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Incoming preview: Tin Shed Theatre

Posted on 13 April 2014 by Lauren Mooney

Tin Shed – Frankenstein

Tin Shed Theatre Company is busy, busy, busy. I speak to Company Director Georgina Harris on a chance free day between school tours of An Inspector Calls and Of Mice and Men, educational work that is not so much the company’s “money-making thing” as its “bread and butter, to help us fund the more experimental, devised work – that we obviously would like to produce 24/7, but because we’re un-funded…”

This practical realism has enabled the company to make theatre its full-time work, which gives it a certain amount of freedom. When I chat to Harris, the trio are trying to organise a run at “the oldest horror theatre in San Francisco” to follow their slot at the San Diego Fringe in July – but before all that, they will be bringing Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow to Incoming Festival next month.

“I think the way that we chose to tell the story is very much how we take on any piece of theatre that we devise and adapt,” Harris says of Dr Frankenstein. “It’s very visual, there’s a balance of light and dark to it, and it’s quite loud.”

After graduating from their shared alma mater, the University of Newport, Harris and her co-collaborators Justin Cliffe and Antonio Rimola went their separate ways, working as actors, until they realised they missed the creative control they’d enjoyed at university. The trio began devising immersive and site-specific work together in and around Newport, but it is perhaps their literary adaptations for which they are now best known.

“We did the Brighton Fringe a couple of years ago for Hendricks gin,” Harris explains. “They had their own venue in Brighton which was an old Victorian carriage, it’s very much Victorian-themed, and they were looking for small performances to go on within the venue.”

Tin Shed pitched a work based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which eventually became Mr Edgar Allan Poe’s Terrifying Tales, and then “the year after they wanted us back to do something of the same sort of fashion”. The company narrowed it down to “three possibilities: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dracula. We knew that we wanted it to be one of those three and for some reason Frankenstein for us really just shone out as this horrendously beautiful story.”

Adapting such a vast, weighty novel was a challenge for the company: “We all read it out loud, which was really important, to start, that helped us listen to the dialogue and be quite ruthless with it.” They also watched “probably every single version of the film that has ever been released”.

“Lots of them were pretty naff, especially the Kenneth Branagh one, which I’d watched as a child and then rewatched doing this, and had never realised how awful it was until I watched it again! The way they tell the story is really cliched, so I think if anything we took all those worst bits, all the mistakes people had made in telling this story and said ‘well that’s what we’re not going to do’.”

The result is a darkly funny, energetic, hugely idiosyncratic show in which a Victorian freakshow put on a production of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. The play-within-a-play structure gives depth and originality to an oft-told tale, and remains in keeping with the gothic aesthetic of the original. Tin Shed has since toured Dr Frankenstein across the country, including at the London Horror Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they performed in a “sweat box”.

“We nearly died,” says Harris. “We were so hot it was unbelievable. The show before us had a cast of about fifteen and you’ve only got a few minutes to get in; the heat would just smack you in the face.”

Original not only in its output, Tin Shed also breaks the mould of up-and-coming young companies in being based outside London, to which most aspiring theatre-makers inevitably drift. The logic behind remaining in Newport, Harris tells me, is partly artistic and partly practical: “Firstly it comes from being passionate about where we are in the country, wanting to give something directly to the people that are around us, and offer them culture and art in, essentially, a completely art-deprived area.” The urge to bring theatre, art and excitement to Newport and its residents, rather than being “just another blip” in a capital city “saturated” with culture, is clearly integral to how the company sees itself and what it sees as the purpose of its work.

In terms of practicalities, Harris also extolls the virtues of their local theatre, “as well as other local venues in Cardiff – everyone is incredibly supportive – the arts council here is very supportive, and comes and meets us whenever we need them to.” Outside London, the company is “able to stand alone and stand out”, which makes sense for it – but inevitably this means missing out on a lot of the work of their peers, who are largely elsewhere.

“I think that’s the downside to not being based somewhere culturally alive – we get to see some stuff but we have to travel to see that, either to Bristol or Cardiff, and we go to London a lot too… So to be surrounded by other companies doing the same thing as us,” she says of INCOMING, “is going to be great.”

Having experienced first-hand how hard it can be to start out, Harris is also passionate about INCOMING’s support of emergent theatre-makers. “I think for young companies to be able to get on their feet and start producing work is very difficult,” she says. “There’s not a lot of money out there, there’s not a lot of funding, you almost have to be established in your own right before anyone will even come and see your show, let alone think about funding it! So the fact that there’s a festival actually supporting that is great, and we’re just really honoured to be part of it – we’re all super excited.”

Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show will be at the New Diorama Theatre on 24 May as part of INCOMING Festival. For more information and to book £5 tickets, visit the NDT’s website.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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Feature: How to Describe a Plague: Dan Phillips on directing Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings

Posted on 10 April 2014 by Billy Barrett

safesex

The weekend of our first same-sex weddings, Dan Phillips started rehearsals for the UK premier of Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings. Harvey Fierstein’s 1987 plays depict a darker chapter in the lives and loves of gay men – the AIDS epidemic. Part of a blackly comic trilogy, their original Broadway run closed after just a few performances amidst a media frenzy surrounding the disease; perhaps the reason why Fierstein is better known today for musical theatre – he wrote the books for La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots – and we tend to turn to writers like Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer for plays on the subject.

Besides, says Phillips, a young Director from Swansea, “these are plays about AIDS, but none of the characters have AIDS. Unlike The Normal Heart or Angels in America where you watch healthy young men onstage wear away as the virus eats them alive, Fierstein looks at the people it leaves behind – and that’s very rarely done.” Safe Sex studies the psychological damage wrought by the epidemic; the fear that the spectre of HIV drives into one couple’s intimate life. On Tidy Endings is a post-mortem of two relationships, as a gay man and a straight woman react to the death of the man they both loved. The opener is “very much about how AIDS changed gay relationships, whereas the second play is about loss, whether you’re gay, straight, male or female,” Phillips says. “There’s the undercurrent of a certain period, and a certain tragedy that hit a community and then started to spread.”

Our cultural encounters with AIDS are almost always through the prism of this particular time. Stock footage of Reagan and Thatcher, synth pop and pink triangles bearing “Silence = Death’”: for many young people today, these are our immediate associations with the disease – the world captured in the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague. Yet new HIV infections are on the rise. Doesn’t focusing on the past perpetuate the misconception that the danger’s over? “That’s a good question,” Phillips considers. “But these plays don’t really feel like 80s plays… and it gets people talking about it, which I guess is the main thing.”

He’s also keen to fill in gaps people might have in their knowledge of LGBT history. This starts young: “I trained as a teacher before I became a director, and worked with a lot of kids in schools. You see the amount that’s taught on the civil rights movement and the bloodshed there, yet nothing about the LGBT community’s fight.” Phillips experienced first-hand the legacy of Section 28, the Tories’ local government act that forbade the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools – something he’s spoken about with his cast in rehearsals. “I was teaching in a school recently, and sent out an email to highlight the importance of this weekend. I was told not to spread my personal opinion throughout the staff. I’ve also taught sex education in schools, and been told that I’m not allowed to talk about certain things.”

Phillips hopes his staging will speak directly to a contemporary British audience. “I have a feeling about accents in theatre, especially American,” he says. “They create distance, separate you from the reality of the play.” With the blessing of the plays’ literary agent, he’s anglicised the dialogue, re-set the references and swapped San Francisco for London – our own “gay mecca”. America was hit harder by the epidemic, but “because it wasn’t as dominant in this country,” Phillips suggests, “what you got was the fear of something much bigger”. He’s set his version in 1986, the year of the government’s infamous ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign – tombstones on leaflets through every letterbox, John Hurt’s voice thundering over prophetic TV ads. “It was the point that there was the most fear, without really understanding what this thing was; you didn’t see it wherever you went but you heard about it, which is a lot more frightening.”

Two years in the making, Phillips’s spin on the plays has been “a real passion project”. As well as tweaking the dialogue, he made the decision to drop the trilogy’s third play, Manny and Jake. “I felt it had dated, in a sense – it was very abstract, quite a forward thinking and strong piece of writing in its time, but I didn’t feel that it conveyed the message it wanted to anymore. Rather than try and force it to be something that it’s not, it made more sense just to drop it.”

This summer, he’ll also revive Fierstein’s International Stud at the Edinburgh Fringe. What draws him to the playwright’s work? “He resonates with me. I just love the way that he can create gut-wrenching emotion and laugh out loud humour in the same piece. So many AIDS plays are just bleak. But there’s something about Fierstein’s work – he lived through it and he lost people, yet he still manages to find the humour in it.”

The production of Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings opens this month at the Tristan Bates Theatre, and benefits the Make a Difference trust, raising funds for people in the theatre and entertainment industries living with HIV and AIDS. “I’ve always wanted to do something for MAD, and I feel so privileged that I finally have the chance to get these plays on”, Phillips says. “Human nature is to deal with things by humour. And the more we rehearse these plays, the more we’re finding that. It makes for an evening of not just education, but also entertainment – you can’t get away from the fact that whatever else theatre does, it has to entertain.”

