Monkey Motivation from Alumni Artists - Daniel Chrisostomou

Thinking about drama school as the next step in your creative journey? Make sure you check out our Monkey Motivation Q&As with Fourth Monkey actors and artists, sharing an insight into their careers as performers and theatre makers and giving inspiration about where actor training can take you!

 

We recently spoke to Daniel Chrisostomous, a Class of 2014 Two Year Rep graduate (now the BA Acting degree) and associate artist with Flabbergast Theatre about his creative career since graduating from The Monkey House, what he discovered about himself as an actor and theatre maker through drama school training, how he has found working with Flabbergast on their production of Macbeth, and his role in work-progress piece, Paper Swans, which debuted at the Camden People’s Theatre in March 2022…

 

 

Introduce yourself – tell us what you studied at Fourth Monkey plus a little about your background prior to this training.

I’m Daniel, North London born and raised, an actor and co-operative agent represented by Crescent Management. I’m also a devisor and physical performer, as an associate of Flabbergast Theatre. I’m also a member of the Shapes in Motion MoCap Troupe.

I studied as part of Fourth Monkey’s very first Year of the Monkey course (now the CertHE Acting & Theatre Making) and following that, the first incarnation of the Two Year Rep from 2011 to 2014. I was also part of the Fourth Monkey Ensemble and their production of Elephant Man in 2014 to 15. My training in Fourth Monkey involved Clown, Commedia dell’arte, Meisner and theatre in repertory. Our first year was basically performing shows one after the other. It was an incredible way to train, especially as I was so new to theatre.

My background and previous experience was mainly academic. I kept to myself up until my last few years of education and was studying medicine. I took Theatre Studies as subject where I thought I could build more confidence and relax between my studies. However, I had always been an avid reader and I guess at at one point without my realising it, stories and story telling became an overwhelming passion for me.

Another passion I’ve had for long time was martial arts – I had over ten years experience in Karate, Jiu Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts by the time I started considering the performing arts as a future. As it turned out, this training was probably the most important thing in my skillset, that has helped me continue in the arts until now.

(Image credit: Colin Toogood @picturegrafix2016)

What was it appealed to you about Fourth Monkey and their approach to actor training? Similarly, what made the school stand out when you attended your audition day?

As I started to audition for drama schools, I quickly realised I had no idea what I was doing. I had already been offered a university place but turned it down before I finished my education. I chose my first year of auditions based on the “names” of the school and probably out of panic when I suddenly had nowhere to go. However, I enjoyed the process immensely – each audition was such a new feeling and a chance to learn and try something new, even if I wasn’t what they were looking for.

So, I decided to take a year off. I worked to earn money and auditioned again. During that year, I worked with someone who was part of the cast in Fourth Monkey’s A Clockwork Orange and they described the show as a “physical theatre production”. A simple term, but it was enough for me to apply and audition for their very first year of providing actor training, as I had never trained my voice or even performed much, but I had an innate trust in my physical abilities.

Whether I did them justice in my first audition is another question, however, the freedom I felt in the room, in front of the panel and in my own body was something I had never felt in other audition rooms – I think Fourth Monkey always gave me that permission to be free. Over my time at the school and with my ensemble, I learned to give myself the same permission too.

What really intrigued me about the course was the focus on performance – we started rehearsing for three shows in repertory the moment we started, with more shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival less than a year away on top of this. In other audition rooms, I was always aware of or worried about my lack of experience compared to other applicants. But, thanks to the people I worked with at Fourth Monkey and the trust they gave me, I developed a work ethic and confidence in myself that has served as my foundation as a performer ever since.

(Image credit: Mihau Drozd)

Since graduating from Fourth Monkey, you have worked as a theatre maker and performer on a variety of projects, including as an associate artist with Flabbergast Theatre. What appealed to you about working with Flabbergast and how long have you been collaborating with them?

I was extremely fortunate leaving Fourth Monkey to go straight into the Elephant Man tour. I cannot understate how privileged I was in this regard, Elephant Man was a gift to me in many ways, partly because it meant that as soon as I finished training, I didn’t have to start auditioning again straight away.

