Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Lucy Askew: The Tempest

By | Published on Friday 17 April 2020

When I first heard about this co-production from Creation Theatre and Big Telly Theatre – a fabulous interactive online staging of ‘The Tempest’ for you to access in your own home – there were only a few shows scheduled and it was too late for me to feature it in our Three To Stream tips. But now some great news – they are bringing it back for another nine performances!

The show, an adaptation created by Zoe Seaton, is attracting viewers from as far away as the US, Mexico, Australia, Canada and India. I spoke to Oxford-based Creation’s CEO and Creative Producer Lucy Askew to find out more.

CM: Can you start by explaining the mechanics of the show: how do people access it and what level of interaction is expected from audience members?
LA: We use the video conferencing platform Zoom. Audience members are sent a link and password to access the show shortly before each performance starts. If you’ve not downloaded Zoom, clicking on the link asks you to do that, so we’re finding the technology is intuitive enough that even our audience members who are less tech savvy are getting on well with it.

The participation is optional and very much part of a collective experience: you are all participating together. Some of the audience may get spotlighted, like if you were in the crowd at a football match, but it never feels like anyone has been awkwardly picked on.

Really it’s replicating the same sort of collective experience you would get looking around an auditorium at fellow theatre-goers.

CM: Can you run us through what was done to create this show? How was the story adapted for this medium? To what extent is it written and to what extent improvised? 
LA: We’d staged a production of ‘The Tempest’ with Zoe Seaton and the same team last summer where the audience encountered the story around an industrial estate in Oxford, so everyone knew the material well to start with.

Elements of last year’s show were improvised, but a lot of Shakespeare was retained, and Zoe has re-worked the script in a similar way for Zoom.

Zoe and Big Telly, the company she is Artistic Director for, are huge pioneers for this type of work, so when we were starting to explore interactive ways we could keep producing shows and Zoe suggested putting the show on Zoom we leapt at the chance.

CM: What is the role of the likes of your designer, production manager and stage manager in this context? 
LA: Surprisingly similar to on a physical production and just as necessary!

Our designer Ryan Dawson Laight fed into the process from the start and curated all the virtual and physical backgrounds which really transform things and make it a coherent piece. He then worked individually with actors to look at what they had in their homes that could be put together to provide the costumes.

For our production Manager Giles Stoakley, it’s been a lot of work becoming an expert on Zoom and what its technical capabilities are. Much like a normal show, our stage manager Sinead Owens holds the whole thing together like a magician, she is hidden throughout the call effectively live editing the show the audience see on screen.

CM: Can you tell us about the cast and how it was assembled? 
LA: Most of the cast were in our production last year and the whole cast are people we’ve worked with before. Inviting them all to do this felt a bit like re-assembling the A-team.

There are nine cast members: Al Barclay, Ryan Duncan, Madeleine MacMahon, Itxaso Moreno, Giles Stoakley, Rhodri Lewis, Simon Spencer-Hyde, PK Taylor and Annabelle Terry.

I think we all felt like a family working together last year but, despite never having been in the same room as each other for this project, the bond now is stronger than ever.

CM: Most of our readers are, I imagine, familiar with the plot, but for anyone that isn’t, can you give them a vague idea of the story and themes? 
LA: Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has been usurped by his brother Alonso and banished to a deserted island with his daughter Miranda. There they have lived in isolation for many years with only each other, a feral creature Caliban, and Aerial, a sprite who Prospero has enslaved, for company.

Prospero conjures up a storm that brings his brother and other co-conspirators to the island where he gets his revenge, forgives them, and brings his daughter Miranda together to marry Alonso’s son Ferdinand.

Thematically, there’s a lot in it about power and displacement. The nature of how this particular show has been made inevitably emphasises displacement, isolation and how much we need each other as themes too.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Creation Theatre? What kind of theatre does it usually do?
LA: We re-imagine classic text and spaces without limits. No two shows are the same and we are rigorous about taking the most creative approach possible. Normally this involves work being in shopping centres, bookshops, parks, factories or industrial estates.

The leap to the confines of a digital platform has felt quite easy for us because we’re used to being restricted a lot by the venues we use, and we’ve never really settled into any kind of sense of what is “normal”.

CM: What drew you to this career? Did you always want to work in the arts? 
LA: My parents took me to the theatre and I had a great drama teacher. It’s such basic stuff that so many children miss out on, which is one of the reasons why, alongside our shows, our education work is a massive part of what we do.

Our weekly drama clubs have 200 members and we’ve re-launched them all as Creation Home Delivery where our members get a weekly drama class via Zoom lead by professional actors, and an exciting package of themed activities through the post each week.

The success of ‘The Tempest’ has been overwhelming but throughout the crisis our priority has been to continue to inspire the children and young people we work with.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
LA: First, have money in the bank to make the best show we’ve ever made when audiences are able and ready to be back in a space together. And secondly, continue to make new work, entertain people and pay freelancers to be creative in the immediate weeks and months.

CM: Do you think that the developments we are seeing in the online accessing of arts and culture forced by the lockdown might continue after the crisis is over? Can you see a future where online delivery of theatre becomes one of the standard ways we access it? 
LA: Yes, I think it will and I think it should. The opportunities to reach new audiences and remove barriers to access are absolutely vast and I think what ‘The Tempest’ is showing is that we can replicate a liveness, community and the audience online. Yes it’s different, and it will obviously never replace going to a live event, but there is certainly space for both.

CM: What would you be doing now if we weren’t dealing with the COVID crisis? 
LA: We’d be busily preparing for our summer season. We were working on a fully sustainable, carbon neutral production of ‘The Wind In The Willows’ to be performed open air in Oxford, and our production of ‘The Time Machine’ would be going to The Oxford University Museum Of Natural History.

We’re still hoping the latter may happen, but are also putting plans in place in case it can’t. The positive is that if we are unable to do those shows this year we are poised ready with them for next year, so it’s organised our programming for the next year for us!

CM: What are you doing to stay sane?!
LA: Not sure I’ve mastered that yet! I know it’s not for everyone, but in this situation work helps me a lot. Connecting with colleagues and amazing creatives keeps me focused and motivated.

I feel like I spend a lot more time looking at a screen than I’ve ever done before, but then I also package up the post for our 200 drama club members each week: there’s nothing quite as therapeutic as a couple of hours just putting things in envelopes!

Creation Theatre’s virtual production of ‘The Tempest’ runs for nine performances from 18-25 Apr. You can book tickets on the company website here.