 

Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings will be at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 22 April until 17 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Tristan Bates website.

Billy Barrett

Billy Barrett

Billy currently studies English and Theatre at Warwick University. Between reviewing and reading for his course, Billy writes, directs and acts in theatre. He tries to see everything in London, Warwick and beyond!

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Incoming preview: Scribbled Thought

Posted on 09 April 2014 by Phosile Mashinkila

(c) Mihaela Bodlovic

(c) Mihaela Bodlovic

Superhero Snail Boy, written by Elizabeth Muncey, will be featured in A Younger Theatre’s very own Incoming Festival in May. I had a chat with Steph Connell and Ross Stanley, Co-Directors of Scribbled Thought Theatre, the brand new company that has produced and developed the show along with Vertical Line Theatre. “We originally discovered the play with Vertical Line Theatre at a new writing night called LineUp; a 10 minute extract of the play was produced the play as part of that night. We fell in love with it and, as it was so well received, we decided to produce it in Edinburgh last summer.”

The show premiered at last year’s Barclaycard British Summer Time Festival, “to about 1,500 children at Hyde Park”. It then transferred to Bedlam Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe where it was shown to a much wider audience and garnered the interest of other venues. The Incoming Festival kicks off a summer tour that proves the show is going from strength to strength: “Since everyone loved it so much, we thought that we should show the progression with it. There have been a lot of rewrites so the structure has changed quite a bit; we have helped Lizzie, the writer, to develop the play and give it more structure.”

Aimed at those aged nine upwards, Superhero Snail Boy is about two 11-year olds who have both suffered the loss of a family member: kept up by their worries at night, they both have trouble sleeping. In comes a giant snail whose job is to carry the weight of the night-time when children cannot sleep: the snail teaches them how to express their emotions and not to fear them. On reading the script, Connell immediately saw that there was more to the piece: “We read it and thought people need to see this play –children, adults, teachers, young people, everyone. People should learn that children have problems too which need to be talked about just as much as adults.”

Stanley points out that those looking for substance need not be deterred by the family format: “Expect to be surprised, it is more than a children’s show; any preconceptions you have about it are probably wrong. The play has been cleverly written and directed: there are so many different layers with varying relationships and dynamics explored in the play. At the end of the play, we have had children come out in hysterics and adults in tears: there is something for everyone. ”

Both previously part of Vertical Line Theatre, Stanley and Connell decided to start their own company after realising that, “what we cared about the most and our visions for the future were very much intertwined. We want to do projects that are issue-based and highlight problems in our community: our aim is not only to entertain but also to educate and inspire.”

Both Stanley and Connell seem to have a strong mission, made clear in their passion and approach regarding the development of new work: “We do not really have set criteria for what excites us: we are looking for that energy and that initial spark that enables us to form a relationship which guides our work. At the minute we are working with very specific artists that we target rather than them coming to us, helping specific individuals rather than trying to assist everyone and not being able to spread our resources as far. We are focusing on giving them tailor-made support, providing them with the structure and production values in a safe environment, and allowing them room to play.”

In line with their own vision to be a hub for new writing, Connell and Stanley feel honoured to be part of the Incoming Festival: “It is important to celebrate young companies and show other people that we do make professional productions of a high quality, which are just as good as those of people ten years older. The calibre of the companies involved is incredible and the festival is a good way of showcasing them with the credibility of a central London venue. It is a great opportunity for our companies to find each other, build relationships, and see how we can advise and support one another.”

On asking for their advice to other young people looking to start their own companies, Stanley’s response was, “Jump in feet first. Fundamentally, if you care enough about what you’re doing, then that will shine through and will be your driving force.” Connell rightly pointed out young people should not let their age discourage them: “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you work hard and have the skills to do it, then people will take you seriously.”

Their recommendation to seek guidance from those higher up in the industry was especially valuable: “If you do not ask, you do not get: we have had coffees with people we never thought we would get in the same room with, simply just by asking. They may seem like they are divine, but never forget that where you are now is where they were ten years ago. A lot of them feel like it is their duty as professionals to pass on some help.”

Superhero Snail Boy will be part of the Incoming Festival at New Diorama, playing on 24 May at 4.30pm. For more information and to book tickets, visit the New Diorama Theatre’s website.

Phosile Mashinkila

Phosile Mashinkila

A member of the National Youth Theatre, Phosile Mashinkila has a clichéd ardour for writing, directing and acting which is based on a childhood love of Shakespeare and story-telling that has never been outgrown.

