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Interview with Professor Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire on creating The Important Man

September 24th, 2018

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1. Brad McCormick in The Important Man, Photocredit - Daniel Forth

What do you research and why did you want to create a piece of theatre from it?

I work broadly on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, popular medicine, and the supernatural over the last few hundred years. This has included exploring urban and rural fortune-tellers and their clients, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I began to refocus my attention on the popularity of fortune-tellers during the First World War due to be being involved in running the University’s Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre. I was interested in the opportunity to create a piece of theatre out of this research for two reasons. First, I had already worked with the theatre company Out of Joint to inform the creation of a play about Jane Wenham, of Hertfordshire, who, in 1712, was the last person to be found guilty of witchcraft in England. I had much enjoyed working with the actors, playwright, and director, so I thought working with Cap-a-Pie would be an equally stimulating and enjoyable creative opportunity. And it has been. 

What excited you most about The Important Man and what were the challenges?

The world of fortune-tellers and prophets during the First World War is full of potential for drama and comedy, and I hoped that the depiction of this unusual facet of everyday life on the Home Front in the form of a play, would better bring home to people the complex relationship between anxiety and faith in a time of war. The play also explores interesting ideas around the boundaries between science and the supernatural, at a time when spiritualism was popular, and electricity was still a novel force for many people. As the historical advisor, I guess the main challenge was to identify the sort of source materials and objects that might give Cap-a-Pie a real feel for the period and the diverse characters who operated as fortune tellers and prophets. Just giving a load of academic books and articles to a creative team whose time is limited, who need to work fast and intensively to generate narrative and dialogue that give a genuine feel for time and place, is not particularly helpful.

Has creating the show made you think any differently about your research?

Yes, in several ways. I consider writing history as a creative exercise in blending narrative, analysis, and illustrative examples. Working with Cap-a-Pie made me think about how the process of writing for a different medium, a play, can inform the way I approach writing history for a general reader. Every time I was working with Cap-a-Pie we were thinking about the audience and how you can tell a complex story as simply as possible. That is a really valuable exercise. The questions the Cap-a-Pie team asked about the personality and motive of the characters in the play also made me reflect on how I understand the real people that inspired the fictional creations. I am always learning from other disciplines and people with different approaches to presenting history. 

 

Interview with Laura Lindow – Director of ‘The Important Man’

September 24th, 2018

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The Important Man

What was your process for directing The Important Man?

This process has been very organic. My role has included a combination of dramaturgical input, and sowing seeds for further practical discovery. As a theatre maker, Brad [performer] is a power station of ideas, with the performance skills to support them. And with Katy’s [producer] vision and killer management skills, my job becomes just a joy.

My role has been very much to reflect back to him the impact of each character or narrative slant and to help to fine tune the piece as we head towards production.

What excited you most about the show and what were the challenges?

Are you joking?! Fortune tellers? World War 1? What is NOT exciting about that?!

No, really, I am always really keen to work with Cap-a-Pie. Katy and Brad are a fantastic team. I love that often their work centres around communicating areas of incredible expertise such as, in this case the research of Professor Owen Davies (a real-life Professor of magic!). I came into the project part way through and I loved the work that (previous director) Gwilym had already done, and it was exciting to springboard from there.

The role that ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ had to play in the everyday world during the Great War is just fascinating, lending a sense of reason to life and to the unfortunately inevitable death of so many. At a time when the scientific world was negotiating its own role, innovations like electricity and photography were as unfathomable and inexplicable as the world of the occult. So why wouldn’t fortune tellers be viewed as reliable sources of information? As we found out more, it threw up bigger very current questions for me about where we place our faith and why.

The challenges are that there is so much ground that we would like to cover. It feels important that we don’t dilute the piece by attempting to tell every story.

What is your favourite part of the show and why?

Well of course I love all of it. But I think a combination of Calderon telling us about the little homing pigeon and the young soldier who we meet are the moments which touch me the most. I could watch Brad playing these again and again.  I also love the title, which offers a continued provocation, an invitation to consider who exactly is being referred to, and by whom. The absence of female perspective is also a comment on the times and I will be interested to hear from an audience about their interpretations of our choices.

