Born as a five-minute street sketch as a way to keep queuing fans entertained during the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner’s Olivier Award-nominated Potted Potter has now grown into a two-man performance that the New York Times calls “a godsend” and “a breathless and hilarious 70 minutes.”
The heart of the show is Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, seasoned TV performers in their native UK and charismatic stage performers. Using a wide array of props and creative gimmicks (including a live game of Quidditch), the duo pays tribute to J.K. Rowling’s wizardly writings in this affectionately unauthorized Off-Broadway experience, now playing at the Little Shubert Theatre through Sept. 2.
In this exclusive interview, Dan and Jeff discuss Potted Potter‘s journey to America, the most memorable bits of audience participation over the years, and their favorite New York City spot for fish and chips.
Tell us a little about how you met, and more importantly, how you became such huge Harry Potter fans.
Dan: I met Jeff when he was trying out some busking on the street in London’s Covent Garden. I watched his piece and we got chatting. The day we met, I was on my way back from a meeting about putting together a piece to entertain the crowds on the street at midnight for the launch of the sixth Harry Potter book. I’d suggested we do all five books in five minutes, and that it should be a two-hander. So I was on the lookout for someone to play Harry, saw Jeff, and decided that in the right light if you squinted, he looked a bit like Daniel Radcliffe! I became a fan of Harry Potter due to my younger brother; he was nine at the time and I used to read him the books as a bedtime story. I got hooked by the stories straight away, only problem was he’d fall asleep but I’d be so caught up with the story that I’d carry on reading them. To this day, I think there’s still large chunks of the books he hasn’t heard before!
How did you come up with the concept for Potted Potter?
Dan: It was for a bookstore in London, for the launch of Book Six back in 2005. The original piece was a 20-minute sketch that attempted to do all five books in five minutes to entertain the crowds as they queued at midnight. The reaction was overwhelming, so we decided to extend it to an hour-long show that we took up to the Edinburgh [Festival] Fringe in 2006. And that became Potted Potter.
While the shows follow a regular script, how much spontaneity is there? What are some of the big “improv moments” of each performance?
Dan: I would say on average about 20% is improvised. Things like the Quidditch match can never be scripted. You bring two kids up on stage, and no amount of preparation can get you ready for what they end up saying and doing! Kids have a great way of speaking their mind; something comes into their head and they’ll say it, so you just have to roll with it. Everything in the show that looks like an ad-lib would have been genuine at some point, and we decided it actually turned out to be funnier than what we originally had, so we kept it in!
The show is billed as “The Unauthorized Harry Experience.” Was there anything that you needed authorization for before bringing this to the stage? Was anything changed or modified as a result?
Jeff: As this whole show comes from a place of love for the books, we didn’t need to change anything. At no point were we being nasty or hateful towards any of the work, even though at certain places we do poke fun at the books or films in a loving way—as any true fan would do!
As a two-man show, there must have been a massive amount of practice and rehearsing in order to get everything down. How long did it take before you were ready to perform on a regular basis to a paying audience?
Dan: The show is always changing to keep it fresh, so even now we’ll always go back into rehearsals before we go to a new place, just to make sure everything is as slick and tight as it can be and to see if there’s any new material we can add. But I think originally it was a two-week solid rehearsal process, with ourselves and a director going over and over every joke and line with a fine-tooth comb! The danger with over-rehearsing is it begins to look staged and loses that spontaneous feeling. Also, you yearn to get it in front of an audience as it’s only then you can really tell if a joke’s working or not.
How did the show end up being brought to New York?
Dan: When we were running in London’s West End last year, a Canadian promoter came and saw the show, liked it and asked our feelings on a run in Toronto. Of course we jumped at the chance, almost not catching the subsequent comments that there might be a season in New York, too. It was too good to be true—for weeks I convinced myself that he must have meant York, a lovely town in England, but fortunately, he didn’t!
In the show, Dan is the zany one and Jeff is the straight man. Is it this way in real life, and how did you decide on this arrangement?
Dan: Can you imagine if I was like that all the time! Wow, I’d have killed me! I think there is definitely large parts of our characters in each of us, but it really just followed that tried and tested double act tradition. It was a very easy arrangement to decide, especially as when we started, I owned all the props and I don’t share!
What is the significance of the “Potter 1” and “Potter 2” T-shirts you wear in the show when only Jeff plays the role of Harry?
