“A one man laugh factory, the brains behind some of the funniest theatre in Britain.”
– The Independent, UK
Spiegelworld speaks to Cal McCrystal, director of The Hook, the brand new Spiegelworld show and venue opening at Caesars Atlantic City in June 2023.
Welcome Cal, we always love having you. Why don’t you tell us about your journey till this point?
Well, I’m Irish. I was an actor for a long time, and then about twenty-five years ago, I started getting pulled into directing, which I didn’t know if I would be very good at. But all the first shows I did became really, really popular, and it snowballed from there.
I did a famous production called One Man, Two Guvnors for the Royal National Theater, which won James Corden a Tony Award. But before that, I’d been doing a lot of small-scale clown-type shows, positioning myself on the spearhead of the physical comedy movement in the UK. Funny enough, I started getting asked to do operas because everybody likes funny, and it sells. Now I work regularly for the English National Opera, the English Touring Opera, and the Irish National Opera. I can make an opera funny rather than audiences just saying, “I better laugh because this is supposed to be funny.”
I love circus work, and for the last 13 years, I’ve been the director of a national treasure in England called Giffords Circus, which is beloved by Hollywood stars; Stella McCartney, Vivian Westwood, Hugh Grant and so many more. I mean, Vivian used to come like four times a year. I make a new show for Giffords every year, and I love that job.
And then, a few years ago, Ross Mollison asked me to come and do some work on Spiegelworld’s OPM, which had just opened in Las Vegas and had yet to find its way. So I did that, and everyone had fun, and then Ross took me to see a wonderful, abandoned venue at The Venetian Resort and said “Would you like to do a show in here?” And I said, “This is like a theater in an old Dodge City Saloon with all the chunky wood,” and he said, “What would you do in here?” I said, “I’d do a saloon show,” and that’s how Atomic Saloon Show was born.
Ross said, “A saloon show sounds fun, but what would it be?” And I said, “Well, we should have a lot of very young, gorgeous performers who were held prisoner by a hag!” the saloon’s proprietress Boozy Skunkton still says she’s not a hag; she’s one of the young, beautiful ones, and we just play along with her.
I also work a lot in movies. I am a comedy director and a consultant for Hollywood films and British films. I love doing that because I don’t have to worry about the whole movie; I just do the gags. In some films, I have a bigger footprint than in others. For example, I have an enormous footprint in the Paddington movies because I did the motion capture for the bear and created all the big physical comedy set pieces for both movies, which are beautiful. I also have a big footprint in The Amazing Spiderman 2.
Spiegelworld is coming to Atlantic City this summer, and you will be directing The Hook show. What can you tell us about the direction, the format, or anything?
The first thing I want to say, and this is very important! Going to Atlantic City is a homecoming for me because I grew up in New Jersey. I’m a Teaneck boy. I feel incredibly moved by the fact that I’m returning to Jersey to do this incredible big show. I’ve always felt very at home in America because of growing up there, and I will give it my best shot. We have a fantastic cast.
We already have a cast?
Yes, we do, apart from one or two roles yet to be signed. But the show’s beginning has something very particular that will make our audiences drop their cocktails from sheer amazement. That’s the spoiler, and it will also be what everyone talks about afterward.
We’re also adding an amazing sound system to create a soundscape you can feel. But the most beautiful thing about what we’re doing is the fact that we are restoring the Warner Theatre behind the building’s original 1929 façade. I think theaters should never be torn down because they’re people’s palaces, you know? And the old Warner Theater was a palace, and people would leave their mundane jobs to come and be surrounded by this jewel box, watching a film or a concert or a show that made them laugh and cry.
We will live up to that beautiful façade with what we recreate behind it, and I cannot tell you how excited I am about the responsibility to the history of that theater. The theater will also be full of references to its history and Atlantic City’s history, all through the unique eyes of Spiegelworld.
Even horse diving. Just joking; we won’t be doing that in the show. However, the show will celebrate the counterpoint of being in the theater and on the ocean: celebrating culture and a clash of old Atlantic City and a new Atlantic City. But I’m not usually that deep. I just want it to be a really funny show.
Can you tell us anything about the acts?