When I did return to the audition rooms, I began to realise the pressure and nature of being a “professional’, what the audition room asks of you physically and mentally, and my fellow graduates were way ahead of me in this regard. After that, I think I aimed for long tours quite literally because it got me out of auditioning! Two years in Germany was much less stress!

However, you always have to go back into those rooms – holding your nerves for the whole train ride in, guessing at what panels are going to ask of you, getting glimpses of other actors flitting through the waiting rooms. My first meeting and audition with Henry Maynard from Flabbergast Theatre felt much the same… Until I walked into the room.

We met at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2018 shortly after their first work-in-progress performance of Macbeth. Henry sat down with me and another performer and we just talked – no performance, no monologue, no tense competition with my fellow audition.

Henry asked about my experience in immersive theatre, my personal devising work and also about my memories working with Fourth Monkey up at the Edinburgh Fringe. He trusted me, listened with interest and discussed Flabbergast’s work at the Fringe, too. And then I was invited to join their next show in the works up in Edinburgh, The Swell Mob, on the spot – there was no pressure and no expectations.

Within the show, I was given complete creative freedom and trust. I was even asked to co-choreograph an entire boxing match! Before I realised, I felt like I had truly become part of the company – it felt familiar, as well as completely new and different. It takes a lot of courage to trust people so readily, especially as Flabbergast were also starting to focus on creating new styles of work themselves and I’ve always been attracted to places and companies that have wonderful and terrifying sense of freedom as part of their identity.

I worked with other companies and on other projects after collaborating with Flabbergast on The Swell Mob, however some of these experiences were not what I had hoped for or didn’t feel as natural as working with Flabbergast had done. 

The sign of a collaborative, supportive and worthwhile company is when your efforts and abilities are quietly acknowledged without fuss of fanfare. So, when Henry asked me to join Flabbergast as an associate in 2020, I felt he was putting a lot of trust in me, as it was an uncertain future for a lot of us at that time, but it felt like the most obvious choice to make.

(Photo credit: Michael Lynch, Flabbergast Theatre)

Can you tell us a little about what inspires and shapes Flabbergast Theatre’s ethos and creative work, as well as about the projects you have been part of?

To “flabbergast” is to put in awe and astound. Henry has been striving and achieving this since he created the company with past members even before I joined, and previous work such as Tatterdemalion, Scrimshanks and the numerous adventures of Boris & Sergey brought audiences brave and fresh clown and puppetry performances that truly pushed the limits.

There should be no barriers or pre-conceptions to theatre and performance. Flabbergast’s ethos is based on communion and having a shared experience that lasts beyond the theatre and what you see on the stage. We forget the “fourth wall” and, more than anything, we want the audience to talk with us, both during and after the show. Sometimes even before if we’re not too stressed!

My first project with Flabbergast was a prime example of this – The Swell Mob was devised and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 before transferring to London’s Collab Factory and then as the flagship performance of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in Australia in 2019.
It was a fully immersive, devised experience where audiences entered a Victorian-era tavern to find the damned and damaged inhabitants of a world they couldn’t escape.

The production was based on a group of con artists who would hide themselves and mingle with high society. Our audiences could drink and chat freely with the cast throughout the show, gamble and trade with our in-world currency and ultimately try to discover the secrets of the bar and it’s master. They could travel the routes and solve the riddles we devised as part of the “game” and try to save their favourite character, or they could choose to forgo the “story” and chat with the characters or simply sit back and watch the madness unfold.

Although we devised each character’s route and narratives, we ultimately decided to create a world of true improvisation and community. One of the real challenges facing immersive entertainment is the balance of trust and safety between the audience and the cast. This was a real challenge but when I think back to the fact that the bar staff at the fringe venue started serving customers in character; or when audience members themselves arrived with their own costumes with prepared back-stories, sometimes even taking myself on story conclusions I’d never planned for my character – I think we found something really special that was the heart of what Flabbergast Theatre strives to be.

(Image: Henry Maynard)

You are currently working with Flabbergast Theatre on a production of Macbeth, which has London previews this summer (Woolwich Works, 30 June – 2 July). What interested you about being involved with this production?

