Visiting Productions

The Heresy of Love: Rehearsal Diary

Graduating from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School this summer, final year student Tilly Steele plays Juanita in The Heresy of Love. She fills us in on the rehearsal process…

The Heresy of Love is a play based on the life of Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz. Despite being a nun and a woman, neither of which lent her much literary credibility, Sister Juana became one of the most celebrated and prolific writers of the Spanish Golden Age. She crafted poems, plays, and was a proto-feminist who wrote passionate defenses of her right, of every woman’s right, to have a voice within the world… and here I am, struggling to write a rehearsal diary…

So, it’s Thursday, and not very long until opening night! Ahh! As we prepare to move into Bristol Old Vic Studio next week, we have started running the show in its entirety. The cast of Heresy have been together for around four weeks now, but as we are all training together at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, we have been together as actors (and as friends) much longer. This means that we are lucky enough to have a very supportive and friendly atmosphere in the rehearsal room from the get-go. No ice breaking required.

The process has been heavily rooted in research surrounding Catholicism and the real-life events and people which the play depicts. We’ve read up on theology, sung in a cathedral, been to mass and met real-life nuns and priests. Thankfully, I am playing an incredibly mischevious and wayward servant, and so have mainly undertaken rigorous studying into how to have a good time. An actor’s life is tough.

It’s not all been heavy going though, as our warm-ups have included such joyous inventions as ‘Naturalistic Plague Tag’, born from the imagination of our director, Jenny Stephens. This involves the cast walking around the space in character, improvising reasons to be able to touch another character and so pass on the plague. Once you have heard some of the hilarious reasons given by some characters to avoid contact with others, you don’t look at them in the same way again. Especially when the reasons involve self-flagellation…

We ran the show today in front of our director, assistant director and designers. It’s always nerve wracking, but it becomes clear as the action unfolds that we thankfully haven’t ruined Helen Edmundson’s very good writing and have an excellent show on our hands. We are at that stage in the rehearsal process where the various threads of plot, character and theme we are holding in our heads begin to come together, and we start to feel secure enough in our characters to explore the story and add richer detail to our characterisations. It is an exciting time in the process as we all start to look forward to welcoming our audiences at Bristol Old Vic Studio, hoping that they too will be swept up in the story and add a new dimension to the world we have created together as a company.

– Tilly Steele

The Heresy of Love plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 6 – 14 March. Book tickets here.

Bristol Old Vic Young Company

The Light Burns Blue: Rehearsal Diary – Intensive Week

Propolis Theatre (Made in Bristol 2015) and Young Company member Dale Thrupp shares his diary from rehearsals for The Light Burns Blue. We join the company during half term, which is their first intensive week working on the show.

Last week was the first intensive rehearsal week we’ve had for the show. Despite being in rehearsals every Wednesday and Friday evening since the beginning of January; the 4 hours we have on those days never give us enough time to explore any ideas in depth. This week we had 8 hours a day to really get stuck into everything Lisa (Gregan, Director) and Silva (Semerciyan, Writer) threw at us.

I’m not sure how much I can tell you about each day and what we looked at each day because everything is currently in flux and I may inadvertently reveal a vital plot twist or say something which might get cut over the next few weeks. So I’ll give you an insight into life for the cast for the week and some things that happened each day.

Every morning always begins with a warm-up led by the Assistant Director James Kent. This includes a good half an hour of physical stretches and movements and then culminating with us playing a game such as Killer Tig, Fives or my personal favourite; ‘Eastenders’.This is basically a version of the drama game ‘Zip Zap Boing’ but with each phrase changed to a line from the TV show. For example Zip is ‘Have It’, Boing is ‘Leave it out son’ and Zap becomes ‘Take it’. All phrases have to be said in a Cockney accent, something which everyone will have perfected by the time we finish rehearsing, despite us not needing it for the show. Each day we added new rules such as our version of ‘Fireball/Water Bucket’ which became ‘You Killed Lucy’. However the best addition came from Krista whose version of ‘Zoom’, which she decided would be ‘Natalie Cassidy’, was one of the funniest things to have happened in the rehearsal room yet.

