Monday, 28 February 2011

The Night Before The Morning After

As I often seem to say, things move so quickly with Belt Up that everything always seems a long time ago.

It feels like ages since we sat down to make a new show, but tomorrow morning at 9am we start rehearsal for The Beggars Opera, our brand spanking new show on in the Main House at York Theatre Royal from 24th-26th March.

I love this feeling. The feeling of waiting to launch in to a rehearsal process for something that no-one has ever seen before. It’s exciting and intimidating. I have a long list of things that I may or may not need to do before tomorrow morning. However, I am writing this instead. Perhaps I’m distracting myself or perhaps my thoughts are too erratic to get down in a measured and logical way. I need to make another list.

But this is no ordinary beginning.

To an extent I am used to walking in to a rehearsal room for an intimate site-specific show. But tomorrow morning I walk in to the rehearsal room to start directing a musical for an 840 seater venue.

We had a production meeting earlier today with all the team to tighten up a few things. Joe and I have sat down and talked and laughed our way through a plot for projections. Dan and I have crudely recorded the songs to play in the read-through. Jethro and I made and changed rehearsal schedules. James has written and rewritten the script until I had to stop him so I could print one off. Dominic and Chris have started pulling things together for the set design. Joe is working on his presentation for tomorrow, which apparently involves a quiz. Marcus arrives in about ten minutes to stay with us for a while.

And I’m sat in this armchair in my little room, half excited and half scared. Or rather 100% excited and 100% scared. I’m listening to Billy Elliot to try and get myself in the anti-Thatcher musical mode. I don’t know whether this is helping or just intimidating me.

However, in 12 ½ hours we kick off, and I can’t wait.

I guess I’ll make a list and make some notes and have some panics and try and get all my notes in to one place. But ultimately I will walk in to a rehearsal room tomorrow morning ready to make a new show with people I know, trust and thoroughly enjoy working with.

And, you never know, Belt Up Theatre’s first ever musical might just turn out to be bloody good!

Fingers crossed.


Director of The Beggars Opera

Co-Artistic Director of Belt Up Theatre

The Beggars Opera runs at York Theatre Royal from 24th-26th March

Saturday, 26 February 2011

How to make theatre...

I so often meet people who are starting their careers in theatre, somewhere just a couple of years behind where Belt Up is now, who feel frustrated at the lack of information available. There is no definitive answer to running a theatre company or the business aspect of theatre. Everyone has their own opinion. These opinions come from the way we work, from trial and error, and predominantly from the opinions of our elders, from the people who have achieved, in one form or another, what we newbies are aspiring to achieve.

Over the past few months I have met many young companies, producers, aspiring theatre makers, all of whom seem to ask the same question, ‘how do we make it work?’. I’ve been helping companies such as Random Occurrence, an enthusiastic group of four setting up in their final year of University. For them I act as a sounding board, someone to go to for advice, but mostly to ask the silly questions. That, for me, is the most important thing that any of us can have, someone to go to and ask the questions that you wouldn’t ask your boss, or your accountant because they’d look at you like a fool.

The more professionals I meet, the more I realise that they too have been through this process. I have a mentor who also has a mentor who no doubt was once learning from those around him who each thought they had the answer, or at least something close to the answer. Let’s face it; no one actually has this answer. No one actually knows what is right or wrong, what makes a great show and what doesn’t, what makes a hit and what makes a flop. There is no handbook on theatre because there is no answer. There are simply the opinions of those making work, and whilst those people are on top their answer seems pretty valid. Then someone else will come along with a different answer and ‘Yes, this is it. This is how theatre should be made’. And on and on…

There is no definitive answer because the way theatre is created will constantly change and adapt, those creating it will also change, they will adapt, but no doubt we will still look to those above us and ask, ‘How do we make it work?’. Perhaps one day someone will have the answer. Until then, I guess we’ll just have to keep going, wondering constantly what the hell it is we’re meant to be doing.

Jethro Compton

Producer and Co-Artistic Director

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Comedy Boyband Posing

A week ago there was a photograph of us in The Observer. We looked surprisingly normal in this photo. This is all down to Lucy Farrett.

When the four of us are together, on our own, and someone takes a photograph, we look like a boyband. Without exception.

Below are some photos taken by Ruth Gibson for an article in York University paper, Vision.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Something Special Well Worth Preserving: Keeping The Community

There is something absolutely wonderful about rural theatres. They exist for the perfect reasons.