Jeff: The onstage Jeff is an incredibly pompous character, and would never accept being anything other than number one. Dan, however, couldn’t care less; and probably agrees Jeff deserves to be number one. Or at least, is happy letting Jeff believe that…
Despite being a central character, Dumbledore seems to be sidelined for much of Potted Potter. Do you feel that it was a challenge to integrate this fatherly figure into a broad comedy?
Jeff: Not at all. We just tried to do something different with each character. Also, we find it funny that these two guys are putting on a show all about the world of Harry Potter, and don’t involve a character as important as Dumbledore until later in the show.
What things do you admire most about each other’s performance style?
Dan: Admire? Jeff wears glasses well! No, Jeff can stage corpse (fake laughter) better than any other actor I’ve ever seen; it truly is an incredible ability!
What are some of your personal favorite Harry Potter moments?
Dan: I loved the first encounter between Harry and Voldemort in Book 4. This was where the books really started to get a little darker. This is why I wanted to do the “magic-off” with Harry and Voldemort in Potted Potter, as our own personal homage to an epic scene!
You also have two alternates, David Ahmad and Richard Atwill, who have performed Potted Potter internationally. What qualities and experience were you originally looking for in two such unique individuals?
Dan: It’s actually really tough trying to find alternates. You spend the day in auditions having a constant out of body experience as you see people playing you! Really, you’re looking for that natural comic timing and that extra spark that naturally draws your attention, and we were fortunate enough to find that in the guys. Worries me that they have started to play us better than we do!
Has J.K. Rowling or anyone else associated with the Potter empire seen the show? What would you most like to ask her if you could have a chat?
Dan: There is a story that when we first performed the show in Edinburgh in 2006, she tried to come and see us but the box office girl didn’t recognize her, so she turned her away as we were sold out! So since then we have said that there will always be a seat kept free for her whereever we are in the world if she wants to come and see us. I’d ask her to sign my books, then probably spend the rest of the time giggling like a little girl!
Some of your personal favorite moments so far in the show’s run have been…
Dan: Most of mine have been in Quidditch; it always throws out the most unexpected things! Every day is different. I remember in Toronto, we had one father who grabbed the quaffle, ran across the theater to the goal pushing two children (who weren’t his!) out of the way, shot, scored, then put his T-shirt over his head and did a lap of victory! The audience were going wild, it was truly a beautiful thing to behold!
What was the wildest thing that happened during the live Quidditch match? How often do the teams actually score?
Dan: We often get overexcited parents, and one time we had a dad run all the way around the aisle to shoot, but he didn’t score. The first goal in New York was during one of our special Quidditch Training Camp sessions, although we stopped doing those when we realized it was giving repeat visitors an unfair advantage over first timers!
What big differences or similarities have you noted between New York audiences with those of the UK or the rest of the world?
Jeff: We have had to change a lot less of the show than we anticipated. It appears audiences across the pond are not that different, although New York crowds are louder and less afraid to shout out than UK audiences! But that aside, it is quite a similar experience.
How does the energy level of the crowd affect the show?
Dan: The energy level is crucial. I’d say this applies to any comedy play, but especially with ours! For it to work, you need the audience on your side from the start. It’s a two way street; the audience feed on our energy onstage, but at the same time we very much rely on their energy to keep us going.
Give us your personal nerdiest Harry Potter experiences.
Dan: Has to be when we were performing our show in Wales. A man came dressed as Dobby the house elf, complete with full rubber mask—he didn’t take it off the entire show. As far as we were concerned, we had Dobby sitting in the front row starring at us the whole time! Now that is commitment!
What else are you obsessively passionate about?
Jeff: For me, it’s The Simpsons. I’ve been a nerd-level fan for about 20 years. Also stand-up comedy. I’m not a geek about it, but I am incredibly passionate about it. When it is good, there is nothing better.
What other books/series would you like to do next in this manner?
Dan: It’s hard to find a series that lends itself so perfectly to our style of theatre, and are such a high calibre as the Potter series. People always suggest Twilight, but as far as I can see it’s just about a 900-year-old teenage angst ridden sparkly vampire that whines a lot. Not really my cup of tea! Maybe Potted Fifty Shades of Grey? Not sure if that one would be a family show!
Finally, what’s the best place in New York City for fish and chips?
Dan: So far—and this is an ongoing quest, so it could change—but A Salt & Battery on Greenwich Avenue. It’s the closest I’ve found to feeling like I’m back home! Plus they do a mean cup of tea!
Potted Potter is now playing through Sept. 2 at the Little Shubert Theatre, 422 West 42nd Street, in New York City. For more information, visit www.pottedpotter.com.
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