Belting trio of tales

“I got a ginger beer,” says Artistic Director Jethro Compton. “Well, I’ve got a ginger beard,” quips Artistic Director number two, Dominic Allen. He does. It’s obvious where the playful nature of Belt Up Theatre’s productions originates.

“Playful, exciting, adventurous,” is how Compton describes Belt Up, and he maintains that although the company is renowned for fluidity, innovation, and change, those three words have applied from the beginning. “We’ve always had a fairly clear idea,” agrees Allen. “We know what makes it a Belt Up show. Of course it changes from project to project, depending on the demands of the play, but at the core is always the same fundamental feeling. We wrote an artistic statement back in the past and it still satisfies what we do now.” Allen, Compton, and their Associate Artist Joe Hufton quote together: “We put the audience at the centre of our wholly encompassing world.”

At a Belt Up show, there is no fourth wall; the audience is expected to interact with the cast, and if this doesn’t happen some of their plays could genuinely fail. The way they encourage this interaction has changed over the years, says Allen: “In our earlier work, the control of the audience was very direct, almost aggressive – you have to do this and if you don’t you’re going to be humiliated. Now we’ve become better at saying, it would be really great if you could do this. Our characters have become so much more sympathetic that the audience almost feels like they have to help because they’d upset the characters if they didn’t. They feel like they’re helping the show. It’s very, very rare to get an audience that in its entirety will refuse to help the show. The play would probably stop if that happened. It’s much easier now that we’re better at appealing to people. There’s nothing worse than the show grinding to a halt.”

“Audiences aren’t scared to come into a Belt Up show the way they were before,” adds Compton. “They’d come in thinking, am I going to be singled out, will I be humiliated, I hope they don’t pick me. Now people relax and enjoy the story.”

“It’s not like that anymore,” agrees Hufton. “We’re clever, we’re more grown up than before. It’s easy to say, I’m going to make you do this, but it’s harder to create a show where you don’t need to do that. I think we’ve found that balance now. So the audience can relax, and we can relax as well.”

Although they have mentioned that their mission is to create an all-encompassing world around their audience, I wonder if they also try to engage with the wider world. Is there anything political in what they do? “That’s not what we set out to do,” affirms Hufton. “Of course, along the way things happen, our opinions come through as we write. But we never set out to do that.”

“We all write, so our plays naturally have a bit of ourselves,” agrees Allen. “Sometimes writers can be mistaken for making points, though. There’s a speech in Outland this year in which [the character] Lewis Carroll talks about his religious beliefs. I’m never sure how the audience takes it. I always wonder if people think that’s my view.” He does concede that the shows contain interesting philosophical points. “This year they’re focused on the importance of stories, and childhood, and people. All the most important things in life can be boiled down to stories. What else can you spend your time doing? If you’re watching the news, gossiping with your friends, reading a book, going to plays or films – that’s all stories. The only reason we go to work is to earn money to spend it on stories. Even all the grand things like religion can be boiled down to stories.”

So what stories will Belt Up tell at the Edinburgh Fringe this year? They are bringing a trio of shows to new venue C nova: The Boy James, Outland and A Little Princess. Compton tells me more about The Boy James: “It’s a simple little piece, but the audience is asked to be involved in a way we’ve never asked before. They’re asked to do something, and the play literally doesn’t work if there is no one in the audience who will do that thing. Unless an audience member steps up everyone will just sit there for eternity!”

“Outland was a response to The Boy James,” says Allen. “We racked our brains for another piece to complement it, and the only obvious person or world to base it on would be Lewis Carroll. The Boy James is all about someone saying goodbye to their inner child, and Outland is the thematic reverse, about a man who is trying to get back his inner child and the inner child of others.”

Hufton tells me about the third show. “A Little Princess came to me as the perfect show to sit with the other two. It’s set in a similar time period to the other two, and it sits nicely in between the simplicity of The Boy James and the completely bonkers nature of Outland. I felt that it would instantly work in our space and has obvious ways to engage the audience.”

Their use of space is one of the ways in which Belt Up has evolved since their first appearance at Fringe in 2008. In the past, they have transformed spaces using more temporary materials, but this year they have built a whole room from the floor up. “The space is the other member of the company you have to work with, who sometimes pisses you off and sometimes does something amazing.”

“It’s like a marriage,” says Compton, “sometimes they’re really useful and we get on really well and sometimes they haven’t done the dishes. What has changed though, is that we’ve become less satisfied with our spaces. We look back at a space we loved in 2008 and we think it’s rubbish. Our expectations of our own creation get higher, it needs to be better every year.”

“This year we’ve gotten so much better at doing it,” Hufton is quick to add. “Things that took a day before now take an hour. We’ve learnt the brilliance of nail guns when we used to tie everything together, which has led to the excessive use of a nail gun even when we don’t need it.”

After a quick interlude where someone notices a poster on a wall advertising the services of a man who would like to feed your pigeons while reciting Spanish poems, we are back on track with a few of Belt Up’s countless anecdotes of audience hilarity – things must be bound to go wrong when you rely on an untrained audience.

“So many times. It happens all the time,” laughs Allen. “We did one show where an audience member was literally invited to perform whatever. Anything they wanted. Someone stood up and said he was a professional stunt man. He did a backwards flip onstage and crashed into the back curtain of this fairly huge room we’d built in the Southwark Playhouse. It was like Caesar’s tent. He rolled through the curtain and off the back of the stage, taking the curtain with him. Then there was the woman who threw up during Lorca Is Dead. She fell asleep almost as soon as she got in. She woke up at one point, threw up into her hand and wiped this biscuit tea sick under her chair and instantly went back to sleep. That was the harshest critic we’ve ever had.”

“We performed The Boy James to schoolchildren in Adelaide,” Compton remembers, “and their school suggested to the parents that the kids go into counseling, as a direct result of our show.” They’ve performed in Adelaide and in London, but hold a special place in their hearts for the fringe scene at Edinburgh. “It’s so difficult to be original in London,” explains Compton. “There are so many people doing something similar to what you’re doing.”

“There’s a community around theatre at Fringe, and it’s not like that in London,” says Hufton. “You don’t get any support in other artists.” The benefit of that community, says Allen, is that “when you’re at Fringe, there’s automatically a vibe where people want to enjoy themselves whereas in London everyone has huge expectations.”

“The festival environment makes you feel so much more worthwhile,” concludes Compton. “In London, you get in, you do your show, you leave and go home and you don’t meet anyone. So how do you know if anyone cares? In Edinburgh, you bump into people who are seeing your shows all the time and they say things. It just makes your day.”

Catch Belt Up Theatre performing at C Venues – C Nova until 27 August. For more information, visit www.edfringe.com or www.beltuptheatre.com.

Image credit: Belt Up Theatre, A Little Princess