Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Sophie Austin: Teatro Vivo

By | Published on Wednesday 10 September 2014

Teatro Vivo are a company who have become renowned for their performances in unusual, often outdoor spaces, and have been producing quality work for nearly a decade. Their 2014 autumn season includes two separate productions, one of Brecht’s classic ‘Mother Courage’, performed at Woolwich Arsenal, and ‘The Hunters Grimm’, which will be staged on the streets of Deptford in a few weeks time.


I put some questions to Teatro Vivo’s founder Sophie Austin, to find out more about the company, as well as the upcoming new shows.

CM: Can you begin by telling us about Teatro Vivo, and about the way you perform in more unconventional spaces?
SA: When setting up Teatro Vivo after I left drama school, my aim was to create theatre with like minded creatives who enjoyed making work for a new audiences. I had no money for rehearsal space or theatre hire so we had our first meeting in a café and staged our first play in a park. What started out as a budgetary constraint became a central ethos for the company. By performing in these public spaces we were able to reach a really diverse audience and by collaborating with these spaces to tell a story, we were challenged and inspired in equal measure.

We have gone on to make work in museums, libraries, on high streets and in supermarkets. We don’t transform these venues but work with them as they are, using them to help us tell a story that becomes unique to that venue.

CM: When and how did the company come together?
SA: The first meeting for Teatro Vivo came about after I put up good old fashioned adverts in local shops and arts venues in Lewisham where I lived looking for like minded people to play with.

At that first meeting, Mark Stevenson arrived and has since become one of the core members of the company. As each show has developed we have grown our core team. There are four of us who run the company now; along with me and Mark, we have Kas Darley who performed in our first show, and Catherine Hooper who assisted on our second show. We also have a wonderful ensemble of actors, designers, writers and other creatives who regularly work with us. With each project we try and work with a mix of regular and new artists so our ensemble can continue to grow.

CM: You are doing two plays in your autumn season in London. ‘Mother Courage’ is a classic, obviously, but why did you choose to do it now?
SA: Jeremy James (artistic director of Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre) approached us to create a new production using the Woolwich Arsenal site as our performance space. He suggested we do ‘Mother Courage’. I thought it was a fantastic idea; I am hugely inspired by Brecht’s work and it felt right to do a play that examines war as we are ‘celebrating’ the centenary of the First World War this year. Since agreeing to do it, the play has become increasingly more relevant. As our government grapples with the conflicts around the world; who to offer support with arms and advice and who to sanction we are forced to examine the economic impact of these decisions alongside the risks to our security. Brecht’s play shows that commerce and war are inextricably linked and this union has disasterous consequences for those who challenge it.

CM: How are you using the Woolwich Arsenal site to stage the show?
SA: It is a promenade production that journeys around the arsenal site. It begins at the gate house entrance where the audience have their papers (ticket) checked by officers before being put in to groups – trade, press and refugees. They are then met by a citizen journalist who takes them to the site of the first scene. As the audiences journey between each scene they are encouraged to discuss the play from their different perspectives; as members of the press, refugees or from a commerce angle.

CM: As you mentioned, you’re working on ‘Mother Courage’ with Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre. Was your decision to do this in line with your interest in involving local communities in your work?
SA: This collaboration with GLYPT has been a joyful experience. As aforementioned, we were approached by Jeremy James who saw our ‘Odyssey’ in Deptford. He really enjoyed the way we incorporated a community chorus and could see an opportunity for members of his company to get involved. We were keen to open up the community chorus to involve members of the public from across Woolwich, not just young people, and have been able to bring together a fantastic group of people from all ages and backgrounds who make up our community chorus and who have become the backbone of the production.

As part of GLYPT’s progression programme we are working with four apprentice actors who are performing alongside the professional actors to have their first experience of a professional creative process. They have all created beautifully drawn characters and have stepped up to the challenge of working with such an epic text and challenging subject matter. This has been a great learning experience for all of us and I feel really proud of this important collaboration between our two companies.

CM: Can you tell us something about your other show this season, ‘The Hunters Grimm’, and how and where this show will be staged?
SA: ‘The Hunters Grimm’ is a new play inspired by the stories that the Brothers Grimm collected. From ‘Cinderella’ to ‘Red Riding Hood’, these two brothers quietly collected some of the most recognisable stories we have today. We are inviting audiences to go story hunting with the Brothers Grimm as they look for new tales. They must search the dark streets of Deptford for new tales, where they may come across an anarchic frog convinced he is a prince, give beauty advice to an ageing queen, engage in a foot amputation, dance with the musicians of Bremen and participate in an adventure to cure nightmares. Along the way you’ll hear familiar and strange stories of love, death, poverty, longing and sausages.

This show will be a promenade adventure along the streets of Deptford.

CM: What themes does the show explore? And is there any community involvement in this one?
SA: The show explores beauty, death, love, poverty, longing and sausages. There will be a community chorus made up of local people living in the area who are keen to develop their performance skills and want to get involved in a Teatro Vivo production.

CM: Can anyone get involved as part of your community chorus…? Where are your volunteers drawn from?
SA: Yes, anyone can get involved in our community chorus. We have worked with actors who have gone on to be given roles in other productions. Steve works for the fire service and has been involved in three of our shows. Doris is 92 and working with us on Mother Courage. Antonio was on holiday from his home town in Portugal and wanted to do something a bit different with his two week break. Joining the Community Chorus is a great way to get to know the company, make new friends and develop performance skills. It’s a low commitment, you don’t have to come to every rehearsal or performance and it’s lots of fun.

CM: You’ve been creating theatrical projects for nearly ten years – do you have a favourite? Do you revive old shows ever, or do you prioritise new stuff?
SA: I am so proud of all that we have achieved. In ten years we have created twelve shows. We love to create new work, but also enjoy re-staging past productions in new venues. I’d love to do our version of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ again. We staged it in an old manor house in Lewisham, and then again in the theatre museum in Covent Garden before it moved to the V&A. If anyone has a large house and fancies the three sisters inhabiting it for a while, let me know! I’m also keen to get ‘The Odyssey’ on again. This show really captured what we do best – working with 8 different venues, 3 different writers, a community chorus of 15 and a cast of 10, we brought Homer’s classic to the streets of Deptford; it was a total joy to work on and to watch.

CM: Do you have any more projects in development?
SA: We are currently collaborating with Dash Arts on a new project. Твистов / Twistov will be a promenade production inspired by Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Due to be staged in 2015/16, Твистов / Twistov will present an extraordinary narrative of London told by post Soviet migrant communities currently living here. Drawing on the parallels with Dickensian London and our contemporary capital, we will unearth some rich tales that reveal the underworld, uncover the upper-classes and give you a very different taste of the capital you thought you knew.

‘Mother Courage’ is on until 21 Sep at The Royal Arsenal Site, Woolwich, see this page here for more info and tickets. ‘The Hunters Grimm’ runs from 22 Oct until 8 Nov, info and tickets here

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