I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with Blake Klein, Creative Producer of the Pint of Wine Theatre Company, to discuss their forthcoming season which starts with a UK premiere, and takes us via cabaret, to an exciting revival of a much-loved classic in the run up to Christmas.
RV: So, Blake, tell me about you, and Pint of Wine.
BK: Pint of Wine was a venture I started last year, the goal of it being to bring together a group of friends, most of us not having trained as actors, but as technicians. My own background was that I did my undergraduate degree in the US, and then I became a lawyer later on, but in the US the benefit of the undergrad system is that while you’re figuring out what you want to do, you can do something else.
I was going to be an actor like everybody else at that age, but pretty soon realised that my skill lay more with lighting design. So, I ended up spending a number of summers doing Summer Stock in the US, which for me meant four musicals over a summer for a thousand dollars. Then I ended up going to law school, coming to the UK and working in The City, which I did for six years, then changed jobs which in turn gave me enough time to get back into doing theatre again. I always say I rented out my soul rather than giving it away.
So, when I was able I got back into theatre production, and set up Pint of Wine, the goal was that it would be a musicals-driven company. When you want to give pizzazz it has to be musicals, especially from the point of view of a lighting person. However, especially on the London Fringe, you often find yourself driven by a particular dynamic, and by the need to ‘get by’. With Pint of Wine, because of the people who came together to start the company, we’re production people, so decided we wanted to put production values front and centre of everything we do, and to try and make sure that people get the right resource for putting on the best show possible.
Different producers do things for different reasons. We decided from the very start that we wanted to be able to raise the resources needed to put the shows on correctly, by which I mean making sure people get paid the going rate – meaning everybody involved with the production. The lighting, design, actors, everybody. We’re doing this on an Equity license. The producer really should be looking after everyone. I don’t know of any other business where we could say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t pay you’, and that would be OK. Just because you can get away with it, that doesn’t make it right, so everybody’s on at least the London Living Wage. It’s not just the actors. Everybody.
I was doing lighting design once, back in the States, and worked out that what I was doing I was doing for effectively twenty-five cents – a quarter – an hour. And for that I was on a ladder working at three in the morning. I realised there and then that that’s not how I would ever want to approach things. If you want to take emerging artists and take them up a level, you not only have to give them the respect and support, you have to pay them, or you’re compromised. And that’s not something I’d either be proud of, or would want to be involved in.
RV: Your first production will be at extremely welcoming Brockley Jack.
BK: Indeed. It’s a great venue. And the great benefit of the Jack is that although it’s a pub theatre, for the scene, it’s actually big, and the guys who run The Jack are amazing, and incredibly supportive. And when you’re doing a show like Queen of the Mist you want it to be in a friendly and supportive home.
RV: So why Queen of the Mist?
BK: The director and myself both love Michael John LaChiusa shows. They’re not always easy, but Queen of the Mist is about fame, about success, about failure. And it’s based on a true story. It’s probably about the most commercial of his shows, and we’re lucky enough to be doing the UK premiere. It’s the story of one woman, Anna Edson Taylor, who at sixty-three years old, at the end of the line, and in an act of desperation, wants to do a ‘big thing’, so she decides – at sixty-three – that she will ride in a barrel over Niagara Falls, and live, in the hope she’ll make a lot of money. At the end of Act One she goes over the falls, survives, and becomes incredibly famous.
Act Two deals with what fame did to her, and for her. What she got from fame essentially, which wasn’t necessarily pretty. When she survived, she went around on this tour, essentially to make money, but her manager stole the barrel, and dressed another woman up as her, and passed her off. She apparently wasn’t that good a presenter. She wasn’t the media-friendly front-woman the crowds wanted. It tells us a lot about instant fame, and what it gets you, but how you have to have the ability to sustain it, which requires a whole other lot of skills. And we’ve got the most insane set. Anyone who comes to see the show will not be prepared for what they’re going to see on stage.
RV: So what comes after Queen of the Mist?
BK: Well, we’re doing a cabaret with Jordan Clarke at the Bussey Building in Peckham from the fourth to the seventh of June. He’s just come out of Showstopper! at The Other Palace. He likes to think of composing his cabaret as a night of story telling through song. Then we’re doing a new piece in the Autumn. Lemington Ridley, who’s doing costume on Queen of the Mist, came to me and said he’s like to do a show essentially about himself. About how he ended up where he is from where he started. It’s his story of finding community through costume and drag. We’re developing this over a year, so will be presenting where we are then. It’ll have a narrative, but it takes time.
RV: Then after that?
BK: Well, when I agreed to do this show it’s hadn’t been done in fifty years.
RV: Ah, yes, then all of a sudden there was another production announced in Manchester as well. I am of course talking about Mame.
BK: Do you know how many characters are in the production? The show is written for a cast of forty-two. It’s a show that you can’t do as stripped back, because if you do the book becomes exposed. Mame’s a show that I’ve loved for ages. But the book’s a problem. It takes place over forty years, and very few musicals can cover that period of time successfully. You have to go full on at it. We’re thinking of it as our Christmas gift to London. We’re doing it at The Cockpit, with a traverse staging, and on a revolve. And we’re hoping to utilise their fly system as well. We’re going to be doing it with a cast of about thirty. There’s so much that goes on that you really don’t want to have to worry about people doubling. I really don’t think you could ever listen to the cast album of Mame without having a smile on your face. It’s glorious. From the Overture onwards it’s a show which demands to be done with scale. We’ll have a band somewhere around fifteen. The hilarious thing with Jerry Herman’s score is that he wrote a reduction, taking the full pit orchestra down to nine, and then said, Ok, you can add back in instruments, but up to eighteen you have to add them in this order. But the fourteenth part added in the banjo. And without that you can’t do the title song, so, well, thanks Jerry. I guess we’ll have to go for at least fourteen. If you embrace production values, you really have to go at them full tilt.
RV: That’s something that I’m sure we can all look forward to then. Blake Klein, thank you so much for giving up your time to speak to us.
BK: Thank you.
RV: And I look forward to seeing Queen of the Mist, which will be on at The Brockley Jack from 9th to 27th April. The rest of the season includes the Cabaret Festival at CLF Arts Café in The Bussey Building from 4-7th June 2019. The dates and location for the new dance production have yet to be confirmed, and then from 4th to 14th December, Mame at The Cockpit.