Award-winning Little Bulb Theatre are currently staging an epic, jazz-infused production of Orpheus at Battersea Arts Centre (until 11 May 2013). Here, company member Dominic Conway gives us an insight into the creation of the show.


A scene from Little Bulb's Orpheus

Almost three years ago, David Jubb, artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre, invited Little Bulb to make a show for the building. No further parameters were set: we could use any space, make any type of work and spend any length of time working on it. As you can probably imagine, we were very excited.

At the time, we were a small-scale company, touring around the country to make money to both live and continue making work. Battersea Arts Centre had just built artist bedrooms complete with a kitchen and showers. This was the perfect set up for us, as we always try to live together when we are working on a project. And this can be very hard to achieve in London.

When we approach a new piece of work, we start with a few broad themes, and then allow the show to come into focus slowly over a long time. With so many variables already at play we felt that using an existing story would help us get a handle on the project. The building has an old-world feel and a sense of grandeur. With this in mind, two ideas came to us simultaneously: the myth of Orpheus and the music of Django Reinhardt.

We began by surrounding ourselves with research materials: books, CDs and DVDs of anything Orpheus or Django related. Orpheus became the framework, offering us a simple narrative. Django became the colour, opening up a wide musical landscape to draw on. Although best known for his jazz, Django’s early recordings are of French popular music of the early 1900s, and he was also an admirer of the great classical composers.

We set about learning the music, feasting on all the new sounds: waltzes, cantiques, operas, ballads and all the hot jazz we could keep up with. Some of the music was extremely challenging for us, but fortunately we weren’t in any rush. We felt that it was really important to take our time.

We regularly performed scratches and one-off gigs of all the music we were learning. For each event, we tried out different ways of presenting the music and our musician characters, to see how audiences reacted.

We began developing the idea of a 1930s Parisian theatre company who had somehow managed to cast Django in a production of Orpheus. It was over a year before we actually began to tackle the story itself.

The story and the music felt so expansive, we tried performing one of our scratches in the Grand Hall. It fitted so well with all of the elements we had been working on, but to make the space work, we needed a much bigger team. At the beginning of the project, we were a group of five friends trying to make theatre.

There are now about 50 people working on the show, but it has grown over such a long time, it still feels like the same atmosphere: it still feels manageable. And the proximity of stage to bedroom means that if we do get a bit overwhelmed, then it’s always possible to have a lie down.

Orpheus opens to press tonight (18 April) and continues at Battersea Arts Centre until 11 May 2013