Monday mainly consisted of Silva and Lisa reading through the current character list and the scene-by-scene plot line that they’d been working on. A lot of the scenes were taken directly from improvisations that we’d done over the previous weeks. Each scene was given a title such as ‘Over Exposed’, ‘Red To The Sun’ and ‘Canary Girls’. This was the first time that we’d been able to see a full story outline and what we were working towards that week.

On Tuesday Lucy Kerbel from Tonic Theatre came to visit and see how we were progressing. The Light Burns Blue is one of three plays commissioned by Tonic Theatre as a new play aimed at creating substantial roles for both female and male actors; helping to combat the gender inequality in theatre. She watched us improvise individual monologues as the role of the lead character Elsie. Silva and Lisa often set us tasks for improvisations around a certain character or scene as a way to devise new material. Silva then takes and collates the parts that stuck with her, into a written scene. Silva believes that this way of working allows the work to feel natural for the actors creating a better quality show.

Wednesday was mainly focused on us exploring how to show the photographs which play such a vital part of the play. We wanted to do it without physically showing the audience the original images as we all felt this takes away from the artistic brilliance of the original images. We experimented with using torches, strobe lights and mirrors to create an abstract image for the audience. There is a very strong musical talent in the group and almost half of the cast can play an instrument of some form. Music therefore plays a key part in the work that we create. The group make use of the piano, a flute, a violin, an accordion, their voices and whatever other things that can make a sound from to accompany the scene that is being worked on. The atmosphere of the piece can change instantly with the addition of different musical sounds.

On Thursday, James told us that we would be creating a trailer for the show in which we would be creating a moving image collection inspired by the idea of creation and destruction. The trailer wouldn’t feature any of the main characters of the story directly but rather showcase the sort of style that the whole play would be performed in; focusing on the ensemble work, as Lisa calls it ‘the creators’. The sequence we have for the trailer is a combination of the work from the 2 groups that we were split into. By splitting into groups it allows us not to only get the work done quicker but also and most importantly allows for a much diverse range of potential moments that Silva and Lisa can take and expand on later in rehearsals.

The final day of the week was very much focused on exploring the character and scenes that we’d been working even further, and keeping the things which had potential fresh in our minds. A lot of the movement sequences we’ve worked on come from a devising technique called ‘Short, Sharp, Direct’. This is a physical task which focuses on movement and reaction. For example, if I placed my hand on someone’s shoulder, how would the other person respond physically with another movement? I would then respond back with another movement and the process continues like that. It has created some really interesting moments, especially when we layer it with text or a character intention. It really feels like the characters are taking shape.

The weeks highlights;
• The Eastenders game is definitely one of the highlights of the week. Everytime we play it the group focus is incredible and makes the game even more enjoyable.
• Being in rehearsals all day for 5 consecutive days and having to buy lunch for each day became expensive and so on Thursday everyone chipped in and we made a massive pot of Risotto. It worked out at about 80p per person rather than the three pounds plus that is usually spent on food. It was nice to all sit down during lunch and eat together, making it feel very much like a family event.
• The whole cast gets on really well which allows us to trust each other and work effectively. This I feel makes the standard of work we produce a much better quality as we’re willing to take risks with our work and communicate our ideas to each other rather than feeling like we’re being intimidated by the rest of the group.

The weeks lowlights;
• On Wednesday a lot of the cast came in with a cold and everyone was really feeling tired. This made it a bit harder to work but we all still carried on, supporting each other.
• One of the task we had to do this week was to create a scene which shows Elsie being put down by the people around her. We were split into 4 groups and were each given a different scenario with a different set of people. Upon showing them, two of the groups reduced the cast to tears and made the atmosphere a very sombre place. Luckily though it was just before lunch and our sadness was short lived, but for that half an hour you could really feel that change in the room.
• The fact that I still haven’t won any of the games we play makes me incredibly sad. My aim for the next few weeks is to perfect my technique and win at least once.