The other month I blogged about rural touring,

whilst we were taking Octavia around Yorkshire and Cornwall, and how wonderful it is to take shows to a community, to people who are ready and willing to come and enjoy themselves. For me, time seems to move so quickly and that Octavi

a tour already seems quite long ago. Since then we have run in London with The Boy James and run at The Lowry with Odyssey and Quasimodo. I have also spent a lot of my time thinking about The Beggars Opera for York Theatre Royal and Macbeth for London in April. But this week we have been performing at Wyeside Arts Centre in Builth Wells, South Wales.

Our few days here have been one of the most enjoyable times we have spent in a theatre. There is something about the intimacy and the scale of the place, the way the whole theatre is run. And it’s not just a theatre, it’s a cinema, an arts space where the community gather. We have been wholly received as part of the Wyeside family, or so it feels. We have been here for four days, but I feel like I am friends with all the staff, like I belong a little to this community, such is the welcoming and appreciative nature of the p

lace; people seem really happy that we are here, and in turn we are very happy to be here. They are so bloody lovely. They have let us sleep in their theatre, kept the bar open for us, brought us tea and coffee, let us watch a private screening of Black Swan. And why? Because they pride themselves on being lovely, giving and offering everything they can, which is so much more than money.

As with everything arts related these days, there are dark times ahead. Wyeside Arts Centre are struggling under loss of funding, their youth theatre is struggling in response and so might their outside programming struggle and their cinema programme struggle. If this place shuts down, or has to cut back, then it is a disaster.

Places like Wyeside provide the cultural hub for such a widespread community. We had 100 primary school children from about 5 different schools in Octavia. For them, this is the only theatre around. They have had to add extra screenings of The Kings Speech because of the demand for cinema, where the next nearest cine

ma is about an hours drive away.

As I said in my previous blog on rural arts, a community is so much more involved if you bring the art to them. Of course, this is true of all comm

unities. In London there is so much art brought to the larger community that you are spoilt for choice. In York people flock to the Theatre Royal for the Pantomime and their summer family shows, such as The Railway Children, Wind In The Willows and the upcoming Peter Pan. But trying to get people to drive hours to their nearest event, you are somewhat pushing the easy enjoyment of being entertained.

The National make good work, it sells and people

go in their droves to see it. If The National have their funding cut a little, it makes a small dent in their vastly enterprising business. If somewhere like Wyeside gets their funding cut a little it means losing the youth theatre. Then where is the next nearest youth theatre?

People who run venues like Wyeside do not do it for the fame, the money or the artistic respect and credibility, they do it for the community. This is such a heart-warming thing. Perhaps it’s because I come from the countryside, but I feel so bound to these kind of people who work just to give it all back to the people they are working for. It’s really quite a beautiful cycle, one it would be criminal to lose.

This morning we met some amazing people. Phil and Sue run Shakespeare Link, working out of the Living Willow Theatre. It is an incredible place and I would please urge everyone who reads this to at least visit their website. Perhaps email them, perhaps go and see a show, perhaps take one if you make work; they are truly inspiring people. After working for years in the industry they set up camp on a big farm in Wye valley. They both have such a huge love for theatre and specifically Shakespeare. And they too are such giving people, so much so that they have made everything they need to run a theatre, and made in purely off their own back and genius initiative.

They have turned their stable in to a library and costume store, their barn in to an indoor venue, another barn in to a pub and, most impressively built a miniature version of The Globe out of living willow trees complete with thrust stage and 130 capacity. And what’s more it is entirely self-supporting running off green electricity harvested from solar panels and wind turbines. It’s truly incredible.

I think the main thing that is incredible though is its simplicity. There are no airs or graces, there is just a love of theatre and some open and welcoming arms ready to embrace and provide for the community. They run a season of work across summer that involve workshops, sessions, storytelling and big community Shakespeares. Sue was saying how last year the local window cleaner did a stunning Hamlet, honest and bare in their beautiful setting. They welcome other companies and tours, The Factory brought their Seagull the other summer, even Germaine Greer has visited.

