Summer’s finally here (possibly, if the sun shines today…) and it’s that time of year when one thing is on a lot of people’s minds. If you’re searching for your own slice of summer romance, London company Grassroots might just have the answer for you with its latest set of Shakespeare plays with the theme ‘Summer of Love’. It’s the company’s most ambitious project to date and Boris Mitkov from the artistic team tells me more about working without a director, devising and having lots of good old fashioned family-friendly fun.
Tell us a bit about your new season of shows.
The shows are all rehearsed from scratch, by one ensemble, in just three short weeks, and completely devised by the company. Romeo and Juliet is a play that requires little introduction because its universal themes of love, honour and rivalry are so sensitively explored, through both comedy and drama, that it has become arguably one of the best known plays in the world. What we believe we have created is an exciting, funny (at times hilarious) and tender staging that can appeal to anyone. It is, incidentally, the first time Grassroots has tackled a tragedy and we’re very excited to show it to new audiences. The second play is Love’s Labour’s Lost. This is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s lesser known pieces although it was successful enough in his time to spawn a sequel: Love’s Labour’s Won. The company is incredibly excited to be exploring this play because it has a very funny premise which is: four lords have sworn off women in pursuit of self improvement and study. As one might expect in a Shakespearean comedy, no sooner have they done so but they are instantly overwhelmed by the arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies in waiting. The supporting characters are also full of ridiculous and side-splittingly funny one-liners and see themselves in no-end of bizarre situations.
So who make up Grassroots?
The company itself has been running for some time. It was started in London by Siobhan Daly after she had spent some time in Exeter where she met Mark Oram, the founder of Grassroots in America. Although still very young, the company has huge ambitions about making excellent theatre accessible to everyone and providing a platform for new and young talent to be noticed by the public and the arts industry. We are an “original practices” company. This means that for the most part we work as Shakespeare’s actors would have worked; this includes not having a director, condensed rehearsal periods, and having props, costume and set all supplied by the actors themselves. We have modernised the concept in one respect by casting gender blind. We do not have all male companies, and men and women are just as likely to find themselves in roles of the opposite gender.
So what style are the shows presented in?
Having no director gives us endless possibilities in terms of style. We try not to impose concepts on the text because we feel that unless they are carefully thought through and implemented, those productions open themselves up to criticism about failing to maintain or justify the period in which they are set. Instead we look to locate the settings in a place that is identifiable to audiences, something that gives the piece a more contemporary feel. This is once again a literal reading of the original practices method. Shakespeare’s actors had access to clothes of their period but if we wore those clothes now they would be ridiculous and make it seem as if we were setting the plays in the past. The biggest style element is the irreverence with which we approach performing the text. It was written for the masses, and because tastes and understandings have changed since then, Shakespeare plays can often be marked as elitist and of little appeal to the fun-loving, musical and comedy fans. We hope to shatter that perception.
How did the idea for theme Summer of Love come about?
The Summer of Love came about because it is so rare for a company to present two pieces in rep on the fringe and we wanted to really make the season instantly identifiable with one label. It follows on from the Lion and the Unicorn’s concept of a Magical Christmas season and the title is a reflection of the themes of the play. We like to be flexible with our programming and that means talking to venues to try to build in shows that can complement there existing plans. We are trying to work our way through the canon of Shakespeare but as you can imagine, with two shows at a time we will soon run out of the well know works and we are excited about staging some of the lesser known but equally as excellent pieces. More than anything the title should be an invitation to audiences to embrace the “lovely” weather and come down to the theatre to be transported to another world.
Grassroots has previously performed open-air in the “lovely” weather – which do you prefer?
Performing outside is a different game. Subtlety has its place and I would strongly argue that does include open-air performances. You have to be heard and you have to be seen by every person watching, however far away they are. I think it would be impossible to choose between the two. Performing outside enabled the company to offer free shows to the public and we are very keen to continue this. In fact, our Grassroots Offshoots company will be back at Victoria Embankment Gardens straight after the main company wraps the Summer of Love season. Being inside offers the benefits of lighting design and sound design. It can really help to build the intimacy between performer and the audience. Suddenly, sharing asides or soliloquies with audience members carries heightened meaning. At that short distance you can see the whites of their eyes and they can see every twitch in your performance.
How did you get involved with the company and what’s your role?
I came to the company last summer (2012) when I joined the ensemble for the Off-West End nominated production of Much Ado About Nothing. I loved the way the company worked and really encouraged Siobhan, our Artistic Director, to push for bigger and better things which she has done tirelessly. My role varies. I share a good deal of the production responsibilities with Siobhan which include casting, booking venues or rehearsal spaces, editing photos and online content, sourcing props and set building to name but a few. A huge amount of work goes into every production, in order to get to the position where we can make an ensemble feel free and comfortable to devise, we spend months going over the details. At Christmas, I wasn’t part of the ensemble because I had other projects to pursue and so I was present at rehearsals to help with running lines, offering advice as an outside pair of eyes, lighting and occasionally sewing curtains. This time around Siobhan is stepping back from the performance side and maintaining the backstage running of the company and I am “master of play” at rehearsals.
What’s next for Grassroots?
Our young company, Grassroots Offshoots who will be performing As You Like It in August. Beyond that, we are keen to do several things: to start running workshops and to continue searching for areas in London where we can bring excellent theatre to audiences that might not be regular theatre goers. So many people who audition for us and even more of those who join the ensemble have commented on how much they enjoy the way we run our auditions and rehearsals. It is all about enabling the actors and we would love to share that supportive environment and way of working with more people, so look out for workshops towards the end of the year. It is an excellent way to meet people and for the company to meet you. We are always looking to nurture talent and we’d love to have more opportunities to do so. In the long term, it would be great to find a way to take some of our knowledge to schools and use our talents to help engage the next generation with this rich and wonderful heritage.
What can audiences expect from a night out with Grassroots?
I would strongly recommend finding out first hand but for those who might desire something to whet their appetites I can tell you this: you can enjoy a day out in London before heading to the very well located Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, surrounded by plenty of restaurants and shops. Then you can soak up the atmosphere of the truly wonderful Old Red Lion which is usually buzzing with conversation and lots of theatregoers. Perhaps grab a drink at pub before the show starts. Once you head upstairs just forget about the day and the pub, and let the company transport you to Verona or Navarre, whichever takes your fancy. You can expect to laugh (a lot), possibly cry if you’re so inclined. There will be lots of sweet moments, positively tons of silly moments and definitely a few thrilling moments that will have you on the edge of your seat. The best bit is all this can be shared with the whole family. There is nothing inappropriate. There is an interval. And then you can even have a chat with the cast as they come out through the pub (or sit down to have a drink in the pub). And the tickets are just £15. Price of a cinema ticket but the difference is this is an experience you won’t forget (and it’s in real 3D, without the need for sunglasses inside).
Image credit: Paul Seaby
Grassroots are performing Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost alternate nights at the Old Red Lion, Angel, until 27 July. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.grassrootsshakespearelondon.com/booking.html.