Monday, 29 January 2018

Three Dramaturgies: Lung Ha on Tour

                                                                                   Lung Ha Theatre Company and Sibelius Academy of the University of The Arts (Helsinki)
 Three Sisters

“When Father was alive, this place was packed… there was heat, there was laughter and life.”

Lung Ha Theatre Company’s first production of 2018 opens at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, with a preview on Thursday 15 March and is a new version of Anton Chekhov’s classic play Three Sisters by Adrian Osmond. After Edinburgh the play will tour to Perth Theatre and the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow.

Adrian Osmond

What was the inspiration for this performance?

Maria Oller, the Artistic Director of Lung Ha, approached me about creating a new adaptation of Three Sisters for the company.  I think I said “yes” before she’d finished offering me the job.  I’ve worked with Lung Ha several times in recent years.  I wrote a new version of Sophocles’ Antigone and a new play, The Hold, which was performed as a promenade production in the National Museum of Scotland.  Collaborating with Lung Ha is always an inspiring process, and I’d never worked before on Chekhov‘s play, so the only thing I needed to consider was whether I could make space for it in the diary.

Lung Ha has a proud history of creating new works for the stage, but also in revisiting – and reinvigorating – many classic stories.  The atmosphere that can be generated by a true theatrical ensemble is rare these days, I think, but that’s what Lung Ha provides; the sense of a common goal.  There’s a unique energy that Maria and Lung Ha bring to the stage.  Every performer in the company has some form of learning disability, and yet the company embraces some of the most challenging texts written for the stage, and brings a unique perspective to them.  There is little pretence or affectation in the presentation; it’s utterly disarming.  When you watch a Lung Ha show, you embrace the full joy and pain of life.  Time and again at their shows, I’ve found myself laughing loudly, but weeping moments later.  And that makes Lung Ha a perfect match for Chekhov.

In essence, Three Sisters is about a group of siblings who are stuck in a provincial backwater and are longing to return to the bustle of Moscow.  They are only in their twenties, but already they can feel the possibilities for their lives narrowing, slipping away.  It’s such a lively, hilarious piece, but sorrow threatens to engulf every moment; there’s a profound sense of loss.

This version is very faithful to Chekhov’s play, aside from demolishing its running time.  It’s really like a distilled version of the original.   But I was making it for Lung Ha, the spirit of those people that you see on stage.  So from my perspective, aside from Chekhov’s craft, it’s the people at Lung Ha that provide the main inspiration. 

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Live performances that occur in theatres may not affect entire communities, and they rarely enter public discourse on a national level; the numbers that are able to see any particular production are simply too small.  But I do think that such performances can have a profound impact on an individual basis.  This can be hard to assess empirically, of course, as it’s not just about what occurs in the moment within the theatre, or what people tweet after the curtain falls; it’s but about what happens long afterwards. 

I think that each art form can achieve certain things that the others can’t.  So theatre continues to be a vital and necessary part of our exploration of our world, and of what it means to be human.  But I don’t think theatre is there to offer answers.  In the case of Three Sisters, Chekhov’s characters don’t provide solutions for how to live your life; they are often profoundly misguided.  Chekhov himself was a doctor, and yet it appears that he was in denial about the tuberculosis that killed him.  Life doesn’t get much more “Chekhovian” than that.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I’m one of those annoying people that wanted to be involved in theatre from an early age.  At first I wanted to be a writer, then that crystallised into writing for the stage, and then I shifted more into directing.  I was heavily involved in music and live performance when I was growing up, and was lucky enough to perform with ENO and the RSC as a child.  Music was really my connection to theatre, and that source never leaves – even in dialogue, its rhythms and sounds dominate the choices I make.

But if there was a key moment for me, it was watching A View from the Bridge in my early teensIt was a National Theatre production that I saw in London’s West End, starring Michael Gambon and directed by Alan Ayckbourn.  At the end of Act One, seeing that chair being raised above Eddie’s head was like nothing I had experienced before.  It was an electric thrill – the tension, the emotions, happening right in front of me.  Theatre seemed to be an important way of reaching out, of making a connection.  It was only later, I think, that it dawned on me that millions could never share in that same experience.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Over the years I’ve seen Three Sisters twice in the West End, and both times it was so boring!   The productions seemed to be filled with impressively detailed period costumes and samovars, but little genuine life.  In contrast, Lung Ha productions exude such vitality.  There’s something wholly genuine about the company’s work that is utterly disarming.  Also, Chekhov’s quirky humour is a perfect match for these performers, and for the company’s playful attitude.  So, from my perspective, the main aim is to harness that energy.

