Improv, People-Pleasing, and Growth – An Interview with Charlie Russell

One of Mischief’s newest shows, Charlie Russell Aims to Please, is coming to The Other Palace for one night only on December 5th! The solo show, written and performed by Charlie Russell, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this past August. In one hour, Russell is determined to prove that she can please everyone in the audience, using improv and audience suggestions to ensure that each audience member is pleased. As the Mischief site states, “She’s aiming to please everyone. And she means EVERYONE.”

Recently, I had the chance to talk with the star and writer, Charlie Russell, about the show. We chatted about the development of the show, growing as an actress, and even some connections with Sandra from The Goes Wrong series!

Kat: So for those unfamiliar with the show, what is Charlie Russell Aims to Please?

Charlie: Charlie Russell Aims to Please is my solo show, my debut play. It’s an hour long – It’s both funny and moving. The idea is that I believe that I can please everyone in the room. People tell me that I can’t. “Oh, Charlie, you can’t please everyone!” But I know that I can do it. So I speak to the audience, and I ask them what it is that pleases them in a performance setting, and I try and deliver. I have a whole host of tricks up my sleeve, a load of things prepared, just in case you ask for them. But at the same time, I know that I can’t have everything prepared, so I’m ready to improvise at the drop of a hat. Some suggestions are inevitable, but there’s always something that I’m not expecting and don’t have anything prepared for, so that’s really fun. And it makes it different every night because it depends on what the audience says they like!

Kat: So it’s improv, but you’ve prepared some of it ahead of time. 

Charlie: What I’ve done is I’ve prepared some set pieces. For example, I’ve got a musical number, a sketch, drag, or a piece of theatre. So if anyone in the audience says that they like those things, I have something for them. But they might say something that I don’t have anything prepared for, in which case I’ll make something up on the spot. It’s all about people pleasing, really. It’s all about that need to please as many people as possible – Quantity over quality, sometimes at the detriment of oneself or one’s own artistic preferences.  

Kat: What inspired you to write and perform the show?

Charlie: In Mischief, we were talking about going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and how it would be good to have a few different shows in the same year. I thought that I would really like to do a solo show, I thought that was a really exciting thing to do. And a few people have told me that I might be good at it, which helped [Laughs]. Still yet to be proven right or wrong! So I went away and I tried to think of an idea. To be honest, every time I came up with an idea, I was preoccupied with what people would think of it, what people would think of me, what it would mean, and how I wanted everyone to perceive me. That need to control people’s perceptions of me. I could do this, but maybe that would upset people. Doing this would be fun, but would that make the reviewers hate me? I felt quite stuck artistically and creatively and was really dismayed at that because I realized that my preoccupation with trying to be liked was getting in the way of me being creative and actually saying something. And then I realized that that was the show. I’ve got lots of ideas for different shows in the future, but I knew I had to tackle this issue within myself first, and I thought it was something that people might actually be able to relate to. It’s quite a universal issue.

Kat: How has the show developed since you first started working on it?

Charlie: I had this idea and I brainstormed it with Jonathan Sayer from Mischief. Then I talked it out with my friend, who then became my director, Katie-Ann McDonough. I knew the idea. I had an idea that was strong in my mind. I knew the structure, what it would look like, and how it would work. And then I pitched that to Mischief and they were really supportive. Over time, I would write different things. Then my director and I spent about six days in April in a room developing the show, using all the random different things I’d written and trying a few ideas out. On the first day, my director tasked me with improvising the whole show from start to finish, which I did! And that was really fun to see without any script, without any preconceived ideas. I did out loud, physically, what was in my head, and it was a big old mess! But it really helped us to get the shape of it. Then we worked on all the different genres of things that might come up. So we ended up splitting the development into what the show is and what I wanted to say, and then how might it work. From there, I went on my own, doing some writing and development before we started rehearsal for the show in July. We had about two weeks to get the whole thing up and running. I think I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been for rehearsals, but thankfully, Katie-Ann is very patient and supportive. I worked nonstop for about two and a half weeks. But I feel really fortunate because yes, I was exhausted, but it was also extremely fulfilling and exciting. And then over the course of the Fringe Festival, it developed as well.

Kat: What has it been like performing solo instead of with the usual Mischief group?

Charlie: Really strange! Really frightening at first. I’ve actually never performed a solo show, never performed on my own like that. Some monologues for auditions and that’s about it. So it was completely new to me, but it did feel like the right challenge for me at this time in my life and my career. So in one sense, it was frightening, and in another sense, it was the push that I needed. Working with an incredibly talented bunch of people is so exciting and fun and a privilege. But potentially, I’d got into my mind that I wasn’t able to carry a show on my own, so it was really good to push me out of my comfort zone and make me stand up to the challenge. It was quite empowering, actually! It started to be quite positive for my self-esteem. It’s one of those things where I did need to push myself and take the risk, but a calculated one. It was work that I was excited about, that I believed in, and with the support of the director, my company, Mischief, all these people, and friends and family, so it was a good risk to take. And I think it really paid off in loads of different ways for me. It’s good for my self-esteem and made me a little bit more resourceful in the moment because you have no one you can rely on when something goes awry – You have to do it yourself. Otherwise, the show grinds to a halt!

