“It’s really unlike any other theatre that I’ve ever experienced,” Joe Sumsion says, enthusiastically describing the outdoor promenade plays put on by the Dukes, Lancaster, of which he is the Director. Back for its twenty-seventh year in the 54-acre Williamson Park, this year the Dukes’s play of choice is Hansel and Gretel, directed by Sumsion. The outdoor promenade productions, he tells me, allow the audience to go on a “physical journey” through the park. “There’s quite a lot of site-specific theatre about now – it’s quite fashionable – but often it’s for quite small audiences. This is site-specific, moving theatre for really big audience numbers, so our story promises that you can follow the breadcrumbs, and follow Hansel and Gretel on their journey through the forest.”
Sumsion was brought up in the Lake District and got involved with a local youth theatre at the age of 13, then trying acting, assistant directing and stage management. A drama degree from Bristol, a year at Central School of Speech and Drama, around eight years of freelancing, and a position as Artistic Director of Action Transport Theatre later, Sumsion, now 46, took over the Dukes in 2007. Having worked both and inside and outside London throughout his career, Sumsion is passionate about the way theatre outside London aims to reach everyone. “I’m a big believer in theatre for everyone,” he says, “and we say at the Dukes that theatre and the arts have the potential to really enhance and sometimes change people’s lives. What I love about working in Lancaster is that this theatre tries to engage with everyone.”
As Director of a regional theatre, Sumsion is aware of how “in London the theatre industry speaks to itself a lot”, and is enthusiastic about the quality of the work the Dukes produces. “The thing that bugs me a bit is that sometimes there is the perception that theatre outside London by its very nature can’t be really good. You know: ‘Can excellence thrive in a relatively small place like Lancaster?’ And I believe it can.” Hansel and Gretel should be an example of this quality. The play’s full title is Hansel and Gretel and more tales from the forest, because on their journey, Hansel, Gretel and the audience will encounter characters from various other myths and fairytales. “They meet a wolf who’s trying to mend his ways. He’s got a very big scar down his stomach, but he’s turned vegetarian,” Sumsion says, the tone in his voice clearly expressing his enjoyment of this premise. “He then enters their story, and what we’re doing is bumping into the Red Riding Hood story after the event. So one of the things we’re really enjoying about making this show is creating these really lovely characters that can live in this beautiful setting.”
The large audiences of the show, up to 550 people a night, means directing the show outside must be a challenge. What practical issues does Sumsion face when staging a show outside? “What I always try to do is imagine it on a wet, horrible, cold night,” he says. “What is going to really attract people, and grip people, and make people want to be there and enjoy it, and push it on?” Sumsion seems more focused and enthused about the positives of staging work outdoors. “I think the big thing is to play to the park’s strengths,” he says, describing to me the final scene of the play, in which Hansel and Gretel must row out onto the vast lake of the park to reach their estranged father. “If we get it right, audiences, when they arrive at that scene, will be swept away with the beauty of the lake itself, and then they’ll be swept away by the drama on it.”
Does Sumsion have any advice for young or aspiring directors? “Learning by doing,” he says. “Direct as much as possible, and also watch as much as possible.” He mentions how important it is that young director’s interests match the theatres they hope to work with, because with some directors that want to work with the Dukes “it’s clear from their CV that the kind of work they’re interested in isn’t really the kind of work that we are interested in. If directors can find theatres that they like then they’ve got a better chance of getting involved there, because they’ll hopefully not be pushing at a closed door.”
Having worked with Action Transport, which works primarily with children and young people, it seems fair to ask Sumsion about why he believes young people should be involved with theatre. “Because they’re human beings like everybody else,” he says plainly. “You quite often hear people say that it’s important to get young people to see theatre because they’re the audiences of the future, and I really don’t like that expression, because they’re the audiences of now.” Hansel and Gretel aims to appeal to all three generations of a family, meaning it should be all the more enjoyable for being inclusive. “I think theatre, for all ages, can really enlighten you,” Sumsion adds. “It can entertain you, it can make you glad to be alive, it can be celebratory. To my mind, an uplifting, wonderful play is all the better if it has all ages watching it. Whereas if it was just young people or just older people, there’s nothing wrong with that – but I actually think the experience is richer if it’s for everyone.”
Hansel and Gretel is playing from 4 July to 16 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Dukes’ website.