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INCOMING Preview: Clout Theatre

Posted on 20 March 2014 by Katie Smith

Clout – Various Lives

Of the four members of Clout Theatre, all are present for our interview, but only three of them are in the same country. Mine Çerçi is in Turkey, and joins our interview over Skype. “We’re very used to this kind of thing,” Jenny Swingler tells me: as a result of Çerçi’s visa being denied, she directed the whole of their most recent show, The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity, via video call.

The company is made up of Çerçi, who directs, and actors Swingler, George Ramsay and Sasha Plaige, who came together after studying at the Lecoq in Paris. They are performing Various Lives as part of INCOMING; Swingler says it will “be really interesting to perform it in London to people who missed it at Edinburgh”. Clout has just returned from an R&D period in Istanbul when I meet them – and, more excitingly still, the company is about to go on to residencies at BAC, Jackson’s Lane and the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter before it performs at INCOMING.

The show itself is an intense exploration of the absurdity of life, exemplified by fascinating physical theatre. The premise of the piece is that a post-suicide group meet and discuss – and even re-enact – their untimely ends. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. “You find yourself laughing at death, or suicide,” Ramsay observes, “We’re laughing about it, and then maybe there’s an echo that’s uncomfortable after that.”

By working through a devised process that Plaige calls “very democratic”, Clout has created a piece every year for the last three years, and is currently developing a fourth. “We all collaborate, we all discuss,” Plaige says of the devising process. “We all discuss the themes we would like to explore, the ideas, and then we come to something that is interesting for everyone. And then we get into the rehearsal room and each of us proposes something, and we all try it.”

Each member of the company has differing interests which cover various aspects of theatre, and the process Clout goes through to create a piece is what Ramsay describes as “finding where that unity is” between the different styles. “Some of us go more towards character, some of us go more towards movement, some of us go more towards clowns, some of us go more towards grotesque,” he explains, “Each of us has a different style, and that can be really rich.”

Clout premiered The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity at Edinburgh last year, and has gone onto develop it over the past few months, notably at BAC and then further in Istanbul, where Çerçi had to tech for a show she’d never actually seen in real life. This, she says, gave her a greater passion and drive to see the show develop further. The members of Clout all seem to agree that festivals such as INCOMING and residencies such as the one they are about to embark on in Exeter are integral to the development of emerging companies. Swingler notes that “festivals are important because it’s a chance for you to show your work, and sometimes that might sound easier than it actually is to do. I mean, a lot of the time we can make a show and then it doesn’t really have a home to go to, as it were, or an audience to reach.” Having worked in Paris after graduating, each of the members of Clout agrees that in terms of support and interest, London is a great place for young companies to develop.

As an emerging company, Clout naturally welcomes this support. The members of the company still have day jobs – they spend roughly half the year working outside the company in different areas, and then have a tight schedule of six months during which they create a show. Though developing rapidly, the company is still glad to be classed as an emerging company – Plaige notes how the label “leaves you a bit of freedom to take risks”. This allows opportunities to create the sort of show audiences can expect from Clout at INCOMING: “We’re not really ashamed of taking that kind of risk, even if it’s maybe one that’s in bad taste, some people could say? We enjoy playing around with that,” Swingler states, encapsulating the ambience and intensity of Clout’s evocative piece. “We try to do something we haven’t seen before,” Plaige adds. “It’s more of an experiment.”

Not being a full time company has by no means curbed the company’s focus or enthusiasm, and when asked for advice for other young or emerging companies, Swingler is assertive in her answer. “Just do it. Don’t second guess yourself or procrastinate. The advice would be just to go for it, to really go for it, and do 100% your creation and defend that creation as an artist, and don’t compromise, and that’s the best you can do.” It is evident that this sort of determination permeates Clout’s work – the result is work that is shocking, current, and visceral.

Just as Çerçi is about to answer a question on what the company’s multinational make-up lends Clout’s work, the video connection cuts out. But Ramsay pipes in. “I know what she’s going to say. I think she’s going to say that we have a common language from being at the same school.” When Çerçi comes back on the line she types her response on screen – and it’s almost exactly as Ramsay predicted. Being multinational is “not that difficult”, she says, “because we all share the same language, which is Lecoq.” It’s clear that the company is incredibly in tune with each other. Perhaps it’s this connection, whether through its shared theatrical language or complementary creative mindsets, that makes it the exciting company it is.

The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity will be at the New Diorama Theatre on 22 May as part of A Younger Theatre’s INCOMING Festival. For more information and tickets, visit NDT’s website.

Katie Smith

Katie Smith

Katie is a student and occasional playwright and theatre director. When not frantically fitting in as much theatre as time will allow, she can often be found complaining, reading or drinking copious amounts of tea

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