This Young Company production of The Light Burns Blue will mark the world premiere of a new play written by former BBC Fellow Silva Semerciyan in collaboration with the company, and is directed by Young Company Director Lisa Gregan. Check back next week to read the second instalment of the rehearsal diary.

As one of the inaugural commissions for Tonic Theatre’s new Platform series, which addresses the shortage of exciting female roles in plays for young people, the play will redress the issue of gender equality, and be packed with fantastic parts for both girls and boys.

The first Platform plays, including The Light Burns Blue, will be published by Nick Hern Books and go on sale from Summer 2015.

The Light Burns Blue plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 15-18 April. Book tickets here.

Bristol Ferment

Ferment Fortnight: Week Two In Pictures

Ferment Fortnight, our mini explosion of brand spanking new offerings from the South West’s brilliant talent pool of artists, has just wrapped. In the second week, Invisible Ink welcomed your confessions in The Terrible Things I’ve Done, Theo Scholefield presented his new two-hander, Little Waves, and, amongst much more, Spitz & Co. returned to Ferment Fortnight with the hilarious Glorilla. Here’s a look back at the second week in pictures.

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Keep an eye out for our second Ferment Fortnight of the year in July. In the meantime, catch Ferment productions Ablutions and Mass in Bristol Old Vic Studio in March.

Photography by Jack Offord and Michael Sides

Bristol Old Vic Productions

From the rehearsal room: The Life and Times of Fanny Hill – Assistant Director, Miriam Battye

“Everyone has had a hand in bringing the play to life…”

JMK Assistant Director Bursary recipient Miriam Battye with Director Michael Oakley in The Life and Times of Fanny Hill rehearsal room.

JMK Assistant Director Bursary recipient Miriam Battye with Director Michael Oakley in The Life and Times of Fanny Hill rehearsal room.

Miriam Battye, Assistant Director and recipient of a JMK Assistant Director Bursary reveals all from within the …Fanny Hill rehearsal room.

So, we’re at the halfway point, and after our daily group warm-up and the fondly named “blind orgy” movement exercise, we are ready to start our first stagger-through of part one. At this point, we are very much still creating, discovering more from the text and about the characters and their world all the time.

Today we discussed how Fanny could be seen as simultaneously a realist and a fantasist, two arguably paradoxical character traits. It struck me that the adaptation similarly demonstrates both traits: it is at once a fantasy, concocted from the collective imaginations of these characters, whilst also just beneath is a truthful portrayal of some of the experiences of the so-called “woman of pleasure”, and the men who engaged them.

Initially, I was unsure how it would be possible to make Cleland’s heady and somewhat relentless novel theatrical. The novel is all about the words, navigating around anything explicit, to conjure images in the reader’s mind and of course, to avoid censorship. Translating the energy of the novel into a compelling theatrical performance, whilst giving Cleland’s linguistic pyrotechnics adequate homage, is one of the real triumphs of April’s exuberant play.

The Fanny Hill rehearsal room is an animated and energetic place, and it is, as you might expect, full of laughter. Loads. It’s a very lively place to be, with the ideas (and the innuendos) coming thick and fast (sorry). Just as in the play the troupe of characters all muck in to create and imagine Fanny’s story, everyone has had a hand in bringing the play life. And beyond Fanny’s story, the stories of each of the surrounding characters are as meaningful to the play as the fantasy they make up. These are not merely players, storytellers or agents to deliver the play-within-a-play, but richly conceived people whose stories provide a truthful and often shameful backdrop to the fiction they create.