This version is a much tighter script than Chekhov’s original; but that increased pace shouldn’t come at the expense of a sense of passing time.  It’s not a radical reinterpretation.  I hope the production, and the script, will make Three Sisters much more approachable to audiences that might have been wary of Chekhov in the past, without losing the essence of the original Russian text.

The show is a co-production with The Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts in Helsinki, which will bring a significant musical element to the show as well.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?    

With each project, I need to challenge myself, learn new skills, try new approaches.  I work on plays, musicals and operas.  Sometimes I write, sometimes I direct, sometimes both.  I’ve spent a lot of my time over the past decade creating large-scale musicals in Seoul, but I love making more intimate work too.  So I don’t have a regular process.  Each time I try to respond to the story, the space it will be performed in, the company, the potential audience, the times that we are living in.  Certainly, there are plenty of elements, rhythms and visual motifs that I recognise as running through my work.  But I’m always wary of repeating myself, and as a director I’ll frequently change a scene if I recognise an idea within it as reminding me of something I’ve created before.

I have just spent 18 months creating a new musical based on Hamlet in Seoul, and that involved making some radical changes to Shakespeare’s original.  But with Three Sisters, I’m really acting as a channel between Chekhov and Lung Ha, helping them to bond together.  It’s not about emphasising my vision.  My name may be there on the billing, but in the end you shouldn’t notice my personality or presence at all.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

The richness of life.  It’s all there, within these fumbling characters.  That’s the great gift that Chekhov and Lung Ha provide.  It’s about laughing and crying, perhaps even simultaneously.  I hope the audiences will leave with their hearts opened.  That’s how I feel when I experience a Lung Ha show, every time.

There are strong Scandinavian connections to this new production, collaboration with the world-renowned Sibelius Academy of the University of The Arts (Helsinki, Finland), direction by Finnish born Maria Oller and music composed by Finnish composer Anna-Karin Korhonen.

In this international production Lung Ha Theatre Company are delighted to be working again with Adrian Osmond, on this, his third production for the company, his previous plays were The Hold and Antigone. Set design is by Karen Tennent and costume design by Alison Brown. Assistant Director is Fiona Mckinnon - FST Assistant Director Bursary Scheme

This is a play of life, love, loss, dreams, whimsy, hope - real and false - of moving and of remaining where you are. Olga, Masha and Irina long for the glamour of Moscow; they long to be free of the life they have been ‘given’ in provincial Russia, to escape the countryside and return to the society to which they belong. But with the constant visits of soldiers and dignitaries, of family, friends and ‘acquaintances’, with work to be done, with marriages to be honoured will they ever be free of the family’s legacy and find fulfilment?

2017 was a busy year for Lung Ha with two outstanding productions, the world premiere and award winning Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery - in co-production with Grid Iron; and in partnership with RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, the Royal Lyceum Theatre and part of the Edinburgh Science Festival and the return of Linda McLean’s brilliant Thingummy Bob.

Lung Ha Theatre Company is the leading theatre company for people with learning disabilities in Scotland, and with a growing reputation internationally.

Listings Information 

Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1ED Thursday 15 - Saturday 17 March                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Times:  Thursday 15, Friday 16 & Saturday 17 March 7.30pm. Matinee Friday 16 March 2.30pm                                                                                                                                  Tickets: Preview 15 March £12/£10.   16 - 17 March £17/£9                                                                                                                                                                                                 Box Office: 0131 228 1404

Perth Theatre, Mill Street, Perth PH1 5HZ Friday 23 March & Saturday 24 March
Times: Friday 23 6pm & Saturday 24 March 8pm
Tickets: £11/£1.50
Box Office 01738 621031

Citizens Theatre, 119 Gorbals Street, Glasgow G5 9DS Wednesday 28 March
Times: 1.30pm & 7.30pm
Tickets: £16.50/£12.50
Box Office 0141 429 0022

Age suitability 10+ Running time 70 minutes
Captioned performance Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh on Saturday 17 March.

