Let’s hope we don’t have any Empty Chairs at Empty Tables at the Binge Fringe Digital Pub for today’s interview. All I Ask Of You is to pull up a bar stool, join me and Alexander Millington for a pixelated pint.
Obsession, fandom, grief and Michael Ball meet in Split Infinitive Theatre’s brand new interactive play I Heart Michael Ball. Alexander is the writer/performer behind the show, which is directed by his wife Helen Millington. I sat down with Alexander for a binary beverage to talk all things Brighton Fringe, toxic online fanbases, crowdfunding, and his radio run-in with Ball himself.
Jake: Cliché “tell us your inspiration” question – What led you to create a show about an obsessive fan of Michael Ball?
Alex: When my wife and I were discussing ideas for a new show, I was going through a pretty severe bout of depression and I wanted to work that into our piece in some way.
For me, everyone suffers depression in different ways. For me, and everyone I spoke to, it was always about clinging on to something that makes you happy. Whether that’s something from before it all happened, something from your childhood.
That brought us onto this sort of, obsessive quality that comes with clinging onto something in that way.
Jake: So I guess that leads me to ask… Why Michael Ball specifically?
Alex: I’ll put it out there! I like Michael Ball, I enjoy his music.
But for the purposes of this show, I think there is something unique about his fanbase. Though he isn’t an A-List Celebrity, he’s still very much in the public eye and his fanbase are very protective of him. They support everything he does, he can do no wrong in their view.
He has various different fan groups with monthly magazines, merchandise like wrapping paper and other obscure items. He has a unique fanbase.
Jake: And were you led a bit down a rabbit hole when you delved into his fanbase for your research?
Alex: A little bit, yeah. I knew of his man fan club before I started but then found two or three more. All of them, of course, giving the same information in different ways. It goes into a whole different area when you bring in his ‘Ball and Bow’ stuff with Alfie Bow as well.
It’s going down rabbit holes, what his fans are excited about, all the different areas of his career – acting, singing, he’s putting a book out. His fans are raving about it already. It’s a unique perspective to go into for someone like me who just enjoys his music.
Jake: I think we do see that viciousness start to appear especially with social media fanbases. I suppose Michael Ball has a bit of an older demographic – how does that work online?
Alex: It’s an older demographic but they can be just as vicious online!
Well, we’ve created our very own online ‘Michael Ball Appreciation Society’ with a Twitter account (@mbappreciation) and Facebook group. His fans often respond to our posts with pictures and videos of him, but some have got a bit aggressive. They’ve called me a creep, or freaky.
But there’s another side to the fanbase who are quick to defend me and protect me as one of their own. It’s odd how you get the obsessive fans who take it too far and make you part of their family, as it were.
Jake: So you’ve really made this a bit of a social experiment as well as a show, it seems.
Alex: We really wanted to make this as interactive as possible and I reference this all in the show. We’ve give the audience a chance to follow our appreciation society, scroll through and see how far things go.
The aim, of course, for me is to see how far I can push it by the end of the run. We wanted to make something that was more than just a live event, something that expands on the whole universe of it a little bit more and make it interactive in as many ways as possible.
I’d encourage people to get involved with it all, with his actual fanbase, come join our groups, tweet about the show and during the show, let’s make it really interesting.
Jake: And what can audience members expect during the show?
Alex: My wife and I are both big fans of theatre and we like all kinds – as an audience member there’s a time and a place for when you want to be a passive observer. We want an audience that will get engaged.
The framing of the show is that everyone in the audience is a member of the Michael Ball Appreciation Society who have come to one of our meetings. If you come, you get a little pin badge with ‘I <3 MB’ on to say that you’re a member. The audience will be straight away involved in how the show plays out.
Jake: So in a way, you’re projecting some elements of the narrative directly onto the audience, very much against their will.
