I am a bit of a literature and theatre junkie, you might have noticed that by now, and madly in love with the beautiful town of Oxford as well – but there is nothing that merges these two together as well as Creation Theatre, one of Oxford’s most precious attractions.
I stumbled across Creation Theatre for the first time in a rather unusual way. Together with my boyfriend we were coming back home from another theatrical escapade (I believe we had just seen Swan Lake) when on the bus we eavesdropped on a group of 80+ years old ladies talking about the play they had just seen in such an excited manner, we rushed home to google all the possible things they might have seen – and ended up watching King Lear, which sealed my fate as a Creation’s fan for, well, hopefully ever.
But since not everyone can be so lucky as to meet these lovely ladies, I thought it would be nice to share my love with you – and to let you know there is something you need to do the next time you come to Oxford, and, well, that you need to come to Oxford now.
I was lucky enough to meet Creation’s executive producer, Lucy Askew, at Blackwell’s book store on Alice’s Day, to talk about – you guessed it, Alice in Wonderland, but also about the company itself, its old plays and any lessons learnt from the backstage of a theatrical production.
What makes Creation Theatre different to other production companies?
It’s the fact we have no building. It forces us into finding new spaces full of opportunities we would otherwise have missed – and space plays a great role in all our productions.
Another is the choice of material and what we do with it. Creation Theatre always aims to find a new angle, a twist on the story – we want to find the most surprising way to tell a well-known story. Our audience should expect the unexpected.
Since most of our shows are well established material – mostly Shakespeare and classics that everyone should have at least heard of – we hope to re-engage our audience with these familiar stories, interact with them and maybe even inspire them to read them again.
And what comes first – the story or the place?
I’d say usually it is the place. We visit plenty of sites that we’d like to perform in one day, but even if we can immediately match it to a story we’d like to tell, it is a rather lengthy process. For instance, when the University of Oxford’s Mathematical Institute contacted us about putting a show on in its building, we knew straight away we’d like to do 1984 there – but it wasn’t till this spring, around 2 years later, that this vision came true.
There are quite a few places we’d like to perform in – but we don’t have any stories matched to them yet. And occasionally the opposite would happen, and we would have to match a place to a story that was offered to us, but that is very rare.
How do you come across your stories?
Creation Theatre works with a tight network of writers and directions, and we don’t usually reach outside of it. Since most of the time we work with established material and we already have a vision of how this adaptation should look like, tightly coupled to the space it’ll be performed in, this model works well for us.
Our Christmas shows are slightly different; they often require more writing and mashing different stories together. But we would still rely on our network of writers anyway.
Because of this close connection, would you say that all your plays are strongly coupled together?
Sometimes our plays will share a distinct style, sometimes not. There were certain shows that stood out, mostly because they were so different from the others – 1984 comes to mind again. But even these plays always have what I would call… a certain Creation twist to them.
However, since most of our costumes and music are done by the same people across the shows – Matt Eaton and Ryan Dawson Laight – we will often find ourselves reusing old costumes or decorations, and remaking them into something completely new. The same happens with music; we may notice particular tunes, like King Lear‘s violins, but the audience probably won’t.
On my blog, I like to focus on the more… real side of life; showing that things are not always as perfect as the world wants us to believe. Would you mind sharing any stories of yours of when things went very very wrong?
I think everyone who has lived in Oxford for a while knows this story – it goes back to the summer of 2012, and almost ended Creation Theatre. At the time, we were performing The Merchant of Venice outdoors with the typical English weather around. Until one week we had around a months’ worth of rain – so we were forced to cancel the show and shut down.
Luckily for us, we managed to sell enough of our Christmas show a few months later to stay open, but after all this our core team was down to just 3 people. The audience helped as well – they raised around £5000, all in small donations.
The following year we started off with a one-man Jekyll and Hyde production in Blackwell’s, which turned out to be very popular and, what was also important at the time, rather low budget – we then proceeded with what must be the most popular and special show we have ever done, Henry V.
If anything, this was a great lesson in just not giving up and carrying on regardless of how bad things are shaping up. It also shows that sometimes failures present us opportunities we would have otherwise never noticed. Who knows if any of the 2013 shows would happen the way they did, if we didn’t have this additional motivation?
In these darkest hours or just on a bad day, how do you motivate yourself? What is it in the Creation Theatre that makes all the effort worthwhile for you?
The audience. Seeing their enjoyment is the greatest reward for me. Making them laugh, cry, re-live all the old stories; it is a very rewarding experience.
I’d say the people I work with are all very dear to me too. We have a very small core team, that I see on a regular basis, and for each show there are new people coming along to join us – which feels like an extended family coming over for dinner. Short enough to enjoy it and not long enough to get really frustrated with them hanging around.
On another note – which of your plays would you say you enjoyed the most?
Jekyll & Hyde and Henry V – these are very special to me, as they symbolize a new era opening for the Creation Theatre. There was just so much we all learnt from them too.
And then, of course, our adaptation of A Midsummer Night Dream.
I’m looking forward to seeing it in just a few weeks – it seems like such a different experience! Could you explain how A Midsummer Night’s Dream works?
Everyone with a ticket is expected to show up on the night in a secret location revealed on purchase, where their group, usually around 12 people, will receive a briefcase full of instructions on how to discover the story on the streets of Oxford.
Our actors are placed in different locations, ready to deliver their parts of the story once the groups find them. It is a play – but delivered in the form of a very interactive treasure hunt.
Different groups follow the same story, just in a different order, so there is really no risk of missing out. Sometimes we do hear of people who decide to go through the experience again, ready to see the other side – but we have also had viewers who went through a second round in the same POV group, because they were afraid they wouldn’t like the story told in another order after they had already enjoyed it one way!
