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It started as a middle-of-the-night acting gig.
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Location: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (no matinee Nov. 14 and Nov. 21), 7:30 p.m. Thursday (no performance Nov. 22), 7:30 p.m. Friday (additional 2 p.m. matinee Nov. 23), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional 5 p.m. performance Nov. 18); through Dec. 23
Rating: For ages 6 and up
In 2005, a friend asked Daniel Clarkson to work up something to entertain Harry Potter fans waiting in line at midnight for the release of the sixth book. Clarkson approached fellow comedian Jeff Turner, and the two created a 20-minute sketch -- performed outside a London bookstore -- in which Turner played the boy wizard and Clarkson played everyone else.
"The response was amazing," Clarkson said. "I think that's when we realized we could be on to something."
Seven years and more than 1,000 shows later, that something -- "Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience" -- comes to Chicago. It debuts Tuesday, Nov. 13, at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
Basically, the two British comedians act out all seven books in 70 minutes. They do so with props, songs, audience interaction and a spirited game of Quidditch.
We spoke by phone to Clarkson about how he got hooked on Harry and what local audiences can expect of the Potter parody. Here is an edited transcript:
Q. I read that you guys always save a seat for author J.K. Rowling, just in case she wants to come. Is that still true?
A. That is very true. Where that comes from is when we started the show back in 2006 -- '07 I think it was, up in Edinburgh in Scotland -- we were playing just a 60-seater venue at the Edinburgh Fringe, and at the end of the show the box office girl came up to us in floods of tears. And we were like, "What's wrong?" And it turned out that she thinks J.K. Rowling had tried to come in. Nobody had recognized her. They turned her away because we were sold out. And so, because of that day, that's why we now say we always have this one ticket reserved for her, just in case she comes back.
Q. And as far as you know, she hasn't yet. Maybe Chicago ...
A. Chicago could be the one. I would be very nervous. It would be terrible if I suddenly saw her there in the front row. I'd just have to stop the show and get her to sign the books.
Q. I understand that of the two of you, you're the big fan right? How did you get hooked on the books?
A. When they first sort of came out, I think I was about 18, 19. I've got a younger brother who is 10 years younger than me. And my mum was like, "You should read these to him for bedtime" because I was sort of the training actor so it was great practice for me to do voices and stuff because I would read him bedtime stories. I started reading him Harry Potter books. And it got to the point that he'd fall asleep but I'd carry on reading them to myself because I'd really got hooked on them.
Q. Have you guys ever considered doing this for "The Hunger Games" or "Twilight"?
A. We did think about it because we're always on the lookout on what's next. For me, "Twilight," though I have read them, all I got was a 900-year-old vampire riddled with teenage angst who sparkles when he goes in the sun. I didn't really get anything else out of it.
And "The Hunger Games," I just sort of started getting into that ... I think if me and Jeff just fight over a bagel for half an hour onstage, that would represent "The Hunger Games."
Q. What's the wackiest thing that ever happened when you brought a kid onstage -- because they are unpredictable?
A. I had a young boy come onstage who could have been a one-man show himself. Either the spotlight hits them and they look like frightened rabbits or the spotlight hits them and suddenly they're like "This is my moment to shine" and they stop listening to you and just do whatever they want. And that's exactly what he was doing.
He was racing around the show. And finally I said, "Do you have an off button?" And he pointed to his backside and he said, "Yes, it's up here. Do you want to push it?" That's the only time a child stumped me. I had nowhere to go with this. Touché. You have won.
Q. Is there any difference, do you find, between kids in Great Britain and kids here in the States?
A. I would say in Great Britain, as an audience in general, we can be very much more reserved. So we can sit there and we'll clap when we're told to and we'll cheer when we're told to. I will get the children up and they will wait until they're told to do something.
With America, there's cheering and whooping. And when we first played in New York. it was amazing the response from the audience -- just the wall of noise we got and this sort of feeling that they want to join in.
As an example, when I get the child on the stage, I pretend they're standing on a trap door. In Britain, the children always take a step back off the trap door when I tell them that. They're sort of scared of it. In America, they tend to jump up and down on the trap door to try to make it open. I think that really sums up the difference.
Q. I have a deeply serious question for you: If you were a professor at Hogwarts, what would you want to teach?
A. I'd want to be a professor of the dark arts. I think that's the exciting one. And that doesn't mean I'm evil in any way. I just think that's the exciting class. That seems to be the class where all the stuff goes wrong. That's the one I'd want to be in on.