Basic Space is now underway, with just a few days left for Londoners to see site-sensitive theatre on their very doorstep. Quite literally actually, as the shows are taking over two Victorian houses in Peckham. One of these is The Weatherman, an eco-friendly show both in content and construction. Mounting a green show can be a challenge and one which Writer and Director Dom Riley is aware of and embraces: ‘theatre is fundamentally not a very green format. One of the cool things for our company (which we’ve never done before) is trying to make the show as green as possible’. In the run up to the festival, I spoke to him about the importance of climate change to the show and himself.
Rona Kelly: Can you tell us a little bit about the show and the company.
Dom Riley: I’ll start with the company: we are Quirk, we were founded in Durham back in 2011 at the university and since 2013, we’ve been based in London. We make work that is about the intimacy between audience and performer, and we particularly like nurturing new writing and comic theatre.
The show is The Weatherman. This is a project really close to my heart personally. I wrote it and I’m also directing it. It was originally conceived back in 2013 as part of a residency the Arcola Theatre ran; they were trying to get upcoming playwrights to write about climate change, however we wanted to respond to it. It got a rehearsed reading there but as it was only a 20 minute piece, it couldn’t be anything more or anything less, so it got left until now. And I’m so glad that we’re staging it, because it’s a wonderful story about loss, childhood and the emotional cost of saving planet earth from climate change. There’s not enough climate change theatre out there, given how big the issue is for me. So I’m really excited to present something that’s going to be a really intimate piece of theatre. It’s going to bombard all five senses and challenge the audience to think about how much one person can affect a hugely complex, global process.
RK: Great! And Basic Space is taking place in two safe-houses in Peckham. How does the space suit your production?
DR: It allows us to properly build a house for the character that we meet. It’s a one woman show performed by the incredible Grace Cheatle, who’s just a genius. Her character Sandra is trying to live her life in the most eco-friendly way possible, to the point where it’s to the detriment of her own quality of life. And having that wonderful, atmospheric space allowed us to build that house and see what that world would like. And then we can plot the audience directly in the middle of it and really give them a sense of just how much you would have to do to be totally carbon-neutral. And it shows the cost of that would be for yourself and whether it’s fair that people like Sandra take it on their own shoulders.
And with one performer, the idea is it’s intimacy and telling the story. Sandra inviting the audience to understand about her world, it’s not preaching. I would hate to do a play about climate change that preaches…
RK: Yes, that’s a difficult line to tread.
DR: Yes. I think that’s why many people tackle it, because it could seem difficult not to be preachy. But it’s basically a case of saying, ‘This is how I do things’. And as it goes, the cracks start to appear in this very intimate environment. But underneath it all, it is theatre stripped back to its elements: someone telling a story to some other people. And the most important thing is that, yes, we want to challenge our audience, but we really want to grip them with this beautiful, little story.
RK: And are you yourself passionate about climate change?
DR: Yes, I am really interested in it. This is actually my second climate change themed play, and Grace was involved in the previous one. Hopefully it could be a trilogy at some point, maybe a few years down the line. My Dad got me reading books by the climatologist James Lovelock which are absolutely brilliant reads, and that got me thinking a lot more about it. And during the residency at the Arcola, they encouraged me to engage with it on an even greater detail. I think it’s a fascinating complex issue that we should all be thinking a lot more about than we actually do, which I am very sad about. But I think it is a tremendous challenge to theatre makers: there’s very little good theatre that’s been made on the topic of climate change, it can go too preachy. You end up with people telling their audiences, ‘It’s happening guys!’ when 99% of theatre audiences will believe it’s happening anyway. You’ve got to find a different angle in and, as a playwright, I quite like that challenge as well: taking a topic and seeing how you can challenge the audience to think about it more or think about the other side of the story. So opening up all sides of the argument and that’s something I’ve definitely set out to do as a writer, with The Weatherman.
One other thing: we were quite aware when making it that theatre is fundamentally not a very green format. So one of the cool things and a challenge for our company (which we’ve never done before) is trying to make the show as green as possible. We’re using minimal mains lighting, mostly wind up stuff and our clothing is being sourced second hand and will then be reused and recycled. We’re borrowing everything, we’re finding it in eco-friendly ways and recycling it, so it’s a very green vibe to the show that way as well.
