What came first, the story or the site? It’s a question being asked more and more as the world of theatre witnesses an increase in site-specific shows, such as Fourth Monkey’s latest production, Project Colony. Artistic Director of Fourth Monkey Steven Green believes “if it was a fad it would have died out by now. I think when looking at young or new companies, a lot of people can’t afford theatre spaces – can’t hire spaces and spaces are closing – they’re not as accessible as they were. It’s stepping outside the normal confines of traditional theatre.” Co-Director of Project Colony Hamish MacDougall prefers to call this form of theatre, “site-responsive. I think it should be that your site complements your play and vice versa,” and Co-Director James Yeatman agrees: “during the devising process we always knew that we had to make a show that would honour those two things.” Yeatman explains, “in the story, this traveller arrives at a colony which is cut off from anywhere else, so this place completely fits the bills because it’s in the middle of nowhere. We have two very different spaces: this very strange underground space and this big white barn space. The division in the story has to match the division of the space and it’s always been our mission to think about how the space responds to the story. It’s about the old and the new.”

Project Colony is a production devised by Fourth Monkey’s one year company, inspired by Franz Kafka’s novella, In The Penal Colony. Essentially, MacDougall and Yeatman devised “a foundation script, then obviously the original novel was referred to throughout the whole rehearsal process, as the actors improvised and devised around that,” explains Green. “This whole project is mental: we were devising with nearly 60 people. The story has four people in it [which] allowed us to explore more than if we had a cast of four and did a straight adaptation. It’s allowed us to pull apart what Kafka’s trying to say with it,” says MacDougall. “This torture machine is the centre of the island; to the old regime it speaks the truth and creates justice. Every adaptation I’ve seen of it on stage solely focuses on the machine, but not on the island and the two parties which are practically at war.” MacDougall’s consideration of this made Trinity Buoy Wharf seem like the perfect fit for an adaptation of In The Penal Colony, and having visited the site myself I can agree with Green that “it’s almost like you’re on an island. It’s desolate, remote.”

IMG_9548ColourHowever site-specific work “always throws up its own problems,” Yeatman tells me. “The main problem with this space at the moment is the absolute bitter cold.” I would recommend audience members to wrap up warm, because, despite the spectacular view, Fourth Monkey’s space at the Trinity Buoy Wharf is most definitely subject to a vengeful breeze blowing across the Thames. Green also notes that “it’s completely different to them doing something in a studio space. How much can we rely on the audience to behave and not have people wander off into the River Thames? It’s simple things of that nature.”

Besides this, it’s been a challenge for the actors to play such a big part in the creating the show as well as performing it, considering Fourth Monkey Theatre Company first and foremost provides an alternative training to drama school, by learning through performance. Yeatman feels “a real responsibility to these performers in some ways, because they are training and they’ve got to be thrust in front of a paying audience in a way you wouldn’t at drama school. I think it’s a good way to learn that type of thing.” But however terrifying the process has been, MacDougall thinks “it pushes you to the limit in a good way. Devising requires a lot of skills: improvisation, thinking on your feet, thinking about how you take an idea and express that theatrically – this has pushed all their creative buttons. It creates instinctive thoughts and, personally, I think that as an actor that’s your biggest asset. I always say to them, an actor has to bring something with them into the room; there’s no point if you’ve got no instinctive idea.” At the end of the day, Green hopes putting on a performance in this way and on this scale will give these actors “a profound bravery moving forward. Hopefully there’s a lot there that they’ll find useful when they go on to do stuff afterwards.”

IMG_9610ColourAltogether, working in this collaborative manner with a large cast “brings it back to what the company is all about in a way: the ensemble. Which means we can do that in a really honourable, truthful way; ensemble playing just brings the space alive and I think the space should be alive… Because of the practitioners these guys are working with now they’re getting more and more of a physical language as well,” says Green. Green has been able to take a back seat on this project with MacDougall and Yeatman co-directing, and observes “they complement each other in terms of the way the piece moves forward. Watching them together, James is painting the big picture and Hamish is picking out the details.” MacDougall and Yeatman find it harder to identify what they bring as individuals when I ask them the same question: “James and I have been friends for ages; we’ve worked together a few times. We may be very different directors but we have very similar interests at heart. We always met an hour-and-a-half before rehearsals started and had a discussion to work out what one another was doing. There’s more clarity with the cast because of it I think.”

“We were in a position last year where this space became an option for us, and it seemed like this immensely meteoric thing to do,” says Green. Two directors leading a company of 54 actors in training through a three month devising process around a Kafka novella for a site-specific performance? Meteoric sounds about right. “It’s tricky because what we’re going is expanding Kafka’s ideas I suppose, and we don’t want to do it in a dishonourable way,” MacDougall explains the problem of adapting Kafka in this way. Green considers Project Colony to be “an extension of the novel… at the same time, something which is very much their own.” MacDougall pretty much sums up the process for the actors when he says, “I hope they’ll look back on it and think how brilliant it was. We made that.” And equally, Yeatman hopes Project Colony will lead the audience “on a journey somewhere to find a place you might have never been before, and discover a story.”

Project Colony is playing at Trinity Buoy Wharf from 2-27 April. For tickets and more information click here:

Whilst dropping in on rehearsals for Project Colony, I also watched them film a Fourth Monkey Harlem Shake. For hilarity, click here:

Alternatively, the trailer for Project Colony can be seen here:

All photography by Richard Lakos,