Alex: Let me be honest, if I go to a show and I get dragged up on stage I hate it. I hate audience participation. I know from that perspective what I would be comfortable with as an audience member. I want them to be involved but not uncomfortable.
Instead, I will be up there on stage but engaging with them, they’ll be offering responses and suggestions, telling me their own stories. It’s very much a conversation.
But as the show goes on, because of its themes, it then does make the audience complicit in… what is going to happen. That’s where any discomfort could occur, they’re a part of our group, they’re about to let ‘this’ happen.
Jake: You mention that ‘I Heart Michael Ball’ is a show about obsession and grief – what do you feel links the two?
Alex: When I was suffering with depression, I clung onto something that made me happy. For me specifically it was classic episodes of Doctor Who, that’s what made me happy as a child.
I think for a lot of people it’s remembering the last time they were really happy, clinging on to it. Depending how bad that suffering gets, you lean into clinging on more.
This character is obsessed with Michael Ball because they used to sing Michael Ball tracks with their brother. They are clinging onto that time, having a good time, forgetting everything that’s going on. It’s that inability to get past that which leads them to cling on in a very unhealthy way.
It’s how much you let the past into the present and, being cliché, shaping your future as you go forward. For the character in the show, Alex, it goes too far.
Jake: It’s quite an evocative philosophy, do you think audiences will be expecting that going into the show?
Alex: We’ll get some people that clock onto what’s going to unfold quite early on, hopefully we’ll get some that don’t see what’s coming. We did our first script reading last week in our local, tight-knit community who are very aware of the show.
Many people were still very surprised by where it went and we still want that element of surprise in there.
Jake: Your teaser trailer and marketing portray a quite gruesome and sinister image of the central character in the show – would you say this is the case?
Alex: At times, yes, but there is also an innocence and childlike quality to this character because of what he’s trying to cling onto. There is an element to this character’s understanding of what they should and shouldn’t be doing which leads to these more sinister and gruesome elements of the show.
Without going to deep into it, the past few years, lots of people have been suffering with their mental health and with mental illness. We’ve come back into a place where we’re trying to remember what was normal and understand what is still normal.
For this character, they no longer know how to get used to what is normal. He’s stuck in the past and trying to move forward with everything that used to be the case.
Jake: Have you been in contact with Michael Ball? What do you think he thinks about the show?
Alex: We have engaged with Michael Ball himself! He hosts a Sunday Morning show on BBC Radio 2 with a quiz. I applied for that quiz, with my wife, and we got through.
As part of his chat, he asked us whether we had plans coming up, holidays or so on. We said “Well actually, we’re doing a show, taking it to the Fringe.” He asked us what the show was called and I said “I Heart Michael Ball”. He burst out laughing right away.
He seemed to enjoy it, he liked the idea. We’ve now pinched a quote from him – he said “Everyone needs to see Alex Millington in I Heart Michael Ball”. He said it on the radio, he can’t take it back now. It’s on the poster!
We’d love it if he came and saw a show and either loved it or be disgusted. Either way, I’d put it in our marketing material.
Jake: Was there a moment inside you when you were on the Radio, as you were about to tell him, that you thought he might be offended or even worse?
Alex: A little bit, it’s very much make or break at that point! We chatted with the researcher beforehand and they said we could mention all about the show but not it’s title. Then he asked what it was called when we went live so there was nothing we could do!
It was very much a case of him taking it in good humour or we would get an email right after telling us to stop straight away. Thankfully we are yet to receive it!
Jake: And what’s the best way for people to keep up with the show and get involved with it all?
Alex: To help us fund the show we’ve set up an IndieGoGo page. As a company, we strongly believe in fair pay for all artists and creatives involved.
If our supporters and followers can help us cover the costs of venues, travel, accommodation and fairly pay all creatives involved, that would be a massive help.
I Heart Michael Ball is touring across the United Kingdom, starting with the Brighton Fringe. Tickets are available from the Brighton Fringe Box Office.