How much do you know about how theatre is made? In 2008 I thought I knew quite a lot – enough to have been writing about theatre for over a decade, confidently discussing the work of directors and designers based on what I saw on stage. Then I spent a few weeks behind-the-scenes with a play called Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, as the team prepared for its opening at the National Theatre in London, and discovered the truth: all that time I’d had no idea whatsoever how theatre comes together. I didn’t know how props were sourced or what a stage manager did or how a lighting designer worked. Nor did I realise how many staging decisions are a compromise based on health and safety considerations or budget restrictions, or made up on the fly after the first performance.
That experience changed how I wanted to write about theatre: since then I’ve been more interested in thinking about the making process and shining a light on the intricate work involved. It’s important to demystify theatre-making – but also, as Louise Blackwell, Brighton People’s Theatre’s Executive Producer, points out: “People are really interested in what happens backstage as well as what happens on stage.” This understanding has been central to BPT from the start: “We always wanted there to be a way for people to get involved who weren’t just interested in performing,” says Louise. In 2019 that meant inviting people to read plays together, discuss performances, and take part in workshops on writing and directing. More recently, it’s resulted in a set of workshops called Making Theatre Happen, which took place online between May and July this year.
Organised by Louise, Making Theatre Happen covered some of the key aspects of staging theatre: sound design with Melanie Wilson, lighting design with Prema Mehta, and costume design with Rachel Owen. The original intention, of course, was for these workshops to happen in person – but that was before Covid-19 forced social gatherings to stop, requiring Louise and team to spend a month rethinking their approach. The necessary shift online led to a change in focus: from how to make a performance happen in a theatre building, towards thinking about the art you could make in your own home. Far from a compromise, this approach reminds me of something brilliant written by the theatre director Chris Goode back in 2011, still fiercely relevant today: [link: http://beescope.blogspot.com/2011/06/opening-house.html]
“It’s funny: almost everybody, right?, at some point or another in their lives, has written a poem. Almost everybody does a bit of making, whether it’s cooking or gardening or knitting or DIY or whatever. But how many people will ever make a bit of theatre? Lord knows I’ve done enough gigs in people’s kitchens and living rooms to know how possible it is to have a few friends round and tell them a story or show them something familiar that they’ve never really seen before. I believe more and more resolutely in the civic value of designated theatre buildings but I don’t think they should have the monopoly on theatre any more than all the world’s fish are in aquariums.”
In recent years Arts Council England has moved towards this thinking too, leading to its strategy for 2020-30 of “Let’s Create”. Prema Mehta offered the same invitation, in a workshop designed to make people “more aware of the light in our everyday lives”. Her challenge to participants was to explore light inside their homes or in their gardens, using household objects and a set of lighting gels (coloured sheets of plastic, supplied by the company Rosco), to stage photographs that, like Chris says, show familiar things in different and new ways.
Elena Italia, BPT’s assistant producer, shared some of the images with me and they are wonderful. One participant, Rachel, used a vase of orange marigolds as a prop, changing the intensity of their colour by setting them against blue or white or yellowy backgrounds. She also shone light through green glass bottles in such a way that they radiated watery reflections, turning the tabletop into an emerald pool. Another participant, Sharon, also photographed a single object from different angles; in one of her pictures, a spoon is distorted by water so that its shadow is that of a ladle. And a third participant, Maggie, photographed a wooden chair from above, transforming it into an almost alien object.
In a written response to the workshop, Sharon described taking quite a narrative approach to the task, giving each of her photos titles, and describing the influence of a play called Mushy, watched online as part of the BPT Theatre Club programme, particularly a scene in which you could “see or feel a car going and it was just done by lighting techniques – that blew me away”. Rachel found herself reflecting on how “a lighting designer’s job is to use light to paint a picture onto the stage, and conjure feelings in people that will heighten the storytelling that’s going on by the actors”. She also noticed that she found the effects of artificial lights more interesting than natural light – not her expected preference. For Maggie, the surprise was discovering her own flat anew, “seeing what normally I would never have seen before”. Given how reduced life has become in lockdown, that gift of expanded vision feels like a precious thing.
BPT’s version of the Let’s Create slogan is “come and play”, and the props list provided by Rachel Owen for the workshops in costume design was deliciously playful, calling for toilet rolls, sticky tape, and pictures torn from magazines which could be used for what Rachel calls mood boards: colourful collages that capture or suggest the tone, texture and atmosphere of what she as a designer might might ultimately want to make. Mood boards are a useful way of working with materials and ideas rather than leaping straight to the final design, she said in her workshop, and of beginning a conversation with the director and other designers to get everyone on the same page.
The first task she set the participants was to create mood boards for an imaginary production of a Tchaikovsky opera called Mandragora, or Mandrake. The opera was never finished, which means no images of previous productions exist, leaving lots of space for the participants to exercise their imaginations without too much influence from elsewhere. Initially, says Louise, they had thought about basing this task on Alice in Wonderland, but decided that too many images of different versions exist for the participants to work freely. Plus the fragment of music that remains is for a chorus of flowers and insects: a clear invitation to go wild. Which is exactly what happened, with participants going on to craft models of characterful garden perennials, an alert green snail and a giant wriggly fly the following week.
Louise attended the sound and costume workshops as well, and while she loved seeing what people made in response to the designers’ invitations, for her the chief excitement was in starting to see the potential for collaborations. “In my mind, every professional artist that I introduce to BPT has the potential to be one of our collaborators in making a piece of work,” she says. And these workshops are “the seeds for me of where a collaboration begins”, because they create opportunities for artists and participants to meet and “make a real connection. That’s the point of introducing them in the way that we are, so they can develop relationships and collaborations on an equal level.”
This is typical of the way Louise herself approaches producing, and is what she talked the BPT participants through in her own workshop at the start of the Making Theatre Happen series. That workshop was “brilliant fun”, she says, “because we got into groups and came up with ideas of what we might want to produce and what we’d need to think about in order to do it”. She doesn’t believe in the kinds of hierarchical making processes described by Rachel in her costumes workshop, where a director and designer might start collaborating far earlier than anyone else. Like BPT’s artistic director, Naomi Alexander, she believes that any artist brought in to work with the group on making a performance would need to be embedded as part of a participatory, iterative process.
Because after all, the BPT participants have heaps of ideas; for them the big question is: “What do we need to do in order to make a show happen?”It’s clear from talking to Louise that in an ideal world, BPT would already have performed a show or two: “To me as a producer that’s what I do, I love the process and I also get frustrated if there’s nothing that we’re working towards.” That had been the planned activity for this spring, before Covid made it impossible. But even before the pandemic, BPT’s work had been slowed down by the realities of working to tight budgets, and with a small team, made smaller when Naomi was accepted to the prestigious Clore Leadership Programme, and by ethical considerations: the time it takes to meet people where they are, and build trust.
The result has been a different way of thinking about what a people’s theatre company might offer and do. As Louise says: “One thing we do is open up the possibility of creativity, particularly in theatre, for loads of different people in the city.” How vital this is was underscored again recently when BPT released the report Open Up Arts, commissioned by Brighton and Hove City Council and put together in collaboration with residents and community organisations in East Brighton and Hangleton and Knoll. It demonstrates the extent to which people in Brighton feel overlooked by its many arts institutions, despite their desire to participate and cherished experiences of being creative when young. Theatre is about more than “putting on a show”: it’s about building relationships, being together, transforming the everyday into something magical and unexpected. All of which BPT continues to make space for, with as wide an invitation as possible.