Oh, and the magic opening of the suitcase makes me belly-laugh. I’m entertained by how eager I am to buy into even the most (close your ears Brad) cod magic trick! We can’t wait to show you.

Brad McCormick on creating The Important Man

September 21st, 2018

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The Important Man

We created The Important Man over several stages. The first was an initial research and development period. We created a lot of material, stories and characters and figured out the world of the play. Out of that period came a 15 minute piece of theatre.

The second stage was a more concentrated period of time and was where we really fleshed out the story. We used lots of improvisation and then shaped the story and the script as we went along.

The third stage was about making tweaks and changes to the show, strengthening the story, shaping the play into a final draft. 

We were incredibly lucky to work with Professor Owen Davies from University of Hertfordshire, who is an expert in magic and fortune-telling. Owen was present throughout this process, from initial conversations about the kind of material we were interested in to him watching sections of the show and giving feedback, advice and ideas related to the historical content. He was also incredibly helpful for simply checking facts to maintain the accuracy and authenticity of the piece. And having someone so knowledgeable in the rehearsal room means it’s a very efficient way of working

Myself and Katy at Cap-a-Pie were very pleased to be joined by a brilliant creative team to create The Important Man. Director Laura Lindow is a very experienced director, deviser, writer and performer. She has a fantastic sense of what makes a strong story and what audiences want from characters. Designer Imogen Cloët created a visually striking set that was easy to tour with. She works in a very detailed way which really suited the piece. 

I’ll be performing The Important Man this autumn. Find out more here.

Professor Chris Gerrard, Department of Archaeology, and Richard Annis, Archaeological Services, Durham University on Woven Bones and the Scottish Soldiers

May 31st, 2018

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This year Durham University’s Department of Archaeology is working with a local theatre company Cap-a-Pie to create a new show – Woven Bones. The show is based on the story of Scottish soldiers who were taken prisoner after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.

The Scottish soldiers project grew from a discovery of human remains during construction work on Durham’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remains of 28 young men were found in two mass graves at Durham University’s Palace Green Library. Painstaking excavation and analysis revealed that they were some of more than 1600 men who died in captivity after the Civil War Battle of Dunbar in September 1650.

These were ordinary people who had been caught up in extraordinary events. Many would have been recent recruits to the Scottish army, young men taken from day-to-day life to fight invading Parliamentary forces. Their first experience of battle was a disastrous defeat. Lasting under an hour, the Battle of Dunbar was one of the most brutal, bloody and short battles of the 17thCentury civil wars.

North News and Pictures

Reports from the time suggest that anything between 300-5,000 soldiers died at the battle with a further 6,000 captured. It is thought that 1,000 sick and wounded soldiers were released, while approximately 4,000 endured an eight-day forced march to Durham, where they were imprisoned in the then-disused Cathedral church. Many died of malnutrition, disease and cold whilst in Durham. Their bodies were buried, hastily and without ceremony, in an obscure corner nearby.

This was the story of those men whose remains we found in November 2013. But the Scottish Soldiers Archaeology Project Team has found out much more about the people who had died at Durham and about their fellow prisoners who survived. Some of those men were sent far from home; 150 Scots went to New England as indentured servants. After seven years of working in the woods and ironworks of Massachusetts and Maine, they were free to make new lives in a new world.

One chaotic and terrifying hour of battle changed the lives of thousands. The road from Dunbar led some to unmarked graves in Durham and others to lives on the edge of the known world.

Talks, news reports and interviews undertaken by the Durham University research team have drawn strong reactions to this extraordinary story. The chance to tell it in a different way, to put a very direct and very human interpretation on the research results, is why the team were keen to work with Cap-a-Pie. Thousands of prisoners, five archaeologists, three actors; one fascinating story.

Cap-a-Pie will present Laura Lindow’s play Woven Bones at venues between Dunbar and Durham in June and July. After each performance members of the archaeology team will be taking part in a post-show discussion and Q&A. We hope to meet you at one of the performances.

