Friday, 27 July 2012

Learning a Thing or Two: by James Wilkes

It’s July 2012: the year of the Olympics, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the year the world comes to an end but most importantly of course it is Belt Up’s fifth Edinburgh Fringe. It only feels like yesterday that about fifty students from York University were deliriously trying to rehearse twenty five different productions for The Red Room. It feels like yesterday but it, like many things in the past, seems like a different age. Belt Up is a different company, we’re all different people but at the same time... the same.

I won’t be performing with Belt Up this summer; I haven’t been with Belt Up at the Fringe since 2010’s The House Above (feels like yesterday/a different age). It’s fascinating though to watch the company more objectively. Last year on a day off from York Theatre Royal’s ‘Peter Pan’ I snuck up to the Fringe and was able to watch Outland, simply as an audience member. I’d seen a stumble through during rehearsals but it felt rather nice to be able to come in relatively ignorant and just enjoy a Belt Up show as a Belt Up audience member. What struck me was how far we’ve come since our emerging days in 2008. The writing, acting, directing were all so much more sophisticated. In those many years we’ve been rattling around, we’ve actually learnt a thing or two.

I’ve now hidden away from the harsh realities of the real world and gone back to being a student – taking a sabbatical from Belt Up to train at LAMDA- so learning and developing is very much on my mind at the moment.  One thing that I’m truly starting to appreciate is how much I’ve learnt from writing, directing and acting with Belt Up.

As a company we developed greatly as individuals. We have learnt bucket loads from each other and our mentors but more often than not, our most important lessons have come from our interactions with the audience.

Lyn Gardner once described us as “learning on the job, 21stc equivalent of the rep system” and I think this is entirely accurate. Through doing so many shows we have been able to experiment directly with our audiences. Because they’re not hidden away in the shadows, our audience’s reactions aren’t hidden away – that means if you’re giving a bad performance, you’re very quickly aware of it; you can see every smile, laugh, tear, yawn or grimace. You can see at exactly which point a critic writes in their pad. You can see all too clearly when someone gets up and walks out (most of the time they have to say ‘excuse me’ to pass you). This open relationship has meant throughout our many shows and many runs we get instant feedback and that kind of experience is invaluable. Every single performance can teach us something new.

All artists are individuals and every member of Belt Up is an individual. We exist as a collective but we also have our own paths in which we’re growing and learning. One thing is for sure though; we are all indebted to what we learn through our work with Belt Up and the prospect of new lessons is what keeps Belt Up going. I for one can’t wait to see Belt Up’s work this Fringe and I can’t wait for the audiences too either. After all, over the next few years when 2012 feels just like yesterday/a different age, the audiences for The Boy James, Outland and A Little Princess at this Fringe may actually have taught us even more than we’d have imagined.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Directing a Belt Up Show - by Joe Hufton

We have been in rehearsals for over a week now for ‘A Little Princess’ and so far it’s all going well. We have played with dolls, debated lots and laughed ourselves silly (including one memorable conversation about the British Raj and claymation badgers).

As we head into the second week of rehearsals I thought I would share with you the five things I try to remember when directing a Belt Up show (in no particular order).

Belt Up is a creative collaboration
One of the most exciting things about working with Belt Up is the amount of ideas that fly around in rehearsal; everyone offers things and gets involved in the conversation. Belt Up actors have a huge amount of ingenuity and great creative instincts, and any director has to respect this. Directing Belt Up, more than many companies, is about leading a process rather than dictating ideas and there is a real sense that four heads are better than one.

You will only ever be able to rehearse 80% of the show
Belt Up shows cast the audience in a role and as such that role will never be filled in rehearsal. This means that Belt Up’s dress rehearsals happen at the same time as our opening nights when for the first time we get that final missing cast member. As such there are moments in rehearsal where we have to stop and go ‘and now you will do something with the audience that we can’t do until the first night'. It can be quite terrifying then watching on the first night: wondering if the bits you were unable to rehearse will ever come together quite as you imagined. 

There will never be enough time!
I always feel like we are running out of time. A lot of this has to do with the fact that once we reach the end of the rehearsal process we have to build a set! This may be time consuming and stressful, although a really crucial part of the process. It means we have a real connection with our immersive environment; however there is a point as a director where you have to let go of creative decisions and start climbing ladders, cutting material and arranging furniture for 3 days when all you want to do is fix those last little bits!

There will never be enough space!
I always underestimate how much room the audience take up. We rehearse a show and then realise we have lost 30% of our playing space due to the various legs, arms and that most hated of audience accessories, their bags. In 4 and half years of working for the company I never cease to be shocked at how much space you guys take up on the first night.

Remember to have fun
Our rehearsals are exciting and intense but above all fun. As soon as we lose that, I think we are doing something wrong. The company prides itself on the playful nature of our work and I think if we have fun, enjoy our rehearsals and the process of making the show, then hopefully a little of that might rub off on our audiences!

Belt Up Theatre's Edinburgh Fringe Season 2012 includes THE BOY JAMES, OUTLAND and the world premiere of A LITTLE PRINCESS. Full details here.