When we produced ‘Sappho …in 9 fragments’ in London, it was designed with the theatre space in mind. Our working environment was the basement of a cocktail club, with an eerie twisted staircase leading down into a cavernous spot, with the frames of fireplaces, secret alcoves, Victorian erotica on the deep purple walls that were uneven and jutted out. There was a picture frame on one wall that was large enough for a person to sit inside. The ceilings were low.
When Victoria and I started working together on the play, I asked her to explore the space as though it was full of memories.
The rehearsal room smelt of kerosene – old heater in the corner, brought in to compensate for the boiler packing up. The Unglamorous side of the theatre. Front of house all velvet plush and gilt ormolu; back with us, wet rot and the ghosts of a thousand mark ups. Walk to the corner of the room, and you smelt the mould, you smelt the decay – years and years of acting ghosts; years and years of longing… (scene from the play)
Some of the most poignant moments in the play were discovered simply by connecting with different parts of the space: staring into the giant sun mirror, or leaning against the wall, or folding up into the picture frame. There’s a reason why site-specific theatre* works so well: it transforms the environment simply by interacting with it in an unusual way. You don’t simply lose yourself in the world of the play; you become that much more aware of your surroundings, and therein fantasy and reality merge.
But how do you replicate this effect when you transfer the production to a different venue?
When we tour the play to Canada, we are going to be working with three different spaces. The venues in Toronto and Montreal resemble our space at the White Rabbit Theatre in London in that they are essentially a rectangular shaped room that will allow for audience on two sides. The Ottawa space at the Arts Court may prove a bit more of a challenge, as we’ll have audience on three sides. There is enough movement in the show that this shouldn’t be an issue in terms of visibility, but we will need time to revisit the staging and make sure everything still works from that point of view. But as with the spirit of the Fringe, we only have very limited tech time in the space (maybe a couple of hours) – so we need to be very quick and very imaginative. Most of the action takes place within and around the scaffolding structure, and luckily that can be replicated in any venue with sufficient space. There are just a few choice moments that we need to revisit, and also consider sight lines and what we can do in terms of lighting design.
How did we connect with these venues?
It all happened very quickly. I directed this show in January, just before my trip to Canada: there, I met up with my friend Jeremy Dias, whose company had already been registered for the Ottawa Fringe Festival. But they hadn’t yet selected the play they were going to produce. We decided that his company could present this production, and that we would also try to have the show presented elsewhere while Victoria and I were in town. I put up a notice on Facebook and Twitter for venues in Montreal and Toronto, and friends of mine suggested various options — including the two venues on which we eventually settled. Sometimes it’s just about asking people for what you need!
* I use the term ‘site-specific’ loosely. Often it refers to theatre that is written with the space in mind. This production was only designed with the space in mind, which I think still counts, but I thought I should clarify.