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Belt Up Boys on... Dali, Punchdrunk & Their York Theatre Residency

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Dominic J. Allen and James Wilkes are two of four founding members of Belt Up Theatre Company, which has been York Theatre Royal’s theatre in residence since September 2009.

The company won the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival award 2008.

Recent productions at the Edinburgh Fringe include The Tartuffe (2009) and The Trial (2009), which subsequently showed at Southwark Playhouse. Productions at York Theatre Royal include Lorca is Dead: a brief history of Surrealism and A Ghost Walk.

The last time I saw Dominic J. Allen, he was spluttering with rage after an audience member threw a glass of water in his face mid-performance. Luckily for the audience member, the scenario was all part of Belt Up theatre company’s Edinburgh fringe show in 2009, and he’d been instructed to do so by one of The Tartuffe’s cast. It was a show-stopping moment, for all the right reasons. This time around, I’m relieved to find Dominic is nothing like his sardonic character Orgon Poquelin; I’m not sure I could handle the inevitable barrage of irascible put-downs. There’s not a hint of the egotistical about the twenty-something bespectacled co-founder of Belt Up Theatre, just calm eloquence.

We’re sitting in York Theatre Royal’s upstairs cafe, along with Salvador Dali. Actually, it’s James Wilkes, fellow co-founder of Belt Up, fresh from a sojourn in the Seychelles, only lately returned to York after Eyjaffjallajokull’s volcanic emissions contrived to strand him on that sunny island - poor thing. Together they make up half of Belt Up’s founding quartet, along with Jethro Compton and Alexander Wright, who set up the company in 2008 after meeting at the University of York. Recent graduates of that educational institution, they are now York Theatre Royal’s company in residence, and have set about their appointment with the industry typical of a group who have put together 15 shows in just over 2 years.

Belt Up’s current piece for York Theatre Royal has been crafted with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in mind. Lorca is Dead: or a brief history of Surrealism is ultimately, Dominic explains, “about the Paris Surrealists putting on the story of the life and death of Lorca.” But it’s a bit more complicated than that, as he later jokes, “Typical of us, we tend not to take a direct route to anything!” The complication comes with the tell-tale layering of plot-lines and realities that Belt Up have used before, in their Tartuffe, during which the characters of a Parisian acting troupe (like Renard le Clown, a pierrot-esque mime) took on the roles of characters from The Tartuffe. With Lorca, it sounds like Belt Up have excelled themselves in this respect: “All the characters at all times are the Surrealists, but they do take on other roles. So there’s the play within the play, which is the story of Lorca. And then, within that, there are two moments when Lorca puts on a play too, so there are two plays within plays, within plays, and there’s one play within a play. And there’s one play. So... It’s easier when you draw it out! With a little diagram.” Luckily for us, Dominic seems to have this all in hand.

But there’s one small problem, surely? From the sound of it, Lorca is a central character, but he’s not actually there. How is that going to work? “That’s the reason that we gave it a subtitle, ‘A brief history of Surrealism’, because Lorca and Lorca’s death becomes a symbol for the Surrealists, for their movement and what they’re trying to achieve. They all have connection to Lorca, either as a political ideal, or personally, as a romantic figure. Each of them takes it in turn to portray Lorca in their own way. So it’s going to be strange...”

Because of this symbolic role that Lorca holds, James says, the audience won’t necessarily “get a full biopic of his life.” But what Belt Up has in store for their audience will undoubtedly compensate, as the company’s immersive theatre work “is going to feel adventurous, and playful... We just want to do work that excites us, with a strong emphasis on the audience, is our signature.” As James hopes, their audiences will feel “liberated” in their experience of Lorca.

To some extent, Belt Up are following the footsteps of the acclaimed, innovative theatre company Punchdrunk, which encourages its audiences to be pro-active, inviting them to “roam” and “explore” the magical worlds they create whether it be in a huge abandoned warehouse, or an old Town Hall. Belt Up have recently come into contact with Punchdrunk too, and James is animated when he speaks of their recent “collaboration with Peter Higgin, who is the Enrichment Officer for Punchdrunk, on a site specific project for NSDF,” which didn’t really have a name, but they “ended up calling it the Atlantic Project.