Multi award winning Lung Ha Theatre Company is a leading theatre company for people with learning disabilities in Scotland and with a growing reputation internationally.  Since its inception in 1984 Lung Ha Theatre Company has produced over 45 original works for the stage making its mark in Scottish theatre; the Company has collaborated with a wide array of leading arts organisations and professionals from across Scotland (and beyond) as part of the creation of its work.  The Company’s work is now seen as an important part of Scotland’s cultural offering providing a creative voice for performers who may not otherwise be heard. Lung Ha Theatre Company has a membership of 25 actors with learning disabilities. 

University of The Arts, Sibelius Academy, Helsinki is the only university-level music institution in Finland. The academy trains artists, teachers and other music professionals who are skilled in independent and diverse artistic practise. It is an international forerunner in education and research in the field of arts and solidifies the arts The University as a force that reforms society.

Adrian Osmond is an award-winning writer and director of plays, musicals and operas who was born in Toronto and studied English Literature at Trinity College; he was at Cambridge where he was a Choral Scholar. He was the winner of an inaugural Arches Award for Stage Directors and has been an Associate of Cumbernauld Theatre, a Specialist Advisor to the Scottish Arts Council, and a visiting lecturer and tutor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He is also Artistic Director of Glasgow-based theatre company SweetScar and his productions have been produced world-wide.

Maria Oller has been Lung Ha Theatre Company’s Artistic Director since 2009. She was born in Finland and trained at Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris and London, and at the Drama Academy in Helsinki. Since then Maria has been working as an actress and director in theatre, film and TV in Scandinavia and the UK. Maria’s most recent productions for Lung Ha Theatre Company include Thingummy Bob by Linda McLean, Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery - a co-production with Grid Iron, The Hold by Adrian Osmond (in collaboration with National Museums Scotland), Un Petit Moliere by Morna Pearson, Antigone by Adrian Osmond.  Maria is also a member of the Hearts&Minds Clowndoctor and Elderflower team.

Dramaturgy Rinse:Mike Raffone @ Artworks Elephant

credit: Charles Gervais

Lovers of Kitsch are sure to enjoy award nominated comedy performer Mike Raffone’s monthly Cabaret show Cabaret Rinse. Apart from featuring top acts from the world of comedy and variety, Cabaret Rinse also boasts a unique raffle.

Before the show the audience are each given a free strip of raffle tickets. Throughout the show they must compete with each other in a series of bizzare games to randomly generate the winning ticket number. And if that’s not exciting enough the lucky winner then gets to choose her/his prize from The Cabinet of Kitsch, a mock
conveyor belt of kitsch goodies that makes The Generation Game’s prizes look positively up market.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

With Cabaret Rinse I wanted to do something that could be a bit more anarchic than I usually do, I was always a big fan of the apparent anarchy of Tiswas when I was a kid. 

I was originally thinking of a sort of game show type thing, but that's been done quite a bit recently, but I knew (like everything I do) it had to have a heavy interactive element with the audience. I remembered that I ran a raffle in a comedy night that I used to run about 5 years ago. 

It proved to be the most popular thing in the show, and the only thing that actually made money. So I had the idea of having a load of stupid games and routines that would generate the winning numbers of the raffle, sort of a bit like the big song and dance they used to make picking the numbers for the national lottery. Only my version would not be as slick and bland, and would have the lotteries and gaming commission break out in a cold sweat. Also the prizes are kitsch tat, but people seem to love that as well. 

credit: Charles Gervais
That's how the idea of Cabaret Rinse was born. It was originally a show that I would mainly feature in, with a few special guests, but after starting to do it once a month it became clear to me that the other acts on the bill should take centre stage. It's a tall order to come up with an entire show once a month! So it morphed from a interactive show idea into a comedy night with a bill of artists and the raffle idea just holding the whole evening together .Actually, if I'm honest I'd say that the idea came to me in a flash of inspiration whilst walking down the street in Adelaide, South Australia when I was there for the The Adelaide Fringe, but I think these were the ideas that were brewing in my head.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

I'm not sure that the performance has ever been a good space for the discussion of ideas, we performers set the agenda so any debate has to be a bit one sided. 

I do think that it's always been a great platform for the dissemination and advancement of ideas. You could say that ideas are discussed as you can look at things from a variety of standpoints. It always says something and has value and meaning, I'm not sure there is any debate thought.

How did you become interested in making performance?

A variety of reasons really. I did always love

the fact that theatre said things about all sorts of things, art, politics, science, religion, the human condition. I found that exciting as a young person which sometimes makes me wonder why I ended up in comedy and entertainment. 