Your upcoming production of Alice in Wonderland will take place in the University Parks – the same place you chose for Hamlet last year. It is still such a vivid memory of mine, that Hamlet, I think it is the best one I have ever seen. The location was just marvelous – halfway through one of the most emotional monologues a family of ducks marched right in front of Hamlet himself, quacking all the way, so funny – and the performance of Hamlet himself (Chris York), it left me crying like a baby.
It was the same for me. I watched the production almost every night and was quite calm about it, till one day I cracked and cried through most of it. The scene, where Hamlet asks Ophelia to go away, was just so sad and emotional, and very natural.
And the one where he finds out that Ophelia died – I couldn’t calm myself down.
Chris York was amazing in his role. We saw him for the first time playing in Henry V and I knew he would have to play Hamlet for us one day. That is the sort of Hamlet I imagined – a young, messed up guy, not a prince, but just a boy struggling against his step father.
I always found Hamlet to be the sort of teenage angst of Shakespeare
I see that. My oldest son has a step dad now and it is probably what gave me a different perspective on this play. It made me feel very connected to the story, it really brought it to life.
Shakespeare, I feel, is so wonderful because behind these extraordinary events, magic, demons, kings, fate, there are so many universal truths. Hamlet is the story of a family and of a young man struggling with his emotions, and it is very current in this way, regardless of us not living in Danish castles and our fathers not being kings.
That is one of the reason I like Creation Theatre so much – people often seem to be almost intimidated by the fact Shakespeare’s work is full of ‘old words’ and try to deliver it in a very pompous way, not breaking decorum manners that feel very artificial now
Creation Theatre is quite disrespectful to its source material, in a way. We like to change it, cut it apart and put it together anew. It helps us to create a better pace for our twist on the story and find exactly where the excitement lies within them.
I feel like people are ready for the new, not only Shakespeare, but the new in general.
Let’s talk about the new in Alice, although I think you’ve played it before?
Yes, we’ve done Alice twice before. But last time we were on a very tight deadline – we actually only found out we’re going ahead with it 6 weeks before it was due to start and we felt as if we didn’t do it enough justice. It was still a great show, but we knew we could do it better.
This year we found out that we’re doing a little show in Bicester Village – a few scenes played every few hours for the shoppers there – we thought there was nothing better than Alice in Wonderland, with its unbelievable cultural currency, and since we were rehearsing for its shorter version anyway, it seemed like the perfect time to bring it back to Oxford too.
This year’s Alice is a completely new play, a new experience, and since it’s being performed in the University Parks this year, it will feel very different too. We have a circus tent for it this time, parts of the play are performed outside of it and the stage is always opened to the beautiful park, it really the is the best of both worlds.
To me there are two major trends in adapting Alice in Wonderland – either it turns out to be a very family friendly, cheerful story or something absolutely nuts and abstract. What is Creation’s take?
It is very much in between the two. Alice is a great show for kids, while not being too kiddy and staying completely nuts too. There will be something in it for the entire family, large or small.
We wanted this to be a story of coming of age. Our Alice (Sophie Greenham) does not want to grow up, she fights against it and throughout the play learns how to embrace her womanhood. She changes.
Do you include any of the less 21st century safe-for-kids stories then? Like the oyster one?
Our family shows aim to be a 7+ affair, so more mature content can be shown in them. We tackle some very adult stuff. We do not want it to be kiddy kiddy.
Of course, there is plenty of magic there, being Alice in Wonderland. There are some puppets and other special effects, lots of theatricality. The audience will meet the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat. These could not be missed.
When we first start brainstorming on a show, we make big lists of things we’d like to include and some things naturally fall out of them. The oyster story didn’t make it, but not because it was too mature – we just couldn’t fit it in (we tried). Another example of this is the scene in which Alice suddenly grows very big and fills up an entire house – we just couldn’t find a way to do this scene justice on stage, so we had to let it go.
Don’t worry, you’ll still get to follow the White Rabbit down into his rabbit hole.
And what’s your set-up in the park?
We’re going to have a big circus tent that I already mentioned, with a front of house area selling drinks – including a custom Alice in Wonderland beer made just for us – and snacks for everyone to enjoy. We do encourage people to bring along their own picnics too though, and enjoy them while watching. There will be seating provided.
A tricky question now – what makes Creation Theatre’s Alice different to the countless other adaptations?
It is very thoughtful. We really focused on the meaning and on realizing the story’s full potential. It is also mad fun in a spectacular location – the park, the circus tent, people sitting on hay bales, all of this give our Alice a great new context.
What’s your favourite part of it?
My favourite part of the book, and the play, is the tea party – the characters get up to plenty of nonsense, it is magical. In our adaptation, you’ll get to meet the full colourful trio, the Mad hatter, the March Rabbit and the Dormouse.
In the play, there is also a very moving scene in which Alice ages rapidly; it is one of those moments when one realizes that Alice in Wonderland is not only surrealistic and weird, but is also full of heart. It gives the story a completely new dimension.
Here are some useful cast and booking information for Creation’s Alice:
Director – Helen Tennison
Writer – Kate Kerrow
Musical Director and Composer – Ben Davies
Designer – Ryan Dawson-Laight
Sound Designer – Matt Eaton
Lighting Designer – Ashley Bale
Alice – Sophie Greenham
Rabbit, Tweedle Dum, Dormouse, Cheshire Cat – Ryan Duncan
Tweedle Dee, Pigeon, Cheshire Cat, Hatter, Knight – Nicholas Osmond
Lorina, Caterpillar, Queen of Hearts, Hare, Cheshire Cat – Stephanie Lane
For booking information, you can book on www.creationtheatre.co.uk or on 01865 766266.