But when you put it against places like The National you think ‘Well what is it? Is it a farm or a theatre? Who is this for?’ And the answer is that it is a farm and it is a theatre and it is a place where you can go on nature trials or have a pint of locally brewed ale. And who is it for? Everyone. It is for the people who make the shows, the people who come to the shows, it is for the community. Or rather communities. I am not from the Wye valley, but I am from a theatrical community and I feel at home drinking coffee and chatting in their stable-come-library and I hope I would feel just as at home in and amongst their community Shakespeare. Are places like this more worthy than places like The National? I think perhaps they are.

People like Phil and Sue are so inspiring. They set up Shakespeare Link in 1992 and have done so much but it feels like they are just getting going with the amount of energy that pours out of the couple. I got up early after sleeping on the floor of the Wyeside Arts Centre and drove through the back roads of Wales to the Living Willow Theatre. I then performed for local children. The rest of the company have just gone for a walk down the river and I’m sat typing in a home away from home. Rural arts is so special, I couldn’t have had this day in London.

I have realised that I care a hell of a lot about this, about these theatres and arts centre that exist purely to give. I want to work with them, to make exciting things happen and be a part of the exciting things that already are happening. And as funding and the future gets more and more uncertain, perhaps we all need to take a leaf out of Sue and Phil’s book to find a way to sustain in every sense of the word.

I've no idea how, but I’m very willing to find out how this is done.

Anyone want to do it with me?

If so, email me on

Alexander Wright

Co-Artistic Director

Thursday, 17 February 2011

James Wilkes: How I accidentally became a Political playwright*

“Political Theatre? All theatre is political. With a small ‘p’ or a capital ‘p’, it’s all political” is one of the pearls of wisdom handed down to Belt Up from York Theatre Royal artistic director (and unsung Scottish philosopher) Damian Cruden whilst we’ve been in residence under his wing. The idea of ‘Political Theatre’ (with a big ‘p’) is something I’ve never really been that interested in to be honest. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it; I just wasn’t intrigued by it. I’m happy to confess that I grew up with that Political apathy commonly attributed to my generation. I was indifferent. Politics were of no interest to me and when I started to write plays they weren’t Political in the slightest, they were surreal and mainly tried to find the most ridiculous use of the word ‘fuck’.

But then something happened. That election that happened last year. Remember that? That’s what happened.

I was pulled into the buzz of the election mainly because of the potential cuts to arts funding. My job is running a theatre company and so this felt like a threat. A danger lurking over the hill. Which party was going to be best for the arts? Labour? They did a war and that. Did they like arts? They’d brought in the ‘A night less ordinary scheme’ – that was nice of them. Or those nice Lib Dem chaps who’ve been sitting patiently in the corner for so long. They seem nice. Quite good policies on the arts too. And that nice Mr Clegg seems lovely. How about the Conservatives? What’s their arts policy? Oh...right... I see.

And then I realised that this was actually the first vote I’d ever have in a general election. What to do with it? So far I was judging almost purely on the arts but then the country changed. Everyone seemed to be interested in this election. More so than anyone had seemed before in my memory – I couldn’t remember the election buzz in 1997, I was more concerned with who was going to win the Intercontinental title in WWE (née WWF). There were all those exciting television debates. That nice Mr Clegg did awfully well didn’t he in that first one? Everyone started discussing the election. Everyone seemed to start becoming Political. And I was too. It felt like an important moment. It wasn’t just about who was going to protect the arts. It was about every aspect. I was now paying tax, I wanted a say in where those taxes went. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be screwed over by policies that weren’t interested in me. All of a sudden I, like so many other people, was Political.

With that I began to appreciate Political satire. Those funny cartoons in the paper which used to be unfunny had now become funny, well some of them. I started properly appreciating people like Armando Ianucci – the perfect combination of Political satire and genius uses of the word ‘fuck’. I had joyfully stepped out of the Political apathy that I’d been in previously (I was young, everyone was doing it).

And then that fateful day in May came. I’ve been told it’s not the ‘done’ thing to say who you voted for but I can say that I didn’t vote for the baddies. Nevertheless that Mr David Cameron assumed the throne with the potentially not so nice Mr Clegg perched uncomfortably on the arm. And then all those cuts happened. And all those places started closing down. And all those people got angry. I don’t need to describe the effect; you can look in a newspaper to see that.

