What goes into the making of a masterpiece? As Bristol Old Vic celebrates its 250th anniversary, Jenny Hayes steps backstage to meet the team and find out.
We hope it won’t have escaped your attention that there is a rather special birthday coming up this month. Bristol Old Vic, the cultural matriarch of our city, is turning 250. To celebrate such a momentous occasion, the talented team are staging myriad performances over the course of the year – featuring so many famous alumni you’ll probably be able to play celebrity bingo every time you step onto King Street.
As we watch these well-known faces tread the boards, it’s easy to get lost in the world playing out before us and forget the team beavering away behind the velvet curtain. These people are the lifeblood of this historic theatre, pouring their energy into bringing so many magnificent productions to life.
So when the ground-breaking Pink Mist, Bristol Old Vic’s critically acclaimed, multi award-winning in-house production, returned to the theatre earlier this year – telling the tale of three young lads from Bristol who go off to fight in Afghanistan, and the repercussions of that decision – it seemed a good time to step backstage and meet some of the people who created it…
Setting the scene
Every performance starts with an idea, and the genesis of Pink Mist began with novelist, playwright and poet Owen Sheers’ desire to bring to light the real legacy of war. Originally written as a play for radio for BBC Bristol, it caught the eye of director John Retallack at Bristol Old Vic, who immediately saw that dramatic potential in the piece for the stage.
“Pink Mist really began when a producer at BBC Bristol approached me to create a five-part radio drama for the Bristol Festival of Ideas,” says Owen. “I decided to return to the territory of 30 interviews I’d done with wounded service personnel and their families for a previous project, and then graft them with a story I’d invented. As part of my research, I came to Bristol and spent a few days here. I asked for a squaddies’ tour, if you like, and that’s how I found places like Shirehampton, Severn Beach, Dundry Hill and Thekla.”
The sights and sounds of the city that Owen encountered in those few days inspired much of the powerful imagery within the play, but it was the language of the people themselves that gave birth to the distinctive vernacular and linguistic patterning of his rich verse. “There is a real difference in writing for stage and radio,” Owen says. “For radio you are writing for the ear, which is what led me down the route of verse drama and the piece having that strong rhythmic drive. I think that adapting that for the stage was a real challenge, and although I had that writer’s instinct that it would work, I didn’t have the solutions to prove it.”
Which is where the vision of the team at Bristol Old Vic comes in, particularly that of seasoned director John Retallack, who was associate director at the theatre in 2013 when Owen’s script came in. “I just thought it was fantastically good,” he says. “It was the first thing I really, really wanted to put up at Bristol Old Vic because it is about three boys from Bristol. So it’s a national story with this setting, and so well expressed. It wasn’t immediately obvious how you’d stage it, but I just thought this dramatic poem had to be on stage.
“What was ironic is that the script came in two weeks before I was due to take up a new position in Oxford. But Emma Stenning, chief executive at Bristol Old Vic, said they really wanted to do the play and have me direct it. I knew that the only way it would work was to have a really good movement person on board, and that turned out to be the theatre’s new associate director, George Mann.”
George Mann is, indeed, a really good movement person. Having trained at the renowned Lecoq School of Physical Theatre and founded the multi award-winning Theatre Ad Infinitum, George joined the Old Vic team back in December 2014. “Coming into Pink Mist, I knew I would be working alongside John to try to bring a sense of movement to the play,” says George. “We workshopped the piece to get to know the text, the characters, and also to understand how the play could potentially move.
“One of the things I learnt during my training at the Lecoq School was the language of gestures, which always stems from the person performing. So we started to build outward from the movements of the cast to find a physical language that was as poetic as Owen Sheers’ incredible text.”
“It was like trying to find a PIN code,” says John. “You didn’t know what any of the numbers were when you approached each new act. Sometimes you thought you’d got it, but then it just didn’t add up. So finding the movement and word dynamic that worked – that was the real teaser.” But it was a conundrum they cracked, combining their distinct skills as directors to find a physical vocabulary that enhanced the dynamics of the text without detracting from its oral richness. The result was a subtle yet powerful physical language that breathed life into the radio poem and brought Owen’s words to life before audiences’ eyes.
Working alongside John and George was a creative team who built on the words and movement of the piece to create the theatrical landscape that would root the audience in the disparate sights and sounds of both Bristol and Afghanistan.
