Every year Red Rose Chain Theatre Company takes theatre away from the stage and into the trees with Theatre In The Forest. Artistic Director Jo Carrick has been there since the project started and has seen it grow over 15 years. “When we first started it was just eight of us who did absolutely everything”, she reminisces. “We were all in the show and we did all the lighting and sound, and we ran round in the interval and pulled out all the teas and coffees and things… we directed traffic and did absolutely everything between us.” That was back when Theatre In The Forest was a two-night show for an audience of 500. Now it’s a seven-week run that’s expected to be seen by 14,000 plus people, but Carrick and her team work hard to make sure they stick to their humble roots. “Obviously we’ve got a massive team now, but we’ve tried to keep really true to the heart of the event… everyone gets stuck in and makes everyone feel really welcome.”
Last year it moved premises, to Jimmy’s Farm in Suffolk, building a new outdoor arena in the beautiful woods to create a theatre experience unlike any other. “It’s got gorgeous trees and a leafy canopy overhead. People arrive from about 6 o’clock in the evening to see the show. Lots of people bring picnics or go to the farm and have dinner beforehand… we’re quite well know for having all our actors out front before the show, all dressed in costume and chatting to the audience and doing magic tricks and joking about – helping carry the picnics hampers and all sorts of things.”
This year the company is putting on a double bill of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The two plays are quite different but complement each other nicely. Comedy of Errors is the bright, boisterous, loud comedy that Carrick describes as “the most extreme farce… the cast has got six actors in it and they are larger than life. They are absolutely tremendously talented, by the time you get to the second half people will be literally falling out of their chairs crying with laughter – it’s that sort of show. It’s loud and large and hilarious.”
Shakespeare has a unfair reputation of being serious, formidable theatre to watch, but Carrick and her team have developed a style of Shakespeare that’s both true to the original plays and really accessible. “We use lots of music and physicalisation, loads and loads of comedy, and very bright interesting designs to colour code the characters so people can understand. It’s really really easy to understand but it’s still proper true Shakespeare and it’s a real laugh.” In contrast to the riotous humour of Shakespeare is the gloomy ghost-story version of Wuthering Heights, set in a graveyard “so it’s like the ghosts are coming out of their graves and telling the story. It’s much more romantic and ghostly and atmospheric in that way.” Carrick explains that she really enjoyed the challenge of adapting a story from novel to stage form. “I love it. I love structure and you’ve already got a structure there to work from… you’ve got to cut to the chase and really get to the depths of what the piece is all about because you can’t have everything on stage otherwise we’d be there all night long!” There’s sacrifices every director has to make when adapting any story but Carrick says she likes to stay as true to the original as possible.
As well as being what makes Theatre In The Forest so different, its outdoor setting is also the most challenging element of the event. Carrick describes acting outdoors as “something you kind of learn about as you go”. The rehearsals for Theatre In The Forest start indoors and then move to the outdoor stage a week-and-a-half or so before the show opens. Despite all the work beforehand, after the move outdoors “the whole thing kind of starts again. Everyone knows the show and they know their lines, they know the choreography and the music, but we’ve got to fit it into the space. At that point you always get lots of big challenges but lots of really creative exciting things happen.” They don’t use amplification in the outdoor stage, so the actors have a huge challenge when it comes to projecting their voices and acting big enough to fill the massive auditorium space. “Sometimes when the actors go out they’re just like ‘oh my god’… they’ve been doing all this really subtle stuff indoors and now they’ve got to just give it the big one out there… everything’s more tiring outdoors somehow.”
Carrick also gives out some valuable practical advice for aspiring actors, suggesting that a good way to learn is to go and watch as many plays as you can – and watch the same play over and over again. “You see a play once and you get the audience experience, but if you see it lots of times you can explore the mechanisms of what’s really going on, what’s working and maybe what’s not working quite so well. So I think that would be a big piece of advice – get cheap tickets or be an usher or something so you can get to see a show over and over again. I think there’s no substitute for that really. Theatre’s not an academic subject, it’s a practical skill, so being there and seeing it happen is what really really helps.”
Red Rose Chain’s Theatre in the Forest season runs from 8 July to 24 August. For more information and tickets, visit Red Rose Chain’s website.