By Politics (with a big ‘p’) I mean the shifts, changes, decisions etc that happen in regards to government. Politics (with a small ‘p’, it only has a big one in this case for grammatical reasons) are those same conflicts in a much broader sense; the often conflicting interrelationships in society, between friends, between family members, between humans. There’s that advert where they’re like ‘are you interested in politics’ and they list a load of things and then they’re like ‘haha, we tricked you, those are politics’ to make people more political, you remember that? They were trying to get young people out of that political apathy. The point is, before there was a definite difference between Big Politics and little – more personal – politics, of course they’re connected but it was easy to forget that connection. Today though, that connection is Prevalent. Big Politics are having a very visible impact on everyday life and it’s this that has shaken a lot of people out of Political apathy. The sorts of protests that only occurred in France are now happening on our doorstep. A Christmas tree was set on fire. Even Prince Charles and his ‘other woman’ were attacked (or they just wound down their windows for a chat depending on who you’re talking to). People are now using their voices and wanting to be heard.

Up until now I'd say all of my plays, and all of Belt Up’s work have mainly been political in that small ‘p’ way dealing with people, how they respond to each other, the world and society. They've never been overtly Political. But then we were asked to put on a show as part of the York Theatre Royal Takeover Festival (a festival set up with the deceased ‘A Night Less Ordinary’ scheme). We enjoy working with established texts and rediscovering them and we eventually settled on a reworking of John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’.

The Beggar’s Opera was written as a Political and political satire in 1728 and caused a scandal with the complain-about-culture-Prick the Lord Chamberlain (nowadays he’s been replaced by the Daily Mail and Stephen Green). We wanted our version to talk about today, to put onstage people like Mr Cameron and that nonce Mr Clegg (he’s not actually a nonce but it’s a play on how I was calling him ‘nice’ earlier, clever) and to talk about some of the Politics that are governing the politics of today. Of course we didn’t want to play people of right now, we wouldn’t get costumes for a start, we’d just be wearing our own clothes. The concept became one of setting our version in the not too distant past, long enough ago for the audience to be relatively objective but recent enough to recognise the effects. Ironically, thanks must go to Mr William Hague for the setting, his quip about Cameron and Osbourne being the ‘Children of Thatcher’ inspired the setting of the 1980’s. So in this adaptation of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ we have a group of ‘beggars’ (they’re not literally beggars) protesting and satirising Maggie Thatcher’s government; A government which has huge echoes with the one we’ve got today. We’ve ended up with a musical that is simultaneously set in 2011, 1988 and 1728. We haven’t let Cameron, Clegg and their chums off the hook of course, they will be appearing onstage but you’ll have to see the show to see in which guises.

And so, despite my years of Political apathy I’ve accidentally become, I guess, a Political playwright. Don’t worry, I’ve spent a long time researching and catching up on all those years of indifference. All theatre is political, it is pretty much impossible for anything to be apolitical, but ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ is unashamedly Political. It’s not propaganda. It’s not a preach. It’s satire. It’s about the political conflicts that we’re living in today. With Margaret Thatcher singing.

James Wilkes

The Beggar's Opera runs from 24th-26th March at York Theatre Royal

* This was going to be called 'Accidental Birth of an Anarchist'. I'm not an anarchist though. It's just a witty (in a wanky way) title that I liked the sound of

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Joys of Being Terrified

It’s been a while since I was terrified.

It’s strange that years ago when I was a kid I would get terrified and nervous about opening nights, about going on stage. At university I would plan rehearsals and workshops like mad, willing it all to go right. I would sit nail-biting in the corner of a show desperately trying to figure out if the audience were having a good time.

But with every show that I’ve done these feelings grow less and less, little by little. Now I can walk in to a rehearsal and probably know what I need to do, and this is partly down to the people that I work with. I’m quite comfortable in the knowledge that some people will like our shows and some people will hate them, but thankfully the former seems to outweigh the latter.

However, there are two things that have recently re-awoken my scare sensors.

One of these was having an incredible feature in The Observer with companies 1927, Theatre Delicatessen and Analogue. Three years ago I would never have dreamt that we’d be featured in a national paper amongst other companies who are all older and more experienced than us. We all felt quite proud.

It’s great to get this recognition and publicity before we make two big shows: The Beggars Opera in March in the main house at York Theatre Royal, and a site-specific Macbeth in London in April. This is wonderful. This is also terrifying.

It’s quite nice to be terrified again.

