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Clare Beresford (Little Bulb Theatre) on long journeys and the power of people putting faith in you…

Eight years ago David Jubb invited us to make new show for Battersea Arts Centre.  It was to be a playground project, which meant that it was an open offer to create a piece to be performed in any part of the building or indeed several parts.  It could be as big as the entire bottom floor or as small a toilet cubicle.  It could involve lots of people or none, it could be whatever we wanted it to be, we were simply asked to respond to the building and dream, and so we did.

Eight years later, and this week we are lucky enough to be opening the resultant show, Orpheus, for its third run in the Grand Hall having since taken it on a UK tour, which included the Royal Opera House, and to both the Salzburg and Brisbane international festivals.  If you’d have asked us all those years ago what we thought the show would be and where we thought it might end up there’s no way on earth we would have imagined it to grow so big and travel so far, and yet, somehow because of the way in which it was allowed to grow incrementally, from intimate scratches and lunchtime foyer gigs, to a full blown, big ensemble, Grand Hall sized production, every part of the process felt natural.  Much like the way in which a person might grow into themselves, given the right amount of time, encouragement and love.

As our wonderful producer, Fiona Baxter at Farnham Maltings will tell you, we favour long rehearsal processes, and Orpheus was no exception, in fact, it was our longest!  The show, based on the Greek myth, centres around the premise that a fictional, fading French chanteuse, Yvette Pépin, has managed to persuade the legendary gyspy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, to come and play the lead role in her production of Orpheus, in which she assumes the part of Eurydice whilst her long suffering musical troupe run around to play all the other parts required.  We made it over two years, and began by immersing ourselves in the myth and all its incarnations.   We drew pictures, composed music, experimented with using film and puppets, and slowly expanded the ensemble before setting about becoming a gypsy jazz band.  This, for some of us, involved learning whole new instruments, new techniques and song lyrics in new languages, so to do it properly it couldn’t be rushed. 

And yet at every stage of the process BAC encouraged us go the way the show was leading, even when funding wise it proved very difficult to be certain about anything.  They never doubted the idea, we just had to work together to pull it off.  But it was daunting - when you make show you don’t really have any idea what it is until you’re first performing it to an audience, and so to take a risk on that scale with a relatively small company like ourselves, who had never made work that large before, was a huge risk but a shared one and one that we all wanted to take.   And it was made possible purely because of the faith that David and the team at BAC had in us to create something for the building, and in their willingness to let the show go on its own journey, and support it along the way. 

And this support and encouragement continues, not just in us and other artists but in the building itself.  In fact, it feels especially poetic to be returning to the Grand Hall this year, as since we last performed the show there in 2014, the hall suffered a devastating fire, only reopening again this Autumn, following huge public and community wide support and after a magnificent restoration by the architects Haworth Tompkins.   In a similar tale of overcoming adversity Django himself nearly died from a fire, suffering severe burns and permanently damaging the use of two fingers on his left hand, and yet somehow he retaught himself to play, turning his injury to his advantage, to become one of the greatest guitarists of the twentieth century.   So it feels particularly appropriate to be part of the Phoenix Season of work which celebrates the power of rising out of a disaster, of turning the worst into something beautiful and of using a setback as an opportunity to create something even better than before – indeed the Grand Hall both looks and sounds better than ever.

And the show feels like it’s coming home but it also feels like we’re taking it somewhere new.  It is still on its journey through time, as we all are, and which we note with every remount when we find the choreography increasingly tiring.  And yet it is also richer; as our grasp of the music, our ownership of the material and our love and understanding for each other as an ensemble deepens, and so the show journeys still and so does the Arts Centre.  Next year, David Jubb will step down as Artistic Director and make way for someone new, allowing new dreams to be dreamt and new ideas to take seed.  We can only ever thank him for the faith he put in us and hope that the next artistic director is brave enough to do the same for the next generation of artists who walk through those wonderful doors.  Orpheus is a testament to what can be achieved when the power to have ideas, to act on them and to take risks is shared.  When faith to make art is put in the artists and nurtured by a building, amazing things can happen: long may that journey continue.

littlebulbtheatre.com | @Little_Bulb

Little Bulb Theatre
ORPHEUS
5 - 30 December
At Battersea Arts Centre
Info and tickets: bac.org.uk