Venetia Twigg talks about her Theatrical Niche
One of East Anglia's newest touring companies is Theatrical Niche. It has bold plans for its future.
Why did you start Theatrical Niche, and where and when?
I started up the company for several reasons. The first of these was that the company I had previously toured with went bust in the most spectacular of fashions, so the prospect of not being constantly on tour and in new venues became an unavoidable reality.
Secondly, it was also after a rather dry six-month period of hardly any auditions for acting work (be it camera or stage). No matter the outcome, it's always fantastic to audition, so there's nothing like a total lack of opportunity to galvanise you into thinking differently.
I wasn't the only one suffering this, given that a lot of my professional acting friends were 20-something Southern England brunettes/blondes... not exactly a rare breed in this game – we weren't even "getting in the room"..
Thirdly and quite simply, there were plays that I wanted to do, and I didn't want to have to wait around blindly for other companies to hopefully hand me these opportunities. So I thought it was time to have a go at touring myself, whilst of course employing the most able, talented and willing of my friends and acquaintances to embark upon the journey with me.
The company was officially incorporated in November 2011, and we kicked it all off with Proof by David Auburn in autumn 2012. This is still one of my favourite shows among those that we have produced; it was well received.
I suddenly realised that touring was feasible, and that it was of course, even more satisfying once you'd produced the piece as well. I have to say that I don't always act in the tours, but it is my first love so where I can (and the director is happy to cast me), I do.
The company was founded in Kent, and I actually dragged all my actors back to Canterbury for the first rehearsal period. As a matter of fact, the countryside did prove to be a wonderful spot to focus on the piece.
We now rehearse in London however, much to the relief of my family who suffered that initial rehearsal period with more good grace and encouragement than I can say.
East Anglia seems to have a number of interesting small-scale theatrical companies. Why do you think this has happened?
The company I began touring with was based in Norwich, and I just think it's such a unique spot for artists. One can't help but feel at home there, and there's a general air of camaraderie for the fellow thespian/arty types.
There are also a wealth of interesting venues to tour to, and in many spots the residents of East Anglia seem very keen to support this; they are in general extremely well-cultured and open. Obviously, this is key for the companies.
From a personal perspective, the venue managers are absolutely wonderful in the venues we tour to, and do everything they can to keep local companies buoyed, and their audiences engaged in a large spectrum of interesting and challenging work.
Patrick at Kentwell Hall is the perfect example of this, and we adore coming back to his theatre in the Overcroft. The footlights, chandeliers and beams take you straight back to another era, as does his reference to the team as "The Players" – many of our performers have said that it has been one of their favourite spots – despite being heckled by the occasional peacock.
Do you co-ordinate your repertoire or venues with any other companies? if so, how?
Yes, the first instance happened quite by coincidence - I wanted to produce Woyzeck and had my eye on a certain London director (Sebastian Rex) to do so. Before I could even ask him, he had sent a round-robin email out to his acting contacts asking if anyone would like to audition for his new version of Woyzeck in London...
Due to producing duties I of course replied in the negative, but asked whether he would be willing to tour it afterwards, and so we begun a collaboration with his company Acting Like Mad for both that show and a modern adaptation of Macbeth.
For the main part with collaborations (be that with an entire company or individuals' expertise), I try to use people who are brilliant at what they do, and will fulfil our particular artistic need – it's not hard to come across when you've been working in the industry for seven years and are surrounded by talented and enthusiastic people.
Moreover, it's such a complete joy to be able to work with people you already trust and who you know to be imbued with a wonderful work ethic. Our current director Alice Knapton is the perfect example of this – she read around a hundred ghost stories to arrive at the current selection for Still The Beating of My Heart – I have been bowled over by her work and additional research on the project. How does Theatrical Niche differ from other companies?
I think one of our strengths is simply that we do look to other artists to enhance our artistic offerings. We incorporated the expertise of Alice Sillett for the puppetry used in our previous tour of Blood Wedding, which lent itself perfectly to Lorca's surreal third act, and not coincidentally, the author's original fascination with puppetry.
Alice then provided a plethora of brilliant other techniques, and with co-director Dan Hutton, created a beautiful and highly unique piece of theatre. We were supported by the Arts Council for that tour and were therefore able to employ all our favourite designers and theatre-makers, and to take the tour out to a wonderful range of venues and regions; it was a truly wonderful experience – but to revert to the topic in question...
We often tour educational and syllabus-based shows with the direct emphasis that they are made for the theatre but can go into schools, thereby giving both schools and venues a top quality show as opposed to a canned (and purely) educational version. We also buffer this up with bespoke workshops, and get as directly involved as we can be with the needs of particular schools and students.
The aim is to do at least one syllabus-relevant show per year, and then pick pieces that are just as important to us and just as entertaining, for the non-educational tours. The ghost stories for Still The Beating of My Heart, for example, came about when talking to Pat Bannister at the Granary Theatre in Wells-Next-The-Sea. Pat needed some terrible tales for their pirate festival (as you do), and we were very happy to step up to the challenge.
There was a lot of work that came after that, as you can imagine, but dipping into some of the foremost writers of all time to come up with our show was a fantastic, if not lengthy, experience. The main point being that we are open to suggestion, and want to create work that speaks to our audience whilst using a variety of exciting techniques.
What are your future plans?
In Spring 2015, we will be touring a modern adaptation of Aristophanes' famous comedy Lysistrata. Although this is in fact a syllabus piece, it is highly saucy and we plan to have a lot of fun with it using physical comedy and, of course, mask work.
We already have a great tour planned for it, and can't wait to get started. Further on into the future, we would like to be providing workshops all year round for various texts (not just the one we are focusing on at the relevant time), which would be open to both students and audience members.
As for further play choices, we aim to enjoy ourselves as much as possible - and thereby provide the same entertainment for audiences, so it's a matter of watching this space really... www.theatricalniche.co.uk
What is your personal theatrical background?
I started treading the boards when I was about ten years old, with my twin brother in the Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury. This was with The Old Stagers, the oldest amateur dramatics company (reportedly) in the world. My mother and father met this way, and so it was somewhat in the blood, or at least the breeding.
Taking the advice of a very wise West End producer, I attended Edinburgh University to obtain a non-drama based degree (Philosophy and Psychology), and then went on to Richmond Drama School in London. After this, I wanted to get started so hopped straight into the industry. I've been very stubborn about my career despite the recent climate, and am continuing to work at it – as one must.
Still The Beating of My Heart is on tour nationally until 8 November.