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Mike Lee On...ForeverTwentySeven

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Mike Lee is the writer, producer and director of the promenade piece ForeverTwentySeven which returns to the Lowry next month. Mike set up InsigniaMedia in 2009 and has carried out work for The Lowry, Hope Theatre Company and Eden bar, in the areas of design, production and event management. ForeverTwentySeven is Insignia’s first foray into theatre. Mike wants to produce theatre that excites, entertains but also allows people to think and develop their emotions. We caught up with him to find out about this unique production.

Can you tell us what the play is about?

ForeverTwentySeven is what we call a sensory journey of exploration that's set backstage at The Lowry. It centres around the opening night of Twenty-Seven, a play that hasn't been on stage since it closed on opening night 50 years ago. It closed due to the circumstances surrounding the death of the lead actress Mia Blackford. ForeverTwentySeven explores the similarities of circumstance.

We really wanted to create a world that would excite new audiences, people that hadn’t been to see promenade theatre before. To do that we had to create an interesting story and something people were interested in; theatre is a perfect subject because it is a world shrouded in mystery and legends, which is something we were excited to explore.

It's really very much a play about people and how they react differently to things life throw at them. Maria, who is the modern day actress taking on the lead role, is a complex character swallowed up by the legends that have gone before her. It really looks at the relationships of the people around Maria and how their stories intertwine with her own.

It is a promenade piece. What challenges have you faced staging it?

The difficulty with this particular piece at The Lowry was getting the time to rehearse in the actual spaces. It's not a traditional theatre space that can be booked out; some of our spaces are attached to the other theatres. It was really tricky to direct something in a room that has no resemblance to the actual space. It was even more difficult to rehearse the show in its entirety as the journey is part of The Lowry's basements and as a working theatre, it was difficult to find a time where it was suitable to rehearse.

Even when the route was free most of the times all of the rooms aren't, so that opening performance is really a baptism of fire for the actors. It can go either way for them and I know that they all get incredibly nervous about it. The basements were problematic because they're obviously not intended for the publics use so they require special permission from fire marshals and safety officers at Salford City Council before use. It was quite a lengthy process, getting to stage where all parties agreed on the performance route, we had to make sure that the performance standard can be upheld whilst The Lowry and Salford Council had to ensure they followed regulations.

When we performed the show in January we had the issue of the audience coming into contact with the outside world; this is problematic because it can snap them out of their state of performance and really impact on how they perceive the show.

I think personally, for me, although it does have it's issues, this kind of promenade journey is so exciting, it's worth all the extra work people have to put it to make it shine, and it's so exciting for patrons to go backstage at The Lowry, seeing their faces means the hard work has paid off.

It has been staged before. Have you made any changes?

The play has been developed; well tweaked is more an appropriate word. As a company we all had an idea of the things we wanted to develop from small moments in scenes to full character development. We built a wish-list and then worked on the things that we felt would add to the story of ForeverTwentySeven. When something has worked so well, it’s too easy to modify and add things to it, which may ultimately take away from the drama of the piece; I was very clear to the cast that this was something we have to be cautious of.

Of course there are route changes and tweaks owing to The Lowry’s schedules, but ultimately ForeverTwentySeven is the same show. The storyline has altered little and the characters have largely remained the same. There are some extra surprises and some things that audiences certainly won’t expect.  

How difficult is it to fund an intimate play like this one?

It’s really tough, because the returns are so slim. With only five audience members per show, the actors are required to do a hell of a lot of work over three days, just to get an audience of 115 people; more than that can fit in The Lowry Studio in one evening performance. When the show ran originally in January it was completely self-funded, little was spent on the production, the actors weren’t paid and the publicity materials were paid for from my pocket, it was difficult and every penny of audience return was important.

We’re very lucky though this time because we have received the support of Arts Council England, a fantastic funding body that allow work like ForeverTwentySeven to exist. Most of the funding is being spent paying the actors properly for their hard work and dedication and the rest is almost all spent on marketing. Thanks to the funding we are also able to provide everyone in our audience with a free programme that explains some of the interesting themes within the performance and tells the story of the shows inception.

Why ForeverTwentySeven?

ForeverTwentySeven or 27 Club is a name for a group of influential rock and blues musicians who all died at the age of 27. It included legends like Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison. I was really intrigued by the idea, so I explored it and the rest, as they say, is history.

I worked closely with the team at The Lowry and my assistant producer to develop a story surrounding the death of a 27 year old, Mia Blackford. The mysterious circumstances surrounding her death and the legend that follows all led to this intriguing story of a show that might be cursed. The show twists and turns around the ideas that we developed through the rehearsal process, but ultimately the audience are left to decide what they think happened to Mia, and what might have happened to Maria, her modern day equivalent.

Although the link to the original 27 Club is very tenuous, I wanted to preserve it within the performance, and so the name was born. It works perfectly for the show because it sums up the ultimate question about Maria; Will she be forever 27?

What part does the audience play in the play?

The audience are hugely important because the show moulds to them. It changes with their reactions, the actors have a certain amount of license to ad-lib throughout the performance, they know their characters so well that I’m never worried they will make a dialogue faux pas as it were. I trust they know their characters and so I want them to fully engage and interact with the audience.

Obviously the story is hugely important and has to be the main thread throughout the performance; Because of this some scenes can’t be fully interactive. For the most part though, we want the audience to really think, feel, see, hear, taste and touch the performance.

Finally, why should audiences come and see ForeverTwentySeven?

If you want to see something different, exciting and new come and see ForeverTwentySeven. It’s not often that you get to see a performance in the underbelly of one of the most magnificent buildings in the north-west. The story is compelling from start to finish because the surroundings are so real, and because it’s partly based in truth. Come to see it if you fancy being shown around The Lowry, if you want to engage with a performance and if you want to be left talking and debating about it all the way home.

Mike Lee was speaking to Glenn Meads

ForeverTwentySeven is at the Lowry 27 - 29 June.


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