From being shy to being a Shyster
Acting has given me confidence. When I first came I was
very, very shy but as the years have gone on, I seemed to have
gained confidence in myself – because that’s what acting has
done for me. I am confident now to fill in forms and go to
Sunjay Patel, Shyster
Why the “Shysters”?
“When we were first together as a big group we used to
bicker and argue a lot and got on each other’s nerves,”
says Shyster Jon Tipton. “And Richard (Hayhow, artistic
director) said he thinks we’re a bunch of shysters. And we
became the Shysters theatre company.”
However … a shyster is American slang for someone –
originally a lawyer – who conducts his business in a tricky manner.
But is applicable to any con artist – someone who fools people.
Among other things, the Shysters see their job as fooling their
audiences into believing their stories. This also means that the
shyster has to act out a role in order to get their prize.
Following the staging of a community play in 1997, the Belgrade
Theatre in Coventry set up the Fountain theatre company, which was
an interim integrated company of people with and without learning
disabilities. “It was a sort of leisure time activity –
Monday evenings and Friday mornings,” says Richard Hayhow,
artistic director of Shysters. “Because the company worked
within the Belgrade Theatre, some people started saying we want to
be professional actors. We want to act on stage, we want to learn,
we want to train. And that’s where I came in.
“We went around to various schools, colleges and day
centres and held some open workshops. And from that invited people
to two weeks of work to explore whether it was the right thing for
them. And then out of that we set up what became the Shysters
theatre company,” Hayhow says.
Ten actors, who were able to travel independently and who had
parental support, were pulled together from around the 30 invited
people. “They needed to be enthusiastic, willing and
committed to doing it, which was what the two weeks was mainly
about finding out.” says Hayhow. The other 20 joined the
Fountain theatre and carried on their acting.
“We then worked together for about six months trying to
create the first play. One of the interesting things about the
company when they started off was that they were incredibly good at
improvising endless streams of dialogues,” he laughs.
“EastEnders, Coronation Street, that sort of soap style. I
felt they needed a bit of challenge, so we got some masks and
played around with them for ages.”
Despite some initial scepticism the company learnt all sorts of
ways of expressing themselves and creating theatre that
wasn’t based on words but on physical theatre techniques. Out
of which came the first show – Scary Antics.
“On a shoestring we managed to take the show to about 8 or
10 theatre venues across the country,” continues Hayhow,
“including the Battersea Arts Centre and the Edinburgh
fringe. On the strength of that we got some money from West
Midlands Arts and the Arts Council to carry on making our next
play, Fallen Angels. So from being a very small, two-bit
company we received enough money to make our next show not a
struggle – in the sense that we could stay overnight at a venue and
not have to bomb back in the middle of the night.”
In August 2000 the company was also involved in the famously
excellent Coventry mystery plays which took place in the ruins of
the old Cathedral, with a big community cast of around 100 people.
“That was a big step to perform in a different
In October 2001 the Shysters took part in a production of
Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer’s Night
Dream. “This had a curious beginning,” recalls
Hayhow. “About two years before the production, I was sitting
in a cinema watching the film version and thinking,
‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant one day to do a version with
the guys in the Shysters playing the “mechanicals”
because they’d be perfect’. And wonderfully enough, the
Belgrade Theatre took that on. So, not only did the Shysters
perform in the play but the whole production became an extension of
our work. It had a cast of eight other professional actors, and a
community cast of about 35, including about 14 young people with
learning disabilities. It was a very adventurous and fully
professional production: it was the main stage and part of the
Belgrade Theatre’s main house season.”
It was very well received. One or two people were put out that
it drifted from a traditional rendering of fairies having wings and
tutus in favour of long coats as if inhabitants of an urban jungle.
The mechanicals (that is, “labouring men” – the name
given to Bottom and his fellows) were the dustmen. And they were
anything but rubbish.
“Having done that we are now in a position to expand our
horizons,” says Hayhow. “We are working on another
touring show called Love Not Lies which we hope will tour
in the Autumn of next year. We are also developing a TV series
called Shyster Street with Channel 4. And we are working
with a very large special school in Birmingham on a two-year
project to develop a play called The Monkey King which
will be performed in a big Birmingham theatre, involving around 50
children as well as the Shysters.”
They are also developing a sequel to A Midsummer’s
Night Dream, apparently not entitled A Midsummer’s
Night Mare, but based on writer Ray Bradbury’s story
called “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, which is a
spooky tale of a strange carnival that comes to town. Sounds right
up Shyster Street to me.
I always wanted to do drama stuff and acting stuff. I did some at
college and I was the teacher’s pet at college!
I went to an assessment centre and got assessed into work, but
it failed because I couldn’t get up in the mornings and I was
being called a TV addict and a couch potato. So I wanted to do
something with my life and so I did drama. And that’s how I
came into drama.
It was scary being on the main stage. You could see up into the
wings and the balcony and you could see loads of seats and things.
And once you’re behind the stage with the curtain shut and
the audience coming in it’s scary hearing them voices coming
down. And then you got silence. And then it comes to your scene –
and you’re going to be seen by 250,000 – probably –
it’s like scary. But when you’re on that stage you just
don’t think about the audience you just get on with it and
get through it.
If people ask me what I do – I say I work. I do acting, I do
office work and I do workshops. I have applied for a five-month
training bursary with Channel 4. I want to get more stuff on my CV
so I can get a job as an actor – and get more money than the
I’m 29 years old and I’ve been with the Shysters for
about five years now.
I’ve been in both Shysters’ plays. I enjoyed taking
Scary Antics to Edinburgh. Our second play Fallen
Angels was about people who are marked. Marked down as
“special needs” people. I think it’s another way
of saying you’re low – like a fallen angel because you are so
low, like you’ve been tagged in life. That was a really good
show – I played someone called Plastic God. I’ve also been in
productions with other companies.
The most biggest play I’ve ever been in is, I think, the
mystery plays at Coventry Cathedral because the space was
absolutely gigantic and the audience was as close to me as you are
now. They were right in your face. Nightmare! And there was a bit
where you had to walk through the audience. That was a really good
production – I really enjoyed.
Since I was 14 years old, I saw my brother in a performance of
Robinson Crusoe at his school. I was sitting with my mum
and I said to myself: ‘I just wish I could swap places – I
wish he could sit down. I wish I could play that part. From that
day I’ve always wanted to become a professional actor.
Sunjay “Sunny” Patel
I went to a special school and I was in a play there and I
played Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. I thought to myself,
‘Yeah, drama’s the one I want to do.’ And then I
forgot about it because I wanted to do catering. And then some
people came with Richard (Hayhow) to our school and did a short
piece called Not Now Bernard. And Richard said, ‘If
you’re interested in drama come along to a week-long course
we’re doing.’ I enjoyed it so much I came along for
another week. And I had another word with Richard and he said.
‘Come along to this core group of 10’. So I did. And
that’s how Shysters came about.
I was also very interested in working in an office – and out of
that has come a job for me. I’m now the company
The biggest project I’m involved in is The Monkey
King. It is a very exciting project – I’ve been told to
say that! We’re working with a lots of artists. I will
hopefully be a narrator.
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RESOURCES AND CONTACTS
For The Shysters
Richard Hayhow – artistic director
Kathy Joyce – associate director
Sue Bosworth-Jarvis – company administrator
Sunny Patel – company assistant.
Tel: 024 7625 6431 ext 214