Let’s take this outside

acta outdoor theatre

Making theatre outdoors

I was talking with the acta team yesterday about how we can make theatre within current government advice on social distancing, and the conversation came around to using outdoor spaces for workshops and performances.

Over the years, acta has used outdoor spaces for many projects, and it’s always an exciting, though nerve-wracking, experience; (nerve-wracking mostly because of the unpredictability of the UK weather).

My first experience of community theatre was in an outdoor production in 1981 – well before I began acta, and while I was still working as a businessman – at the time, area manager for a video game company (installing arcade games – mainly on military sites – in the Midlands and Wales). The play was an adaptation of the Cornish Miracle plays, and took place in the old Temple Church in Bristol – the one with the leaning tower.  The ruins of the old church made an evocative backdrop to the tale of the Passion, and it was during this life-changing experience that I found my love of community theatre.

Not long after we started acta, in Summer 1987 we took on the massive task of creating a play in two weeks, from scratch, with 100 young people from all over Avon, in the old outdoor swimming pool in Eastville Park. The resulting play, Wake Up and Dream, was a fantastic experience that made the most of the outside setting, lighting the surrounding with lanterns and stage lights as the sun slowly set on the ‘Nightmare’ section of the piece. Many of the young people who took part are still in touch with acta, and it sparked a lifelong interest – and for several, lifelong careers – in theatre and the arts. It was  a great two weeks, really hard work, a ridiculous level of ambition for such a young company; and the sun shone everyday!! A couple of years later, Running Out of Time made the most of the then crumbling ruined church on Castle Park.

Of course, the problem is that when you spend a long time planning an outdoor event, and the sun doesn’t shine, there’s a huge amount of wasted energy, frustration and disappointment. The most extreme version of this was in 2004, when we spent a whole year in residency at Oldbury Court School. This was a fantastic multi-layered, multi arts project, with a song cycle, films, theatre, visual arts, all leading up to a massive festival to celebrate the local history of the site at the school summer fete. There were all manner of exciting events planned for the festival, including a live archaeological dig. Of course, when the day came, the weather was appalling – torrential rain, high winds, a proper deluge. It was so disappointing – but we quickly found a way to move the whole event indoors, taking over every inch of the school. In the end, it was still a great success – but it made me very shy of outdoor events for some years.

This reticence wasn’t shared by many of my colleagues though, and we continued to develop and deliver a range of wonderful outdoor events, with Alan May – our Designer at the time – and Katie Delaney, acta Production Manager, working on a number of lantern-based community events in Hartcliffe, Lawrence Weston, and the Bournville Estate in Weston. The Hartcliffe carnival events went on for several years, and got bigger each November, involving many hundreds of local people, until lack of funding caused it to stop.

We didn’t abandon the lantern parade idea, though, and in 2011 we initiated and coordinated the first Bedminster Lantern parade, as a launch pad for our ‘Get Together’ project in Bedminster and Redcliffe. The parade was a huge success, and was taken over by Way Out West (WOW) and local people to become an annual event – again getting bigger every year, and with Alan May acting as Artistic lead. The most recent acta lantern parade was the beautiful Redcliffe parade, led by Katie Delaney, as part of our Arts & Communities programme (2014 -16).

We have created so much site specific work over the years, particularly with young people. This area of work is much beloved by Ingrid Jones, our Associate Director, particularly as part of her work with Young Carers; combining much needed breaks for the young people, with interesting partnerships with heritage organisations. For several years we worked with English Heritage on a number of sites, including Farleigh Hungerford Castle and Cleeve Abbey (photo above). Ingrid also took the Young Carers down to the Bishops Palace in Wells, to create a wonderful animated walk around the historic buildings and gardens.

And that’s not to mention the various excursions to Blaise Castle with youth theatres and the women’s group from Lawrence Weston, or the time we took over the whole historic estate with processions, music and theatre, animating the story of the area.

Most evocative of Ingrid’s site specific work, however, was Lost not Forgotten, which saw acta in partnership with Arnos Vale cemetery. Over the course of several months, Ingrid worked with our Phoenix Theatre group, researching the lives of people who died during the 1914-18 conflict, and who were buried at the site. The performances took the audience around Arnos Vale, meeting the young soldiers, suffragettes, nurses whose lives were entwined with the tragic events of the Great War. There was something especially poignant about meeting performers enacting the characters, while standing by their final resting places.

There is something very special about performing in the open air, especially when in historic surroundings, telling stories from the past and bringing them to life, listening to the ‘Whispers in the Walls’ (the title of our Farleigh Hungerford project).

So, looking forward to the easing of Lockdown, and the hope of getting together with our participants and friends in the open air, making some theatre, and performing to (a safely distanced) audience, is all very attractive and exciting, and a step nearer to acta doing what we do best.

Just hope the sun keeps shining!!