We have some incredible acrobats and circus artists from around the world, who are physically incredible at what they do, and also have a strong sense of character and comedy. It will be the most beautiful bespoke show in so many ways because we are building the venue and the show at the same time. Most shows are created for an existing theatre. Because I think The Hook will be Atlantic City’s first ever year-round resident show, there’s a big challenge to that. In fact, I said to Ross, “Why are we doing this show year-round? I mean, nobody goes there in the winter.” And he said, “Here’s how: you are going to make a show that’s so good that people will come from New York and Philly in the winter to see it.” So no pressure!
Like all my shows, it will be breathtaking acrobatics, magnificent physiques on display, with powerful comedy. That’s the idea.
Do you remember the specific moment when you realized directing was your calling?
I still see myself as a performer who directs because most of my inspiration comes from what I would do and the collaboration that performers feel for each other. I’m a very performer-focused person. But I’ve had opportunities as a director that I wouldn’t have had as a performer because if I were a performer, I wouldn’t be doing circus and opera and film and television and cabaret. I couldn’t see myself working in Vegas or Atlantic City if I was still an actor.
I love my job, but I also like it if a film director says to me, “We want to give you a small role in this movie. Would you like that?” I go, “Yeah, I’d like that.”
Your career has taken you all over the world; what has been your favorite project?
I would have to say the shows that are closest to my heart would definitely be Atomic Saloon Show and my work at Giffords Circus. I would say both of them are a bit of a full-time job, you know.
Working through the nightly show reports and other things for Atomic Saloon Show and now with OPM, I feel like Spiegelworld and Giffords Circus are my home in show business. But certainly, opening Atomic Saloon Show was one of the most exciting. Before bringing it to Vegas, Spiegelworld created the show in Edinburgh. It opened there on my 60th birthday, and there were just queues for miles trying to get a ticket. It was such a hot ticket. And to create such a wild party which makes the audience so crazy, is an absolute joy.
Rehearsals for The Hook start in May. What’s your usual development process on day one with all the cast? What goes through your mind?
Well, it’s very important to plan a big party on the first day, or within the first couple of days, and for everyone to enjoy a drink together. To make sure you get to know people a little bit better. Because I’m always thinking, what’s funny about this person? What’s funny about that person? And there’s no better place to do that than a party. Once I start chatting with people, I get a lot of ideas. But also, people’s circus skills only form part of what they will perform in the show.
When we created Atomic Saloon Show, Jerome was hired as our straps artist, and Alina was our pole artist with whom I’d worked before. I saw the two of them socializing and like a light bulb I knew we were building the entire show around these two. Until then I hadn’t been thinking about having a particularly strong love story, but their chemistry really worked.
I kind of pull the show out of the air when I’m with everyone. I try to do as little pre-planning as I possibly can. However, I still have to plan because the costume designer needs to know where they’re heading. Yes. But I try to keep the narrative and the comedy unplanned and make that up in the room with everyone. Everyone at Spiegelworld is very trusting and allows me not to have to write the whole thing in advance.
Does this also translate to the performer’s individual character?
I meet all the performers on Zoom, and we joke around a little bit. I look at their experience to understand how to position them based on their age, whether they have a sense of humor or are serious. For The Hook, we have two brilliant international comic artists as the show’s hosts. They’ve never met, and when I get them together and see what the spark is, then I’ll create the material. I try to make shows for and about the people in them, which builds a great sense of ownership. I aim for people to say, “That person was born to do this role.”
Colin was born to play Blue Jackson in Atomic Saloon Show.
Well, Blue is Colin’s alter ego. Because you know, Colin is often a shy person, but when he walks on the stage, he has this beautifully effortless charisma. He’s great.
Are you also going to be involved with the Superfrico restaurant located within The Hook venue?
Of course. I have Shannan Calcutt. She’s been a resident director on Atomic Saloon Show and created all the performative elements for Spiegelworld’s first Superfrico restaurant at OPM in Las Vegas. We’re taking her to Atlantic City as my Assistant Director and to keep an overall eye on atmospherics.
I’ll be involved in the overall entertainment programming, but I look forward to working with Shannan on this because she has all the experience. We will develop a more narrative experience within Superfrico Atlantic City. But for me the show will come first.
Thank you so much for meeting with us to talk about The Hook. If there’s one last thing you want to tell people about what’s coming, what would it be?
The last thing I would tell people is; when you watch the show, you won’t be able to breathe from gasping or laughing.
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