Anna Reid’s Woven Bones Blog

May 29th, 2018

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On a drizzly Tuesday afternoon the Cap-a-Pie team took the train to Durham. Welcomed into Durham University’s Department of Archaeology we were given an incredible opportunity: a full tour of the human bioarchaeology laboratory and the chance to lay out a skeleton of our own in the pattern of the identification process of the Scottish Soldiers. These weren’t the skeletons of the Scottish Soldiers but others who are part of other research projects being conducted at Durham University. The visit was so we could better understand the archaeology and the science behind the story of the Scottish Soldiers.

We entered the room to find the dry yellow bones/bone fragments laid out with care across the benches. The room was warm and bright, busy but neat. I was reminded of the much loved plastic skeleton in the Biology department at school (Bob) who used to disappear and reappear in ever more unlikely places (the locker room / the roof / the garden) but that complete and anatomically precise cast didn’t come close to the weathered shards on the cushioned table top.

Dr Anwen Caffell of Durham University with some of the remains of the Scottish Soldiers. Credit: Durham University / North News and Pictures.

I’m not a squeamish person, I’m reasonably robust about the ins and outs of the body, and there was nothing gory in what we were looking at. But it was somewhere after the cast of the newborn baby skeleton and just before the detailed discussion of the way abscesses burrow through the jaw bone that my vision began to dim and a gradual, persistent wave of nausea started to build in my body. I realised I was on the verge of passing out and had to sit down with my head between my legs.

For me this was the most surprising thing of the afternoon: the instinctual connection I felt with the bodies (because that’s how I realised I was thinking of them, as bodies not skeletons specifically) and my own sudden awareness of the very real writing of injury, disease and poverty on the human body. Lives so hard and so brief that the pain is written into the skeleton itself.

And that’s what we need to capture in the design: an appropriate and respectful language which can speak not just about the short painful lives of the soldiers themselves, but also about the emotional impact of the dig; reading the story of these men and boys from their final remains. The archaeologists at Durham University are deeply respectful in their work, extending to a firmly worded sign on the door reminding students of the respect due to human remains. It is incredibly moving to see the curved leg bone of a child with rickets, the deep painful cavity a young man had to live with, or the spongey bone texture of a weak and malnourished body: there is so much story in the skeleton alone.

Creating Woven Bones – Brad McCormick

May 11th, 2018

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North News & Pictures

Last week we concluded our first two weeks in the rehearsal room for our brand new production ‘Woven Bones’.  We spent the fortnight devising with three actors and writer Laura Lindow, around the stories of the Scottish prisoners of war from the 17th century Battle of Dunbar whose bones were found buried in Durham in 2013.  On hand to help were also academics from Durham University’s Department of Archaeology who conducted the analysis of the skeletons and uncovered their stories.

We’ve worked with academics many times in the past and there are two things that really stand out for me about working in this way:

  1. Having such specific expertise plugged into the work in real-time.  After we show a researcher something we’ve made or complete an improvisation, they can suggest tweaks to better align the theatre with the research which in turn can have incredibly useful outcomes for character and story.

The process here was slightly different in that the Scottish Soldiers Archaeology Project has a small team of researchers attached to it so we were visited by four academics during our time in the rehearsal room, as opposed to just one in previous projects.  Each had their own specific knowledge and were never without some kind of considered and knowledgeable answer to our myriad questions.

I said to the actors at one point that if they were able to pose a question to a researcher that didn’t elicit a response then I would give them £10.

I am yet to pay anything out.

  1. You are opened up to worlds that you didn’t know much or anything about.  Things that help feed you creatively but are also just interesting and useful to know about.  What struck me most about this aspect in this project is that there seemed to be a palpable sense of interest and enthusiasm coming to us about the work that we do.  That is, the researchers themselves, who had little knowledge about making theatre, were fascinated about how we work.

Having such a clear and democratic exchange of expertise was really heartening and bodes well for the rest of the process.

Brad McCormick: The Town Meeting visits Startforth

January 24th, 2018

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The Town Meeting
The Town Meeting

Photo credit: Northern Heartlands

Whenever we perform our show ‘The Town Meeting’ we get a good amount of people back for the post-show discussion.  After being involved in an 80 minute immersive show where the stakes are high and emotions can be fraught, we feel like people want to process what has just happened to them.

