James Alexandrou on Casserole

The first play by innovative London acting studio Actors East, developed over 5 years of improvisational workshops, Casserole is a blisteringly funny and emotionally raw one-act play that looks at how grief causes people to hide from each other within a relationship.

Actors East has grown from an acting studio in a basement in Dalston to become one of London’s most innovative new writing companies. By enabling actors, writers and directors to collaborate freely without the friction of cost, Actors East has become the forefront of grassroots theatre.

We spoke with James Alexandrou about co-writing and directing the show.

Q&A with James Alexandrou

How would you describe the story of Casserole?

An explosion of repressed and ignored feelings between a couple fighting to discover whether there’s still love there. It’s been a year since Kate’s mum died, she went into overdrive – went back to work, ostensibly successfully, Dom stayed at home and out of work, developing chemical dependencies – I mean, who really knows what you’re meant to do with grief? This play looks at two people trying to work that out.

It’s a recognisable situation to anyone that’s been in a long-term relationship, you’ve both become experts in avoiding what’s really going on – Casserole looks at what happens when you’re forced to look…

What can you tell us about Actors East and the collaborative process of bringing Casserole to the stage?

After years of working in the theatre, I realised there’s an aspect we don’t rehearse, not really, and that’s having people who have paid to watch you be there. We call them previews, which is usually a couple of shows before the press comes in to review you! Which seems mental to me. Reviews really should happen about 60% through the run! So we developed a way of doing this at AE, all through a show’s development. Casserole was the model for this. We had a 2-week improvisational development period, in which we invited people to watch at certain times – and then we took a 10-15 min bit of that to a scratch night we hold every month called “Scene Night”.

Within AE, we have various acting/writing/improvisational workshops in which we could take bits of the play, or even just take the characters for a ‘runout’. It’s a process we are attempting to formalise now, but for Casserole, it was very ad-hoc. But the point is all through its development we had constant feedback from “normal” audience members, as well as acting teachers, directors, and writers.

It creates a kind of “no ego” feeling around the material – anything is up for grabs, and anything can be thrown out – I mean you know when something has to stay is when one of us says “absolutely that has to stay” – that resistance to a cut is editing! All of this worked up toward a “Work in progress” Run – 4 shows run as close to a full production as we could, we sold tickets, and invited instant feedback from the audience in attendance. Every show would be an adjustment on the last – and by the end of the week, we had our complete show, and a transfer offer from The Arcola!

Did you have a clear vision for how you would direct the play?

Yes, which is to be led by the story and the actors – not the other way around. For me, directing is about getting out of the way of the story rather than imposing yourself on it. What that means for Casserole is to remove any theatricalities wherever possible, to make it feel like you are in someone’s living room, that you have walked into someone’s house and have sat down. That’s it. The play is funny and it is intense – It has to feel like you just took a wall down to look at the argument the next-door neighbours are having.

What is it like to be transferring to Arcola Theatre?

BLOODY AMAZING. It’s the first full play we have made at AE, and its our local big brother theatre. It’s an honour to work there. It’s the first play I’ve directed, and I am completely blown away to be at the Arcola. And I’ve never played it as an actor, turns out all I needed to do is co-write and direct a whole play and then put myself in it!

What do you hope audiences take away from the show?

I don’t know if I think like that really, maybe that listening is incredibly important in a relationship. Maybe love can exist without listening, but It won’t exist forever that way. And listening is Hard.

Casserole is at Arcola Theatre from 5 to 30 March 2024