Flabbergast are bold and brash in every endeavour they take on, and the first few visuals I saw of their Work-in-Progress of Macbeth at Wilton’s Music Hall was enough to intrigue me – the dirt, clay and overall visual aesthetic was a treat for the senses.

But the truth is, I would have gladly work on anything involving the people in our initial ensemble. Even a play like Macbeth that I’ve had bad experiences with – I trusted and valued them as artists and people. For someone like me who has always acted on instinct, their drive, passion and intelligence was inspiring.

Plus, the themes of the persecution of women and toxic masculinity within in the play are interesting and powerful in their own right, and the essence of clown, Buffon and the grotesque that we have added into the play build everything to an incredible fever pitch.

 
For me, I finally found within this specific text the core of what I had been looking for within Macbeth, as this play has previously caused me a lot of personal sadness, frustration and trauma. I have appeared in a number of different productions of Macbeth, one of which was unfortunately cancelled due to a number of problems. For the first time in my life, during this specific production, I was faced with something that I couldn’t fix by being quiet and simply getting on with it with my head down. The production pushed on and they were determined to keep the tour going. That was when I made the decision to quit a job for the first time in my life, something that I wondered and worried was a proof of failure as an actor.
 
I ultimately learned there are things far more important than just having a job as an actor.

I still regret breaking a contract – but it taught me the worth of myself and others in this profession.

So, I have a complicated relationship with this play, but Flabbergast have allowed me to face this head on, with an ensemble I trust and, perhaps most importantly, with the knowledge and experience of a more (not much, but definitely more!) mature actor.

Trauma is a huge theme of this play. Everyone experiences so much of it, both seen and unseen, within the text. There is such a powerful battle between violence and love in this play. In the past, I have been blinded by the violence and even now, I have to fight against this presence when I perform.

It makes me realise that I’ve had to deal with a lot of toxic masculinity in my life. But I’ve found in this text an answer to facing this trauma:

“Dispute it like a man.
I shall do so:
But I must also feel it as a man;”

I feel so happy to finally play Macduff after all this time and the play has become such a transformative piece; adaptable in so many ways for every new space we perform in and I absolutely can’t wait to bring it to London at the end of June.

This is the first Flabbergast production which uses narrative text – how did you approach the project and was there anything you found particularly inspiring, surprising, or indeed challenging about this process?

Honestly… the first thing we did was walk into the woods, start a fire and start howling at the moon. 

The physical embodiment and exploration of the piece, led by the amazing Matej Matejka, was magical. The dance elements combined with the pure aggression of the text and its plot, uncovered so many wonders for us. As we tried to face this aggression and toxic masculinity, we very quickly honed in on the costume elements which involved the entire cast wearing long ritualistic skirts. With my martial arts training, I’ve always found power and strength easy to access in my physical performance. Now the continuous challenge for me is to find a beauty and fluidity of movement that can challenge pure power.

However, the real challenge was to do the text justice as well. We have read and re-read the play to exhaustion, but understanding of the text alone is not enough to actualise and lift the story off of the page. We started to realise that our work and inclination as physical performers was leading us to overshadow the text itself. The recent performances and previews for the project have demanded we look at our vocal performances much more closely.

We started creating this project and first performed it outdoors. This was a natural choice due to the pandemic, and although this enriched the feral and aesthetic nature of our Macbeth; once we started bringing it into theatre spaces we realised we had so much more to learn.

The sonic nature of the piece, led by the incredible Adam Clifford as our Musical Director, is a real eye-opener for me as a performer and creator. With no recorded sound in the play, Adam’s efforts to infuse the piece with life through sound and music is amazing. We have to make sure even the silences are heard. In order to achieve this the entire runtime of the play has to consist of meaningful sound, including our voices as well.

During a time for the arts where many voices have been stifled and are still struggling to be heard, I’ve also realised how much we lost during the Pandemic, where I almost let my voice to go waste. The pandemic could have been something that stopped us in our tracks in this project. Yet somehow, we managed to continue on with the entire R&D process that led to us creating the show in Poland, performing to wonderful crowds both inside and outside of theatres; and to come out the other side still believing in our ourselves and our efforts.

