Shot Glass: Part Deux

Theatre impresarios John Higgins and Joe Nawaz continue their cottage industry exploits at the Sunflower Bar

Joe Nawaz and John Higgins, possibly without realising it, are a bit of a double act. My ‘interview’ with the pair is scatter-gunned by their joshing, as they quip, joke, prod, taunt and incessantly jibe at one another. The air is crackling with vim and energy, much of it irreverent.

Lately they have been putting a lot of it into Shot Glass, a theatrical venture whose first outing was a double-header in a Belfast bar, which played to a sold-out and happily quaffing audience. Neither Nawaz nor Higgins can quite remember where the idea for Shot Glass came from in the first place. 'I think we were having a bitch in a pub, probably,’ Nawaz speculates.

The ‘bitch’ Nawaz refers to was, according to Higgins, probably about the theatre – specifically, what both men perceive to be the clunking, Byzantine ‘mucking about’ involved in getting a new play staged in Northern Ireland.

‘It was frustration. We didn’t understand why it takes as long as it does to get a play up and running. If you get the actors, you get the venue, why would it take two years for this thing to surface?’

With the blissful innocence of absolute beginners – neither had put a play on previously – the two budding impresarios decided to test their own question. Shot Glass was the consequence, the name chosen to communicate the quick-fix, fast-hit nature of the page-to-stage process they were hoping to initiate.

‘It was my name,’ Nawaz volunteers. ‘It was one of those petty, cheesy things that come into your head. It seemed to relate to what we were doing – little shots of performance that people could consume, and then walk away from. There’s no profound sub-text to it, it is what it is.’

To kick-start the new company, Nawaz and Higgins decided to use two short plays of their own – Man It Was Mean and So I Met Someone – for Shot Glass’s debut presentation. They would stage and direct them personally. Sticking their necks out a little, possibly?

The couple seem undaunted. ‘We just thought, let’s see if we can do this ourselves,’ explains Nawaz. ‘Without the usual channels, the usual hurdles, the usual permissions, the usual avenues. It turns out that it was actually fairly easy, through the goodwill of other people.’

‘That’s all mainly down to Joe,’ interjects Higgins, in what appears to be a rare moment of magnanimity towards his co-producer. Except it isn’t. ‘He’s been glad-handing and schmoozing people for hundreds of years,’ he continues. ‘It’s time to cash in,’ Nawaz retorts, completing Higgins’ insult for him.

In planning their producing-directing-writing debut, neither Nawaz nor Higgins was remotely tempted to pitch their work to any of the usual theatrical venues or outlets.

‘We’re not the sort of people who feel comfortable in theatres,’ explains Higgins. ‘My family never went to the theatre – they’re big, forbidding theatres of culture. What we’re doing is taking it to a comfortable position, allowing it to be a nice place to be, a nice environment.’

The ‘nice environment’ Nawaz and Higgins chose for their initial Shot Glass sortie was the Sunflower Pub in Belfast, which nestles in an unassuming side street a stone’s throw from the city’s major retail artery.

The pair are vociferous in their praise of Sunflower manager Pedro Donald, and for the cultural atmosphere he encourages, alongside the more traditional pursuit of drinking. ‘The ethos of the Sunflower is very open, progressive, and arts-friendly,’ explains Nawaz. ‘It’s a place where radical thought exists, a latter-day literary salon.’

Both Nawaz and Higgins are literary men themselves, and have been known to pass judgement in print on the work of other authors and playwrights, in their capacity as professional journalists. That, for Nawaz, was a source of some anxiety when putting his own creative efforts up for scrutiny.

‘There would have been a lot of people looking forward to me falling on my ass,’ is how he puts it. ‘It might have been revenge time for a few people, and I totally accept that.’

Possibly because he’s a relative newcomer to Belfast, Englishman Higgins was, by contrast, almost hilariously insouciant as curtain-up got closer. ‘It never occurred to me in a million years that it wouldn’t be worth seeing.’

‘John is imbued with a remarkable lack of doubt,’ Nawaz offers. ‘Hubris,’ Higgins counters. ‘Lack of doubt, I prefer to call it,’ insists Nawaz. ‘It’s kinder.’

Higgins’ confidence turned out to be justified. The upstairs bar at the Sunflower was packed to capacity back in April when Shot Glass made its bow upon a Belfast platform, and will be again when Shot Glass: Part Deux is unravelled there on August 27.

For the second ‘round’, Nawaz and Higgins have again raided their personal portfolio of works to present Motherlode and May Contain Traces Of Nuts respectively. Higgins’ play is, like its predecessor, a monologue for a female actor.

‘I wanted to do writing specifically for women, because I’m not a woman, and I thought it would be more interesting. It’s about a woman who seemingly has it all. She’s rich, beautiful, she has an Ulster Tatler-style kitchen. But there is something missing from her life, and it becomes a sort of idée fixe for her.’

Nawaz, for his part, describes Motherlode as ‘another endless battle of wits between two people, a mother and a son, locked in a cycle. It’s really about the helpless interdependence of two individuals who may not be the best for one another.’

Beyond Part Deux, there are already further Shot Glass projects in the offing, including a Christmas pantomime conceived as an alternative to mainstream seasonal offerings.

‘We’re looking to take this in as many different directions as we can,’ says Higgins. ‘So there will hopefully be Shot Glass films, and Shot Glass for other media outlets. We could definitely do comedy at some point.’

Nawaz agrees. ‘What we do, I wouldn’t call it theatre even. I’m almost tempted to refer back to music hall, there’s a certain vaudevillean aspect to it. It doesn’t have to be a monologue or a play.’ ‘It’s a “turn”,’ interposes Higgins, finding le mot juste for Shot Glass’s current modus operandi.

And with that, the interview is over. As I leave Nawaz and Higgins sipping coffee, the two of them still at it, ripping strips off one another for breakfast. Keep a weather eye on the Shot Glass Facebook page for details of that Christmas offering. With this particular pair of literati on writing duties, virtually anything could end up in it.

Shot Glass: Part Deux takes place in the Sunflower Bar, Belfast on August 27. Tickets are £3 on the door.