An Interview with Tom Brennan, Director of 33

Having risen through the ranks of the Bristol Old Vic Young Company, Tom Brennan, and the rest of The Wardrobe Ensemble, have had a stratospheric rise after leaving the Made in Bristol project. Touring to America, selling out at Edinburgh Fringe and selling out Bristol Old Vic’s studio three times in three years, are just some of the achievements they’ve had between university, drama school and blossoming professional careers. Their first show, Riot, was the reason behind this, and now they’re back with a new full length show, 33. Having already sold out at Ferment Fortnight in 2012 and secured a place at Edinburgh Fringe this summer, it promises to be another brilliant show. We caught up with director and company member Tom Brennan in the calm before the storm.

What is the show about?
33 is about a brief moment in 2010 when the globe was captivated by the rescue of 33 men from the depths of a mine in Chile. It’s about the many perspectives on that event. The miners, the wives, the mine’s resident psychologist, the media, the people all around the world who watched the event. It’s also about the theatre-makers who are recklessly attempting to tell all of these stories in an hour.

It’s about what happens when you become more than yourself: when you suddenly find yourself being a character in the history of the world.

Describe it in 3 words.
Surreal, ambitious, messy.

How, when and why did the company make the decision to tackle this story?
When we first started working as a company in 2010, we made a fifteen minute piece based on the story called “Major/Miner”. We made it very quickly after the event happened. It was a fantastical, miniature epic that was very silly. However, some of the images and moments stuck in our heads.

After RIOT we were interested in adapting another real event for the stage. So in April 2012, we were invited to The National Theatre Studio for a research and development week to expand on the idea of adapting the miners’ crisis.

In preparation for this week, we all read a book called “33 Men” by Jonathan Franklin. What quickly became funny and interesting for the company is not what Franklin wrote, but the way he wrote; everything Franklin wrote was hyperbolic and dramatic.

We got talking about what changes Franklin had made to the story to make it more exciting.  This eventually led us to question our own place in the chain of information. If we took the project further, what responsibility would we hold as storytellers? This felt like fertile ground to make an exciting show.

How did you approach the events in the rehearsal room?
From as many angles as possible! We used extracts from Franklin’s book as well as news articles to create scenes. We used videos of the men to create choreography. We used Chilean text to make songs. We wrote and wrote and wrote. We danced and danced and fought and argued and sang and played instruments we didn’t know how to play. There came a point when we had to distance ourselves from the facts to make something theatrical. We were never attempting to make a piece of documentary theatre.

What does the story of the 33 miners mean to you?
I find the story of the 33 miners endlessly fascinating. I think it’s because of the huge contrasts and contradictions. For example, the rescue of the men was watched by an estimated 1 billion people across the world. Those people watched the event live on TVs, computers, smart phones and Ipads. So in some ways, it’s a story of modern times.

On the other hand, the images of the brave men stuck in the belly of the earth are almost mythic. I love how epic and legendary the story can sometimes seem. Ultimately the story of the 33 miners is a great lens to think about the modern world.

What part of the show been the biggest challenge to direct?
We recently made a large cut to the show. After long discussions, we cut three characters and an entire story from the show. We had been working on this story for almost a year and it was always beautifully performed but it suddenly became apparent that the story wasn’t saying anything new or important.

It had some of our favourite, funny moments in the show so cutting it was pretty horrible. However, it’s sometimes helpful to kill your babies and now the show feels a lot lighter, more streamlined and more focused.

What has been your favourite part of this process?
I’d say it’s been the last few weeks of rehearsals. We’ve really had a chance to discuss and analyse the play that we’ve been making. We’re starting to understand each moment.

The process feels back to front.  In a traditional rehearsal process, the table work usually comes first.  In our case with 33, this is the first time we’ve been able to sit back from the script, from the wealth of material that we have created, and see what we’ve got.  I can start to see what this thing will be like to watch. It has been really wonderful.

What’s next for you and the company?
We are taking the show to Edinburgh from the 2nd to the 17th of August!  We’re incredibly excited to return to Zoo venues and we’ll be performing in Aviary at 9.30pm. We’d love to see you there!

We have big ambitions as a company, but beyond this I have little idea of what’s next. When we were making RIOT, Jesse Jones (who is the associate director for 33) gave us a list of things that would happen with the show and with the company. Every single prediction came true. At the moment I’m just focused on getting this show up on The Studio stage. Jesse is our Fortune Teller, so maybe we should ask him!

33 is at Bristol Old Vic 10-13 Jul. Find out more here.

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