I am probably taking my position in the arts for granted at the moment. Flabbergast are certainly still facing some challenges too, but I am so proud and inspired by my ensemble and the people who have worked so hard to keep this project and company alive, particularly Henry Maynard who has been working on this show for the past five years and has never given up on Flabbergast through this period.

(Image credit: Ali Wright)

You are also working on Paper Swans, a Work-in-Progress project performed at Camden People’s Theatre in March 2022 – tell us a little about this piece, its central themes and what appealed to you about being involved?

Paper Swans is a new script by fellow Flabbergast member, Vyte Garriga, the writer, performer and co-producer for the show. Vyte has written a truly transformative piece of art, filled to the brim with symbolism, emotion and absurdism capable of astounding and even discomforting audiences in an indescribable way.

Paper Swans tell the story of a lone ballerina sitting on a park bench, late at night making an unknown number of origami swans, for an unknown purpose, before she is approached by the park’s night watch guard who insists that she leaves the park immediately or explain what her actions mean. The two are then trapped in an endless, repeating game of blood and music.

It is a one-act play, with live classical accompaniment and drawing on the playwright’s personal experience as a woman from a post-Soviet country (Lithuania), exploring the trauma of oppression and the price of freedom. Vyte has been working on the script for a long time, and only in the last year has she started sharing it publicly – the passion she has put into this piece is undeniable.

In a very different way to Macbeth, which has been dictated to an extent by an epic text and structure; Paper Swans has been one incredible discovery after another. The ideas of rules and pre-conceptions permeate the play beyond its themes and made me rediscover what I originally felt in the fringe theatres I first performed in when I joined Fourth Monkey over ten years ago. 

What I’ve been doing as a devisor with Flabbergast and other companies over the years has led me to be very wild and free in my personal style of acting. But the direction by Simon Gleave demanded that I face new challenges as a performer. The pure precision that has been asked of me for Paper Swans in the role of The Guard has opened up a whole new range of physical expression that I have yet to explore much more deeply. The pure, innocent and nostalgic desire to just be an actor and discover a new work; to go back into the black box and look into the eye of an audience member; to play and be open to whatever surprise may come next; it’s a feeling that I distinctly remember from a time when I first started training.

I can’t thank Vyte enough for asking me to come on board, and we are very excited for the next stage of the project which involves a cinematic filming of the play this Summer.

(Image credit: Paper Swans promo poster)

How do you think your training with Fourth Monkey helped you prepare for the performance and creative work you have been doing since you graduated?

Fourth Monkey was the place where this thirst and craving for pure terrifying freedom was first instilled within me. My very raw and messy skills were identified and I was encouraged to be myself. I had experiences that I don’t believe I would have found anywhere else. I was introduced to so many new ideas and skills. My training sometimes consisted of leaps of faith and trial by error, too, but it was a place where I was allowed to flail, fail and falter without fear.

I’d be lying if I said I was never admonished or sometimes discouraged by some situations I found myself in, but I was incredibly fortunate to have an unforgettable, supportive ensemble behind me. When I look back, I realise I never felt the pressure or sense of jealousy, or even the need to prove myself that I heard about and experienced in other audition rooms – I was truly blessed with a great ensemble for those three years.

Never underestimate the importance of who you meet in your time training and beyond. Teachers and ensemble members alike are all precious connections, no matter where your life leads you afterwards.

Beyond this, what I really think Fourth Monkey offered me that nowhere else did at the time, was a sense of personal accountability for myself as a professional. No one can expect an easy ride in this industry, but you can always trust that someone will give you a lift and help you along the way. If you can prove to them and others you are a decent and hard working person, your efforts will be rewarded in more ways than you can imagine.

Flabbergast Theatre will be perform Macbeth at the Woolwich Works in London on Thursday 30 June, Friday 1 July and Saturday 2 July- head to their website to learn more, watch production trailers and book tickets

Catch Daniel in action in a recorded version of Paper Swans here.

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