The process of redeveloping a production that was created a number of years ago is a little like being reunited with an old friend. In some respects you may have changed beyond recognition, matured, got married with kids, changed job, divorced etc., but the reason you meet or even bother searching those people out is that the bond that you shared at that specific time was a special one.
This is one of the reasons why we, Rhum and Clay Theatre Company, chose to go back to a production that we made in 2012, A Strange Wild Song. In many ways this was the show that propelled us into operating as a professional theatre company; it gave us press attention and our first Arts Council-funded regional tour. Despite being made on a shoe-string budget and rehearsed alongside café and bar jobs, the end result was a show that felt special and unique.
The initial impulse to re-visit the show came after an invigorating chat with Kneehigh’s executive producer Paul Crewes, who spoke at length about how the stage debut of a Kneehigh production is in some respects an extension of the rehearsal room. To be able to present work to an audience then bring it back into the room and develop it in response to the live experience seems to be an essential aspect of the way in which Kneehigh operate. Then we got to thinking, with all the effort that goes into making a production, A Strange Wild Song deserved to be seen by more people and developed into a bigger and better production. Once we decided we wanted to get more juice out of the show, it was then time to look at what exactly we wanted to change.
The old saying “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” was one which nervously reverberated around our minds when we went back to change the show. A theatre production is a delicate beast, and the immediate fear of changing the show was akin to walking up to a finished portrait and drawing a silly moustache on it. An important decision at the beginning of the process was that one of the artistic directors would lead the redevelopment, and this turned out to be myself. The process of a particular artistic director leading a project is a format that we are employing more and more, as we have found it gives the rehearsal process a more unified and direct vision. This rehearsal process was no different. Although our rehearsals are always a collaborative process, without a leader the artistic process can quickly become a jumble of different visions and contrasting voices.
Months before entering the rehearsal room came the job of deciding what exactly to change. Much of what we felt needed development was the narrative arc of the story. Because the show was originally created for the Edinburgh Fringe in the classic 60 minute slot, it was hard for the audience to spend enough time with some of the characters in order to invest in them. We decided to split the play into two acts, increasing the length of the show and allowing us to write in new scenes that developed the characters and the story. The addition of an interval has also probably made the show more attractive to regional venues – after all, one can’t underestimate the importance of bar sales to the upkeep of a venue. In addition to this, many audiences have to travel quite a distance to a venue to see a production, so a two-act production perhaps feels more like an event worth travelling to.
Almost the entirety of this regional tour has been booked and funded by the Arts Council England-supported initiative house. Because house shares the financial risk with the venues in the network who programme their tours, it means that companies like ourselves can take a contemporary theatre production on a 19-date tour of the South of England. We haven’t got the capacity or the contacts to book a tour of that scale; without house it really couldn’t have happened.
Now the show is finished and we are on tour, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the final version. It seems strange to use words like ‘finished’ and ‘final’ in theatre, as it invariably alters night to night, and you always feel there is work to do. But what does seem to be the case when redeveloping work is the importance of letting go. We’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the show is now a different beast; even moments that have barely changed from the original production now are received differently by virtue of the fact that what has preceded and proceeds has changed.
However, there is a satisfaction in being able to go back to a show and push it to its full potential, even if it ends up changing indefinitely from the version before. As an ‘emerging’ theatre company, we have found it is easy to get into the trap of constantly creating new pieces of work, without revisiting work of the past. Of course this drive is an essential part of being a creative, but we’ve also learned that going back and building on what you’ve done before can be a really satisfying and efficient way of developing as a theatre company.
Julian Spooner is co-artistic director of Rhum and Clay Theatre Company.
Photo: Richard Davenport.