But after that discussion was over, we had no idea what happened to that energy that was created and whether the show had any lasting residue in the community.

But in the past couple of weeks, we were able to answer that question.

Northern Heartlands (one of 16 Great Place Schemes running across England with funding from HLF & ACE whose aim is to put arts and culture at the heart of their communities) invited us to the village of Startforth in Teesdale to perform ‘The Town Meeting’ one day and on another day run a workshop around planning, community and place.

What was unique about Startforth is that they were on the cusp of developing their Neighbourhood Plan – a potentially daunting and time-consuming process with real-world consequences for the village.  The hope was that this two-pronged approach would allow the community to look at the creation of the Plan more holistically and creatively.

We did wonder about the compatibility of having the fictional show one week and then changing gear for the workshop the next but the production not only allowed the community to become familiar with us but it allowed them to take a step back from the real issues affecting their community and reflect on what was important to them.

Dr Paul Cowie of Newcastle University who co-created ‘the Town Meeting’ and helped to plan and lead the workshop said:

“The workshop was a more constructive process which helped the community think about the vision for the neighbourhood plan and perhaps about the challenges they face along the way. It was great to see so many people turn out for both both events and tackle them with energy and enthusiasm.”

Jill Cole, the Director of Northern Heartlands was very pleased with how the two strands of the project came together:

“‘The Town Meeting’ and following workshop proved to be excellent vehicles for engaging the community, provoking discussion and getting people to think about some of the wider issues they face in their locality in a fun and inspiring way.”

Completing this work provoked us to think about an even bigger question that could be answered sometime in the future:  if planners, artists and communities could work together over a bigger project, what might that look like?

Gwilym’s Blog – The Assignment

May 12th, 2017

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How do we move around in our cities, and why? What are the invisible forces that influence our everyday behaviours? How do the local and the global come together in our cities? And what is urban space, and how is it produced?

These are just a few of the questions we’ve been tackling whilst making Cap-a-Pie’s latest show The Assignment. Following successful collaborations with geographer Michael Richardson (Under Us All) and Paul Cowie in Planning and Landscape (The Town Meeting), it’s been fascinating to work Matt Davies, Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy at Newcastle University. Matt’s current research looks at how major global events like the football World Cup affect local experiences of people living in the vicinity.

At the heart of The Assignment lie a number of fundamental questions about how we relate to, create, and are created by the places around us. These are issues I’ve been interested in for as long as I can remember, and it feels like a real privilege to get to work with Cap-a-Pie again, and with Matt, on a project like this.

It’s been a varied and thoroughly enjoyable rehearsal process so far. We’ve been getting out and about, playing with ideas and workshopping and testing material around the Ouseburn and along Northumberland Street in Newcastle’s city centre.

Because of the questions that Matt’s research (and the show itself) revolve around, we’ve decided to get our audience experiencing and thinking through their city on their feet. To do this, we’re making an audio piece that audience members listen to individually. During the course of the show, they will effectively be self-directing – making decisions on where to go and carrying out a number of other tasks and activities based on prompts given to them by the audio. It’s been refreshing to work with Katy and Brad in this new way, and in a form that’s new both to me and to Cap-a-Pie. The expertise and experience of Hannah Bruce has been invaluable here, as well as the guidance and support of Coney’s Artistic Director Tassos Stevens.

Ultimately, we hope that audience members attending The Assignment will be prompted to see their city in a new way, and to think again about how – and why – they produce urban space in the way they do.

Six Legs

November 28th, 2016

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Six Legs is a new show for 4-7 year old children and their families that Cap-a-Pie created with Dr Vivek Nityananda, a scientist at Newcastle University. Vivek researches how insects perceive and understand the world and Six Legs used stories about insects to get children thinking about how humans and insects are similar or different to each other. Creating Six Legs was a rewarding and demanding project for Cap-a-Pie. It enabled the company to work with a researcher in a new context and further developed how Cap-a-Pie makes engaging and imaginative theatre for children.

Six Legs was shown at Ouseburn Farm over summer 2016, at Juice Festival in October 2016 and for local primary school children. The show has engaged 467 people including families and young children from the local area in thinking and learning about insects within an imaginary world. The previous summer Cap-a-Pie had worked with 448 people including families and school children to begin creating the show.

