Over the past few years I’ve become rather a veteran of making theatre in the open air. I particularly enjoyed staging a midnight, candle-lit, production of Dracula at Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre, and recently a lavish A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sponsored by Porsche, on the lawn of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Dubai for UK Touring Theatre. That audience was particularly interesting to play to; in the interval, you could buy one of the top of the range cars parked next to the stage.
But my favourite project as a director has been mounting the summer season of theatre at the beautiful open-air Scoop amphitheatre, just down river from the National Theatre and the Globe by Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames in London.
This is the only venue in the world, as far as I’ve been able to discover, where people of every age, race, income, faith, and education can gather to watch theatre together. At any given Scoop performance, you could find local kids sat next to business people, alongside seasoned theatregoers and first-timers, the homeless, politicians, the curious, the cynical and the committed, all sharing in the same play. Watching a production in such company is a rare and wonderful experience. It happens because we’re currently also the only theatre that can present professional productions of classical plays for free, thanks to some tireless fundraising from our ingenious young producer Suzanna Rosenthal and the encouragement of the site’s owners More London.
We also rehearse in public, so anyone can come by and watch the shows shaping up. I always say to the actors that if passers-by stop and watch a scene to the end it means the rehearsal has gone well, but if they get up and move on we’re doing something wrong and we need to rethink. It’s amazing how quickly the auditorium fills up when we’re rehearsing. You start a scene with just a few people watching and by the end you look up and find a couple of hundred.
Our biggest thorn but also the source of some of our most rewarding moments are the local skater boys, packs of aggressive local youths who regard the theatre as their territory and the seats as a skateboard ramp. I’ve had to develop all kinds of techniques to get them to stop, but I’ve actually found the best is to ask their advice on a certain actor or scene. On a good day they will actually sit quietly in a row and tell me what they think. This is particularly fun when I’m auditioning because, believe me, they don’t hold back with their opinions. Bizarrely, it also seems to give them a sense of ownership over what we’re doing and I find their behaviour often improves and their aggression mellows the more they get to know the actors and understand what we’re trying to achieve. I get a big thrill when they turn up, on time, and sit quietly through a play like Agamemnon.
My association with the Scoop started late one night when I was walking home by the river and the sight of a beautiful modern amphitheatre in the moonlight took my breath away. It’s attached to Ken Livingstone’s City Hall headquarters that Londoner’s affectionately liken to either a giant headlamp or a glass testicle. The next day I was delighted to learn it had been designed by More London’s planners as a site for free public events, something which harmonised beautifully with my company, the Steam Industry’s, ethos of creating great theatre that could be affordable and accessible to everyone. We wouldn’t charge, we would just mount the best shows possible for anyone who cared to show up.
Back then I wasn’t sure that anyone would show up. Coronation Street’s Steven Becket stepped out into the space one summer evening as the doomed King Oedipus and, costumed like a modern politician, addressed the dozen or so audience gathered as if they were the citizens of Thebes. The play’s chorus, also in modern dress, stepped out of the crowd and Sophocles’ great tragedy began to unfold in and around them.
Within a few performances, word had spread and hundreds of people were turning up. By the next summer, when we presented Agamemnon in rep with Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, tens of thousands of people came to watch and by last year, when we performed Euripides’ Children of Hercules and a knockabout adaptation of Treasure Island, we felt firmly established as a London institution.
Weathering the elements
Every year at the Scoop I learn more invaluable directing and artistic directing skills from the punishing “work out” it provides. It’s the artistic directing equivalent of a boxer facing Mike Tyson. What other director has to satisfy such a diverse audience base, with productions which must somehow be bold enough to reach the back of an unamplifiable auditorium yet be subtle enough not to blast out those sitting closer?
Productions have to work equally well for a small crowd on a blustery night or a thousand people on a scorching afternoon or a still summer evening ¬– and compete with a 101 riverside distractions. The challenge is to create the epic theatre our space demands and our audience expect, to an international standard, with no box office revenue on a budget that probably wouldn’t even cover cuff links on a West End show. It’s a daunting task demanding Herculean powers of ingenuity and pulling off daily miracles. But I absolutely love the challenge. It also takes a special kind of fearless actor. In past years I’ve joined the cast to play smaller roles. This year I’m leaving it to the experts.
This summer I believe we’re presenting out most exciting programme yet, opening with a revival of Bertolt Brecht’s fable The Caucasian Chalk Circle. One of the other special things about theatre at the Scoop is that, because it’s free, whole families can afford to sit down and watch a play together. This summer’s family show will be the modern world premiere of Cyclops, a riotous 2000 year-old comedy-adventure by Euripides, complete with a ten-foot high Cyclops designed by Yvonne Stone, one of the puppetry experts from the National Theatre’s production of His Dark Materials. Kids’ll love meeting him clumping and farting back to his cave with a dead sheep for a snack under each arm and belching dairy fumes. Why don’t you join us in the open air too?
This year’s theatre season at the Scoop season runs from 3 August to 17 September 2006. Admission is free. Visit The Scoop website for further information.