Daniel Clarkson | Performer of the week
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels have captivated millions of readers, and for their family-friendly show, comic duo Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner recap all seven novels in under 70 minutes. It’s a madcap interactive experience, with Clarkson giving a hilarious performance as a newcomer to the world of Harry Potter who ends up playing all the supporting parts. Raised just outside of London, Clarkson was exposed to the world of performance by his stand-up comedian father, and he would watch his father’s rehearsals the way other children would watch football matches. He studied theater at Bretton Hall, and since graduating has made numerous film, television, and stage appearances, often working with children. Clarkson talks to us about his first experience with the Rowling’s books, what went into the adaptation process, and why he thinks Harry Potter is such a hit with both kids and adults.
What was your first reaction to the Harry Potter books, and what motivated you to create Potted Potter with Jeff?
I started reading them to my younger brother, he’s 10 years younger than me. So when the first couple came out, I think I was in my early 20s, and being the actor of the family, every time I visited from grammar school I was given these books to go and read to him, because then I could practice all my voices and stuff. And I started to really get into these books, so every time he’d fall asleep I’d carry on reading them. I think to this day there are still chapters of books one and two that he’s never heard before because he’d fall asleep and I’d carry on reading, so when we started the next evening we’d be eight chapters ahead. That got me hooked on to them, and a friend of mine worked for a PR company that wanted to do something for the launch of the sixth book. This was for a bookstore in London. So he came to me knowing that I was a big fan and knowing me from the comedy circuits, and asked if I could do something for Harry Potter and came up with this idea of doing all five books in five minutes on a tiny little stage inside the bookstore for all the people queuing up and for the fans when the book came out. So we did this 20-minute sketch, and from there it got such a huge, awesome reaction. As soon as it got that reaction, we knew that we were on to something, and the show then got developed into an hour format that went up to Edinburgh [Fringe Festival] and the rest is history.
What went into the adaptation process of Potted Potter?
Well we always say the first version could have easily been “Potted Potter: seven books in seven days” because we had so much material. I was such a huge fan, there was so much I wanted to add into it. Because I was such a huge fan of it and Jeff at the time wasn’t as great a fan, I’d tell him what I remembered and what I found important and he’d be reading the books at the time to get up to speed. And there were often sort of huge arguments about which bit of that book we thought was more important, and then myself, being a lot bigger, would just hit him and take my props and go home like a sulky kid until it was my way.
It’s interesting that you’re cast as the novice in this play despite being the bigger fan. Why did you make that choice?
For me, the idea was always that we thought Jeff could be Harry Potter, giving me the chance to play all the other characters. And for any actor, that’s amazing, especially if you’re a Harry Potter fan. Plus, I owned all the props at the start and I didn’t want to share with anyone, so I think that’s how we fell into that. Just from the start and the backgrounds we both had, [Jeff] very quickly became that comedy straight-man role. And Jeff, if you squint and look the other way, looks a little bit like Daniel Radcliffe.
Why do you think Harry Potter has had such crossover appeal?
It’s very strange. I think in Britain, we suddenly had a great British hero, and we don’t have many heroes in Britain. We’re always playing the villains. If you look at films like Braveheart and The Patriot and even Star Wars, for some reason all the bad guys have the plum British accents and all the good guys are American. So we were used to being the villains, and suddenly we had this hero we could get behind, and we were like, “He’s English and he’s doing well and he’s fighting evil!” So that was brilliant for us. And it’s a real sort of taste of things British. Harry Potter now is quintessentially British, like Big Ben and spotted dick and the Queen. You’ve also now got Harry Potter, and it’s that great world of Britain and how it used to be with the boarding schools. You mix that in with the average fairy tale and good versus evil, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, but we still enjoy it and love to see the underdog come up and do good.
Have reactions differed between audience British and American audiences?
Definitely. It’s been amazing. At first we thought we’d have to change a lot of the humor because it’s very British, but we really haven’t apart from the topical gags. Maybe there’s the Watership Down joke that doesn’t get quite the recognition, but we’ve developed a joke out of that. The American crowds are so much louder and more brazen than the English crowds. We’re very polite and we’ll applaud and enjoy and say, “Well done, good show,” and then suddenly we’re in New York and Chicago and there’s this wall of noise of cheering and screaming and whooping and this want to get involved. It’s like if you’ve ever seen a cricket match and how polite we are, and then you watch a baseball game and you hear all the singing and the shouting. I think that sums up the two different crowds.
You’ve worked with children a lot, what is the most rewarding thing about that as a performer?
I think children are the hardest audience to perform to because they’ll speak their mind and they don’t have a sense of politeness. If they don’t enjoy something, they will should out and tell you. And you can tell when a child’s bored because they’ll start wiggling their feet, looking the other way, talking to somebody. They’ll make it obvious. And I think the worst thing for any actor is when you have a child just shout, “I’m bored!” and just walk out of the theater, which has luckily never happened to us. But also, they can be the most responsive, and I love getting them up on stage. They do this great thing that we like to call “brain farting,” where there’s no filter so it just comes into their head and they say what they’re thinking. There’s no filter to try and stop them, so whereas we go from A to B to C, they’re going from A to G to F. As someone who loves improvising, I’m on stage with no idea where this can go, and it’s great fun to do.
Potted Potter runs through December 23 at the (175 E Chestnut St) and December 26–January 6 at the (205 E Randolph Dr). For ticket info, visit broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. Read our review of Potted Potter.