Ellen Carr catches up with Alex Scott, Artistic Director of Little Bulb Theatre
Perhaps it’s the fact that its previous work has taken the form of a knitwear-clad folk band (The Marvellous and Unlikely Fete of Upper Little Downing) or maybe it’s the story of the lightbulb tree I am told when I speak to Alex Scott (Artistic Director of Little Bulb Theatre), but I can’t help seeing this company as a gently anarchic bunch of farmers. Theatrical farmers, planting their idea bulbs, letting them flourish into sturdy idea trees and changing the way we see and make theatre in the process. All without totally realising they’re doing it: “An image in our first show, a scene where one of the kids is talking about planting a bulb and she plants a light bulb and the idea is that it would grow into a light tree… An image of creativity, from the small to the big.”
Little Bulb formed in 2008 working on Crocosmia, initially a project made as part of a University module which went on to win huge plaudits at Edinburgh Fringe that year. The company’s work is some of the most diverse I’ve come across, varying in everything from style to size. It’s been to Edinburgh Fringe as a band in search of its identity (Gooseparty, 2011), is produced by Farnham Maltings and was recently commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre to create Orpheus – a 1930s retelling of the classic myth. Now its show Squally Showers – premiered at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – is part of the Limited Editions Festival at the National Theatre Shed. Scott is, understandably, hugely appreciative of all the support the company has earned.
The company works very closely as an ensemble and is, in Scott’s words, “a bit like a family”. All original members are still there, and they’ve just recently started adding more actors and working with other collaborators which is “really exciting” for them. It isn’t easy to get the exact blend of people to make a great company straight away, it’s often a bit of trial and error, like the right ration of custard to pie, but Little Bulb seems to have found it. Listening to Scott talk about the process of working it becomes clear how it seems to happen so easily for them.
Little Bulb loves to play, theatre is a way for it to experiment and try out new things; it hasn’t, like many companies do, found its niche and stuck with it. “A collection of ideas goes into forming a show. One of those could be an ambition to learn a new skill, or do something we haven’t done, or to do with the scale.” A show being made on the basis that none of the company members can do one of the main skills it entails may seem a bit ridiculous, but actually it’s revitalising. It reminds you of how liberating theatre can be, and how many possibilities it offers us. It’s also probably why all company members have stuck around – this working process is fun! Squally Showers is “a very surreal take on life in a 1980s office” marketed as “exploring dance theatre and whirlwind that was the 1980s”. Why was the show made? Because Little Bulb wanted to explore “physicality, gesture and poetic movement”. Its previous work saw live music played on stage, with Squally Showers they wanted to see what they could do when they freed their bodies by putting the instruments down.
It’s probably either remarkably stupid or remarkably brave to keep making work based on the premise of what you can’t do, and my feeling is it’s the latter. If anything, the British theatre industry needs shaking up in this way, stopping it from being confined in clearly defined boxes.
Little Bulb is extremely rigorous when it rehearses, and takes its time developing ideas (normally around two years before rehearsals start). Scott says that as an audience member he wants to “see a company or an individual really need to be there [the performer needs to] be aware why you are standing in front of the audience, and to be as rigorous as possible with that on a technical level”. Little Bulb works hard on the choreography of material and having as much of the “world” of the project in the rehearsal room from the start, if there’s any technology they “try to have it early on so it’s an organic part of the world”.
I ask Scott about the world of Squally Showers, particularly the setting of the 1980s and the show’s political comment on our own society. The company liked the idea of setting the show in the 80s “because it was such a politically turbulent time in people’s lives” and it is interested in “going to the recent past to discuss and explore the present”. However, it isn’t interested in “making theatre where there’s an obvious agenda… We’re more interested in making work where politics is a concern and part of someone’s real life as a character. If there is an agenda it’s that we’re really interested in everyone being involved in a communal experience.”
That’s the thing with Little Bulb, it all comes down to the audience. No matter what identity the company takes on or where the work is performed, “every show starts as an idea and it becomes a larger thing for an audience”. The company wants to make meaningful worlds for the audience, through which they can perhaps see their own world in new ways. Not that there’s ever any strong agenda to that effect of course, merely that their stage becomes a “space where different ways of looking are possible”, which sounds like a good definition of a stage to me.
Speaking with Scott I get the impression that the Little Bulb team are like the kids in the class who put their heads down and get on with it, astounding everybody with the work they’ve created then going back to work on the next thing. It is, as Scott says it should be, all about the work. In theatre company terms it is young, practically still in theatre company school, and maybe this is why it’s playing around with its theatrical identity so much. Scott tells me how the company sees Squally Showers as the third in a trilogy of works about growing up (along with Crocosmia and Operation Greenfield), with this being about the “chaos” of entering the world of work. Does this mean that after this show Little Bulb will ‘grow up’? Settle down into its theatrical niche and cease to play with its identity? I sincerely hope not, because with its “let’s just have a go approach to making theatre” it feels as if Little Bulb could do absolutely anything it puts its mind to, and isn’t that the magic of theatre?
Little Bulb is performing as part of the Limited Editions Season at the National Theatre’s The Shed between 12 and 14 September. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.