The Faction Theatre Company is definitely doing something right. This year it has won a Peter Brook Empty Space Award (Equity Best Ensemble) and is currently reviving REP at the New Diorama Theatre, where it is also company in residence. Artistic Director Mark Leipacher and Executive Producer and performer in the season Kate Sawyer talk all things ensemble, REP and their dreams for a permanent London home.
The current season sees the company performing Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Strindberg’s Miss Julie. It represents the work of the company since its inception in 2008 and is a step towards helping them realise its dream of having “a permanent home and a permanent ensemble” with a rolling repertoire. Being resident at the New Diorama, Sawyer claims she currently has more of her possessions there than she does at home. But there is always the dream of more – of a building that is permanently theirs.
This ambition is inspired by a desire to work as a European company does, to become international not only in style but in working practice. The Faction is heavily influenced by the work of Schaubühne Berlin and knowing this, the highly physical, visual and contemporary performance style of the company begins to make sense.
The artistic aim of The Faction is to perform “classical texts with a contemporary aesthetic”. The company was created out of Leipacher’s passion for classical theatre, and its inaugural production of Richard III had audiences awed by the 25-strong ensemble’s ability to create an entire world with only bodies on stage – no set at all. The work is created from as blank a canvas as possible, and Leipacher states that the form of performance is “ideally the actor, the text and the space”. Only additions that are absolutely necessary to the telling of the story will be permitted.
Rehearsals always start by going straight to the text and from here, the world of the play is created. They are, notes Leipacher, quite strict with themselves in ensuring that no preconceptions regarding the text influence the initial reading; a fairly hard task when working with classical texts such as Shakespeare. The play is read “under the assumption that we haven’t read it before” and evidence is then accumulated in order to create a world with “its own rules and conventions”. As with a devised work or new writing with no performance history, everything that happens on stage is born out of the ensemble. It’s a fresh approach to take to the classics, a group of texts that normally carry so much baggage.
Both Sawyer and Leipacher are quick to state that they do also work with new writing. Favourite productions for both have been the many works of Friedrich Schiller that have been produced, and these are new translations written by the company. Mary Stuart is playing in the current season and previous productions have been The Robbers and Intrigue/Love. They do, however, feel that there is something lacking in a lot of new writing that is prevalent in classics that have stood the test of time.
As Leipacher rightly points out, these texts survived for a reason. “They [not only] allow this scope for huge productions, bombastic ideas and interesting visual expanse, [they contain] really big universal ideas that still hold true”. Such an epic scale and scope is why Leipacher believes Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem has enjoyed such success, but it’s something that occurs “very seldom” in pieces of new writing. Writers take heed: there is something to learn from the classics.
Sawyer emphasises that the company is an ensemble “both in the sense of the way that we run and the way that we perform on stage”. Everything, from production to set design, is done by the performers in the company. This, teamed with the fact that they’re reviving REP and looking to the classics for performance material, suggests the company’s success lies in its ability to look to the practices of the past to inform its contemporary work. It’s certainly an approach that seems to be working, as both Sawyer and Leipacher exude an air of complete determination and absolute clarity as to the direction of the company.
So what is the next step towards achieving their dream of the permanent ensemble? The answer is more REP. The current season has been, as Leipacher puts it, “an absolute dream”. It is an effective way to “bond a unit of people together so you can get higher levels of work quicker”. Even eight weeks into the process, Leipacher enthusiastically states that “every moment there seems to be a new experience happening”. He and Sawyer both agree that they have “never been more excited creatively”. It seems, too, to be a more economically viable option for a company wanting to continually be producing work, and appears it may be the secret to a strong ensemble.
As for the very near future, Leipacher has confirmed the return of Mary Stuart to the New Diorama in September, and the company’s annual summer outing to Brockwell Park. Their advice for aspiring theatre makers? “Keep working constantly … don’t stop”. Which is precisely what The Faction has been doing for the past three years and it’s worked for them. With a series of ambitious shows behind and in front of them, one can only wonder what exciting new projects it might pursue should it get its dream of its very own building.
The Faction’s REP season of Twelfth Night, Mary Stuart and Miss Julie plays at the New Diorama Theatre until 18 February 2012. For more information on specific performances and to book tickets, please visit the theatre’s website here.