Bristol Old Vic Ferment: Artists’ Retreat

Ferment Producer, Emma Bettridge fills us in on her countryside retreat with some of the artists from Ferment. 

IMG_20171114_151301_resized_20171114_045236031.jpgBristol Ferment, the Artist Development department of Bristol Old Vic, has existed for almost 10 years. 10 YEARS. Of developing, of supporting, of encouraging, of enabling brilliant artists to go forth and make the best work they possibly can. Gifted time and space and financial support wherever possible. Projects initiated, left to brew, picked up again, discarded, picked up again. Testing and trying and ditching and thriving. Process, that’s what we do. We support the process of making great art. Not a terribly easy one to justify really. You what? You give artists licence to try ideas out? And if they don’t work you put them to bed? But if they work you run and you push and you hold that artist, that idea, until it is a big real thing in the world? Wild.

I’m writing this from a great big house in the country. Hawkwood College actually. Up near Stroud. They provide retreat space here. And loads and loads and loads of food. Pretty much on the hour. It’s quite a place. Up in the hills, with the owls and the bats and the bears. No bears. I’m writing this from within a retreat for our five exceptional Levehulme Artists. To date, Ferment has a delightfully wide net which holds and supports a great number of excellent artists. It’s only ever little bits though. A bit of rehearsal space, a bit of cash, a bit of my time, a bit of grant reading, here, there, that sort of thing. The ambition behind securing this lovely money from Levehulme was to take those brilliant bits from the Ferment process and to do a bit more. More time, more detail, more cash money, more strategy. But also to do less. Less pressure on churning out a bit of art which didn’t have enough time/space/money attached. Less pressure on those public facing bits of an artist’s life. Less pressure on forms demanding ALL OF THE STATS to justify worth. Less part time low wage jobs squeezed around making work. This wasn’t about a production. This was about allowing an artist a year attached more formally to us, with significant financial support to take that time to recalibrate, to give validation to that artist and permission to really believe in themselves as an artist of great merit and calibre.

So they’re here, up in the hills, talking to each other and ignoring each other. Reflecting on their time with us. A good pause actually. 6 months or so in. Skill sharing and supporting and critiquing. I wanted to try and get down what this attachment has meant to them. So here goes.

In bullet points:

* Confidence to hold their own self-directed working
* Individual space which isn’t about working with others – a lot of our artists are great collaborator and devisors, so own space is rare and hugely important.
* The way this has felt like an award. The deliberate openness of the bursary has boosted confidence and given recognition.
* Horizons have been genuinely broadened. One of our artists is a spoken word artist who is working towards making more theatre. Being able to go a see lots of different type of work has inspired her to think bigger and wider.
* Feeling legitimised as an artist.
* Retaining responsibility – not taking this level of support for granted.
* The notion that we can honestly discover and not just design the output or demonstrate more value for money.
* Connecting to artists working in a very different way to each other.

We’re thrown into the education wheel at 4 years old. And we continue (if we have the means and support) on that wheel until we leave University. A whole life studying, reflecting, learning. At the end of that time, you are made, right? You are now that person. You are an ARTIST. So you go out and you get work and continue until you retire. Aged 65-85 (who knows). This scholarship has felt like a return to that educational space. A time where the onus isn’t on paying bills. This is about being in a place to think and learn and understand to a greater extent the way you make your work and what you’re trying to say.

Bristol Old Vic Ferment is the artist development department of Bristol Old Vic, find out more here


The Little Matchgirl Rehearsal Diary – Week 1

Rehearsals have officially begun for our Christmas show, The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales. Here, Assistant Director Keziah Serreau gives us a first behind-the-scenes look at this Christmas’ Hans Christian Andersen-inspired tale.

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Here we are on the first day of Little Matchgirl remount rehearsals and it’s all very exciting. I can sense a few nerves floating about in the room as the company arrive one after the other. It feels a bit like the first day at school. We’re remounting the show with an entirely new company of actors apart from our Puppeteer Eddie, most of them have not worked together before. The room is bubbling with the same excitement and apprehension as when one embarks on an entirely new play. Although the show is familiar to me as I was in rehearsals when it was first created last year, I cannot wait to see how this new company will bring their own interpretation to the show.

