Prior to its opening in the Studio on Wednesday, we speak to Director Sam Bailey about Wild Men, the debut show from this years Made in Bristol company, Hotel Echo. From running workshops, to producing their own trailer, to devising and directing a new piece from scratch, the year spent working as part of the Made in Bristol project has proved triumphant for these young theatre makers taking their first steps into the professional world…
Can you tell me a little bit about Made in Bristol? How did you get started, and what drew you to the program?
Made in Bristol is a program that brings 10 gap year students, whether that’s a gap year between college and uni, or they’ve graduated and they’re looking to get involved with a professional theatre, together. It’s a graduate program from the Young Company, to help bridge that gap between being a young theatre maker and a professional theatre maker. There can sometimes be a gap of knowledge, or experience, that can be a void. Made in Bristol allows young people to come into Bristol Old Vic, run or assist workshops, develop your project, then you’re given 5 days in the Studio to present your show – you’re helped through that process from in-kind support from Bristol Old Vic staff – from rehearsal space to the literary department all via the outreach department.
I got started through writing. I began here on the Young Writers course with Adam Peck a few years ago and really enjoyed myself. I got in touch with Miranda Cromwell and asked her how I could get involved.
There are a couple of pre-requisites to joining Made in Bristol – you have to have been involved with the outreach department in some form, the young company or through their satellite programs – you have to have some kind of connection to apply. The Young Company and outreach deal with such a wide range of people from such a broad demographic that means it’s not exclusive.
Your show is a culmination of a years’ worth of work. From an original idea that you’ve had for some time, can you tell me a bit more about how it started?
It started life as a plaque in the corner of a corridor in Bristol Cathedral. I was in the Cathedral walking around and saw this beautiful religious artwork – with a number of names dedicated to the choristers of Bristol Cathedral who went off to fight in the First World War and didn’t come back.
This was a couple of years ago, and it took a while for the idea to form in my head but I thought the blend of choral music and theatre seemed like a really theatrical thing. It felt to me like this story wasn’t suited for a novel, it wasn’t a film, it felt like something that needed to be made for the theatrical form. It took a while to get to where we are today.
Verity Standen, our Musical Director, who I met earlier this year through Made in Bristol, made me feel like ‘OK, there is someone I can actually do this with’. I bought the idea to the group and we stripped it down to its bare essentials so we could build it back up as an ensemble. That’s a very important part of how the Made in Bristol process works – you’re 10 peers and, of course, everyone takes on different roles, but ultimately you’re working together in the devising process. It’s really important that everyone collaborates. Once you’ve put an idea out into the room, you no longer have ownership over the idea. It eradicates difficulties and embarrassment.
It was a very basic idea of telling the story of 5 choir boys who reunite and go to the fields of France to fight in WW1 after being apart for a number of years. We’re looking for that bond that they found in being a chorister.
You’re billed as writer, director, performer – I guess the ensemble element of what you’re doing has brought this process along to where you are now?
It’s been integral. Without a doubt it just wouldn’t be the piece that it is without everyone’s input. We’ve got some wonderful movement directors in our group, we’re really lucky to have people who are really proficient in a number of types of dance – I cannot get my head around that kind of stuff! It’s amazing to say to these guys, ‘this is what we need to communicate’ and ‘this is the feel of this scene’ – you can send them off for half an hour and they’ll come back with this wonderful abstract movement that completely captures that thing you were trying to tell – that I would’ve struggled to tell in four pages of dialogue. It helps you move the story along in a visual way.
It’s really important to me that it’s become something that I could never have thought of by myself, sat in a room alone. The devising process brings such intense creativity, imagination and debate that you need around something like this, to pull out those themes and bring those characters to life. It can be hard to find these things on your own.
You spoke about the music, and Verity’s involvement, could you talk a little more about that? Obviously, it was part of your original idea and your inspiration – how has that come to be realised and what can we expect when we see the show?
When I originally had the idea, I had choral music in my head. Apart from going along to a few evensong services at the Church, I really had no idea about how I wanted it to sound. I met Verity through a Young Company show, Talon, and she blew me away with her ability to weave and compose with a young group – she works collaboratively, which is amazing on a program like this. We’re also working with a young pianist/composer called Hettie, who is also amazing. We’re able to make sure the singers have the input in to the music that we’re making. It’s not didactic. She doesn’t come in with a set idea of what you have to do, and her compositions are amazing.
From my original idea, it’s very different. I’ve learnt how music informs narrative; it isn’t just there as a set piece, it isn’t something to just go on top and sound nice, it’s there to help people understand what’s happening in the story. Verity understands that innately. It’s great to have someone with a clear vision of how music directly aids an audiences understanding of a scene. As a result of this, original, melodious, classic examples of choral music start to take on a more fragmented, jagged feel – as we progress through the story and the narrative becomes more troubled, so does the music. It becomes discordant, the unity of the melodies start to clash.
With the subject matter of the show, it must have required a lot of research. Has it been taxing? Have you all been involved?
Again, in every step of the process, we’re all involved. My role is to facilitate work in the rehearsal room. Directing is maybe an odd term to use in this circumstance; it’s more about having someone in the room who can steer the piece.
There’s been a long research process, as with any period piece – it’s about understanding that world a little more, about making sure it feels true, that the language you use is fitting – though I’ve been keen to update some colloquialisms as we are mindful of engaging an audience in 2014. It’s striking that balance between research and artistic license, knowing that this is an artistic interpretation of a world. It’s about knowing that we want to tell a story, and this is the world in which this story takes place.
There was a time at which I felt I could translate the story into another era – the literary department pointed me toward 1970s West Belfast, or Pinochet’s Chile – all of which sit comfortably with the theme of the piece, but WW1 felt like the right setting. The transition between the old world and the new world, playing with the idea of the church and how its changed was really interesting to our company. As we just clicked with the setting, it became that much more interesting to us.
Why should people come and watch the show? Made in Bristol has made a big impact in our local community, but previous companies have been recognised nationally – why should people come and watch what you’ve produced this year?
People should come and watch the show because we’ve worked really hard to make this show engaging for the Bristol community. There are a lot of WW1 projects out there, but this is a Bristol story – it has its roots in Bristol Cathedral, it has Bristol at its heart.
It’s trying to look at a familiar subject in a new way, in a different situation. Obviously, people are going to hit currents of thought at the same time, and with the centenary this year, it’s very timely. It offers an opportunity to look back and reflect, hopefully it provokes a discussion about our collective memory.
Made in Bristol is a very fluid concept, each year really has done their own thing, and made something new. I hope we’ve managed to do the same!
Catch Wild Men at Bristol Old Vic Studio 25-28 June, 8pm (3pm Sat mat). Tickets and more information here.
Photography by Elliot Winter