Mike Bryher, Artistic Director of Dumbshow Theatre, started in theatre by doing a National Youth Theatre course when he was 16, then going back to university with a new skill set and a passion to use it. Now he’s directing and acting in Dumbshow’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which is touring to an incredible 31 venues.
“I never really specifically wanted to be a director”, he tells me. “I just kind of fell into it. I just wanted to make the work I wanted to make, the way I wanted to make it. That was really the important thing with making Dumbshow, I wanted to work with an ensemble, with a group of friends who shared views about the world, who’s views differed but who all had the passion to tell stories well.”
Since its birth as a student company, Dumbshow has grown into a well-known name in theatre. “We’ve grown organisationally, but at the same time we are all still a group of people who almost all met at university, and who shared passions and ideals, which largely haven’t changed. In some ways we’ve changed a lot and are continuing to change, but in some ways we’re exactly the same old bunch of mates who still like to get together, dance around and watch YouTube videos instead of rehearsing!”
Bryher feels that working in a tight-knit group helps make the work much richer – and makes things a lot quicker. “We made The Pearl initially in about nine days,” he says casually. “From having nothing before we started to having about an hour’s worth of work. A lot of the show came from that initial nine day working period, and you can only do that if you know each other and you can hit the ground running.” That said, he’s clear to point out who’s the one in charge… “It’s not a co-operative and it’s not always a democracy – I am the director – but I think we do gain a lot from knowing each other a great deal.”
According to Bryher, Dumbshow chooses work that is concerned with ideas about community and society: “we’re becoming progressively more political in our output” he admits, and The Pearl fits in with that agenda well. “It’s a story that’s kind of ancient but also feels very new and fresh minted. It seems to capture a lot of conundrums about society today, about value and how we think of money and power and greed and social mobility and all those things. It felt like a good story to tell for now.”
Theatre writer Sam Gayton, who adapted The Pearl for the stage, adds his insight to the power of the story and how best to go about adapting for theatre. “It’s a play about a family who are not considered to be worth as much as other people to some of the characters… I think that it’s particularly relevant today because it’s tied up in questions of value and worth – both of things and of people. That’s a question we still haven’t got over, we’re still disagreeing over the value of things in different countries and different ways. We’re disagreeing over the value of services, things like the NHS and schools – it’s funny that Steinbeck himself has now been taken off the syllabus, so actually we’re doing this in a period where somebody has decided that Steinbeck is off less value than it once was.”
Gayton thinks adapting a book is actually a very tough job, and a lot of it comes down to choosing the right text to start with. “In general I think it’s tough depending on what you choose. I think the mistake a lot of people make when they adapt stuff is maybe they choose a story that works too well within its particular medium – people tend to choose masterpieces which don’t necessarily work in the theatre as well because then there’s kind of a sense in the theatre that what people are seeing isn’t as good as what they remember reading or hearing or going to see in a gallery… The Pearl is actually a really, really great novella and it reads really easily, so I think we made it really hard for ourselves. It was really tough to live up to.”
He thinks the key to good adaptations is being able to recognise where the drama is, what the things are that will look good on stage, and what things might work brilliantly on the page, but need to be changed when shown in a theatre space. If he’s done his job well, he wants people to come out after the show and be talking to each other about the central question of the play – who wouldn’t want to find a pearl?
One of the remarkable things about this show is the size of the tour. The show is being produced by House, a company set up to promote better touring of strong theatre to smaller venues across the south-east and south-west of England, and Bryher credits it with making a tour this size possible. But even with its help “we’ve also worked our arses off… I feel like all I’ve done over the past month is send emails, reply to emails, re-draft emails, back-up emails I’ve already sent, so it is an incredible amount of work that I don’t think we will ever have been paid for really! It’s been really really hard setting up the tour.”
He also thinks there are problems in the touring systems in place for small theatre in the UK, lack of funding from Arts Council England, and having to work with multiple venues all with different process and schedules is making it very difficult – Bryher encourages young people to get involved with group like What Next Culture, which is working to improve funding for arts in the UK. The struggle in putting on shows like this means that Bryher advises young people to be sure that theatre is what they want to be doing… “Make sure that there’s a reason that you’re doing it other that because you kind of want to be an actor or you kind of want to be a theatre maker… also that it’s very, very, very, very hard and that you will work an incredible amount and in the first instance you won’t get paid for it.”
Gayton agrees that a lot of determination and hard work are needed to make theatre these days. “Be tenacious and be relevant. It feels like a really tough time at the moment for theatre companies, especially small ones, because they’re having to justify their existence. The people that don’t give up are the people that remain, but also I think for theatre companies today it’s really important to engage with the questions that are going to be the really important questions for this generation.” “There isn’t much money out there to make work,” says Bryher, “so I think it’s an artist’s responsibility to look at the world and react to it in some way.”
The Pearl opens at Pegasus Theatre in Oxford on 18 September and is then touring until November. For more information on the tour, which covers Exeter, Dorchester, Bridport, Letchworth, Lyme Regis, Basington, Falmouth, Maidstone, Bristol, Didcot, Maidenhead, Leighton Buzzard, Hemel Hempstead, Colchester, Greenwich, Bedford, Eastleigh, Coventry, Guildford, Norwich, Hertford, Dilwyn, All Stretton, Baldock, London, Halifax and Leeds, visit Dumbshow’s website.