Dear in the spotlight  

Producer, social commentator, author and now performer, Susan Elkin met the West End Producer to chat about his alter ego and recent successful Edinburgh run.

I’ve done some weird and whacky journalistic jobs in my time but interviewing an actor in role, when only the two of us are present, is a first. West End Producer – the name is a pretty accurate description of what he does in real life – wears an all concealing latex mask, wig, gloves and talks in an affectedly husky voice. Nobody knows who he really is – or that’s the theory. Actually I do, but this man has made quite a name for himself in this guise and his anonymity must be respected.

So here we are, WEP and I, sitting in the café at Young Vic theatre on a warm sunny afternoon and he must be awfully hot in all that gear including a turquoise flowery silk jacket (“Thought I’d dress discreetly, Dear”). Actors do a lot for their art. He buys me a cup of tea (having failed to persuade me to opt for “something spicier”) and a spritzer for himself which he sips, with practised style, through a straw because of the mask. Then we talk – and talk.

WEP is just back from Edinburgh where he did a one-man show, the fame of which built during the run so that eventually he was playing to full houses. “We got some lovely reviews – four stars in both The Stage and The Daily Telegraph” he says happily. “And we’re up for an award.”

The show, with apologies to Moby Dick, was called Free Willy and its creator, who tells me obliquely that he may have to re-invent himself as an International Producer, hints that it may have an afterlife. “I’ve come to Edinburgh to find my Willy. The first half of the show involves me singing silly songs at the piano and treating the audience as auditionees” he explains. “Then one person comes forward, by pre-arrangement from the audience and I had all sorts of good actors, including Christopher Biggins, Evelyn Hoskins, Jenny Bede and Patrick Monaghan as my guests to audition for the part of Willy the Whale in my new musical. Then the audience become auditioners. It’s silly, fun and a bit filthy.”

He makes it clear that there is nothing remotely serious about Free Willy. Except that there is. “I did nearly everything myself – producing, marketing and all the rest of it. I wanted it to be that way because I thought there was mileage in a show based on the West End Producer character and there was only one way to find out”. The product may be light-weight, but the entrepreneurialism is anything but.

WEP is, obviously, a producer. Never before has he gone on stage like this and I suspect that, like me, he may remember ration books and the Coronation, so it’s been quite something to be embarking on a new career at this point. “I had a really fine support team”, he says, “although I am very tired now it’s over. Edinburgh is so intense. You are busy the whole time and the effort it takes to protect anonymity is stressful too. I can’t change out of this outfit and appear too soon as my real self or people will put two and two together.”

So would he do it again? “Yes, probably, but I think I’d need an even larger team to support me”. As it is, he explains that the whole venture was an experiment to see whether or not WEP could become a stage character. The answer is that, yes, he can. The show almost broke even which is quite an achievement for Edinburgh where it was one of 3,800 shows at this year’s Fringe. “It’s a huge community” he says. “The Fringe is not a case of competing with other shows for audience. It’s a fine opportunity for collaborating, networking and learning from each other as you try out the show you’re so passionate about”. He is concerned that the Fringe isn’t allowed to become elitist and that it remains affordable. “There are a lot of hidden extras and young people going up with a show need to have flexible budgets. I wish very much, for example, that it didn’t cost them a huge four figure sum for four weeks’ digs in the city.”

He continues: “And as for reviews, don’t start me. If you can persuade a critic, blogger or anyone else who’s interested to see your show then that’s a bonus. And afterwards you have to accept their opinion. If you don’t like it then shrug and move on. If you really feel you can’t cope with criticism, then don’t read the reviews.”

Then he has a bright WEP whacky idea. “Stars? I know! I think you should add them all up. Never mind that A gave your show 5 stars while B gave it only one. How about simply saying ‘My show got 49 stars at Edinburgh this year? Time for a new approach, Dear.”

So how did the whole WEP concept start? “It was Twitter” he recalls. “I am a producer. I work full time in theatre. That’s my day job although obviously we can’t talk much here about the details of that because it would give away my identity.” Because he’s a witty man and can see the hilarious, daft side of theatre, he invented a Twitter persona and started tweeting irreverent theatre insides using the camp term #Dear as suffix to remarks to anyone who engaged with him. It became a trademark. Then came blogs with spoof advice. Finally he thought perhaps there was a book in it and contacted Matt Applewhite of Nick Hern Books with 10,000 words. Matt snapped up the idea immediately and the result was Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Acting (2013), which sold very well.

Soon there was a sequel Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Going To The Theatre But Were Too Sloshed To Ask, Dear (2017) and WEP is currently discussing the possibility of a third volume to complete the trilogy. He seems to have an endless fund of material. “We haven’t yet worked out how we’d theme it” says WEP, who reckons writing a book takes about a year. “I can only do it part-time because I have a day job out of this role. I try to write 500 words a day and I usually do it in the evening with a glass of wine and often some music playing – a classic musical, for example, to put me in the mood. I settle down in my office and with luck it works because there are fewer distractions like email at that time of day.” At the other end of the day he confesses to a coffee addiction and says he gets headaches if he doesn’t have three shots in the morning to set him up for the rest of the day.

WEP has also written a sort of witty agony uncle column for The Stage for several years – all part of his very distinctive brand. Everything he does brings a lifetime of working in theatre to sending it up with verve and boyish enthusiasm. What he can’t talk about is his background in producing or even where he lives, because it would give the game away. He does, however, tell me one anecdote from the very beginning and I suspect it was many decades ago. “I was working as assistant stage manager on a production of My Fair Lady and the girl in the lead role definitely could not have danced all night. So I decided there and then to mount a touring production of my own and cast someone who could actually do the part. And that was how I started.”

And then we part with lots of warmth – he offers/promises to help me with a project of my own if I can’t get it going – and I know that he will now nip round the corner to morph back into his real self. It’s a bit odd being embraced by a man in a mask, but hey, I have to do strange things for my art too.