Lewis Doherty - actor, gamer, mime
He has to play video games for research, honestly!
How’s it going? Here is the fourth issue (the fourth!) of The Crush Bar, my fortnightly newsletter about theatre and the people that make it, landing in your inbox at 11.45am every other Friday. If you’re new, then welcome. If you’ve read some of the other ones, then welcome back. Thanks for sticking with me.
Below, you’ll find an interview with Lewis Doherty, the creator of the awesome Wolf/Boar/Hawk trilogy, among other things. Before you get to that, though, please subscribe if you haven’t already…
The Crush Bar is free and unfunded and really quite a nice person underneath it all, so please share it with everyone you know. Tweet. Forward. Shout. All of the above. Right, on with the newsletter!
Interview: Lewis Doherty
Lewis Doherty’s loft has flooded. He hasn’t told me, but I know because I’ve been watching some of his videos on Twitch – the online platform through which gamers can live-stream themselves playing and chat to a virtual audience as they do so – and he spent a good chunk of a recent upload moaning about water damage.
Doherty live-streams twice a week – on Monday and Wednesday evenings – and his two-hour-long sessions are full of silliness, accents and impressions. He started in November last year, partly to give his days some structure, partly as a way of learning new skills, partly as an excuse to play video games, and partly as a way of scratching his performative itch.
“Twitch is an amazing platform for comedians,” he says. “It relies on building an audience and interacting with them – it’s just like working a crowd in a theatre. I play a lot of games anyway, and I catch the occasional stream, so I just thought: “Why not give it a go?””
It is also research, after a fashion. The kind of video games Doherty plays – first-person, sci-fi, fantasy adventures – use the same plots, the same characters, and the same tropes that he employs in his acclaimed one-man mime-shows.
"Twitch is an amazing platform… it’s just like working a crowd in a theatre…”
Take Hawk, for example, Doherty’s latest solo show, which he had intended to perform at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. It is “a futuristic, sci-fi adventure”, he says, so he’s become “a bit obsessed” with the Alien film franchise for inspiration, and with playing its 2014 video game spin-off Alien: Isolation.
“It’s a kind of cat-and-mouse game between you and the alien, and I love the amount of tension that creates,” he says. “That’s something I really wanted to capture in Hawk. That, and the whole psychological warfare element of sci-fi films. That guessing game of who the real villain is.”
It is difficult to explain Doherty’s shows to someone that hasn’t seen them. They are an hour long, and each one sees Doherty, alone on stage but for a chair and a couple of props, create a thrilling, filmic story, featuring dozens of characters and hundreds of scenes, using just his hands, his body, and his voice. Slick lighting and evocative music play a big part, but at the heart of it all is one man and his mime.
Each show dives into a different genre. The first, 2018’s Wolf, was a seedy, squalid crime-noir saga set in a nameless American city, with strong echoes of Sin City and Batman. The second, 2019’s Boar (spot the four-letter animal theme), was a fantasy quest that paid homage to Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones. Hawk, the third and final instalment in what has become a trilogy, owes a debt to Star Wars, to The Mandalorian, and to the aforementioned Alien.
“I do a stupid amount of research for my shows,” Doherty says. “I buy books, I buy DVDs, I buy video games, and then I just sit there – sometimes with a friend, sometimes on my own – and watch it all, and see what sticks. You notice stuff. Fantasy films use a lot of travelling montages, for example. Sci-fi thrillers are the opposite – they’re very still.”
The challenge then, says Doherty, is to shape those stereotypes into a fresh story, and to figure out a way of replicating them on stage, without a set, without projections, and without anyone else to help him.
“I draw the picture, and the audience gets to colour it in…”
He has developed some tricks to do so. One, he says, is to think of the show like a movie, with him as its director, selecting the shots, choosing when to use a close-up on someone’s eyes and when to pan out into a huge landscape. Another, he says, is simply not to do too much.
“I always say that I draw the picture, and the audience gets to colour it in,” Doherty explains. “I just show them a little bit of something – with my hands or with my voice or whatever – and they fill in the rest of the picture. I think that’s partly why people enjoy the shows so much, because they rely on the audience’s imagination.”
“In Boar, for example, I wanted to put a dragon into the story, but I thought it would be impossible,” he adds. “At first, I built a puppet out of a wine-crate, some elastic, and some bike lights. I was so proud of it, but it was just too cumbersome to use. I ended up just using the bike lights as eyes and a special effect on my voice, and the audience had to do the rest.”
There is a nice symmetry to the fact that Doherty has – for now, at least – ended up inventing stories in his own head and acting them out by himself. Growing up in Nottingham in the 1990s – he was born in 1990 and is now 30 – with two brothers a lot older than him, he had to learn to amuse himself.
“I spent a lot of time on my own, playing around and making things,” he says. “I used to get told off a lot at school for mucking around, then the drama teacher asked me to be in the school production – I think it was Jesus Christ Superstar – and I realised that I was allowed to do the stuff I would get told off for elsewhere.”
Doherty went on to study drama at the University of Birmingham, took a year out to work as a groundsman – “I did a gap year, but instead of travelling to Bali, I travelled to a holiday park in Penrith” – then did a post-graduate course at Oxford School of Drama.