But then good comedy says a lot as well. I also have a shallow though, and have always reveled in the theatrical nature of theatre, the shear affront and arrogance of showing off. And of course I fell in love with actresses and show girls when I was young. I just decided that it was a world that I wanted to be part of wit all of it's amazing facets.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Although my shows are heavily interactive and are not really overtly text based I do like to actually write the shows before I perform them these days, and I also work with a director a bit to refine the ideas once they are up and running. Of course it all changes when I perform it, but I like the confidence of knowing that for any show, but biggest problem is too much stuff. I find ideas easy, but I have to work at giving them coherence, and sticking to the point. That's the challenge for me. I also like to give myself creative limitations. 

For example for my one man comedy sketch show Brain Rinse the limitation was that every idea had to involve audience interaction and participation, whether onstage as individuals, or joining in en mass. I allowed myself to do anything, as long as I stuck to that one rule. I'm a great believer that it's impossible to fill the blank canvas without these sort of self imposed rules or creative limitations. 

With Cabaret Rinse, it was the idea that all the interactive ideas had to generate a number between one and ten in some way, again after that the sky's the limit. Of course what makes Cabaret Rinse different is I have to refine the whole evening, the sort of acts I book, what the running order should be, how many and how long the intervals should be etc etc. Not just the bits that I do.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Yes, and no. Yes for all the reasons that I've explained, and no because for once I'm not the star of the show. I tend to so one man shows, write them, promote them, star in them, even do my own sound cues from onstage. 

credit: Charles Gervais
I'm a bit of a control freak. I'm an performing empire builder, a bit like Chairman Mao, except my empire is very small, and I'm not so mean. I also don't have a little book... of any colour, but that's beside the point. It's interesting for me though, to take a back seat and let the other acts on the bill drive the show. 

I actually enjoy having these great acts share the stage with me. I have genuine love, passion and respect for the acts that I book. Again it's creative limitations, this time applies to my programming of the evening. They have to be acts that I love, and then I hope that I communicate that love to the audience when I compere the evening.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

Well I suppose the obvious answer to that is that I hope that they experience laughter, but also a togetherness. I want my comedy night to feel like it's just hanging out with friends. In fact some to the club stalwarts are friends of mine and I have no problem in calling them by there first name and being familiar with them. 

I want them to feel like they are being entertained in their front room I guess... that familiar. I also love it when people tell me that they don't usually like audience participation but they loved my show. 

I try not to put people down, but encourage them to go further with joining in than they ever thought they would. Then they are rewarded as being the heroes that they are, and it becomes their show. As for the acts I book, I've always seen Cabaret Rinse as being primarily a comedy night for acts, like me, who are misfits, who don't fit easily into any genre, or circuit of work. Many of the acts are unknown, or have been given licence if they are experienced for trying something new, or experimental so I guess I also want the audience to feel the excitement of this edge, of not quite ever knowing what they will get, but trusting that it will be good.

A Star Trek toby jug, a Chesney Hawkes picture disk, a home burlesque kit and a nodding Buddha, are just some of the prizes that audiences have eagerly snapped up over the past few months. But it’s not all about tacky consumerism, there has been a lot of fun along the way too. Audiences have re created a Busby Berkely water dance, taken part in a human version of space invaders and played a classic party game with a role of gaffa tape, some sweets and a man dressed in a piñata costume.

Mike explains further, “We get some great acts at Cabaret Rinse, and they are all different and very original in their own way. I felt that just bringing them on in the normal way just wouldn’t do them justice. I wanted a fun, madcap, off the wall way to compere the evening and the eureka moment came when I was on tour in Australia. That’s when I hit on the idea of an interactive raffle and it’s proved a real hit with our audiences. Last month’s raffle winner was so chuffed about winning the 1972 Ed Stewpot Stewart Pop Pary LP, on vinyl with a double gatefold sleeve that she tweeted about it after the show. I think she wasn’t even alive when the record was first released.”
ny c) America

Cabaret Rinse is on at The Artworks Elephant, Elephant Road, Elephant and Castle on every second Friday of the month. Next show is Friday 9th February. This month’s acts include Malcolm Hardee award winning character comic Candy Gigi and Jon Hicks, star of the hit variety show Slightly Fat Features. Show starts at 7:30pm and the Cabaret Rinse pop up bar is open from 7pm. Tickets are £9/£6 concs and there is a £2 discount if you book online via

Dramaturgical Butterfly: Jessica Innes @ Manipulate 2018

Directed by Jessica Innes

Saturday 3rd February, Traverse Theatre. Snapshots 5.