Another new element is the fact that we now have a fully formed set, hooray! We first created the show for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse which is a beautiful and intimate candlelit theatre but can also be quite restrictive in terms of set design. So, as this show will now venture into new venues touring around the UK over the next months, Vicki our Designer, gives us a short presentation of the model box. She has come up with a set that embraces the different worlds of the show, from the magical Edwardian music hall world of Ole Shuteye to the cold reality in which our Little Matchgirl lives.

Emma and Vicki explain they want the set to reflect the injustice and inequalities happening worldwide, they want to reclaim the idea of Christmas by acknowledging the harsh living conditions many people experience. On a cut out stuck on the model box, we see an abundant xmas table and can read the words ‘make Christmas great again’, we all laugh.

We play a few games to start with and get to know each other. We jokingly call it our youth club warm up. The atmosphere becomes playful and focused. Playing games switches our brains on, gets rid of inhibitions and binds us together, all the essential elements we need to be creative and collaborative.

Next, Sarah, our Puppet Director leads a short puppet session before she has to rush off to Bristol to perform in The Tin Drum. Sarah hands out sticks of all different shapes and sizes and the company play with the idea of the stick being just a stick in the hand of an actor to a puppet stick operated by an actor.  The company explore the different focus points and the relationship between the puppeteer, the puppet and audience.

Katy tries to operate Thumbelina and after a few goes, she discovers how very technically difficult it is to operate a puppet, she jokingly suggests that perhaps Thumbelina should be in a chair as she struggles to make the puppet legs walk.

As stage management unfold all the props of the show, our rehearsal room fills up with big beetle legs, mattresses, a toad, a swallow, a butterfly, small beetles, a fly, crowns, Christmas trees, a thunder box, mice, presents, chips and a charity workers hi viz jacket.

As the company start to learn the moves and songs of the Shuteyes, our chorus of Edwardian music hall story tellers, the company unveil some of the magic and start to own this play.

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales opens at Bristol Old Vic from 30 Nov – 14 Jan. For more information and to book tickets, click here. 

The Missing Pieces Company: Interview

Ahead of Meetings, we caught up with Jenny Davis, the Creative Producer behind Missing Pieces, to discuss the relevance of script-in-hand performances in Bristol.

‘Missing Pieces’ gives a chance to hear (in Bristol) rarely heard, overlooked, or very new writing by Black writers.  Who are some of your favourite writers and why?
I’ve always loved whatever Derek Walcott wrote, and I was acutely aware that people didn’t know his plays. ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Pantomime’ are two of his best in my mind, but he has others, ‘Chicken Soup No Barley’ for instance, which I guess outside certain audiences and readership, people wouldn’t necessarily know of.  Why Walcott?  Nobody writes about post-colonialism like he does; and his firm belief that you can render the ordinary with language that befits the classics.  There is nothing wrong – as postcolonial subjects – in using and adapting the formal voice of Shakespeare or the Greek Classics and making it one’s one.

When I first started writing there were still so few black writers out there getting their work on stage.  I would go to see anything by Winsome Pinnock.  I wanted to include her play ‘Speaking in Tongues‘ in a season, but is has too big a cast unfortunately.  Significantly, I was doing one of her writing workshops through Spread the Word, and that set me on the road to writing plays. My first professional Play ‘The Front Room‘ was developed through that.

Missing Pieces

How did Missing Pieces start, and grow?
I studied Caribbean literature at Warwick, (many years ago) and the Irish Playwright Brian Friel has always been firmly up there as one of those writers I totally loved.  Every word that dripped from his page gave me this ache from the sheer beauty of it.  But, Missing pieces was all about the overlooked canon that was out there – old and new Black theatre writing.  It wasn’t until I started reading for the Alfred Fagon Award that I was introduced to a whole raft and generation of new writing: exciting voices like Somalia Seaton, and some unknowns who I would love to include such as Max Kolaru, Nessa Muthy, Mark Norfolk, Dizzie djeh, Diana Atun and Matilda Ibini.  They’ve moved beyond first generation stories, and tackle other big themes:  child soldiers, capitalism, futurism, or experiment with form and narrative.  I have to include Debbie Tucker Green too, in respect of that – another favorite, whose work is about the rhythm, and the spaces in between.