Holly Kendrick, who is the director of the NSDF (National Student Drama Festival), approached us and said that they wanted to do something that was off the beaten track, under-the-radar, to essentially be a workshop for alternative theatre, that was all about one on one experiences, and developing a relationship with the audience that’s very personal.... So they got us involved in a week-long project based in a bed and breakfast, surrounded by all these characters trying to get to Atlantis. It was this huge, deep, intricate story, but when you encountered it, you only got one character’s side of things, so it was up to the audience to really play along to get the most out of it. Some people came in for half an hour, but others came in for appointments all week. And the finale was in a big old Victorian house in Scarborough, which is an amazing space and we’re sure it was haunted. We didn’t do anything to help that though, because we filled it all sorts of noises!”

It sounds like exactly the type of venue that Punchdrunk would love to get their hands on. But as Dominic says, “Before we worked with Pete on that, we were compared to Punchdrunk a lot, and somewhat fairly, but we are a different theatre company. We produce similar work, but not the same. Their work is – epic, isn’t it!”

As far as Lorca goes, he adds, “there’s some influence from people like Tim Crouch the award-winning theatre-maker whose latest production in a series of re-imagined Shakespeare plays, i malvolio, is at Brighton Festival this May, although you might not be able to tell!” In their quest to give audiences the sense that “they’ve been part of creating something, and part of the actual storytelling”, Dominic adds, “We’ve gone back and looked at certain practitioners before us who’ve achieved similar results, like Boal, and Artaud.”

One of the hazards – as well as one of the benefits - of welcoming such audience participation is the element of the unknown, and Belt Up’s past productions have thrown up a wide array of unusual and unexpected reactions from their audiences. As James emphasises, “You’ve got to be prepared... It’s amazing what fifty people can do, in blindfolds, when they think they can run around. One night when we did The Trial, one person bumped into another, and that created this domino effect, that you were meant to be running around, in a blindfold, in this dark room. I ended up being chased down a corridor by an audience member, who then ran into a fence, and proceeded to climb it. When some rave music kicked in, she just started shaking, and I had to assist her down!”

But The Trial hasn’t been their most controversial production for this reason; that accolade is reserved for their recent – and first - outing at York, A Ghost Walk, which amusingly, James says brought in an “average of two complaints a day” from people: “That was a weird one, because it was our first official show as a resident company, and we thought we’d do something that was low impact, very much about York, the local community. It turned out to be our most controversial show.”

Essentially, the show was a carefully staged ghost walk, right down to a ‘member of the public’ (one of the Belt Up boys) stopping the ghost-walker on the street mid-tour to ask him if he was coming to the pub later. James continues, “What we didn’t anticipate was people coming along, and thinking it was an actual ghost walk, so when this ghost-walker breaks down about his father dying, people thought that it was real. After the show, people would ask if the ghost-walker was alright, and contact the Theatre Royal to question, ‘Why did you let an actor go out in the wrong state of mind?’ They refused to believe that it was a play... We didn’t anticipate that, we thought it was fairly straightforward, but apparently it wasn’t!”

Audiences can be an unpredictable lot. But more so these young theatre practitioners; in response to the question of what their ambitions and aspirations for ten years time are, and most importantly, if they have any megalomaniac plans, both Dom and James are quick to jump in. James begins, “We have a pipedream about doing a real-time production of The Tempest, on an island in the Mediterranean. It would involve a cruise!” Dominic proposes an even more elaborate scheme, to stage “a real-time Frankenstein production that would involve travelling across Europe, by horse.” So they’re not a particularly ambitious company. But wait. James finally concludes, “We also want to be the first theatre company to do something in space.” Whether stratospheric, or a slow ascension, it’s yet to be seen, Belt Up’s future seems set to be a lively one.

-Dominic J. Allen and James Wilkes were speaking to Vicky Ellis

To buy tickets for Belt Up’s last performance of The Tartuffe on 25 May, visit www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk and for information about the company, visit //beltuptheatre.blogspot.com For behind the scenes footage of their rehearsal process, see //www.youtube.com/user/beltuptheatre


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