Married couple Feargus Woods Dunlop and Heather Westwell tell-all about working together on New Old Friends, their comedy theatre company
RD: How did your business get started, and how would you best summarise what you offer?
Feargus: One of my first gigs after drama school was assistant directing His Dark Materials at Theatre Royal Bath for their Youth Theatre. Part of my fee was rehearsal space and a week’s performance in their (then new) Egg studio for young people.
I cobbled together a show with a fellow Bretton Hall graduate—thankfully it was pretty funny as it certainly lacked in stagecraft!
Heather: Feargus' friend decided to head into film after that and by that point, Fearg and I decided to work together on some comedy sketches for a cabaret night in Bath, the rest is history.
I’d say the company offers a fun night out for all to come along, watch one of our shows and escape with us into a world of madness and laughter (hopefully).
RD: What line of work were you in before the company got started?
Feargus: I wasn’t really. I did the usual thing of working a lot of pub jobs before and during training. Then, whilst building the company, I did some part-time work for a software sales consultancy using acting techniques to coach software salespeople. But thankfully the main thrust of my career has always been making theatre.
Heather: I was a production assistant for Theatre Royal Bath Productions. I also did the front of house at the Egg theatre which I still go back to every now and then when I have a quiet day. I’ll put my name down for a shift as going back and watching children's theatre is always so creative and inspiring.
RD: How does your work complement your personality?
Feargus: We had a conversation with a theatre producer we really respect once who observed that we see putting on a show like hosting a party, it is our responsibility to make people feel good. I think I certainly have that in "real life" every bit as much as on stage/while producing.
Heather: Ever since I was little, I wanted to put on shows with my sister, standing in the bay window and pulling the curtains across to create our own stage, I always enjoyed making our friends and family laugh, so I guess New Old Friends is an extension of that!
RD: As a married couple, what are the biggest benefits and drawbacks of working and living together?
Heather: The best benefits for me is being with my husband every day and enjoying what we have created, we first met working on a project together so we’ve not known anything else. We’ve been in shows together and enjoyed the moments shared on stage performing and watching our companies shows that we’ve not been in, surrounded by an audience.
I guess the only drawback if is finding the line of when to switch off the conversations when we’re back home.
Feargus: I’d agree—I get to live and work with someone who utterly understands and compliments me as a person. We don’t have to explain in detail the stresses and strains one side of the work/life balance is putting on the other because we’re both their juggling.
The only real drawback is sometimes that actually makes the balance harder to achieve because both of us understand how important those "five more minutes" are when it’s already late in the evening and you’re sat typing away.
RD: New Old Friends has a keen focus on making people laugh—what made you decide to focus on comedy?
Heather: Comedy is where I feel most at home, it’s always the thing I would choose to watch first. The silliness that it brings out in people and the laughter created when rehearsing something ridiculous is just the best feeling. We want to make theatre that can give our audiences a chance to escape from their normal lives and watch something completely daft and enjoy the silliness of things. Sometimes in life, I think not taking things too seriously is what we need.
Feargus: I have huge respect for people who make serious theatre about dark and important themes, but I just couldn’t do it.
When you make a show the way we do (producing, writing and often performing in them) it is an all-encompassing beast for maybe a year, during which time it overlaps with another two or more shows. I don’t think I’m the sort of person who could sufficiently remove myself from the subject matter to spend that long with something that didn’t make me laugh or smile. Plus, there is no greater feeling than hearing a full auditorium lose themselves in laughter.
RD: What does a typical day at New Old Friends look like?
Feargus: It all depends on what part of a show’s cycle we are in. Right now, for example, we’re both sat at computers sending emails, tweaking budgets. But then this afternoon we head out to our rehearsal barn for costume fittings.
Tomorrow we’ve got conference calls with potential co-producers for summer 2021, and then Monday we will be in rehearsals for Crimes, Camera, Action.
Heather: There’s a lot of admin, making sure the theatres have everything they need in advance from us, getting our rehearsal room ready, accommodation booking.
We’re really lucky to have our own space we rent on a farm not far from us, it's so wonderful turning up into our own place that has all our sets and costumes in which we can dive into if we want.
RD: What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
Heather: The rehearsal processes are so much fun when we have all the creatives in the room and the chance to just play with the scenes and finding the fun.
The least favourite? There aren’t many, probably finalising the budgets at the end of a production when its all over and the post-show blues are also starting to set in.
Feargus: I really love the pre-rehearsal R&D week. It’s a time when everything is still possible and the harsh realities of the world (we can’t afford this, that won’t fit in the van etc) don’t impinge. It is creativity in quite a pure form and it is joyous to work with people you respect and admire in the pursuit of a simple goal—laughter.
My least favourite is probably dealing with arduous contractual negotiations, they are super important and we recognise that, but when you’re going back and forth over the language of a clause on which everyone agrees as to it’s actual meaning, it can be hugely frustrating. Also, VAT returns aren’t the most fun.
RD: What do you like to do to switch off?
Feargus: I love going to the theatre, but that quite often stokes creative fires rather than switching off. We watch a lot of warm-hearted sitcoms, we’re not so into the cynical ironic ones.
I play golf very badly, but walking around a big patch of green focussing on hitting a tiny white ball is a pretty good way to cleanse your headspace.
Heather: In the company, I’m known as Nanna Heather! Which I don’t mind. I love cross stitch and gardening, being outside is one of my favourite things, perhaps is because our job does force us to be inside beautiful theatres all day but I’m not complaining.
RD: What has been the most valuable business lesson you’ve learnt so far?
Feargus: There have been lots, but I think the most abiding principle we try to stick to is to just try and be as honest and upfront as you can be.
Sure you might lose out a little on a deal here and there, you can probably inflate some figures to get an edge, but ultimately then you have to maintain that somehow which would be stressful. Whereas if you try and explain everything honestly at the outset if you run into trouble down the line you don’t have anything to hide and people are (hopefully) on your side with it.
Heather: Be true to who you are, believe in what you want to do and what you do.
RD: If you weren’t running the theatre company, what do you think you would be doing as a career?
Feargus: There was a time when I would have said, a professional rugby player. But I’m not that delusional now.
I love words and language, so I would hope to be a writer of some kind or maybe doing something around teaching English.
Heather: I’ve always been really interested in BSL (British Sign Language) I’ve done some courses on it in the past and maybe learning more to become an interpreter or I think something to do with gardening. My grandparents used to run a floristry business so I feel that's in my blood a bit.
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