A Shadow Theatre piece about the pressures of conformity for young women in society

Director/Performer – Jessica Innes
Performer – Paul Barnes
Performer – Philip Kingscott
Soundtrack Designer and Musician – Lewis Maxwell Bigham - Glassmasterer

Social Butterfly is a 6-minute showing of a combination of scenes from the development of Behind The Screen. Shorter versions of some of the scenes created so far will be shown. This is a development from Social Butterfly’s first showing at the Diploma in Physical Theatre’s Showcase. Social Butterfly focuses on the pressures of fitting into society that are emphasised through Social Media.

Using Shadow Theatre, Projection, and Puppetry, Behind the Screen is an exploration of how our relationship with Social Media can have an unexpected impact on our relationships with family and friends, and how we view ourselves. Follow the story of a teenage girl finding self-confidence behind the screen of her phone. However, as her perceptions of reality become blurred by Likes and Emojis, she succumbs to the power of the Social Media Puppeteer.

Behind the Screen is a new show, supported by Summerhall through a Residency Development Week; “Virtual physical theatre artist Jessica Innes, will spend a week with Summerhall to develop Behind the Screen, a show exploring the effects of social media on teenagers.”

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The creative idea was influenced from a presentation by Jon Ronson at the Lyceum Theatre, 2017. He was speaking about Mental Health – following from his book The Psychopath Test – and he was highlighting aspects of modern life that can have an impact on our mental health. This led to research of Social Media following reading his book, and its relation with mental health. 

During the Science Festival in Edinburgh 2017, Social Media was a popular topic. For a generation who are so used to watching everything on their phone/computer screens, it was evident that there was a better way to get the message across than using dialogue heavy scripts. 

How do you feel your work fits within the remit of the manipulate festival?

“Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival is produced by Puppet Animation Scotland. Puppet Animation Scotland champions visual theatre, puppetry and animation in Scotland and supports artists and organisations who engage with these artforms.”

Social Butterfly is visual, physical, and includes puppetry. The piece uses a combination of traditional and contemporary Shadow Theatre, with projections. To create this show, I have used skills gained from the Diploma in Physical Theatre course and from attending workshops with Curious School of Puppetry, Fabrizio Montecchi (Teatro Gioco Vita), Norbert Götz, Tortoise in a Nutshell, Smoking Apples Theatre Company, Théâtre du Soleil, and receiving private training from Vision Mechanics. I also received mentorship from puppeteer, Rene Baker.
Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

I believe the most effective way to inspire people is through entertainment. Performance can take an unbiased approach to an issue and use real experiences to portray ideas and themes, which I feel is more proactive. Meeting characters and watching their journeys allows an audience to feel involved – feeling happiness for a character’s achievement or empathetic for character’s heartache. 

These feelings towards people in these situations can make the theme or idea inspire discussion because it connects on a greater scale than reading in a newspaper.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I have always enjoyed performing – ever since I was a little girl. It is not only a fantastic journey to portray somebody else, but storytelling can have such a huge impact on people that it is so rewarding. Working in theatre and having the opportunity to meet so many practitioners was a great way to learn how to make theatre. 

The Diploma in Physical Theatre course at Summerhall really taught me how to create work and this was where I started to explore Shadow Theatre. I am now returning to lead a workshop in Shadow Theatre to the current students. I have been inspired by so many companies; Les Enfants Terrible, Punchdrunk, Frantic Assembly – to name a few, and wanted to learn the skills in making a production.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

This show is completely visual, so the approach to the creation of the show is a lot slower than approaching a text. A storyboard is so important to create when doing visual and physical theatre. I started by researching images to do with Social Media and came across the artist Luis Quiles, whose illustrations are incredibly powerful. As Shadow Theatre uses a lot of imagery, creating moving images has fueled the rehearsal process. 

My approach as a performer and theatre maker is to play; be open-minded and try as much as possible. Over only a few months, the piece has gone through several transformations – always retaining the same story – but having a range of different music, bodies in and out of shadow, narration, and elements of Clown. In preparation for a development week at Summerhall, the style of performance was decided and the scenes/sequences became more rooted; Bodies in Shadow with Shadow Puppetry, with no language. During the development week at Summerhall, the approach was to focus on developing material already made rather than creating new material – there is such a thing as too many ingredients!

