If you had to put your money on any company having the balls to get back on the road in the midst of a pandemic a strong favourite would be imitating the dog.
Over the last 20 years they have never been afraid of a challenge and they have been busy devising a new outdoor show Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show that kicks off a national tour at Leeds Playhouse.
Co-Artistic Director Pete Brooks is hard at work with the cast at the Playhouse but says that a company famed for their innovative use of technology are taking inspiration from an ancient theatrical tradition for their latest adventure.
“It’s not set in mediaeval times, but it’s a sort of mediaeval morality tale when groups of traveling players told stories,” says Pete in a break from final rehearsals. “The idea is that there is a traveling show that comes into town and the people who run it are kind of, probably, demons.
“They are kind of slightly magical, supernatural, and they tell a tale of municipal corruption in a small northern town, and it all ends very badly for the bad guys. It’s comedic, and not that serious, and the bad guys get hoisted by their own petard.”
Working outside has created some headaches for a company who usually work indoors on specially designed stages, but Brooks says that despite that this show will still be recognisably an imitating the dog event.
“We wanted to do a piece of work that was really typical of us and that has its challenges as working outside is not the best environment for digital technology. It uses two cameras, two live feeds, three projectors, models, puppets and back projections.
“We weren’t allowed to put people in a tent, so the audience gather in a demarcated area, they have no cover, and we have no real cover. If the weather was appalling, we’d have to cancel, there is always that element when you do outdoor work, but a bit of drizzle won’t stop it.
“It’s a little more of an entertainment as our last two shows were quite serious, they were enjoyable, but they had serious thematics. This is intended as a present to the audience, we want people to laugh and not sit there puzzling what it’s all about.”
As well as working with the venues to make sure the audience stay safe Brooks and his team have had to work really hard the cast and crew adhere to all the rules, including social distancing, despite working on stage only six metres wide.
“We realised at a certain point that we not only had to be maintaining social distancing and the other rules, but we had to be seen to be doing that,” notes Brooks. “Then we wanted to make that as unimportant as possible. So, we use masks and projection tricks to create a scene where two people seem to kiss, but the actors are three metres apart.
“We use our technical knowhow and all our gear to create a piece where the elements that are being made live cheat. The biggest problem, weirdly, has been to do with props which can’t be shared, so we’ve had to have duplicates of them, so I won’t pretend it has been easy, but we’ve kind of enjoyed it.”
Like many companies with a strong track record imitating the dog are an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation, which means they are funded for four years, and Brooks readily acknowledges they are in a privileged position in an industry that is being decimated by lockdown.
They have making some online material, but the company felt that their public funding meant they had a duty to offer as much as work as possible to freelancers, and support venues that have backed them in the past,
“We made a decision that rather than make more online stuff we would try to make a piece of live work. It is spitting in the face of adversity and in a way, we are not expected by anyone to make any income. Normally with the Arts Council they would be requiring us to make a substantial percentage of the project costs back in income, but that’s not the situation now
“We are being asked to just make work and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make any money, so we are not charging the venues. We are doing it for free because venues don’t have any money either and it’s all coming out of the subsidy we get.”
Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show, Playhouse Square Leeds Playhouse 7th – 8th October. Please arrive 30-45 minutes before the performance time). Book online www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk Box office 0113 213 7700.
Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show will then tour to The Courtyard, Piece Hall, Halifax (9th – 10th October), The Lowry, Salford (17th October), Lancaster Square, Lancaster Arts and Dukes Lancaster (20th – 21st October) and Belgrade Square, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (23rd – 24th October) with other dates to be announced.