For the Alfred Fagon Award I was reading so many amazing plays, I felt strongly that some of those shouldn’t return to the drawer, or not be seen out of London.  So it came out of conversations with friends (some who had done script readings in London), and the Bristol Old Vic itself.  I had thought of just putting something on in my living room and inviting mates round, but I put one on in a pub to see if it had any legs. As that was a success, I went for funding and the rest is history.

We put our first season on in the Bristol Old Vic Basement Studio and Hamilton House.  We alternated to see if we could capture a community non-theatre audience too.  The season was hugely successful so I decided to go for another, this time at the Wardrobe Theatre while Bristol Old Vic’s Foyer and Studio were being redeveloped.

You’re a writer yourself.  How did you get into writing for BBC1’s drama ‘Doctors’, and what’s it like telling a complete story in a 30 min slot?
I’ve been writing for BBC ‘Doctors’ for some years now.  It was quite a long process to get onto the program, to be honest.  I was in the BBC Writers Room for quite some time, or rather the hallway, and someone forwarded one of my scripts to a script editor, and from then on it was about learning to write for that program.  There was a mini academy, which was excellent – you had John Yorke and other script execs talking about the nuts and bolts of writing.

IMG_1916Writing for a 30 minute slot is quite a strict discipline. You learn to be frugal with your story telling.  It’s been a good learning experience all in all, writing for TV.  I stopped being so precious about my work, and grew a thicker skin.

What can we look forward to in the upcoming Missing Pieces events this season?  What made you choose those pieces?
This season we’ve had Walcott’s ‘Pantomime’, the Broadway award winning ‘Eclipsed’,  my play ‘The Front Room’, and ‘Little Baby Jesus’ by Arinze Kene.  You couldn’t get any more diverse, from Robinson Crusoe, to Liberian female soldiers, a Caribbean front room domestic drama, and three inner city teenagers growing up on an estate.   This month it’s ‘Meetings’ by Mustapha Matura.  It’s a lesser known play, but I felt in terms of classics, we have to include this writer as he’s one of our leading Caribbean writers of the 1980s and 90s.  The last play is tbc!  It was between Debbie Tucker Green and Winsome Pinnock – both strong female led plays:  one about Jamaican drug mules, and the other about sex tourism.  The other consideration we have is what will work for a script-in-hand performance.  There is only so much work the audience and actors can do, given it’s not a full production.  There’s also  limited rehearsal time, so if the actors are playing multiple characters on top, that could get challenging for all concerned.  So it’s an exciting gap yet to be fully filled.

Missing Pieces continues our Studio Walkabout Season with support from Bristol Old Vic Literary Department. This month’s performance, Meetings, opens at The Wardrobe Theatre 6pm, 5 Nov. All Tickets £8.

The Caretaker Rehearsal Diary – Week 4

With preparations for previews well under way, The Caretaker Assistant Director Chino Odimba took a quick five minutes out of the rehearsal room to fill us in on all the latest updates from week 4.

The Caretaker - Rehearsals - Photo by Iona Firouzabadi - 8473.jpgIf the last three weeks have been the slow saunter through the tunnel, mascot happily dancing in front of you, this week is the bit just before the referee throws the coin up in the air.

And now imagine that before all of this, this is the first time you have been on this particular pitch, in this particular stadium…

Weird football analogy over…

Having spent most of the rehearsal time so far in a one of the lovely rehearsal spaces at Bristol Old Vic, we are now moving onto the stage.

This may come as surprise but for most productions, the cast do not start using the stage space until the final week of rehearsal.

It is a week of testing everything that we have been doing in the rehearsal room – and sometimes having to rethink scenes. There are people everywhere – technicians, costumes makers, dressers, stage managers, producers, sound designers, lighting designers, and the cast all trying to get the best of the week before we open to you – the public! We might even spot our Artistic Director Tom Morris popping in to see how things are going…eeek!!!

