Rapid Fire Q&A Session with Matt Costain from A Monster Calls

Posted on 15 August 2018

Matt Costain is currently appearing in A Monster Calls, directed by Sally Cookson, at The Old Vic - not only is he starring in the play but he is also the Aerial Director. We sat down with Matt for a quick-fire Q&A session to find out more about the production and the man behind the amazing aerial feats which have been wowing audiences all summer long.

Pictured:The ensemble of A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls has been running for over a month and a half now and has received a lot of critical acclaim. How is the show going for you so far?
A Monster Calls is an incredible show to be involved with. The story touches people in so many ways - every night the audience are on their feet and visibly moved. Telling a story which feels important is a great privilege, and to be doing so in such an iconic space with a wonderful company is a joy.

Could you tell us a little bit about the character(s) you play in the show?
I play Mr Marl, the devastatingly charming but tragically underwritten schoolteacher. I also play one-tenth of a tree, a kitchen cupboard, some angst and a nightmare…

Do you have any personal connections to your character(s), or to the play in general?
I think everyone in the company has been touched by the issues in the play, and everyone has some personal experience of a friend or loved one dealing with cancer. My inspirational drama teacher died from cancer during rehearsals. Other company members have recently lost close family members or have close connections to someone currently undergoing cancer treatment. We try to look after each other, navigate through the emotional days and use the play’s powerful messages as a source of strength.

Was there anything that you were doing differently in the first few performances of A Monster Calls that you have since had to adjust?
We are constantly tweaking the show. We make structural and technical changes right up until press night when we lock down the final version of the show. However, even within this, the individual performances continue to grow as we continue to rediscover the story. The live nature of theatre means that every audience, every show, is subtly different as we listen and respond to each other. In terms of the big stuff, we have cut a little here and there to make the story more urgent - the mini-scene where I collected donations from my friends the villagers to pay the Apothecary to treat my sick child is now on the cutting room floor…

You trained in aerial skills at the National Centre for Circus Arts. Had pursing aerial acrobatics always been a dream of yours?
I have always thought and felt that theatre has a unique opportunity to create meaning with the physical as well as with the text. I started training in aerial skills as an extension of my theatre training, but got bitten by the bug and ended up going on a 15-year loop as a trapeze artist. It was an amazing trip, and I am lucky enough to have returned to the world of theatre bringing my skills with me. The increasing use of aerial skills in mainstream theatre as a storytelling tool has allowed me to keep working and developing.

As Aerial Director for A Monster Calls, what were your main sources of inspiration?
Sally Cookson already had the idea of using ropes as a way of looking at the tree monster. We spent a couple of weeks working with a room of actors and creatives on how it might look and feel. We also knew that aerial work might unlock the cliff edge and the fourth tale, which again we explored in a different R&D session. I usually prefer to declare the aerial work, to show the ropes, the counterweight flying, the clipping on and harnesses rather than try to hide them. This chimed with Sally’s theatrical vision, declaring everything and inviting the audience to engage their imagination and do some work!

You performed at the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Olympics. How has that experience and your other past experiences influenced your aerial direction and performance in A Monster Calls?
Working on large projects like the Olympics has been an important part of developing my practice. On one level, it has shown me that anything is possible given the time, budget and will to make it happen, but also an understanding of exactly how much time, budget and will are required to do just that. It is important on any project to understand the practical limitations of your creative environment and to try and explore fully the riches that are available to you. The other thing that working on big projects has taught me, and it has this in common with Sally’s practice, is that creation is a collaborative process. Understanding this unlocks the potential in the company and the project.

In the 2016 film adaptation, the tree monster was completely rendered in CGI. How does the monster in the stage adaptation compare to the CGI version in the film?
Ha! I haven’t seen the film. But I do know there is no CGI in the theatre, so we have to find an imaginative theatrical language to express the incredible. That is what I find exciting.

How do the aerial stunts bring the monster life?
Aerial working theatre often works on two levels - please excuse the pun - and A Monster Calls is a good example of this. There is the literal idea of scale, height, and representation of something physically huge, in this case, the Yew Tree with performers on ropes. Then there is a metaphorical level that having someone in the air brings, whether it is of danger, of power, or of being connected to something greater than yourself. We explore all of these through the aerial work in the show.

What are your thoughts on the minimalist set design for A Monster Calls and what do you think it brings to this already familiar story?
I love the minimal design for the show. The writing feels spare and poetic; keeping the stage simple and clutter free feels appropriately spare and poetic in a physical sense and allows the story to shine through.

In A Monster Calls, the protagonist wakes up from the same nightmare for months. Have you ever had a dream or nightmare that repeated itself?
I return to certain places and people in my dreams, places and people who hold significance and perhaps represent something larger than themselves. As I get older I am getting more conscious of, and familiar with, this feeling. Waking up after a familiar dream leaves an echo in my waking self and invites questions…

What has it been like working with Sally Cookson and your fellow cast members of A Monster Calls?
The cast and creatives on this project are a joy. We are an ensemble of individuals who bring very different experiences to the work, but we find our way to serve the story together. I have worked with Sally on a number of projects and I think she has a great skill in this area. She runs a very honest and open rehearsal room where everyone feels valued and empowered. I trust her taste, which is a wonderful feeling between actor and director, and as a number of us continue to work together more often, we are able to gauge the temperature of the room, to sense when to make an offer, when to resist, when to follow, when to lead. And there is always a point in rehearsals in about Week 5 where Sally shoots me the ‘Alright, enough with the ideas just stop speaking for a while’ look… I quite like it.

After A Monster Calls finishes its run, what are some other projects that you're looking forward to engaging with?
After A Monster Calls, I am directing Return of The Unknown for The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. It is an immersive, site-specific show performed in Dover Marine Station to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of The First World War. Dover Marine Station was where the body of The Unknown Warrior was repatriated en route to Westminster Abbey. It is partly the story of this event, but also an expiration of remembrance and the wartime stories of Kent. There is a core professional company, then a large community involvement, choirs, soldiers, dancers, a flock of puppet seagulls… it won’t be dull.

A Monster Calls is now playing at The Old Vic Theatre and booking until 25 August 2018. Don't miss out on this unique and spectacular stage adaption, starring the incredibly talented Matt Costain!

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Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

By Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

Ephram is a jack of all trades and enjoys attending theatre, classical music concerts and the opera.