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

My experience is predominantly as a performer, and this is my first production as Director and Performer. I have explored a range of themes and stories in my previous work – ranging from a Shadow performance of an extract of Heracles to an immersive production of Trainspotting

I have worked in a variety of genres from Short Films, to Physical Theatre, Comedy and Drama on both stage and screen. The work I most enjoy is exploring current themes and issues.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

It is the aim of the show to teach young people how the use of Social Media can affect someone. This show will also highlight to any audience member who does feel affected by Social Media that they are not alone. I hope that the imagery will inspire a more cautious approach to Social Media, and that the audience are not only engaged with the magic of Shadow Theatre but are made more aware of Social Media’s impact on Mental Health. 

However, this show is in no way designed to alienate anybody, or to disgrace Social Media as it is a wonderful invention when used safely!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Gare Centrale Dramaturgy: Agnès Limbos @ Manipulate 2018

Compagnie Gare Centrale/Belgium 

A couple, lost at sea. Playthings for the prevailing winds, their moods tossing and turning, just like their small raft. Their course is uncertain.
The couple have lost everything: their stylish home, their beautiful garden, the lease on their shiny new car. The bank has taken everything. Their poverty is absolute.
Perhaps only Jesus can still save them, perhaps only he can return their 60′ colour TV? Pleading to him with their gospels of conspicuous consumption they are saved! Run aground on the virgin soil of a deserted land, the couple are ready to rebuild their lives… but are they fated to make the same mistakes?

What was the inspiration for this performance?

I 'm always inspired by one or more objects to start to create a new show. For Ressacs it was 3 reproductions of the caravels of the conquistadors (Columbus and the others ...) and a little broken boat. From that we work on the theme of the economic crisis and the subprime in 2008, the Belgian Congo and people being lost with nothing.

How do you feel your work fits within the remit of the manipulate festival?


Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Yes, of course. We use that type of theatre (le théâtre d'objet) to develop also an artistic and political commitment.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I believe it is inside me since my early age. I always want to work in art ... writing, painting, acting ....

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Yes, we work only by improvisations and slowly, day after day, we « build » the show, develop the scenography, the dramaturgy, the choice of objects, the story ....  It took us 2 years with coming, going, coming back. We like to work intensively 2 or 3 weeks .... let it go .... come back later ...

Does the show fit with your usual productions?


What do you hope that the audience will experience?

A nice evening and enjoying our way of approaching theater. What seems to be funny could be also deep political commitment.

Creating humorous, bickering, larger-than-life husband and wife characters, and using masterful and imaginative object manipulation, the award-winning Compagnie Gare Centrale presents this bitingly funny and darkly satirical allegory about the dangers of existing purely for the material life.
Founded in 1984 the company has presented its work around the globe to great acclaim. In 2017 its founder and performer/artistic director, Agnes Limbos, was honoured as a featured artist at the world-renowned Festival Mondial Des Marionnettes in France.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Dead Dramaturgy:Daniel Thackeray @ Camden

Scytheplays Ltd presents
The Dead, Live by Daniel Thackeray
Sunday 11th February 3.30pm, The Etcetera Theatre

Manchester-based Scytheplays Ltd, the company previously responsible for fringe theatre genre hits like the stage adaptation of 2000AD’s The Ballad of Halo Jones (“The greatest and most honest interpretation of an Alan Moore comic” – Forbidden Planet) is thrilled to be part of the first-ever London Lovecraft Festival with a one-off performance of The Dead, Live.  In development for ten years and initially developed through the Oldham Coliseum Theatre's New Writing programme, the play is a new and unique take on the theatrical ghost story, and has gained much popular acclaim on its previous appearances at fringe festivals around the country (“Intimate chills for fans of postmodern ghost stories” – Starburst Magazine).

What was the inspiration for this performance?

I’ve always loved ghost stories and films based on ghost stories, and I wanted to add my own.  But I wanted it to be for the theatre, and I wanted it to be powerfully theatrical.  

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved theatre and the transporting, imaginative quality of it, and I had an inkling that it might be the ideal medium for a tale of supernatural terror.  All theatre has a slightly uncanny quality to it – that sense of being in the same room as, almost able to touch, fictional characters – and I thought if you emphasised this for horrific effect, you could deliver a real thrill for the audience.

