Don’t Go Into the Cellar theatre group was founded in 2010. Its main aim is to make Victorian and Edwardian era horror and mystery stories more popular. Actors and crew are highly skilled professionals, who are on their mission to show these pieces throughout Great Britain. Their performance style relies upon a sense of heightened realism, and actors play multiple roles with minimal costume changes. This way the audience can enjoy transformational character acting, and they are often involved into the plays. These make the shows unique and delightful. The repertoire consists of the works of several authors, for example Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, among others.
We have the honour to make an interview with Jonathan Goodwin, who is the founder and the Artistic Director of the company.
The theatre was founded in 2010. Have you made any preliminary survey to find out how popular the fictional stories are that you wanted to stage? Or you just wanted a group with this repertory by all means?
At that time, I was a jobbing actor attending auditions for all the usual type of thing. But it struck me that there was nothing out there that really captured my imagination. I would’ve loved to perform in a show based on classic Victorian popular fiction, such as Conan Doyle, Stoker, Haggard, Wells, Stevenson and so forth. It just wasn’t there.
I had recently performed a one-man show based on the life of Thomas De Quincey. Audiences had been responsive, which convinced me there would be a market for this type of theatre. It was whilst performing in Edinburgh that I thought of crating my own theatre company that would specialise in staging adaptations of nineteenth century gothic, horror, detective and science fiction.
These were the sorts of shows that not only did I want to see, but also wished to perform in. As there weren’t any at the time, I wrote and staged them for myself. And thus, Don’t Go Into The Cellar was born!
How popular is improvisation theatre? What are your experiences? Are audiences easily involveable?
In my experience, it is very popular. Most audiences are wary at first, especially if they are in the first couple of rows! But they soon grow accustomed to it all. I feel that our style of theatre works best with smaller audiences, in more intimate venues. To have the audience and actor in such close proximity adds to the experience. I think it heightens the atmosphere and the suspense if the characters are being brought to life before their very eyes, up-close and personal.
Are people familiar with the stories your plays are based upon? Are these in the mainstream?
Generally, I find people are more familiar with the characters than the source material. Most people know of Dracula, but comparatively few have read the Bram Stoker original. Similarly with Sherlock Holmes, in that the famous stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles are familiar, but the others less so.
When writing the scripts, I always aim to strike the right balance so that the shows are enjoyable both for long-time fans and absolute beginners.
What was the biggest acknowledgement or award the company received?
We are still waiting to win an award! Then again, we never enter any contests! But it’s lovely when audience members get in touch to say how much they enjoy what we do. It’s always great to be likened to Jeremy Brett, too. Indeed, it’s a tremendous compliment.
Do young people like the stories? Do they know them enough to go and see them as theatre plays?
It’s surprising how young our audience members are sometimes. The most appreciative ones are often only nine years of age or so. Recently, I performed as Holmes for an online broadcast. Someone got in touch to say that she’d been watching the show with her young granddaughter. The little girl had enjoyed the show so much, she wanted to read the Conan Doyle originals next. And that, quite frankly, is wonderful.
According to surveys people read less and less nowadays, which is a sad thing. Is there a similar decrease in the number of theatregoers?
Sadly, yes. Small-scale touring theatre is quite rare in the U.K. Most venues tend to programme tribute acts and covers bands, stand-up comedians and musicals more than anything. It does get frustrating. But then, there must be an appetite for such things, else they wouldn’t be asked to perform.
I think also that people’s attention spans have grown shorter with the years. Our shows and others like ours require a degree of concentration and imagination. I suppose it’s a lot easier just to listen to songs or jokes for two hours than to think!
How many shows did you have in a year before the pandemic?
Before this nightmare season, we averaged at around 140 shows per year, at theatres, arts venues and stately homes across the U.K. Almost overnight, because of the lockdown in March 2020, those bookings vanished. I was in a state of shock, really. It coincided with our house-move too, so you can imagine how stressful it all was!
After the first few weeks, though, I got my bearings and started to think of ways we could adapt to this temporary change in circumstances. Hence, the live broadcasts began. The Sunday Down The Cellar seasons have proven to be very popular. Every two or three weeks, for one night only, I perform a new theatre show, adapted from the Victorian and Edwardian source material. These are shown from our Facebook page.
As well as broadcasting the usual eerie tales, I’ve also included comedies such as Three Men in a Boat and Diary of a Nobody, true-crime with Dr Crippen and American Gothic, detective fiction with The Sign of the Four, children’s literature with Mr Toad of Toad Hall, science fiction with The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon, and thrillers with The Thirty-Nine Steps.
The situation has forced the company to diversify, so in a strange way, it’s been a good thing.
These broadcasts have all been free to watch, and so we have relied on donations to our Go Fund Me page from our audience of Cellar Dwellers to keep us afloat. The generosity and support of people from all over the world has been a blessing. Literally, we would have lost all hope, and our livelihoods, if not for them.
Also, we have started taking orders to adapt and film any genre tale from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These make excellent gifts! They can be personalized too. Once I have written the script, I then perform the show in our spare room. This is filmed by my lovely wife using her mobile phone. She sends the file to my colleague, Gary, who lives sixty miles away. He adds sound and visual effects before converting the recording to an MP4 which is emailed to the client.
How was the reception of your online shows?
It’s been terrific. People have now seen us from across the world, in Australia, Germany, America, Canada, Japan and beyond. They would probably never have seen us otherwise. It’s been great to receive feedback from the audience almost immediately after the broadcasts. These live performances have also led us to work with MX Publishing, the world’s leading publishing house of original Holmesian fiction. We recently collaborated on a broadcast that celebrated the life and career of Jeremy Brett, and was seen across the globe. It was an honour to be asked to portray Jeremy in a show I had written specially for the event.
Are your Sherlock-themed productions more popular than the others?
Certainly they are one of our most popular. So many have heard of Mr Holmes, you see. But we adhere to the Conan Doyle originals, and so none of that modern-day silliness with us! Shows such as Restless Graves, in which I play Montague Rhodes James are always well-received, as is our chat show, Tea with Oscar Wilde. The true-crime shows are always popular. I occasionally dabble in some Lovecraft too. The Herbert West broadcast was well-received, I recall.
Can you tell us anything about your future plans?
To stay in business primarily! The future for the arts in England remains so uncertain. We weren’t eligible for any government funding or support. If not for our ingenuity and people’s generosity, the company would have folded a year or more ago. It’s been a difficult and stressful time requiring immense amounts of hard work and dedication. But I hope that in the near future, theatres will be allowed to open properly, and audiences will return to support live theatre (and not just West End musicals!).
The Sunday Down The Cellar live broadcasts will continue for as long as people want to watch them. We also want to produce audio dramas, and to film on location. Hopefully, the first of the filmed performances will be available to buy in time for Hallowe’en!
Dear Jonathan! Thank you for the interview. We wish you lots of success to your recent and future projects.
Allow us to pass on our little surprise. A virtual award to show that your theatre is our favourite.