ROB Drummond asks a lot from his audiences. People who have had the fortune of watching one of his gripping experimental shows have been called upon to dream up a different story for him to perform every night on stage, watch him learn to wrestle, and point a gun at his head.
And pull the trigger. We like to call artists who push boundaries brave, but Drummond – amongst the most exciting theatre practitioners working in Scotland – has actually got the scars to prove it.
Why does he insist on pushing himself? “Or to put it another way, why do I happen to love things that are so risky?” he wonders. “I think if an idea is worth doing, it’s worth taking to its extreme. It’s not that I don’t like theatre that is gentle and light but at the moment there is an urgency to my work. I need to do all the things I love and do them quickly. I might not be around forever.”
But he’s only 30! “Yes,” he laughs. “But I’m afraid of getting to the end of my life and not having done all I could. And I’m not very good at routine. I love changing my life. I don’t understand why people want to do one thing forever. I want to do everything.”
We meet in Edinburgh’s Traverse, where Drummond’s first traditional main stage production, Quiz Show, is about to open. A tall man with a mischievous smile, he comes across as intense yet easygoing, someone who wears his intelligence lightly. Very similar to his on-stage persona, in fact. One Scottish artistic director tells me he is “the most humble artist I’ve ever met”, which seems about right. He’s in a chipper mood today because he’s just got a new gun. “The old one was jamming,” he explains, “and the one thing I’ve learnt from working in theatre is you don’t want an unreliable gun.”
We were supposed to meet at the Arches in Glasgow, where Drummond is rehearsing last year’s Fringe hit Bullet Catch (the one with the gun), which is about to tour to New York and London. “My most memorable experience with that show is seeing my mum stand in front of me with a gun in her hand and asking her to shoot me,” he says of a stunt so dangerous even Houdini refused to attempt it. He is also working on another new piece inspired by Stravinsky’s revolutionary The Rite Of Spring. Anyway, there was a mix-up and I ended up on a train to Glasgow, while Drummond was on one to Edinburgh, which sounds a bit like the plot of one of his participatory thrillers.
We talk about Quiz Show first, which stages a dodgy 80s-style quiz called False! – think oily quizmaster against a backdrop of trashy gold curtains – then becomes something else entirely. That’s all I know – oh, apart from a “door of truth” – because Drummond doesn’t like revealing much about his shows. Anyway, it seems like a departure for him. It’s a piece of straight theatre, the audience isn’t involved, and he isn’t in it. “I just think of an idea and then I service it,” he explains. “Whether I’m in it or not, it’s the idea that’s king. I’ve become known for one-man shows but that’s probably because they’ve been easier to produce. It’s not like a ten-hander that takes place in a traffic jam.” I laugh but he is being serious: “That’s actually something I’m trying to get off the ground.”
Growing up in Paisley, the only son of a Church of Scotland minister and a mother who sang in the church choir, there were always quiz shows on in the background. “My dad loved them,” he recalls. “Family Fortunes, Catchphrase... I’ve always loved the concept of a group of characters in one room being tested on what they know. It’s an inherently dramatic situation. And I was a bit of a show-off and used to host quiz shows for my grandparents and parents when I was a boy. I would make them up myself in the front room.” He also made satirical puppet shows. “Like Little Blue Bear,” he says with a sheepish smile. “I used to get this blue bear and make up stories with it. It wasn’t really for kids, just for me. I think that’s where I honed my narrative skills.”
Drummond studied English literature at Glasgow University and, on a whim because his adviser of studies recommended it (“that or Slavonic studies”), paired it with theatre. He has never had any formal training in acting or writing. “I’m self-taught in every aspect of what I do,” he says. “And so I’ve always had a bit of an inferiority complex when I’m performing. I always feel like I’m cheating.”
That’s why, when he was included in the Auteurs project – a joint venture between the Arches and the National Theatre of Scotland – he decided to go to America and learn to dance. The result is The Riot Of Spring, a work that responds to the legendary ballet composed for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in 1913. “I did a month training with the SITI Company in New York,” he explains. “It was extremely gruelling. I trained in the Suzuki method, which is a kind of Japanese martial art with actor and voice training combined. I was training from 9am to 9pm and on weekends as well. We did movement classes, advanced improvisation, dramaturgy, voice coaching with swords, and contemporary dance. All of it was related to The Rite Of Spring.”
Was he familiar with the ballet before? “God, no,” Drummond laughs. “I knew nothing about it. I felt the same about ballet and opera as I do about a bath – good for ten minutes and then you’re basically sitting in a lukewarm pool of your own filth. But the more you understand it, the more you can stay in the bath for longer.” In The Riot Of Spring, Drummond will perform with a dancer and a cellist. “We wanted to extract the cello part of The Rite Of Spring but we couldn’t get the rights to do it. So the idea is we’ll all be doing a bit of everything. I’ll be dancing and acting and playing a bit of music.” So he can play the cello? Drummond laughs and looks entirely unperturbed. “Not yet,” he says with a wide grin. “But I quite fancy it.”
• Quiz Show is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, until 20 April. The Riot Of Spring is at Tramway, Glasgow, on 10 and 11 May, as part of the Behaviour Festival