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Brief Encounter with Blood + Chocolate director Alan Lane

Alan Lane discusses his latest ambitious production, which takes audiences through the streets of York.

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Alan Lane, artistic director of Slung Low Theatre Company has teamed up with York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre to produce a spectacular promenade performance, bringing the past to life on the streets of York.

Inspired by the story of Rowntree's Chocolate Factory sending a chocolate tin to all York men fighting at the front in 1914, Blood + Chocolate follows the devastating news that many men may not return from war, the courage of the women who stepped up to replace them in their jobs and the changing face of the city in the wake of the First World War.

Congratulations! Blood + Chocolate has sold out only 4 days in, with thirteen still to go! How is it going so far?

It's going very well. The audiences are really enjoying it, which is great. And the critics are positive, which is always nice because then you don't have to have meetings about why the critics don't like it. The best thing is the company, they are such a brilliant group of people and they respond so brilliantly to all the different challenges.

Saturday night was really robust and York was full of very drunk people. Each night is a completely different show; Sunday night was much quieter so it was quicker. It's just responding to all those different elements at the minute.

Can you summarise the production in a nutshell?

It's a story of chocolate workers during the First World War told in a cinematic way throughout the whole of York in one evening.

Do you work to an intensive rehearsal schedule?

The show has a very large set up and it's true of this show that the creative team that made the show are also the team who mostly run it. For me and the producers and the associate directors, we're still either in it or calling it, so the days are still quite long. The set-up is a big thing as there are 300 audience headphones that have to be anti-bacterialised every day and chocolate tins to be stuffed with chocolate and all that sort of stuff.

What role do the chocolate tins play?

Each member of the audience is given a chocolate tin with instructions for how best to experience the show. Also inside the chocolate tin is some chocolate; they are emergency rations only to be used when your energy is required. It's a real emotional but also physical journey for the audience; they go a long way and it's not easy for them, so it's good to have a little boost.

How did the project and collaboration come about?

Marcus Romer, who runs Pilot Theatre, had heard the story that every York man was sent a chocolate tin from the Lord Mayor in 1914 and it all stemmed from that. What we're doing isn't entirely new; I know the headphones and video projection are all very contemporary, but actually what it's about is telling people's stories where the people are, and I think theatre's always done that until very recently when it's hid away in secret buildings.

Blood + Chocolate director, Alan Lane.
© John Saunders

The other thing is that it's accessible. I really do hope with all our shows that people who don't already love theatre can understand what it is we're trying to do and get excited about coming. I think the big key about accessibility is getting ticket prices down and keeping them down. It's a real risk; there are people that already love theatre so when they go and it's not great they say "Oh well never mind, that thing I love didn't quite work tonight and that's alright." Imagine buying kidney from the supermarket and every time you ate kidney it tasted bad; how many times you would buy it?

The least we can do is get the ticket prices down. It's an unknown for some people and they should be helped to try it and I think once they see quality theatre they keep returning; that's how we've got the audience we got. I hope that the work we make and the work that other people make in a similar vein gets different types of people into the theatre.

The production travels the length and breadth of the city of York. How do you go about directing a performance like this?

This is a different type of directing. When you are making a stage play you start with silence and darkness and I don't have either of those things, so what I've got to choose is not the thing I want the audience to look at; the audience will look at what they like. They'll look at York Minster, that exists, I can't change anything about York Minster. All I can do is put the right thing in front of it to change the meaning of that and that's a very different type of thought process.

The other big thing is having a good company; there are 180 people and I'm talking in their ear all night throughout the show and their ability to understand what it is I'm communicating to them and then deliver it well is key. Without an extraordinary performance company I'm just a man giving instructions that no one understands.

Your cast is comprised of four professional actors and 180 community players. Have the community cast found the gruelling rehearsal schedule challenging?

There was a rigorous audition and training process for them. They've spent six months with us and that company now of 180 I wouldn't swap for anything; they are exceptional. They work tirelessly and alongside their talent their discipline is extraordinary. Nearly all of them are juggling this alongside full-time work.

There are all sorts of different types of people from all sorts of different walks of life who all turn up for six or seven hours a day; an extraordinary testament to their dedication. What's coming across in the audience reaction and in the reviews as well is that is collectively the entire company that makes the show.

What exactly happens inside the audience's headphones?

All the actors are radio-miked so it's all live alongside a very complicated, very beautiful score soundscape by Matt Angove and Heather Fenoughty, but the actual actors are live.

Does that make it difficult timing-wise as you move between different locations?

Yeah, but that's my job. My job during the show is to make sure that no matter if the show is a bit slow or a bit faster it still keeps in time with itself.

When Mike Kenny wrote the script did he collaborate with the production team regarding stage directions and the practicalities of the site-specific performance?

No, that came afterwards, but I think Mike spent a lot of time thinking about how the audience experience might work and then wrote a really beautiful play and then we worked out how best to put it in York.

Pilot Theatre will be live streaming the performance on the 17 October. Do you think the online audience will see a very different performance without the atmosphere and ambience of the city streets?

I'm excited to see the live streaming as much as anyone because I find it really hard to imagine how that will work for an audience, but I suppose we'll test it when we live stream it.

Are there any current plans to re-run the production following its sold-out success this time around?

It's an extraordinary logistical challenge; we have to close roads and I think it's probably unlikely for there to be a repeat run, but what I'm hoping is that this show gives confidence to other theatres to invest the time and money into making work like this because I think the public respond to it really well.

Blood +Chocolate is now sold out. For more information on how to watch the live streaming of the performance on 17 October visit www.pilot-theatre.com

- Ruth Kilner