RK: Can you take us through the process of writing this show and staging it now, given that you didn’t necessarily know it would be performed here at that point?
DR: Well, when I first approached Mark Rolland, he had a script that was quite clearly written for black-box theatre. Since then, I’ve worked with my team through workshopping and editing to make it fit the space like a glove. We knew there was the potential that it could fit the space, but we’ve changed a few things. So things that might have mattered about setting the scene in a black-box theatre where the audience are having to use a lot of their imagination to picture the setting, that’s all gone out the window. It’s much more stripped back in that sense and much more story-focused. Because the beauty of a festival like Basic Space is the building does the atmosphere for you; you just need to worry about the story and engaging the audience. So it’s gone through a couple of drafts since workshops and rehearsals and we’ve ended up with something that we are very happy with!
RK: And you’ve been in rehearsals over at Theatre Delicatessen – how’s that been going?
DR: It’s been going really well. It’s quite an intimate process, because at most there’s only four of us in the room. It’s a very fun, collaborative process. We’ve got lighting designer, set and costumes designer, myself as director and Grace all in the room in a very collaborative, ‘Best Idea in the Room’ wins, kind of way. So it’s a great, fun environment to be in. Although it has been very intense, particularly on poor Grace, I am thrilled with how it’s going and I thoroughly have enjoyed it thus far. And I hope that we can transfer that enjoyment onto our audience.
RK: If anyone is on the fence, why should they come and see your show?
DR: I think they should come because it’s theatre unlike you will see anywhere else. It is a short play in the truest sense of the form that has to be short, it’s the theatrical equivalent of the short story. It’s a beautiful story that will emotionally involve you, challenge you to think about a hugely important, global issue. And how many times between the seven of you do you get an actress all to yourself, performing a neat, little tale? It’s going to be something that I personally have never seen in theatre before. And that was one of the major appeals in making it for me. So hopefully if I haven’t seen it, the audience hasn’t either!
RK: Where did the title The Weatherman come from?
DR: It’s certainly not B*Witched! I have been asked that a few times and I’ve had to say, ‘Sorry, that’s not’.
RK: Aww! That’s what I was hoping!
DR: Sorry, no…this is not going to help my cause for the people on the fence. But there’s not B*Witched involved in the show.
RK: So it’s not a reunion?!
DR: No, C’est La Vie!
RK: I should have seen that coming!
DR: Don’t worry, there’s no more B*Witched puns; they didn’t do any other good songs! The title The Weatherman refers to an incident from Sandra’s childhood. The play’s very much about the relationship with her father, who’s a climatologist. And so the idea of him being a weatherman, that is the spine of the play as it goes through. It was the most obvious title and I’m happy to wade through several enquiries per day on whether or not B*Witched will be involved!
RK: Well, if people keep emailing you, maybe the next time it’s on it could have a live B*Witched soundtrack!
DR: Well, up until this point, I had never considered doing a B*Witched jukebox musical. But if the Spice Girls can have one, why not?
RK: And finally, how has Basic Space helped you in the process?
DR: First of all, it’s given us a way of doing it where it’s actually feasible. I’m well aware of the fact that we are not the only show at Basic Space that literally could not do this financially if it wasn’t for Mar and the team’s backing. When you’re trying to set up a play for seven people, it just won’t work unless you do it a) somewhere that’s not a theatre, or b) a festival where you’ve got the wonderful backing of lots of incredible theatre makers and producers, like Theatre Delicatessen as well who’ve helped us tremendously. It’s just simply not feasible without that, especially not when it’s a twenty minute play as well. The festival has allowed us to create a properly intimate piece of theatre which is what we love doing. It’s allowed us to do a piece that we’ve really wanted to and which has been sitting in a Word document for the best part of three and a half years and would have done for many more otherwise.
And it’s also allowed us to fly the flag for the short play as a viable form. People go out to theatre as an event; anything under an hour is very much frowned upon. With this, we have the chance to show people that actually you can tell a really engaging, thought provoking, live story in considerably less than an hour. And that is how long that story needs to be. And then the cherry on top, to be able to put it in the beautiful safe-house building and basically create the most immersive theatre space we could imagine, for a fraction of the budget of doing it in your proper black box theatre. It’s been an absolute God-send. I cannot stress this enough: without Basic Space, this show would not have happened.