I sat all of last week with Dan Wood writing the music for The Beggars Opera. It was a thoroughly enjoyable process and we’re both pleased with the music. But occasionally during this process I look a little step back and said to myself ‘Alex, you’re writing the music for a musical that your directing in an 800 seat theatre. How did that happen?’ And when I put it like that to myself I realised it was quite terrifying.

Last night I watched the press night for To Kill A Mockingbird at York Theatre Royal, directed Damian Cruden, the Artistic Director. It was an incredible show and I became wonderfully drawn in to the steady unfolding of Harper Lee’s tale. But again, just sometimes, during the show my brain took a step back and said ‘You’ve got to do that next month. You’ve got to do a play on that huge stage, with songs.’ And I still found it terrifying.

But it’s a good kind of terrifying. I feel way out of my depth in the best way possible. I’ve gone back to planning rehearsals and workshops and making endless notes in drafts of scripts. Joe, our assistant director, is busy researching like crazy. Dan is busy writing up music. Dom is busy designing with Chris. Jethro is scheduling the world away. James sent through the final draft last night. We have a stage manager called Kim. A production assistant called Laura. Serena is making lists of costumes. It’s brilliant.

I’m scared but I cannot bloody wait to get started.

The cast arrive at the end of Feb and we hit the ground running on the 1st March.

We’re young and making things up as we go along. And we’ve done okay so far, but I think we’re all ready to try and do better.

The Beggars Opera is political. We are in out 20s and work in theatre, naturally us and the ConDem government don’t get along. So we’ve got things to say and opinions to air, which we are doing in the form of Musical Theatre. What’s terrifying is that I really hope people will come and listen and, perhaps because we were in The Observer, people might.

I hope to see a lot of people there who we recognise, who have seen our work across the years and grown up with us. I also hope to see lots of people who have never seen our work. And I don’t imagine that you will all love it, like every show we do some will love it and some will hate it. But I love it.

The Beggars Opera runs from 24th – 26th March at York Theatre Royal

Alexander Wright

Co-Artistic Director

Friday, 4 February 2011

Reviewer of the Week and Runners Up

Runners up this week include:

'a living hell in more than just a theatrical sense', Jo Beggs for Public Reviews on Odyssey - 1 and a half stars

'It’s not what poor old Quasimodo deserved', Jo Beggs for Public Reviews on Quasimodo- 2 stars

'One woman even yawned aloud.' Natalie Anglesey for City Life on Odyssey - 1 star

Reviewer of the Week goes to Rick Bowen for Lancashire Telegraph:

'I’ve had to sit through some dross, but Belt Up Theatre’s production of Odyssey takes the word to a whole new level... Absolutely aweful.' 1 star

Congratulations Rick Bowen, you're now in the running for Belt Up Theatre's Reviewer of the Year!

Previous Reviewer of the Week winners include:
Tracey Sinclair for Music OMH for her review of 'The Boy James'

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

CityLife Manchester Evening News Review for Quasimodo

Odyssey and Quasimodo at the Lowry

CityLife for Manchester Evening News

on Quasimodo ****

It's not hard to see why Belt Up Theatre’s Quasimodo was a sell-out success at the Edinburgh Fringe.

One: it is fantastic; and two: it can only take about 20 people in the audience at any one performance.

That said, this is not a show for the faint hearted. Prepare to take part, be insulted and immersed in the heart-breaking, lonely and ruthless world of Quasimodo.

The drama starts before we even take our seats. A man with bandages over his eyes and a white cane shuffles us along to a small space (a darkened orchestra pit) in the bowels of the theatre.

As he announces, we are entering the Court of Miracles – a surreal world of deceit and villainy. It is a dimly lit room, not much bigger than many sitting rooms. There is the sound of dripping water, manic laughter and cruel taunts from which the audience are not exempt.

Jethro Compton’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic, Notre Dame de Paris, is dark and compelling. Joe Hufton is both vulnerable and monstrous as the deformed Quasimodo. His twisted body, bare-foot and spitting in the darkness, reflects an inescapable torment. He has us crying in sympathy for his painful condition and repulsed by the horror of his actions.

Dominic J Allen is an equally convincing Frollo, whose wealth and authority masks a sinister ugliness inside.

Serena Manteghi as Esmerelda and James Wilkes as Phoebus make up the energetic company, for whom this is the second show of the evening. But you would never guess by watching them. This skilful team has the audience transfixed to the end, never once breaking the theatrical spell – not even for applause.