Having said that, I started writing the piece a decade ago, and soon stopped – because I saw The Woman in Black!  It’s an obvious reference point when you’re talking about stage ghost stories, but I had just never seen the stage version, although I’d read the book.  The Woman in Black has kind of come to define what the stage ghost story is, and for a while I just couldn’t see how I could do better than that.  

My piece, The Dead, Live, was even structurally kind of similar.  So I gave up on it.  But, after a long time, I realised that my piece actually had the potential to be something quite different, and to be uncanny and frightening in a different way.

The Dead, Live is a modern-day piece about a popular ‘psychic medium’ called Lawrence Dodds (played by the brilliant Howard Whittock). He’s a very modern figure who does public ‘reading’ shows – a little bit Derek Acorah, Colin Fry.  And he’s very much a fake, using plants in the audience to make his psychic abilities look real.  

The play begins as he is training up an actor called Rachael (Carly Tarett) who is going to be a plant in the audience watching his latest show, so we get a big discussion – with some tension, as these are two characters who have never met before and are forced to quickly develop a working relationship - about how the fraudulent psychic’s techniques of misdirection and cold reading work.  And from that point, we go into the live show itself.  And hopefully things don’t develop as expected.

When I was thinking about what may really lie beneath the surface of the fakery and manipulation of the stage psychic, I took inspiration from a number of writers – Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale, Christopher (Scream and Scream Again) Wicking and HP Lovecraft.  The unsettling dread of Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic horror’ was something I felt could really lie beneath the surface of Lawrence’s world.  And so I’m very pleased and thrilled that we we’ll be performing at the first ever London Lovecraft Festival!

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

It absolutely is. In the age of social media, ‘public discussion’ seems in large part about people making snap judgements and attacking each other instantly and with great vitriol.  But performance allows the speaker more time to set out their stall, to work through their ideas, with no less passion and precision.  The discussion happens in the bar afterwards, or on the way home, and it’s possibly a better discussion because good theatre is good art, and therefore a more thoughtful and inspiring way to explore ideas than a soapbox.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I always have been, I can’t really remember how it started.  Possibly a love of Roald Dahl at an early age led to a love of writing, and that led to drama through school.  But over the years I’ve been lucky enough to see and be inspired and moved by many fine productions in the theatre and in film, television and radio, so for a long time I’ve wanted to study those media and make my own contribution to what seems to me to be a great tradition. 

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

This particular show caused a great many interesting conversations in the rehearsal room, between the director, Alex Shepley, myself and the actors.  Without giving too much away, I think the style we’ve tried to go for is a kind of intimate, semi-interactive naturalism. 

Because the main characters in the play are both performers and spend a good chunk of the show ‘in character’, and are at other points required to deal with particularly non-realistic situations, it was a challenge to keep the tone consistent.  It involved breaking the fourth wall – Alex and I agreed that it’s fine to do that, so long as in doing so you are making the drama more real, not less real.  I don’t want to say any more about it really.  Except that I hope we succeeded!

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Pretty much.  Scytheplays is all about bringing genre to life on stage.  When I say ‘genre’ I mean horror, sci-fi, fantasy.  We either adapt for the stage genre material in those genres, or, less frequently, create original works for the stage that are still identifiably genre.  

The Dead, Live is the latter.  Those are the genres that have always inspired me, and yet they’re rare on stage, possibly because often it takes a kind of verisimilitude to get an audience to an accept a fantastical narrative, and verisimilitude isn’t something you can really do on stage.  

But I think that theatre is perfect for flights of the imagination, as long as you lead the audience in the right way.  I’m very proud that many of our shows, like The Ballad of Halo Jones or a student production of Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics, have put things on stage that seemed impossible – often in tiny spaces with almost no set!  And in doing so they have transported the audience.  The direct feedback we have received from people who have seen our shows over the years has been really wonderful and it usually comments on that sort of thing.

Having said that, The Dead, Live actually is going for a kind of verisimilitude.  It’s an experiment, but one that has worked well so far, I think.  And we’re always refining and improving what we’re doing.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

The uncanny.  A sense that they’re in the same room as something unearthly.  A suspense that they’re not sure where they’re being led.  And hopefully a sense of having been entertained!

