“I look back at some of the many great reviews we had as a young company,” reflects Scott Graham, Co-Artistic Director of Frantic Assembly, whose Beautiful Burnout is currently touring nationally, “and I know that if we were to put on that exact show now we would be slaughtered.” In the eighteen years since its inaugural production, Frantic Assembly has become a key figure amongst the group of theatre companies it once looked up to. “Frantic” is now a byword for theatrical fusion of movement and text, and the company has achieved considerable international success. Though he admits to being something of an establishment, Graham is wary of the term, because “that’s a scary place to find yourself. For a while, it was so exciting being considered the new kids, this young exciting company. The fear of not being talked of in those terms is that you’ve reached the top of the hill and that the rest of it is downhill.” I spoke to Graham in the middle of the tour and found a man showing little sign of burning out.
The show is a collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland, which follows a group of aspiring boxers through training and conflict, at home and in the ring. “At the moment,” Graham tells me, “the country is buzzing about the application and talent of sportsmen.” He is keen to stress, however, that “if you are making a show about sport, don’t just make a normal show and then tack on the sport element. Learn from how sport operates; learn from how it gets that level of commitment from its practitioners.” This pursuit of the truth about boxing was intrinsic to the rehearsal process. “We ran the rehearsals like a boxing gym. The rehearsal room was just full of weights, skipping ropes, punch bags, boxing gloves… it just didn’t feel like a rehearsal room – it actually captured that boxing mentality. That really served the show well, because it created this camaraderie and this intensity, because you were always aspiring to do what real boxers do, which meant you couldn’t moan about being tired, you couldn’t moan about being hurt a bit because they wouldn’t.” The boxing coach of Beautiful Burnout is typically fanatical, with a fierce grip over his protégés. Is Graham as strict with his performers? He laughs. “There’s an element of that, I think – when there’s need for it.”
The cast of Beautiful Burnout is not only new to boxing, but – like all performers with whom Frantic work – is not made up of trained dancers. This is key to the company’s developmental work and performance. What Graham likes about working physically with actors is that “when you ask them to do something they don’t know whether they can do it, so there’s always an element of fear about the process, or certainly bravery – whereas a dancer knows they can do it and what they deliver is a perfect facsimile of what you’ve asked. But with actors, there’s something slightly skewed, that we hadn’t thought of yet, which is really exciting. Once they do get there physically, they can then draw on their skills as an actor and give it such depth. It’s based on things you don’t know; that movement, because they’re not sure of it, has that fragile quality – its alive, it’s not something that’s rehearsed to death.”
Similarly, playwright Bryony Lavery knew nothing about boxing when she was approached to join the project. “It was crucial that Bryony wrote Beautiful Burnout, because it really was about looking at boxing with fresh eyes.” When it came to boxing, Lavery “was ambivalent. She had her issues when she went into this world and she’s come out of it with those issues changed – with her thoughts changed in both directions. She was more cynical about some aspects and incredibly warm about some other aspects.”
Frantic is used to punching above its weight – Graham and Co-Artistic Director Steven Hoggett were once English graduates trying to make physical theatre in the style of companies like DV8 and Volcano. What’s to be gained from this? “I think it does bring a fresh perspective, because nobody knows what the answer is.” Just as Lavery tackled boxing from the outside, Graham believes Frantic has been able to develop theatre on its own terms, without being confined to a house style. “This doesn’t always happen, but I have seen it happen, where companies have come out of an educational establishment and they have their style… and they believe that the work they create must exist within this style. And I think that’s really dangerous.” Their lack of formal training, Graham believes, “meant that we could be inspired by lots of different things and move in slightly different directions, and there was no shame in that.”
That’s not to say it was easy starting out. “For the first year and a half I think we earned £40 a week, and that was hard. But we made sure we were living somewhere where the cost of living was very low, which meant we could do that. Also we didn’t try to get jobs elsewhere; the company we formed was committed to each other and the company.” Graham has no illusions about the difficulties young people face trying to get a foot in the stage door today, admitting “It’s tricky. At the moment. Of course it’s tricky, but I don’t think it’s impossible.” Frantic’s founders worked hard to overcome the “invisible barrier” themselves, since “we were all working class kids at university – that was enough of a culture shock. To then find ourselves working in theatre, that was another culture shock. It can seem a little bit comfortable with itself from the outside; it can be quite impenetrable.”
Graham is critical of the “mystery that surrounds [theatre] and a lot of the way it’s spoken about,” working hard to “consider every aspect of our work and make it as open as possible.” Frantic engages effectively with young people through its Learn and Train programmes (including Ignition, a physical project aimed at young men with little arts experience) and provides comprehensive education packs. “We’re not precious about the processes that we use and what we’re very clear about is: the processes we use to make one thing could and should be used by you to make something else. They’re just tools.” As for cracking the industry, his advice is plain: “Be prepared to sacrifice… get involved and be nice. One of the things we said to people when we first started touring was make sure you’re nice to them. It sounds really cheesy, but we meant it; make sure you’re remembered, make sure you’re on your best behaviour, make sure you say please and thank you. It’s so simple but it makes a massive difference.”
In some ways, it’s easier for young practitioners to experiment – as Graham says, “all of your reviews are given in context of your development”. The challenge for an establishment – who have a higher reputation and budget at stake – is to not be too, well, establishment. Graham acknowledges that with success, “it is harder to take risks [but] that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it – it’s a great reminder that you still have to.” He has written that the athletes of Beautiful Burnout are driven by “glorious aspirations and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow”. What’s the gold for Frantic Assembly? “Possibly the most wonderful part of what we’ve achieved is the influence that we can have, or the guidance that we can give, to aspiring theatre-makers. That’s how we started… we were lucky enough to be taken seriously by people around us and nurtured by them.” Ultimately though, “I don’t know what the pot of gold is, and I think that’s quite healthy. I never really know where we’re heading, I don’t know what the end product is. But thank God for that, because then if I got it that would be the end.”
Beautiful Burnout tours until 1 December 2012, visiting West Yorkshire Playhouse, Northern Stage, Nuffield Southampton and Hull Truck Theatre. For tickets and more information visit www.franticassembly.co.uk.
Image credit: Frantic Assembly