Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Zoe Seaton: Operation Elsewhere

By | Published on Sunday 26 April 2020

Regular readers may remember that last week we ran a Q&A about Creation Theatre’s excellent Zoom-based production of ‘The Tempest’.

Well, the renowned director of that piece, Zoe Seaton, appears to be keeping very busy in lockdown, as this week we can look forward to another virtual piece of work from Seaton’s own Northern Ireland-based company, Big Telly.

‘Operation Elsewhere’ was first performed as live game theatre and has now been adapted for presentation via ‘virtual’ means. I spoke to Zoe to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from Operation Elsewhere in terms of a story? Does it have a linear narrative at all?
ZS: Elsewhere is a place where myths live and stories are made. It’s based on Tir na n’Og, the land beyond the waves which in Irish myth cycles is the realm of the Otherworld, the place where faeries lived and heroes visited on quests.

Our story is about a changeling who wants to find a place in the real world, but this can only be achieved if a human is taken from the mortal world and brought to Elsewhere. So the changeling goes into partnership with Mad Sweeney, the deranged Bird Man, whose PTSD can only be soothed by human song, and they swap the changeling with a bride on her wedding day. Luckily Elsewhere has enough assets to assemble a task force…

You can expect it to be funny, disturbing, playful and dark. A bit like an Irish Grimm.

CM: What themes does it explore?
ZS: I think it’s about being an outsider and the desire to fit in. Writer Jane Talbot conjures loneliness beautifully – ‘his all-on-my-ownness was as big as the sky’ and the desire to find ‘the big belong’ – and I think this is the heart of the piece.

But it’s also about transformation and how we exist in several different worlds at once, how we are shaped by myth and imagination and superstition and story, and how much that still informs our relationship to the world. Here, there would still be trepidation at the removal of a faerie thorn…

It’s taken on a whole new level of meaning as we find ourselves isolated. ‘Tempest’ audiences have discovered a real connection with the live performances, interacting with digital – but also with being ‘together’ but separate. Seeing each other on screens across the show.

We’ve had whole streets buy tickets for the same show so they can share an event together and see each other.

CM: What’s your own role in proceedings?
ZS: I have adapted this from our original version of ‘Operation Elsewhere’ which I created in collaboration with Jane and the original cast.

The original version involved the audience as teams of secret agents on an undercover mission to find the missing bride. This has changed considerably, not just because it’s presented on Zoom with the cast in isolation, but because the audience are seated rather than charging around a town, which creates a completely different dynamic.

It offers more potential for storytelling, and atmosphere, and trickery.

CM: Can you explain how things will work technically? How will people be able to access the work? 
ZS: As with ‘The Tempest’, the audience joins a Zoom call…

Technically, it is complicated, although each actor is running their own tech – most of them are using more than one device, a number of locations and myriad props/lighting/effects.

The real magic, however, is happening in Lurgan, where our brilliant stage manager Sinead Owens is vision mixing the whole show, sharing screens, muting and spotlighting audience and actors – finding an actor amongst 60 thumbnail images and spotlighting them on cue is an art!

The biggest challenge is, however, something we can’t control – ie, the unpredictability of the internet. If your bandwidth becomes unstable, Zoom can kick you out the room mid-scene, which one actor described as ‘like being an astronaut cut off from the space station….’

Luckily, we have unbelievably resourceful actors who can improvise and cover and recover….

Because both ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Operation Elsewhere’ were previously run as pieces of game theatre with around ten different locations, the casts of both shows were already incredibly resourceful, running their own sites, managing their own technical requirements and skilled in improvisation and audience management.

This was essential then, but is even more so now!

CM: This sounds like it’s even more complex than ‘The Tempest’ as a production: can you explain how the separate room thing is going to work?
ZS: Our games usually involve people being in small groups, which has an intimacy and conspiracy which lends a different vibe. Here we’re trying to recreate that using breakout rooms at one point, which characters will bounce in and out of. Again, the magic of Sinead Owens, our stage manager. As a company, we really love to explore how the audience can have agency in a show – how they can make decisions and so we want to explore that in the digital world to make it truly interactive.

CM: Do you feel that attempting to create art in these circumstances has inspired greater creativity? 
ZS: It’s certainly creative. I love live theatre because of its liveness and because of its limitations. I’m not interested in naturalism or anything with a fourth wall. I’m more interested in the struggle to show a whole town than a play set in a kitchen where a real kettle boils. Because what comes out of that struggle is creativity, imagination, theatre. The audience know we’re in isolation, but there’s craic in pretending we’re not.

Both ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Operation Elsewhere’ have extraordinary casts who are charismatic and playful and gifted at audience interaction. But sneaking into a cellar in real life game theatre to meet your ‘handler’ is different from watching from the safety of your sofa.

I suppose what we want to do is to draw you into our world but also let us step into yours a little… Although we are extremely careful with audience interaction. We want people to feel like there is an invitation to play, to come to a party, but that you are just as welcome and valued and in no way a party pooper if you want to watch from the side.

I think that in a way this process demands a lot from actors but it is also creates amazing opportunities for creativity – people come to rehearsal with bits of video they’ve made, special effects involving Lucozade and straws and cut-outs, and who knew that baking trays looked so like lift doors?

CM: Do you think these new forms of culture delivery will outlive our current desire for them? Do you see a future where taking in theatre via conferencing apps is just one way of taking in theatre? 
ZS: I absolutely see a future where this is an alternative way to tell stories and experience theatre. It has huge potential for the heritage, education and tourism sectors as well. It is also brilliant to be able to ‘go’ to rural areas as well as access an international audience.

CM: Tell us about your company Big Telly – when was it set up, and what ethos does it have? 
ZS: I co-founded Big Telly in 1987 and we’ve been funded by the Arts Council Of Northern Ireland since 1989. The work has always been playful and full of surprise, both in terms of what it is and where it takes place.

We have a miniature Victorian theatre in a horsebox and we’ve toured the world with a big scale water spectacle – ‘The Little Mermaid’ – set in swimming pools. We make work in empty shops, heritage sites, derelict castles and cars.

But what runs through it all is a commitment to the audience experience – although the work exists on a number of levels, and some shows are darker and more disturbing than others, ultimately we want them to have a good time.

CM: What about you? How did you end up working in the arts? Did you always want to? 
ZS: I thought I wanted to be an actor until I tried directing when I was round about seventeen. I chose to go to a university rather than a drama school because I’ve always been interested in inspiration and collaborations from outside the arts world – I always positioned myself outside the arts community – even now. Big Telly is based in a tiny town miles from Belfast and Derry – this has always been important to me – to make work for and find an audience who aren’t traditional theatre goers.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
ZS: To keep being excited about work. To reach new audiences and to continue to surprise ourselves, and everyone else.

CM: What would you have been doing if Corona crisis hadn’t hit? 
ZS: Touring ‘The Worst Café In The World’ in empty shops, running ‘Bear Hospital’ in a sectarian interface area, making a living soap called ‘The Garvagh Wedding’ with actors and community in a small rural town. Running an intergenerational festival in an empty shop in Carrickfergus, creating a miniature film installation in Ballycastle.

CM: What are you doing to stay sane?
ZS: This!

‘Operation Elsewhere’ will be performed from 2-4 May. See this page here for more information and a link to book.