A key part of rehearsals has been finding a way to put the many sexual episodes on stage. The task has been to explore the character of each episode (there are nine in total!), and find their unique theatrical language. So, two weeks in, we have tackled a whole host of difference scenarios, many of which I would never have fathomed before I stepped into the Fanny Hill world: an unruly “cock sock”, a copulating machine, coat puppetry and a movement sequence with such obscenely named moves I couldn’t possibly repeat them here. We have taken inspiration from all kinds of sources: Hogarth paintings, street songs,18th century philosophy, and our extensive rehearsal room library, with books like the extraordinary Harris’ List, a directory of Covent Garden Ladies for the ‘Man of Pleasure’ (I urge all to read, unbelievable stuff). I have never been so simultaneously appalled and compelled by a period of British history.

JMK Assistant Director Bursary recipient Miriam Battye in The Life and Times of Fanny Hill rehearsal room.

JMK Assistant Director Bursary recipient Miriam Battye in The Life and Times of Fanny Hill rehearsal room.

It has already proved enormously valuable for me to be able to work on this production with Michael and see him realise his vision. This is the kind of theatre that I love, and seeing all the elements come together has been fascinating, and will undoubtedly provide a well of inspiration and motivation in my future work. I am looking forward to seeing how we can build on the foundations we have made thus far, to a very hectic tech period, and of course, to Fanny’s first outing on opening night.

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill
Bristol Old Vic Theatre
5 Feb-7 Mar

Bristol Old Vic Productions

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill: An interview with designer Andrew D. Edwards

Designer Andrew D Edwards describes the process of translating The Life and Times of Fanny Hill to the stage: from making boudoirs out of boxes to acknowledging the harsh realities of history.

Inspiration board for The Life and Times of Fanny in the rehearsal room. Photo by ShotAway.

Inspiration board for The Life and Times of Fanny in the rehearsal room. Photo by ShotAway.

What’s it been like to work on The Life and Times of Fanny Hill?

Designing for …Fanny Hill is a gift. As a designer, what makes a project attractive is when you get a great space and a story that complement each other, as these do. This is a really interesting piece, which works so well for Bristol Old Vic. The intimacy of this theatre and what April de Angelis, the writer, has created connect together beautifully.

What’s it like working with Director Michael Oakley?

Michael always creates a great environment to work in. It was the same on Playhouse Creatures, our last production together. There is such a good bond between the creative team and the actors which means ideas flow freely. I think this is always key when working as part of a production.

How have you both approached the design of the play?

Michael originally suggested the idea of setting it on the dockside and it has developed from there really. It was then about finding a way to develop the ideas to allow us to follow the story to its different locations. What I’ve tried to do with the design is not get in the way of the narrative but locate it somewhere neutral and then embrace a little bit of what’s going on at the time. For example, depicting the sense of a growing city in the use of the architectural arches, and representing the importance of international trade in the 18th Century with docks and the crates. Then, the question was how to be imaginative with the initial setting of a dockside. What could be in the crates? How could they become a location? That has been the fun of designing this show, creating elements of the unexpected. Something Michael and I have always hoped is that people won’t be expecting to see Fanny Hill sitting on wooden crates beside the docks. We think they’ll expect to see her in lavish boudoirs. But it’s not that show and that’s not what we set out to do.

How do you think audiences will react when the set is revealed?

I hope it will be a surprise. I want them to get an atmosphere of the Bristol docks, this stunning 18th-century theatre, and how little it has all changed. A design should never overpower a play, and what we’ve created should give the actors a platform to tell their story rather than impose upon it. In some sense it is a busy design, but it’s also quite simple in its elements, the crates and the scaffolding. I think what they see will be quite unexpected.

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill has been adapted from John Cleland’s novel by April de Angelis. How have you responded to April’s writing?

April has created a freedom within the text and found a way to tell the episodes and connect them with an audience. For me, what she does so well is to effortlessly draw you inithout you really knowing. You’re watching a play which you’re enjoying and laughing at,hen you drift into the darker side of reality for these women; what women went through, how harsh it was at the time, and then the realisation that things haven’t really changed that much today. It’s the subtlety in which she does this that I find fascinating. I have tried to respond to that, and give the design flexibility so the stories can be told.