Cap-a-Pie were very pleased to work with a talented creative team and Dr Vivek Nityananda who was extremely generous with his time and commitment to the project.

Co-creation

Cap-a-Pie has previously partnered with academic researchers to make theatre together and Six Legs further confirmed that this is an interesting and exciting way to make shows. The material brought by Vivek was so rich and engaging it made it easy to start creating ideas for the show.

Creating Six Legs brought challenges in translating complex ideas for a very young audience. The main tension was creating a piece which was true to the research yet was accessible and engaging for children. The scientific material and the challenges of communicating this meant the artists had to find new ways to speak to and engage with the audience that led to the development of a highly innovative and unusual show.

Imaginative Play

In Six Legs the young audience participate in the show through activities and imaginative play. Prior to the start of the show the actors talk informally with the audience. This helps to create a rapport between the performer and the audience and builds the context for the imaginative world. The show then begins and the actors ask the children to build a garden for insects to inhabit.

The production makes use of recycled, thrown out and everyday objects to create set, props, costume and puppets. This choice further enables the audience to engage in imaginative play. An early part of the show is the “insect parade” where the performers use everyday items such as a brush, cardboard and a phone charger as puppets. The audience often begins shouting out and naming each as the insects they imagine them to be. One performer commented that each section of the show was like a new game that he and the children were playing together, consciously invested in the imaginary world.

Audience Feedback

One audience member commented that she saw a lot of children’s theatre with her children and Six Legs ability to draw the children into the world of the show alongside the performers was particularly exciting. Written feedback from families included

  • “Ingenious use of everyday objects”
  • “Brilliant show, fantastic acting, very imaginative.”
  • “Wonderful narrative. LOVED IT!”
  • “The composition, the actors, the presentation, the wit. It was truly amazing.”

In discussions after the show the children could articulate insect behaviour that they had seen in the show and compare it with how they acted.

The Future

In the future Cap-a-Pie plan to tour Six Legs to schools, community venues and theatres. Get in touch with katy@cap-a-pie.co.uk if you’d like to know more about the show.

Cap-a-Pie & Barbara Priestman Academy at National Theatre

June 13th, 2016

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Image - what are they like

Image - what are they likeA couple of weeks ago, we received some truly exciting news:

Cap-a-Pie is heading to the National Theatre in London!

A show directed by Artistic Director Brad McCormick will be performed at the Dorfman Theatre in late June as part of the NT Connections Festival.

For the past four years, Cap-a-Pie has worked with Barbara Priestman Academy in Sunderland on NT Connections, a nationwide scheme run by the National Theatre that involves over 10,000 young people from around the country.

Each year, the National commissions 12 new plays for young people. Schools and youth theatres from around the country choose one of the plays to rehearse and perform in two locations: first at their home base and then at a partner theatre. So for us, that was Northern Stage in Newcastle.

After that, the National selects one version of each of the 12 plays to be performed in London.

And this year, our play is one of those versions to be selected!

The show we made with the students at Barbara Priestman Academy is called What Are They Like? by Lucinda Coxon. In it, the actors play parents of teenage children who are speaking about their parenting experience. It’s a really clever concept with some incredibly funny and profound moments.

What makes it especially pleasing to have been selected (apart from the fact that we were chosen out of 500 companies participating) is that the production is very simple. It has very few technical elements and relies on the brilliant performances of the actors who have to address the audience in a very open and honest way. They’ve also developed a fantastic sense of ensemble and are always working for and with each other on and off-stage. We’re absolutely over the moon for them to have this opportunity to perform in such a beautiful space. We’ve been told that the actors were over the moon as well and that even a few happy tears were shed when they were told.

We’re back in the rehearsal room in a couple of weeks to get the play back on its feet and ready for London. A few tweaks might be made but overall we’re keen to keep the same honesty and simplicity that got us there in the first place.

What Are They Like? will be performed by Barbara Priestman Academy at Dorfman Theatre on 28th June at 7pm. Tickets – £5 from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/connections-what-are-they-like