Tell us about each installment
Alice Bell is the story of a woman’s life, from childhood to death. It’s a story we essentially made up, but it is a very familiar shape/premise – the sense of a fated relationship between a couple from two warring sides or factions. The time/period or location is not named so there’s maybe a timeless sense to it, also something fairytale-like. Daniel Hit By A Train was inspired by a Victorian memorial in London. It details 53 true stories – each with the same event; that of someone trying to save somebody and dying in the attempt. We were attracted to the serial nature of these and trying to stage them all in one event. The Festival is again a story we made up – but loosely taking the shape of a short story we’d all read by Alice Munro. It is a very simple story that takes place over the timespan of a year – a year between an annual music festival held in a small coastal town in Australia. On the surface the story is very slight, almost nothing happens, but it speaks about a very important event in the main character’s life.
In each of the pieces we employ a pared down approach to theatrical storytelling: there are moments of direct address, of simple characterization and staging, there are songs and movement sections that represent complex moments in the stories.
What inspired you all to do a trilogy?
When we formed the group in 2005 we spoke about making three pieces – at that point we weren’t envisaging a trilogy per se – we just said we’d make three pieces, as that seemed a good enough go at making work together before we assessed if it was a good idea to carry on. In setting up the group we were interested in a developing an approach to theatrical storytelling with an inclination towards biography. So in making three pieces in this area of course they are linked thematically, and so can become a trilogy.
How do they work as stand alone pieces?
They all work as stand alone pieces – in fact the first two pieces were made without the ‘trilogy’ in mind. They all have a slightly different mood to them even though they employ similar modes of presentation. I like each of them on their own, without feeling they have to ‘compete’ with the other parts trilogy. Really it’s the thematic link of biographical storytelling, and the formal arrangement in the space that links them – so they work being seen in isolation; they have to.
You have received great reviews, but with cutbacks at many newspapers, how do you think this is affecting fringe theatre?
I’m not sure. To be honest I’m not sure I feel part of the fringe theatre scene. Of course it’s a great shame if work doesn’t get written about as there’s a lot of good things that happen on smaller stages – things that are truly experimental and stretch the rules of performance or entertainment. It’s always nice to get a good quote, but it’s not what it’s all about. It might be more about audiences taking risks also, in going out to support and see something that isn’t totally mainstream or known.
With so many plays to choose from in Manchester, why would you tell an audience to see any or all of the trilogy?
We are always conscious that we have to make work for all audiences: our families come to see the work as well as other artists, students, academics, other experienced theatre goers, and they are all sophisticated viewers in their own right. We really think there is something for everyone – entertainment, funny bits, sad bits, songs, dances that are good to watch, and at the centre a story to follow. That’s really important, that amongst the modes we adopt – which might be quite familiar contemporary performance strategies – that there is a story or situation to invest in.
What's the funniest unscripted moment which has happened so far?
As we a have a fairly economical way of approaching many parts of our material, this continues into our props and staging. For Alice Bell we bought an Ikea table and chairs for the piece – we like the very everyday, available, ubiquitous nature of that stuff. The table is only used in one moment in the piece – it sits there for 65mins doing nothing - at the recent run at the Barbican during the ‘table scene’ one of the legs fell off. The performers paused for a moment and carried on as normal, including one of them standing up on the table – the three remaining table legs held out; who says you get what you pay for.
What are your plans as a company when the run is finished?
These pieces will continue to tour over the next few years – there will be international touring as well as other shows in UK. There is a sense that we can move away from the current project of biographical storytelling and the formal traverse arrangement of these three pieces. There may be opportunities to do some ‘one off’ performances that site-based or more interactive or community-based. It feels good to encapsulate these three works into a trilogy as it liberates what comes next. The nine members of the creative team each have other work and projects happening so we don’t exist as a company the whole time, we live a different countries across Europe too. There won’t be a new work until 2012, and what that will be we can’t say yet.
Gary Winters was speaking to Glenn Meads
The Catastrophe Trilogy is at the Royal Exchange from 22 - 24 April and for more details, please click here.