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.