‘Pitmen Painter’ Christopher Connel gives his brush a final stroke
In Lee Hall’s drama The Pitmen Painters, Christopher Connel plays the key member of a group of British miners who gain the art world’s attention with their paintings. Although Connel’s Oliver is the most talented of the miners, he fears both his newfound abilities and the consequences of overstepping his socioeconomic status. In this play based on actual events, Hall (the Tony-winning writer of Billy Elliot the Musical) has assembled a group of actors that hail from the same area of Britain as the characters. A further parallel Connel and the cast share with the close-knit miners is that the actors have known and worked with each other for decades.
The production, which has been playing with the same cast for the past three years at engagements in the United Kingdom, closes December 12. Connel sat down with Stage Rush to discuss the show’s successful run, performer camaraderie, and what happens when actors are late to the theater.
To see more of Chris Connel’s interview, tune into Stage Rush TV this Friday!
So the show closes this Sunday. What kind of run has it been?
It’s been fantastic. It’s been different to do it in a different country, to a different culture. Everybody’s had a great time. It’s a wonderful city, New York. That’s when it’s a wonderful thing to be an actor, because you have the daytime to yourself and you can go explore. To be here for three or four months, you don’t feel like a tourist, you feel like you live here.
Is this your first time in New York?
It is my first time in the States, never mind in New York. It’s great. I’ll be coming back. Maybe not professionally, but who knows.
How has this experience been different from your previous runs with the show?
The play is a bit shorter. We’ve calibrated the accents ever so slightly, taken a few of the vernaculars and slang words out. There’s no point in putting a play on if people have to spend the whole play thinking, “What, what?”
Video: Christopher Connel recalls a traffic-delayed performance and onstage mistakes.
How has it been different performing this play for American audiences?
The thing that I’ve noticed is that the audience is different every night. When we did it at the National Theater in London, the audience would react in the same place and react the same way at the end, whereas sometimes you do the show here and it’s very quiet. You think, “Why can’t they hear us?” But at the end, everybody’s on their feet and you think, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.” Sometimes they’re laughing raucously from their bellies. Particularly for my character, I don’t have any of the gags whatsoever. I can’t gauge my performance until the end. It’s quite difficult sometimes. You’re halfway through the show wondering, “Is this going well tonight or not? I’m not quite sure.” Some of the other characters can tell immediately when they’re being accepted, that somebody’s following their journey just from the audible response that they’re getting from the audience.
I heard you guys sketch when you’re not in a scene.
That might be true for [the rest of the cast], but unfortunately I’m in every scene, so I never get the chance to sit in the back. I do know that Deka Walmsley sketches David Whitaker every single night, and [his drawings] nearly looks like him now. He’s nearly cracked it. Four years in and he’s nearly got it.
What do you think is the goal for the audience’s appreciation of art after seeing the show?
The message that I personally hope that the play gives is that art is inclusive, and it should be. It shouldn’t matter where you come from or who you are. It works both ways around, as well. If you’re the richest man in the world, you should still be able to appreciate art—the same as the poorest man in the world. Everybody should be involved.
You’ve acted in Lee Hall’s plays before with Cooking With Elvis. What attracts you to his work?
He asks me to do it—that’s what attracts me! Lee went to the same school as myself, though he’s much older than me. His dialogue is how I grew up speaking, especially in plays like Billy Elliot, Pitmen, and Cooking With Elvis, which is set in New Castle. That’s the same setting and era as myself, so it’s really easy to say these words. His plays are quite tight. He’s always taking bits off and he’s always open to suggestions as well. It’s quite a collaborative creation when you work with Lee. What attracts me the most really is that I understand exactly what he’s saying because it’s exactly where I come from.
You portray Oliver’s fear and inhibition so well. Where do you draw those emotions from?
I was born in what’s known as a counsel house. I don’t know what the American equivalent of it is—social housing, the projects. That’s where I came from. Actors don’t come from there. The classist system in Britain is still alive and well today, contrary to what other people may tell you. I’ve always felt a little bit, “Do I belong here, do I not belong here?” It’s quite easy for me to understand the tension within Oliver about weather or not this is the correct path for him, or if he has the right.
Is it true that the Pitmen actors have known each other and worked together for decades? How does that rapport affect your performances?
David Whitaker, who plays Jimmy Floyd, must have played my father 10 times in the past 20 years. I’ve known Trevor Fox 20 years, who is one of our understudies. That’s really useful because you can get done in 10 minutes what might take other companies days of gently sidestepping around each other to achieve. We could quite simply say, “Nah, that’s rubbish. It doesn’t work. You can’t do that,” and nobody takes any offense.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know, to be honest. I’ve had a good run for the last four or five years. At the moment, for the first time in a while, there’s absolutely nothing booked in. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I quite like the idea of having five or six weeks straight in a row at home in my own house in my own bed every night.
What do you think, Rushers? Have you seen Christopher Connel in The Pitman Painters? How do you think it compares to Billy Elliot? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and look out for more of Chris’s interview in this Friday’s episode of Stage Rush TV!