Composer and sound designer Jon Nicholls had worked with Owen on the original radio play, and joined the Old Vic to create a soundtrack for the stage version. “Pink Mist was the first show I’d done with Bristol Old Vic,” he says, “and it was absolutely fantastic to work here. I remember walking onto the stage and just getting this unbelievable sense of history, thinking of all those thousands of actors, musicians and crew who’ve been doing the same job you’re doing for hundreds of years. It was quite spine-tingling.”
It wasn’t just the magic of Bristol Old Vic that inspired Jon in his work, but also the city itself. “Bristol is such an organic part of Pink Mist,” he says. “All the locations are incredibly specific, and so the sounds and music became massively important. The idea of using lots of current Bristol dubstep came to the fore, as well as going back to artists such as Portishead and Massive Attack. I also went on a sound-gathering tour around Bristol so that a lot of the background sounds are actual location recordings. I captured the motorway going past Shirehampton, the noise of the crowds in Thekla and V Shed, and the birdsong on Dundry Hill.”
Lighting designer Peter Harrison also looked to the city for inspiration. “I spent quite a while looking for a starting point,” he says. “I researched images of Camp Bastion and the Afghan landscape, and of big grey skies over the Severn.” But bringing these diverse landscapes and moods together proved a challenge. “The eureka moment came when I found a photo of an amazing sunset. It was the inspiration for the explosions and fire over the backcloth as it held all the violence of war, but also had the beauty of nature and skyscapes. This led on to how we treated the backcloth throughout the production, with images of clouds and skies throughout, abstracting themselves as the fire, explosions and pink mist.”
Designer and regular Bristol Old Vic freelancer Emma Cains drew on a similarly abstract aesthetic for her set and costume design. “The text was so beautifully rich and lyrical, the team wanted to make sure it remained at the forefront of everything we did,” she says, “so the set became more and more pared back through the process. To me, it felt like all the characters were still haunted by the experience of Afghanistan, so this became this inspiration for the costume design, with colours taken directly from images of the Afghan landscape. I wanted the characters to feel very real, so I used a mixture of street wear and garments reminiscent of army fatigues.”
Behind the scenes
It is backstage that the true secrets of the theatre are revealed. From concept to completion, behind every production is a dedicated team working in the wings to pull all the creative and administrative elements together. These key members of the Bristol Old Vic team are the unsung heroes of the theatre, and finding out what they do will transform your experience forever.
At the centre of the action is Owen Thomas, stage manager and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School alumnus, whose job is arguably the busiest in theatre. “Stage management are the people in the theatre who make sure everything happens how and when it should,” he says. “It’s a broad role that sits between the production side of a show and the creative side – we’re the ones that make sure both teams are to talking to each other and working well together.
“During rehearsals I keep a record of the whole show – all of the blocking and movement – and also make sure any suggestion made gets implemented. I take on a slightly different role during a performance, in that anything set to happen on stage doesn’t until the stage manager calls it. So I scribble all those cues on my script, and it’s my job to make sure the cast come on at the right time, that set gets added and removed, and the lighting and sound effects all work on time. So each evening, once front-of-house give me clearance that the audience are all in their seats, it’s over to me. That’s the brief but amazing moment when it feels like the theatre is mine… and then I call the cue and the performance starts.”
One of the people he’ll be talking to throughout a performance is Tim Streader, chief electrician and Bristol Old Vic’s longest-serving member of staff. “I joined in the summer of 1971,” he says. “I’d just finished school and my mother was pushing me to get a job. Bristol Old Vic was advertising for an assistant electrician, which is the lowest position in the electrics department, and I got the role.”
Even now he’s at the top of the pile, Tim’s job is still very hands-on, translating the lighting designer’s plan into a workable system for the theatre. “I look at where the designer wants the lights to be, and make sure there is a safe way for them to be in that position,” Tim explains. “Then I spend a lot of time actually focusing and directing each light that’s used. And when some shows use above 300 lights, that’s a time-consuming job.
“Some of our lights are seven metres up, so we use a tallescope to reach them, which is basically a ladder on wheels with a bucket on top. In 1975 I fell out of the bucket and broke my wrist. It was a bit of an experience – it felt like about five minutes elapsed between the bucket tipping and me landing on the stage – but these things happen!”