Did you have any strong influences for the design of …Fanny Hill?

No, not really! There wasn’t a specific visual inspiration for this design that I’d seen, it was more about the location and how we could use this for the set and, of course, getting the costumes right for the period. For me, designing for the stage is like creating a painting or sculpture. When you design it, you should never expect an audience to interpret it the way you do or have the same vision of it. And, honestly, I don’t think I ever want them to. I would much rather make something they discover for themselves. If they knew why I wanted it to be that way, it wouldn’t leave it open to their interpretations. I think people should be allowed to take what they want from a piece of theatre.

What’s been the biggest challenge in designing …Fanny Hill?

There haven’t really been any challenges, mostly because working with Michael is such a joy! He’s very open minded and incredibly pragmatic, meaning everything has slotted intolace. I think that is what has made it an exciting project to work on. Everything just feels right, and nothing has really got in the way of the design or the play. Even once the design was finalised, Michael would come to me and say, for example, “we need someone hoisted up for this sex scene” and with a few adjustments to the design we were able to make it work; the anatomy of the set has given us so much flexibility.

Why do you think audiences should see …Fanny Hill?

I think it is a really important story about women. I love the history of it and the insight into what it was like for people then. Of course you’ll get the sex, which is fun and witty, and that’s a good enough reason to come. But it’s not just a jolly romp, it’s actually an intimate and poignant story. It’s not just full of innuendos. It’s something more than that, something important for those women, and women today, and that’s what makes April’s writing so special.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently designing Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre in London, which goes into rehearsals in February. Then, after that it’s straight to Paris for The House of Bernarda Alba at The Comédie-Française in April.

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill
Bristol Old Vic Theatre
5 Feb-7 Mar

Bristol Ferment

Ferment Fortnight: Week One In Pictures

Ferment Fortnight, our mini explosion of brand spanking new offerings from the South West’s brilliant talent pool of artists, is well underway. In the first week we’ve witnessed some incredible physical theatre from Impermanence Dance, some amazing and stupidly silly circus feats from Unstable King in Game, and breath-taking sell out shows from Fellswoop Theatre with Ghost Opera and The Wardribe Ensembe with their 60-minute romp The History Of F***ing plus many more. Here’s a look back at the first week in pictures.

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The second week of Ferment Fortnight is just as packed full of work-in-progress wonders. Take a look here to see what’s coming up.

Ferment Fortnight
21-30 Jan
All shows £5 – Tickets here

Photography by Jack Offord

Bristol Old Vic Productions

Fanny Hill – An Interview With Musical Director Pete Flood

The sounds of raucous laughter and guilty whispers of sexual innuendo have been echoing around the The Life and Times of Fanny Hill rehearsal room since the cast and creative team first met in January. Amongst the revelry, Bellowhead’s Pete Flood has brought together the sounds of the eighteenth century to create the musical backdrop for the production. We caught up with him to find out about the process.


What’s it like working on Fanny Hill?

It’s brilliant, really pleasurable actually. It’s quite different to a lot of the theatre that I’ve done before. I’ve worked with companies like Fevered Sleep where the team have taken a devised approach, starting from nothing and building something, whereas Fanny Hill is very definitely something and it’s just a matter of shaping into what you want it to be.

And it’s just really funny! Everyone is always cracking jokes and goofy around, it’s very entertaining. There’s never a moment where the cast are flagging or working at half mast, everyone is always full of energy! The other day we worked into the night and I was sat at the back, slumped over my piano, and the cast were still bursting with energy and really on it. The focus is brilliant and this amazes me.

It always strikes me that musicians are very much specialists and for an actor its seems that the thinner you can spread yourself, in terms of having choreography skills, language skills or musical skills, the better you are. So, as a musician, when I walk into a room full of actors I feel totally inadequate. These people do everything well!

You’ve been a member of the band Bellowhead for over 10 years and you have a background working in Theatre but how have you found yourself as the Musical Director on Fanny Hill?