Piz 1

This part of the process is where all the ideas about costumes, lighting, sound and set come together to make the show that we will all be seeing in under six days!  The set will be ‘dressed’, things will be ‘flown’ and the several gallons of coffee will be drank!

There is also a lot of excitement to see the final look for each actor…we have had some glimpses of costume but yet to see them in all their glory.

My role as Assistant Director will mean I spend a lot of time with the actors helping to them to feel confident with who their character is, and ensuring they know their lines as best as possible. Right until the opening previews, we will now be working to make the show better and better, and find new things that we didn’t, and couldn’t, have found in the rehearsal room.

I’ve had a fun time being Assistant Director for The Caretaker – it is a play that I love very much so feel especially honoured to be working on it. Seeing the process of a play from the initial reading of the script to the realisation of it on a stage is something quite special indeed.

For now, I’m strapping my boots on, waiting for the whistle to go, and for kick-off!!

Wish us luck…and see you there for a post match drink or two!

The Caretaker opens at Bristol Old Vic 9-30 September. For more information and to book tickets, click here. 

The Missing Pieces Company: Interview

Ahead of The Front Room, the latest from the ‘Missing Pieces’ script-in-hand line-up, we caught up with actor Ellen Thomas who’ll be taking on the lead role at The Wardrobe Theatre this September.


Ellen Thomas

Well known for her roles in EastEnders, Rev, and Teachers, Ellen Thomas is no stranger to the stage either.


Welcome to Bristol! Do you have any previous links with the city?
Oh yes, quite a few. Four series of Channel 5’s ‘Teachers’, and at Bristol Old Vic Kwame Kwai Armah’s award winning play ‘A Bitter Herb’.

You’re well known as powerful matriarch Claudette Hubbard in EastEnders, and now playing another in Jenny Davis’s play ‘The Front Room’. Tell us a bit about the play.
The play has echoes of Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’, although it wasn’t written with that in mind.

The Front Room Final Poster(2)It’s set in a Caribbean household, and is about a claustrophobic mother and daughter relationship; the controlling religious mother Ina and her daughter Alecia who lives in a fantasy world. Both women have their own means of shutting out reality and spend days cleaning the front room, in preparation for non existent visitors. The Front Room is the best room of the house, and symbolises the inner sanctum, a threshold which is never crossed, unless invited.

The mother is desperate to keep the world out, but reality encroaches with a crumbling roof, and repairs which force Ina to let the outside world in, in the form of a stranger, an Irishman Fergal. Fergal however threatens to change things forever, unravelling secrets that have been buried and denied. ‘The Front Room’ is about what happens when a relationship with manipulation at its heart is exposed.

Your character marched out of Albert Square in Autumn last year, and you were straight into a major stage role. How was that?
Immediately after ‘EastEnders’ I worked with the fabulous Bonnie Greer and director Femi Elufowojo Jnr . I really enjoyed being back in the theatre, especially as the play was performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East which is among my favourite theatre spaces. The play – ‘The Hotel Cerise’ – was based on Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ but set in the USA at the time of the recent American election; and performed at that exact same time too! It was an amazing experience. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to take a leading role in such a powerful new play. I’ll cherish the wonderful memories we created forever.

What was it like to play Adoha Onyeka, the parishioner and church volunteer with a rather affectionate eye for the vicar in BBC2’s comedy ‘Rev’ ?
I loved working on ‘Rev’, it was such a fun job. The cast and crew got on like a house on fire. Every work day was a joy. When it ended I really missed the team. We really bonded.

What attracted you to take part in a Missing Pieces staged reading?
Missing Pieces is about bringing Black theatre to Bristol, to the regions. Creating the opportunity for audiences to experience a plethora and canon of work, that otherwise would be missed, forgotten, or simply not known about. These are pieces of work that are often not seen enough in the mainstream canon, especially here in the South West. The Staged reading is a chance to hear these scripts, to have them read and brought to life, thanks to professional gifted actors.

Missing Pieces continues our Studio Walkabout Season with support from Bristol Old Vic Literary Department. This month’s performance, The Front Room, opens at The Wardrobe Theatre 6pm, 3 Sep. All Tickets £8.