If you hop on I-26 for about 20 miles, headed west from downtown, you will hit Summerville’s main street in less than 30 minutes, with light traffic and cruise control set five miles above the speed limit. Do this. Park in one of the free (seriously, no meters) spots lining the quaint streets and walk over to the historic James F. Dean community theater. Purchase a reasonably priced ticket for No Sex Please, We’re British and settle into one of the 209 decades-old fold down seats. Breathe in the sweet smell of a building that has seen 1930s moviegoers, a period of disarray, and then theater-goers since the ’70s. Admire the stage — for this production it’s two stories, with steps, multiple doors, and even a real marble countertop. And it’s all built from the ground up. The lights dim. Act one, Scene one: 9.a.m. on Monday morning in June in an apartment above a sub-branch of the National United Bank in Royal Windsor, England, newlyweds Peter and Frances receive an unexpected package, chaos ensues.
“It’s a British farce,” says Flowertown artistic director JC Conway, “it’s all about the slamming doors.” This is Conway’s second time working with the play; the first go was 18 years ago for a professional theater company in Sanford, N.C. “We did two British farces that season, but this was the one that stuck with me,” says Conway, “It’s fun, it’s crazy. And, for me, the most important thing is it’s fun for both the audience and the actors involved. That really builds rapport. When the audience can see the actors onstage having fun, they can really be invested as well.”
No Sex Please, We’re British was originally written for 1970s England when the sale of pornography was illegal (spoiler, that’s the unexpected package) but Conway and executive director Courtney Daniel agreed that pushing the timeline to the ’90s made more sense for 2017. “The ’70s felt too far removed,” says Conway, “But you can’t bring it too far forward because now it’s all internet. You wouldn’t have hard copies. You’d just log on. Nineties was the split, the last gasp before porno was readily available. It was when it was still a secret; ‘Oh my god I can’t look at this, but I’m going to look at this.'”
Frances accidentally orders a box of pornography to the apartment above the bank where her new husband, Peter, works. That’s the first error in the comedy. Frances wants to bring in some extra money and thinks that the Scandinavian Import Company, Home Sales Division, will be sending her glassware, not loads of dirty pictures.
“First there are photos,” Conway tells us, “then videos, then books, then two young women.” All showing up on the doorstep of an absolutely horrified, embarrassed, and increasingly paranoid couple. What if the bank finds out? What will the neighbors think? “They’re terrible about it,” says Daniel. “They make up lies, and try to smooth everything over, all the while building the humor and the comedy that boils over in the second act.”
Of the nine actors playing British characters, only one is actually British. And some have never acted onstage before. “We have a young woman from rural Georgia who of course has a thick Southern accent and who has never acted before and she’s stepping in and doing a British accent and being a part of our show. We want our actors to learn and grow through the process of producing a show. We’re all about the opportunity for people who’ve never been a part of theater to be a part of theater.” Daniel adds that even with the mix of theater vets and super green actors, there’s a serendipitous cadence achieved under the studied hand of Conway. “When you do have a variety of people with different levels of experience onstage, sometimes you can watch and it can be very obvious or distinct,” she says. “The job then is to bring them together to create an ensemble. And JC does that. Plus, they’re hilarious.”
In addition to putting on a believable accent, some of the actors also have to be prepared for physical comedy — the likes of jumping through a narrow window five feet above the ground. “Someone has to jump through that window twice,” says Conway, “sometimes it’s shimmying through and falling on the other side. That’s OK.” When everything that could go wrong (see: trying and failing to flush ripped up dirty pictures down a toilet and having to fish out the remains) does go wrong, unintended errors inevitably happen. Which, Conway says, is all part of the show. “Farces are geared towards that kind of experience because they are so mad cap … when you design a show that’s actually doing it, the chances of something actually going wrong are higher.”
And, adds Daniel, that’s the beauty of live theater. “It’s not a television show. The director gets to tell the audience where to look on TV and in movies, but in theater we’re looking at different things, I could miss something, you could miss something. And coming back and seeing it a second time could totally change your perspective.”
At the end of the day, Daniel and Conway say they want the audience to have an experience. It could be great, it could be not so great, but they want the theater-goers in those 209 seats to feel something. And they’re quite certain they will. “We aren’t ashamed to use the term ‘amateur,'” says Conway, “It means ‘for the love of,’ it doesn’t mean non-professional. It just means the actors who are here are doing it for the love of it, not for any other reward. They’re up here rehearsing and performing every night because they want to share their experience.”
We won’t tell you what boils over in the second act, but Conway says that the audience will connect with the realization the young couple has: we all have dirty little secrets that in the end, aren’t so dirty, or so secret.