Kat: Has it been strange adjusting from scripted comedy like the Goes Wrong Show where it’s to improv where you’re depending on the audience for your performance?

Charlie: It was really exciting for me to do that because one of my favorite shows to perform in is Mischief Movie Night, which is Mischief’s improvised comedy show. I love doing that, however scary that’s always been. I recently had the honor and privilege and joy of working with Austentatious and that was just fantastic – They’re an incredible group. The thing about my solo show that really excited me was that I thought to myself, “Well, why is it theatre?” Something about theatre that I love is that it’s really in the present moment. The audience, whether it’s a scripted show or not, are never going to see the same show that somebody else saw. All shows differ slightly – It’s so alive. It’s so in the moment. The dream was to get them to lean in. Adding an element of improv, and the fact that they had an impact on the show, really would engage them in the show and in the story. I wanted them to feel and to know that they truly did have an impact on the show. There’s nothing quite as exciting and live as that. I really wanted to bring that in because I thought it would add to the experience of the audience. Make them lean in rather than lean back.

Kat: Would you say you have a preference for improv versus scripted performance?

Charlie: Oh, goodness, no! Firstly, I’m an actor, so if you pay me . . . [Laughs]

Kat: [Laughs] I’m open to doing whatever! 

Charlie: But no, I think there’s room for both in my life – I don’t need it to be a zero-sum game. I love them both for different reasons. I also love TV for a completely different reason. It’s scripted, but you don’t get to do it every night and hone it – You have to nail it in that moment and then you get to move on. That has another element of being alive and exciting that maybe doing a long-running play doesn’t have. A long-running play has the fact that the audience affects it every night, you get to perfect it and you get to keep exploring. And then improv is completely impacted by the audience, never the same again, and flying by the seat of your pants. It’s all it’s all got room in my heart.

Kat: And I feel like you’ve had a pretty unique experience of being the same character, Sandra, in a play and a television show!

Charlie: Yeah, she’s in The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and then she’s on the TV show. It’s been really fun over the years to develop and deepen her. When I first tackled The Play That Goes Wrong, I got the first layer. “Oh, she’s shallow, she’s obsessed with . . .” Interestingly, she’s obsessed with how she’s perceived. I think I was drawing on my own issues in order to create a heightened character of myself in a way. As I’ve grown to know myself, I’ve grown to know Sandra a little bit more. She’s quite fragile, she really cares about the work and everybody else, and she really loves what she’s doing, but she’s her own worst enemy, and she’s really upset when she gets it wrong. 

Kat: So you can still see yourself in Sandra?

Charlie: Of course! I mean, embarrassingly, but yes, of course. I have my own issues with wanting to control how I’m perceived, and I really want to do a good job. They’re all my worst habits – Overdoing it, having too much of a tight focus and not relaxing, or getting absolutely destroyed if I make a mistake. Hopefully, mine and Sandra’s paths have diverged . . . So I have grown much more to relish the moment and let go of perfection. It’s a long journey and a hard task, but I’m trying to accept and celebrate the imperfections, and also let go of trying to control how other people see me and be and just know within myself that I’m happy with my work. That’s maybe something that Sandra could do. I think she could probably just do with some therapy, to be honest.

Charlie’s run-through

Kat: So now I have some lightning round questions! Favorite genre of theater to perform?

Charlie: Comedy [Especially dark comedy]!

Kat: Favorite line from any show you’ve done? 

Charlie: In The Goes Wrong show, in the episode called “Harper’s Locket,” after Chris Leask’s character, Trevor, falls from the roof onto the table and has his trousers ripped off so that his backside is exposed, I had the line, “Father, would you carve the rump?” I’ve never worked so hard not to laugh in my life! That, and in “The Nativity,” “But I’m a virgin,” followed with the look to the camera.

Kat: Favorite suggestion you’ve gotten so far in Charlie Russell Aims to Please?

Charlie: I once said to someone, “What do you like?” And they said, “Nature.” And I was like, “Nature? You’re aware that this is a theatre show?” And she went, “Yeah,” so I was like, “Alright then!” Years ago, when I was at drama school, we had to do some mime stuff, so I mimed being a seed growing into a flower, then my petals falling off, and then dying. It was so beautifully authentic to that woman and I’m so grateful for it. 

Kat: Favorite prop from the show? 

Charlie: Oh my gosh, I have a specifically-adjusted broom for slapstick purposes, which I’m very proud of. I also have a tin whistle, which I produce from my trousers at one point, but you’d have to come and see the show and ask for drag! 

Kat: I’ll have to do that, then! And finally, how would you describe Charlie Russell Aims to Please in one word?

Charlie: Rollercoaster!

Thank you to Charlie for the great interview and to Harry Lockyear for arranging it! 

Charlie Russell Aims to Please has a running time of 1 hour and an age recommendation of 14+. Trigger warnings include audience participation, mild language, and adult themes. The show will have two performances at The Other Palace on December 5th, 2022. While the 7:30 PM show is sold out, tickets to the 9:15 PM show can be purchased here.

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