Comic Cliff Notes: Potted Potter

Jefferson Turner, left, and Daniel Clarkson in Potted Potter

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out in 2007, the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series sold 2.7 million copies in the United Kingdom in its first 24 hours. Author J.K. Rowling’s beloved story of a young wizard’s education in the world of magic wasn’t just a cultural phenomenon overseas. Readers in the United States, young and old, swooned to the story of an unassuming, unappreciated child who would grow to become a leader in a fight between good and evil.

On the eve of the final book’s release, there were flyers posted all over Santa Fe. “Beware of Snape” and “Snape is a very bad man,” they read, referencing Severus Snape, the dour professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, who seemed to have it in for Harry Potter.

Maybe he is a very bad man, but you don’t actually have to read all the books (or see the movies) to find out. Whether you’re a Potter fan or not so much, Potted Potter – The Unauthorized Harry Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff will deliver a condensed version of all seven books in just 70 minutes. Half of the appeal of the show is that we literally sum everything up for you,” says actor Daniel Clarkson, the show’s co-creator.

Brits Clarkson and co-author and actor Jefferson Turner started the production in 2005. The first performance took place outside of a bookstore on London’s Oxford Street on the eve of the midnight release of the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The store asked Clarkson and Turner to recap the first five novels as a way to entertain the people waiting in line.

“We did what was then five books in five minutes,” Clarkson says. “It went really well, and we had a lot of fun doing it.”

The reason he took the job, says the self-described Harry Potter nerd, was so he could be first in line to get his hands on the book.

“I remember pushing a child dressed as Dumbledore out of the way,” he jokes. “I’m now worried that this child is grown up and hunting for me.”

After the initial production, Clarkson and Turner developed Potted Potter into a 60-minute stage show that recapped the first six books. In 2006, they took the production to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. And it was there that Rowling almost got a chance to see it.

“We had just finished the show, and a girl from the box office came in crying. It turned out that she had unwittingly turned away J.K. Rowling because we had sold out, and she didn’t recognize her,” Clarkson says. “So, we have said, ever since, that we will always keep one seat free, so she can come and see it if she wants to. I would completely collapse under fandom if she was there.”

Other cast members from the films based on the books have attended performances, notably Jamie Waylett and Joshua Herdman, who play Potter nemeses Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle.

“The big three of the cast haven’t seen it,” Clarkson says of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, who play the close-knit trio of protagonists Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger in the movies. “They know about it. Apparently, there was a poster for our show in the greenroom of the final movie that someone had put up. I think Warwick Davis [Hogwart’s Professor of Charms, Filius Flitwick] has come to see us a couple of times.”

On stage, the honor of playing Potter falls to Turner, who’s bedecked in the character’s trademark round-lensed spectacles.

“That leaves me playing all 320 other characters,” Clarkson says. “I do everything from Voldemort to Ron Weasley to a fire-breathing dragon. There’s nothing like watching a middle-aged man who’s 6-foot-5 play Hermione Granger. It’s worth the ticket price alone.”

Playing so many characters requires a lot of quick changes for a 70-minute runtime. The props aren’t complicated. Wigs come on and off, and a pair of devil horns is enough to signify the presence of Lord Voldemort, the ultimate evil wizard, a fascistic and sinister foe to Harry Potter’s good-natured but tortured young soul.

“For a long time, Voldemort was associated with a certain president you had who shall not be named,” says Clarkson, slyly referencing one of the monikers that Voldemort was known by in the books and movies, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. “There were sort of similarities there, but now that’s changed, so we make jokes about other things. We always try to keep our finger on the pulse with cultural references. It’s keeping it fresh for us as well as keeping it fresh for the audience.”

Clarkson and Turner appeared in the two-person stage production for most of a decade before passing the mantle on to other actors.

“Jeff and I presented on the BBC for a while, doing a kids show there,” he says. “We found other actors — younger, more energetic actors — who came in. We were able to sort of nurture them. Everyone finds something new in the material. It’s ever evolving, ever expanding. If you were to see the show in 2010, the version you’re going to be seeing now is very different.”

Allowing other actors to take the helm freed the creators to develop new projects, including two more productions in the Potted series: Potted Panto and Potted Sherlock.

Potted Panto is a tribute to the British tradition of pantomime. It runs at Christmas. We do, like, five pantomimes — Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, things like that — again in a condensed version. It’s kind of like Shrek on speed. But coming back to Potter is like putting on your favorite pair of comfy jeans.”

Clarkson and Turner return to the stage for the performance at the Lensic, once again taking on the roles of Potter and, well, everyone else.

And Rowling, if you’re in town, there’s a seat there with your name on it. 

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