“When I was at drama school, it was all about making sure you were good at everything – at dancing and singing and acting and Shakespeare – then getting an agent, going to auditions, and getting work like that,” he says. “But for me, like for ninety-eight per cent of people, that’s just not how it works.”
“The first couple of shows were quite shaky. Then out of nowhere, it started selling out…”
Instead, annoyed at waiting for the phone to ring, Doherty and some of his fellow graduates formed their own company – a sketch group called Laughing Stock. Together, they made several shows that were successful at the Edinburgh Fringe, and which landed Doherty an agent – an agent that dropped him a year-and-a-half later when they realised he was no longer interested in auditioning for adverts. That, says Doherty, was when he decided to make his first one-man show.
“I was living in Hackney and working in a pub,” he says. “The pub had a function room, which I could rehearse in. One day I just sat down at my laptop and wrote the first half-hour of Wolf. I performed it as a work-in-progress at Vault Festival, and people seemed to like it, so I decided to finish it.”
That was in 2017. A year later, and Doherty was back at Vault with the finished show. He performed it again at The North Wall in Oxford, then with artistic directors John Hoggarth and Ria Parry’s help, he took it to Edinburgh. It was exhausting, he says, but worth it.
“I was nervous because I was up there by myself, and I’d put pretty much all my money into it,” he says. “The first couple of shows were quite shaky. Then out of nowhere, it started selling out. I remember thinking that I would be happy if I sold out one show, and I ended up selling out pretty much every day. It was amazing.”
Doherty booked a tour off the back of Wolf’s success – and decided to make a sequel. Now, three years later, he has completed a trilogy, and would have moved on to other projects if the pandemic hadn’t put his plans for Hawk on hold.
He’s now left London, and lives back in Nottingham with his girlfriend, his allotment, and Alien: Isolation. He’s a creative associate at Nottingham Playhouse and has founded a company, Beast House Theatre, through which he produces his theatre work.
Earlier this year, he adapted Wolf into a podcast, partly as an experiment in audio, partly just to have something to do after all his other work was cancelled. It was called Shadow City Chronicles and it was a bit of a hit – and Doherty has now been commissioned to make another, as-yet-unannounced series to accompany it.
“I want to get back to concentrating on straight acting after I’ve finished with this trilogy,” he says of where he is heading next. “I love doing my shows, but I don’t want people to think this is all I can do. I also miss the collaborative effort of a company, and I want to be able to just play one person and be told what to do by a director again.”
“I would absolutely love that, actually, because these shows can be a help and a hindrance,” he concludes. “I joke that I’m so used to doing them, that if a director ever asked me to open a door on stage, I’d walk up to the space next to it, open an imaginary one and add a sound effect.”
“The most helpful thing someone could do for me is…”
If you need a movement director/writer for a project then hit me up. I’d love to work collaboratively with artists/organisations/buildings to create work.
If you’re a programmer or AD that works for a building, book my shows! I’m always really keen to create relationships with theatres and audiences that aren’t familiar with my work yet. I have two Covid-safe shows ready to tour with no props, set or costume, and a third on the way. It really is just me, a technician, and a chair - and we’re all from the same household!
Follow me on Twitch! Don’t worry if you’re not that into games. It's really just a place to hang out, chat rubbish (from games, to films, to snacks, to my work), and hopefully be entertained a little. I stream every Monday and Wednesday currently.
“If you want to get an idea of what I do…”
This is probably the closest thing to my work I can think of. Believe it or not, I sweat much more than this guy.
Listen to this by Rahzel, the godfather of beatboxing. I downloaded this on Napster back in the day and must have listened to it thousands of times on our home computer. It still feels like human sorcery to me after all these years.
Bits and bobs, shouts and murmurs…
I know everyone is probably sick to death of the whole “What is theatre now?” debate - but this from the LA Times’ theatre critic Charles McNulty is really very good.
From another angle entirely, this piece by New Perspectives’ Jack McNamara on how the pandemic has democratised theatre, and - and how that has been driven by smaller companies, not big theatres - is also excellent.
The Guardian are doing a new series on talented theatre people. The first interview is with Zainab Hasan, who was in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy. I remember getting up at 5am, walking to King’s Cross and queueing for three hours so I could get a free ticket to see that in 2016. Worth it.
This New York Times bit interviewing actor-couples who have had the luck/misfortune to work together during the pandemic is fun - and it features Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders from Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck plays, the greatest theatrical works ever written!
This thread of transcendental moments in plays is a real timeline-cleanser. My pick: the end of Jim Cartwright’s Road, as staged by John Tiffany to Elbow’s ‘lippy kids’.
And if you’re watching It’s A Sin on Channel 4, then please enjoy this video WhatsOnStage have dug up of Callum Scott Howells (AKA Colin) singing ‘You’ll Be Back’ from Hamilton. Jonathan Groff eat your heart out.
That’s your lot…
Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed it. I’ll be back in your inbox in a fortnight’s time - February 26th - with another issue, featuring an interview with Elizabeth Newman, the inspirational artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, whose journey has taken her from Croydon, to Bolton, to the Highlands. Plus - a new fortnightly feature I’ve been working on.
If you want to get in touch before then, just reply to this email, or I’m @FergusMorgan in most places. And, if you wouldn’t mind…