceable piece of the industry machine. It is an incredibly over-saturated business, and actors other than those at the very top of the profession are utterly powerless. It’s demoralising going to an endless carousel of castings with people who look exactly like you but better, and maybe have a more powerful agent or a sister-in-law in the casting director’s office.

Setting up the company is, for me, the only thing that has ever come close to an antidote to this. Basically, our approach is to try and hunt out work from writers we have an instinct will be the marquee names of the future, and produce shows to the highest standard we can afford, full of the most talented people we can find, both on and off-stage. In this way, we reverse-engineered ourselves into some of the most exciting rooms and projects of our careers. Our most recent show had a sold-out four-week run and was nominated for three Off West-End Awards. Philip and me were also both acting in that show (we’re not in all of them, I promise), and there were people who came to see it and said ‘god I loved that – who is the production company, can I write to them about their next project?’ That felt pretty bloody good.

We try and scale up the operation with each production, and have grown in scope and ambition to the point that we are now bringing the world premiere of a new play to the one of the leading off West-End venues for a month-long run. If you had asked us four years ago if we thought that would be possible, we would have laughed you out of the room.

We have learned so, so much along the way. Never be afraid to ask stupid questions, and always ask for help if you need it. The industry is a phenomenally cut-throat one, but when you reach out to the theatre community, they will inevitably rally and come to your aid with advice and favours and recommendations (and often bring biscuits). Pick things up as you go along. Always be out of your depth - the deep water is where all the exciting stuff happens. pluck is a testament to faking it ‘til you make It. We’re definitely still faking it - but I now wonder if we might also have been making it all along, too.

pluck.’s next project Alkaline is by Stephanie Martin (directed by Sarah Meadows), and runs at the Park Theatre from 10 th July – 4 th August.

‘People love being in control, don't you think? But you can't control something you don't understand.'

Sophie and Sarah have been best friends forever. Sophie is newly engaged to her fiancé Nick and wants to celebrate. Sarah also has a new fiancé, Ali, and some more big news – she has recently converted to Islam.

One hot summer evening the two couples have a get together. Sophie is desperate to meet Ali and even more desperate to rescue her drifting friendship with Sarah. Sophie also wants to ask Sarah if she’ll take off her hijab for Sophie’s wedding - a headscarf ‘just won’t quite go’ with the other bridesmaids, and Sophie likes things to match. It’s all going well (ish) until an uninvited guest arrives with some news that turns the evening – and the couples’ lives - upside down.

Alkaline is play about faith, friendship and fear. A play about change, painful endings and
new beginnings. Where does our duty lie? And do we ever dare to be different?