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Best of The Fringe 2014

Lou Stein

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

Dr Hunter S Thompson’s twisted, madcap adventure to find the heart of the American Dream is staged in this collaboration between his old friend and colleague Lou Stein and the legendary British illustrator Ralph Steadman. Two assignments in Nevada turn super-ugly for a young journalist and his attorney, partly because they’re chock full of narcotics, but mostly because they’re on a savage journey to discover how the idea of America got broken, and why there’s no way back to freedom, real freedom. Hop in the back, grab yourself a beer and experience one of the wildest, most vibrant and utterly essential books of our time as never seen before.


Hey Lou, how's it going, you all set to the fringe? 


I can’t wait.  After FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS’s successful run in London, which was tailored for the Waterloo Vaults Festival, I’m re-working the play for this year’s Edinburgh run at the Pleasance Beyond. It’s a bigger venue so a lot of thought is going into making the show even better.  And I haven’t been to Edinburgh for 30 years so I’m buzzing with excitement about bringing a company there.


What does it mean for you to be bringing Fear and Loathing to Edinburgh Fringe?


I think FEAR AND LOATHING is perfect for the Edinburgh Fringe.  The minute the opportunity came to work with the Pleasance to bring it there I felt extremely excited- like it was a natural follow on to the London run at the Vaults Festival. Even my friend Ralph Steadman is delighted saying that he’s pleased that  we’re bringing “Fear and Loathing to delight the wee Bairns north of the border living on the fringe of every Festival known to Celtic Man!”


You had a hugely successful run at this year's Vault Festival, what was that experience like?


Exhilarating. The show found an audience who loved experiencing the story in a theatrical setting.  The Vaults attracted a 20’s something audience who never lived through the ’70s but who loved the wild humour and message of the play. And it was also a kind of family show too because a fair number of people who lived through the ’70s (and survived to tell the tale!) also came, very often with their 20’s something children.   A good section of the crowd also came with their Hunter S Thompson paraphernalia-including Hawaiian shirts, cigarette holders, shades and even lizard masks!  There was a real sense of an event.


Were you surprised by the response?


Not really surprised but delighted.  For a long time, I put off creating a new production of FEAR AND LOATHING  because I thought “who would be interested in a play about the American Dream set in the drug-riddled flower power the 70s”.  We are living in a culturally conservative time where counter-culture plays are not seen to be commercial. But the huge response to FEAR AND LOATHING at the Vaults Festival made me realise that there is a thirst for off-beat and individual plays which are different from what is usually on offer.  I loved that the audience laughed a lot and got the humour of the play. 

Tell me a little bit about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, how did the show come about?


In the early ’80s, when I was Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill in London, I was opening a second Gate Theatre in Battersea, (Gate at the Latchmere now Theatre 503). I knew I needed an extraordinary idea for the first production. Adapting FEAR AND LOATHING seemed impossible, so I thought “perfect”. Meeting the artist and illustrator Ralph Steadman was a key to getting it going- he really was the godfather behind the production and encouraged me to meet Hunter, who came to the opening night.  When I first spoke to him on the phone he said to me “I’m coming out to see your play, and if I don’t like it, I’m going to tear your theatre apart”.  So it was the start of a great relationship because in the end, he loved the play and subsequently granted me exclusive rights to any stage production of it. In 1996  I wrote and directed a spoken word version of it starring Harry Dean Stanton and the cast of The Simpsons. I also was commissioned to write the first screenplay of the film starring Johnny Depp. But I always thought that FEAR AND LOATHING worked best as a play, so when I was invited to entertain the notion of doing it for a new audience at the Vaults Festival, I jumped at the chance. 


What have been the hardest part about bringing this show to life?


Re-imagining it for a new audience and new times. The current version of the play is different from previous versions and I am trying to respond to what is happening now in the world in terms of what the audience sees and how the script is performed.  Bringing hallucinogenic lizards to life on stage is also a bit tricky.


When did you realise that you wanted to direct?


At Northwestern University in Chicago, as a journalism and creative writing student, I decided to adopt a contemporary novel by Donald Barthelme called “Snow White”.  It featured a nude and nymphomaniac Snow White.  I wrote the script and someone had to direct it so I gave it a try. It was performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and drew national interest, largely because of the nude Snow White. This was in the early 1970s and cultural barriers were being broken everywhere and I was attracted to the theatre’s ability to challenge prevailing attitudes and codes. The success of “Snow White” made me want to be part of the fringe theatre movement.


What was your first time as a director like?


I don’t remember much of the experience itself, other than knowing how much satisfaction there is in imagining a production and making it happen.


I still feel thrilled by the process today. 


Has your style of directing changed much over the years?


Hugely. When I was Artistic Director at the Gate the tiny size of the space and the lack of funding made me think in a very different way about directing. During that time, I learned a lot about the power of good ensemble acting in any space and the importance of simplicity.  I have lately been influenced by the techniques of immersive theatre and the power of specially commissioned music. My wife, Deirdre Gribbin, is a contemporary composer and she has opened up a new understanding for me of how theatre and music can work together.

"I think much more deeply about the importance of relationships between people on stage and off."

Who have been your biggest inspiration? 


My son Ethan who is now 8 and has Down Syndrome and is a member of the wonderful Chickenshed Theatre Company. He has affected how I see the world and opened up a new way of looking at my own professional work.  I think much more deeply about the importance of relationships between people on stage and off.


What has been the best advice you have been given & what advice would you give fellow directors? 


The great writer Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest said, “Always stay in your own movie”. It’s the best advice ever for anyone who is a director.                        


And finally, what do you hope people will take away from the show?


I want them to be uplifted, feel they’ve just experienced a very funny, very thought-provoking world.

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