Also busy behind the scenes is experienced producer Catherine Morgenstern, who has been working on Bristol Old Vic productions and co-productions since 2006. “I have overall responsibility for each project from start to finish,” she says. “I do all the administration that goes on behind the work the creative team are doing – so everything from recruiting a team, doing the contracts, running the budget, and being the central point of contact for everyone.
“It’s been an exciting journey from the time I started here, because the amount of work we are doing and the scale of our projects has changed a lot. I think the new era, that began with Tom Morris and Emma Stenning coming in, really contributed to that development. Since then it’s been a rolling process of knowing the kind of work we want to make, developing the artists we work with, and creating shows that resonate with Bristol audiences.”
Taking the stage
It is this Bristol audience, comprising loyal patrons and newcomers to the theatre, who support the work of the incredible team above. But we wouldn’t know that intelligent, challenging theatre productions such as Pink Mist were taking place if it wasn’t for the publicity team.
“We are the ticket sellers,” says Duncan Smith, marketing officer, “creating brochures and flyers for all our shows, and then publicising them on the website and through social media. We are also always looking to find ways to engage with a wider audience. One of the really interesting things about Pink Mist was that it was based on real stories from Bristol, so we were able to reach out to groups that may be interested in the subject matter and issues of the play – such as returning servicemen, veteran groups, and their families.”
“We pride ourselves on being Bristolian, and we want to represent our city,” says Charlie Coombes, press officer. “We have an incredible literary team who find new scripts and work with new writers all the time, because we want to deliver theatre that can delight, surprise, entertain, challenge and even sometimes shock our audience.”
It is this commitment to staging productions with the Bristol audience in mind that has earned Bristol Old Vic its well-deserved reputation for staging diverse yet high quality theatre. Another guarantee is that, from the moment we set foot inside, we’ll be greeted with the warmest of welcomes, and that’s thanks to front of house manager Liz Hebden and her team of ushers, bar and security staff. “Our job is to make sure everybody who visits the theatre is comfortable and safe,” she says. “There are about 40 people on the team, ranging from keen students to people who just enjoy the theatre. It’s a good way to get in and see performances, and also find out more about the building and how it works because you get to see a production from different sides.”
As audience members, we’re often oblivious to the quiet presence of the ushers in the auditorium, but rest assured, if you find yourself overcome by the action taking place before you, each and every one of them could step in and resuscitate you if required. Which may be a very real worry given the high-calibre, convincing performances given by actors that tread the boards on this historic stage! And we’re not just talking the famous Bristol Old Vic Theatre School alumni that are returning this year, but the next generation of leading lights who’ve recently graduated.
“I was in my final year at the theatre school when I got an email from the head, Jenny Stephens, asking if I’d go and audition for Pink Mist,” says Rebecca Hamilton, who played Gwen. “I’d never been to Bristol until I came to the theatre school, but I spent the best three years of my life here. All through that time, Bristol Old Vic was this magical place with amazing shows and incredible people, and it was my dream to be up on that stage. So when I got the part and found out I’d be performing on the main stage, I couldn’t believe it. To be able to start my career here will always make it a really special and important place for me.”
That sentiment is echoed by co-star and theatre school classmate, Peter Edwards, who played Taff. “I’m from Bristol, so to get into the theatre school, and then follow that with my first job at Bristol Old Vic, was very special. It was a massive honour to have been chosen to be part of its 250th anniversary celebrations, and brilliant performing to the Bristol audience again. Watching them react when we’d mention places like Thekla or Severn Beach made it really personal.”
After it’s triumphant return to Bristol Old Vic, and a successful run in London earlier this year, Pink Mist is all set to fly the flag for Bristol theatre when it embarks on a national tour in 2017. This phenomenal journey, from unknown radio play to acclaimed stage show, is testimony to the talent and pioneering spirit of the team behind it.
It also goes to show that, despite turning 250 this month, Bristol Old Vic is still young at heart. Our local theatre is unique in its heritage yet not constrained by it, daring to produce forward-thinking and experimental productions like Pink Mist, which is what makes it extraordinary. The dramatic refurbishment taking place later this year marks a new future for Bristol Old Vic, so let’s all raise a glass and toast to the last 250 years – and the next…
To mark its 250th anniversary, Bristol Old Vic has an exciting weekend of celebrations planned over the bank holiday weekend, Saturday 28 – Monday 30 May. For further details, or to find out more about the performances coming up over the year, visit: www.bristololdvic.org.uk