Propelling Shakespeare to a brand new audience
Currently Course Director of MA Drawing at Wimbledon, Michael is in the midst of launching Propeller’s latest project – a series of “pocket” versions of Shakespeare plays for young people, starting with Pocket Henry V. But despite the time pressures, he has no plans to put his commitments at UAL on the back-burner.
“I often consider the studio environment at Wimbledon to be equivalent to the rehearsal room – a safe but critical place to test ideas amongst a group of like-minded people,” he says.
“Students of theatre design have to realise, appreciate and harness the strength, fear and discipline of the performer as a catalyst for theatrical impact. I’m still learning what makes good, worthwhile theatre and I’ve used the studio at Wimbledon to share my thoughts and engage the opinions of others.”
Pocket Henry V has recently toured the UK and in Europe. Full details are available at: http://propeller.org.uk/current-productions/pocket-henry-v
You can also see Propeller’s new ‘behind the scenes’ website looking sound and lighting, acting, costume, directing design and production here: http://propeller.org.uk/play
Read more from Michael on Propeller, Shakespeare and a career in theatre design below.
Why did Propeller develop Pocket Propeller?
“The performances are enormously satisfying as they give Propeller an opportunity to specifically engage with a young audience who have not seen Shakespeare before and perhaps not even been to the theatre. The actors encourage audiences to express and explore their relationship to the work they are seeing in the least restrictive way. We encourage teachers to allow their pupils to relax during the performance and not to feel they have to ‘behave’.
Their reactions are honest and immediate, giving the actors plenty to bounce off as they develop their relationship with their audience, sometimes in very vocal situations that are at the core of a good Shakespeare performance.”
Is there something unique about Propeller’s approach that helps it bring Shakespeare alive for young people?
“Pocket Propeller offers me the opportunity to revisit and develop a piece of established work, (‘Henry V’, for example) by going through a process of ‘concentration’ i.e. focusing a drama to its bare bones and, in doing so, hope to design for the essence of the work. This can often be a surprising and educative experience which helps make me more aware of what has worked in a production, what affirms the ethos of the Propeller company, and then inform the next full scale show.
These shows are be designed to play in any space, targeting a new audience of young people, primarily in schools, but also in a number of smaller theatres and festivals. This year, ‘Pocket Henry V’ performed at the V&A museum and the Festival International de Teatro Vitoria’ in Spain along with schools and colleges in the UK.”
Does being a male-only company have any affect on audience reaction and different engagement of girls and boys?
“It’s a good question, but one that judging by the audience’s reactions and at our frequent talk-back events, rarely needs explanation or justification. The company started with an idea for ‘Henry V’ whereby the story was being told by a squad of infantry (Chorus) and so had to suspend the audiences disbelief and engage the audience’s imagination on a number of levels; not only with regard to gender. For example, how do you present other ‘impossibilities’ on stage: death, our history flashed back, time itself?
Propeller’s attitude has always been to acknowledge the part that an audience has to play in making sense of theatre, this most unusual of experiences, and present the situation, a ‘case study’, that the characters find themselves entangled in. Emotional and physical ‘reality’ are surplus to requirements or inadmissible evidence. It struck us that the device of using male performers for women’s characters not only made sense because Shakespeare wrote for boy performers and that the conceptual layers would not have escaped his contemporary audience, but that this duality helps objectively articulate the women’s situations in social or political situations and often also exposes male culpability.
It’s important to point out that although all the actors have been male, the company’s team behind the scenes are a balance of both genders and the company has never ruled out the prospect of female performers in the future.”
What advice to you give your students about getting their design careers started?
“Two things, primarily: firstly to have saintly patience and secondly to have faith in a need to do it. Having studied for four years, most graduates can expect possibly another ten years of assisting, making costumes, sets, props, box office, dressing or any other theatre-linked work before establishing themselves as a designer.
For women who also want to start a family, this can present challenges, but there are more and more successful, influential female designers out there who have worked this out. Higher education gives people a terrific platform to start from – to weave through a conceptual web and produce flexible but robust material of all sorts.
That alone, out of a theatre context, is a marketable skill and many theatre design graduates consciously aim for, or find themselves parachuted into, other fields where these qualities are valued and sought after.”