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

Again, it was about whether or not we could break the fourth wall – how far we could go in terms of directly addressing the audience, how soon we could do that, whether it would enhance the atmosphere we’re trying to create, or wreck it.  Despite the talk about naturalism and verisimilitude, this play does fall into the category of supernatural fiction.  If you are dealing with that subject matter, I think there are basically two ways you can go.  You can be all style, and hit the audience over the head with artifice, effects, music and so on to bludgeon them into submitting to the narrative.  That can work wonderfully well – as a fan, for instance, of the Hammer horror films, I have no problem with that.  But the other way you can go is towards minimalism, appealing to the audience’s intelligence and imagination, so that they can be sensitive to that chill insidiously creeping up their spine.  I think we probably lean more towards that.  Or possibly dive!

Partly inspired by stage predecessors such as Stephen Mallatratt's The Woman in Black and by memorably frightening TV events such as The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, it nevertheless charts an intriguing course of its own, inviting the audience to participate in a live psychic medium show, in which things may not be quite what they seem.

The Dead, Live is a new departure for a creative team who have in the past been responsible for more light-hearted fare. Oldham playwright Daniel Thackeray previously wrote the highly-praised, based-on-truth 1980s-set comedy drama Together in Electric Dreams, in which Sir Clive Sinclair and the future Lord Sugar wrestled over sushi for the future of the British electronics industry ("A lot of laughs and worth a trip down
memory lane" said the Manchester Evening News). Actor Howard Whittock, who plays Lawrence Dodds, the 'psychic' who knows he is really a fake, and director Alex Shepley previously worked together on the surreal comedy sketch show, The Ray Harryhausen Skeleton Orchestra. And actress Carly Tarett, also from Oldham, is well known for her comedy one-woman shows, such as Sinful and Princess Dee, which she has performed locally and internationally to much acclaim.

Although it features light-hearted
moments, The Dead, Live is something altogether more chilling. Whittock and Thackeray are both fans of horror, having hosted The Lee/Cushing Podcast on classic horror films on YouTube for the last year, and their aim here is to bring that feel to the stage.  When the play received a partial preview performance as part of Oldham Library's live@thelibrary programme in February 2017, North West End's reviewer praised it: "Mixing pathos with light humour, and tragedy with the spiritual unknown... this story certainly has, as we say in the profession, legs."  Subsequent performances at the Greater Manchester Fringe in 2017 brought universal acclaim from critics and audiences. 

“More than a match for any stage… a wonderful performance by all involved” said Quays News.  Audience member @deadmanjones commented on Twitter: “…a chilling, sardonic tale that would fit right perfectly into Ghost Stories for Christmas (or inside Inside No 9).”  While the Fictionmaker blog asserted that the play was “Quite terrifying.”

Of the piece’s appearance in the first London Lovecraft Festival, writer Daniel Thackeray says, “It was an honour for our show to be selected to appear in this festival.  To be associated with the name of HP Lovecraft – the man who, in many ways, redefined the territory of literary supernatural horror, and who is owed a great debt by every writer who has worked in that field since – is no small thing, and to have the title of The Dead, Live appear in the festival listings next to monumental titles like At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a real thrill.

“I feel like supernatural theatre is on the rise, which wasn’t the case until recently. Apart from the wonderful The Woman in Black, there were so few theatrical ghost stories, despite that intimate sense of the uncanny, that you can only really get in theatre, being so suited to that type of story. The wonderful sense of being in the same room with something otherworldly.  But now, more writers and producers of theatre are emboldened to enter that realm, and often their inspiration is Lovecraft.  Even though our play has no direct connection to Lovecraft’s works, when I was writing the play, his universe of ‘cosmic horror’ was very much in my mind as something that might lurk behind the veneer of the stage ‘psychic’.

“I wanted to capture the unease present in his stories, adding to it the immediacy of theatre, the feel of the uncanny being in the room.  That element is also present, in a different way, in live psychic shows, the kind of thing that Derek Acorah does. It seemed to me that to write something which combined the two could be a real winner. Still, it took a long time to get the balance right – years and years of redrafting and rethinking in fact - but, thanks to a brilliant director and cast, I think we've finally done it. And audiences are in for something really memorable!

“It’s high time there was a fully-fledged Lovecraft Festival.  The organisers are clearly doing it out of love for the material, and they’ve put together a really special programme.”

Show taking place at:

The Etcetera Theatre
Camden, NW1