I think Tom Morris recommended me actually. Tom knows me from way back when we worked at the Battersea Arts Centre together. The last thing I was involved with there was a puppetry production of Stravinsky’s Soldiers Tale. The music for this is hugely complex and we did it with a full cast of musicians with me leading it from behind a drum kit. We didn’t use a conductor as we wanted the piece to feel loose and fir the musicians to really know the music. It had a kind of rough and ready feel but was one of those pieces where everything gelled and came together. That’s where I first worked with Tom and I guess started me down a theatrical route.

Have those initial experiences at Batersea Arts Centre informed how you’re working on Fanny Hill?

I like to throw lots of ideas at a wall, for a number of reasons. If you take an approach of “this is how it is” or “this is how its going to be” when working on something creatively you’re narrowing your focus to the point where its not fun anymore. And keeping things fun is very important. For instance there’s a huge amount instruments in the rehearsal room cupboard which I dragged out and got everyone to mess around on just to see where they led, and that’s really important to me. The other thing is when you’re creating theatre you’re never quite sure where music is going to be needed so if you have a pool of possibilities it stands you in good stead.

What can audiences expect from the music of Fanny Hill?

We’re taking a lot of folk songs from the eighteenth century. Ros has got huge reams of tunes, some of which I’ve written some of which are old folk tunes that I’ve adapted. There are loads of Broadside ballads and I work with these a lot in the music I make with Bellowhead so I’m really familiar with this kind of approach. Its great searching for this kind of music, you can go to the Bodleian Library of Broadside Ballads online and search for songs about burning witches for instance, or put in the key word disease and it comes up with hundreds of tunes.

Michael has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all kinds of things, the first time we met he was singing all kinds of Broadsides that he was familiar with. So we’re performing a few of his ideas. Then we’re also going through books like The English Dancing Master by John Playford and Thomas d’Urfey’s Pills To Purge Melancholy which are full of interesting tunes. When For Ayr I Take My Mare is one we’ve adopted from here which we perform during one of the shagging scenes…it’s incredibly euphemistic!

Describe a particular day in the Fanny Hill rehearsal room.

I tend to sit at the back and keep quiet until I’m needed! Ros, who’s our main instrumentalist, is hugely capable and doesn’t really need me to butt in. But when it comes to a song I like to get involved.

It’s definitely not a completely new experience to working with Bellowhead. Its about ensemble work and collaboration. I am very much not one of those people who come into the room and announce “I am the composer, what I write must be!” I like being in a room of people who are open to ideas and pitch in – and that’s the Bellowhead way of working. I’ll sit down and come up with an arrangement, then go into the rehearsal and take the flak and something great will emerge out of that. If there wasn’t that give and take we wouldn’t be the band we are. It depends on people saying “no, that bit’s crap, how about this idea instead”.

Have you found anything particularly challenging so far?

Well I had to completely rewrite a piece in a Baroque style yesterday afternoon on short notice, and that was quite a test! It certainly tested my counterpoint skills and Scarlatti would be shocked by it!

But the whole business of being a vocal animateur, that’s really not my comfort zone at all. In previous productions I’ve worked on you’d have dedicated animateurs who would go away and teach a piece to the choir. On Fanny Hill I’m doing it, and I’m a crap singer! But actually having done that, maybe my crappiness has been a good way of encouraging others to get involved because they know they can’t be as bad as I am.

What are you most excited about at this moment?

I’m really excited about the beginning of the second act specifically. There’s a thing that happens which I think is going to be brilliant…and I’m not going to give that away!

I think you get a sense of how a show is going to turn out when you’re working on it and I think with Fanny Hill consistently I have thought this is going to be really, really good. So I’m hugely excited about the moment when I’m sitting in the theatre waiting for the performance to start. The Life and Times of Fanny Hill is like controlled insanity and the music of it is hugely eclectic. I can’t wait to sit back and watch it.

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill
Bristol Old Vic Theatre
5 Feb-7 Mar