Matthew Blake is a freelance theatre practitioner, who has worked on a number of projects for innovative theatre company Punchdrunk. He is the director of Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found, the recent collaboration between Hijinx and the community outreach programme Punchdrunk Enrichment. In this interview with Phil Morris, Matthew discusses the unique challenges and huge rewards of developing immersive theatre with an inclusive theatre company featuring disabled and non-disabled actors.
Phil Morris: I think many people are aware of Punchdrunk’s critically-acclaimed productions, such as It Felt Like A Kiss and The Drowned Man, but perhaps less is known about the company’s work in schools and communities. What is Punchdrunk Enrichment?
Matthew Blake: Punchdrunk Enrichment started about seven years ago, following Punchdrunk’s production of The Masque of the Red Death. During that show, Peter Higgin, who is now the Enrichment Director, observed workshops that Battersea Arts Centre were running on Punchdrunk’s set to get local schoolchildren interested in different types of theatre. Peter had been a drama teacher and he had the idea of combining his work for Punchdrunk with his love for education and working with children. So he set up Punchdrunk Enrichment, and I was hired as an actor on its first ever project Under the Eiderdown. We went into a school and created this theatrical experience, set in a bric-a-brac shop, which was intended to get children interested in creative writing, or different ways of learning. Since Under the Eiderdown Enrichment has really grown and done work in the wider community, with people of all different ages and backgrounds. Sometimes we involve community performers in the creation of a piece, like we did with Beneath the Streets. Other times, it’s about bringing a show we’ve already developed into a community.
How did the collaboration between Hijinx and Punchdrunk Enrichment that resulted in Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found come about?
Hijinx have worked with some amazing companies, including Frantic Assembly and Theatre de Complicité, and Punchdrunk Enrichment is always looking for new and exciting projects. Hijinx seemed like a perfect partner for us really. Last year we all had such a great time working on the first Beneath the Streets, although we felt that we hadn’t quite got to the bottom of what we wanted to explore with that show because we had such a short amount of time to develop it- only two weeks including the performance days. The artistic teams at Hijinx and Punchdrunk thought, we can make this work again and do it for a slightly longer run, and create a new version of the show – Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found that’s twice as long as the first.
What have you learned, as a director, from working with Hijinx?
I’ve learned that there’s not just one way of facilitating creative workshops or one way of creating theatre. I’m a professional actor by training and have my own system, but when there are different needs, different abilities and disabilities within a company then you often have to work outside of that system. There were times when I had to reshape how I worded or explained things – as you can probably tell, I tend to be quite waffly – so I learned to make my statements a lot clearer and that’s been fascinating for me. During the process of making Beneath the Streets, I found that if I was not clear, or what I was explaining to the cast didn’t make sense them, they would repeatedly ask me to explain it again until it did. I think that’s great, and I’m going to take on that lesson – to communicate more succinctly and with greater clarity – as both an actor and director.
I think it is only right that enrichment is a two way process.
Without a doubt. Julie Landau the show’s designer – we’ve worked really closely together on this production – agrees with me that although Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found has been extremely hard work we’ve had the best time.
With this ‘Lost and Found’ version of Beneath the Streets, were the cast and creative team conscious of what is was they wanted to re-examine from the earlier version?
Well, last year we just happened to fall upon the idea of lost things quite late in the development of the piece. We were really keen to develop that idea further in this new version. A lot of people who came to the first Beneath the Streets were very much intrigued by this question of where do lost things go?
So the show’s themes of memory and loss were developed in response to audience feedback?
Exactly. Julie and I came up with this concept of a lost and found company. We also had this idea that the underbelly of this company, the workers, were going to rebel against their bosses. We worked quickly with our actors – who were almost exactly the same cast as last year apart from three who were unavailable – they just ran with it. Then they came up with this idea of an elixir, a chemical essence of all lost things that has terrible effects on its users, and that took us down a different road completely, which was great because they then had ownership over what they were creating.
The idea of an essence of lost things, is that what drew you to Jacob’s Antiques as a site for the piece?
We looked at lots of venues. We had a whole day of site visiting and saw some beautiful buildings in different parts of Cardiff. We found this antique store quite late on in the day and I’m very glad we did, because it’s very similar to Punchdrunk Enrichment’s aesthetic – a place full of strange, odd objects. It also fitted in with the world that we wanted to create, that of the Fo[u]nd Corporation.
For me, the most successful element of the show was this notion of physical objects acting as triggers to memory. How many of these objects did you bring in and how much were you manipulating what was already here?
It really was 50/50 really. Punchdrunk has a massive store of props that we used, but we also had this amazing store here with a whole range of things at our disposal. So, for example, we have a box full of items that trigger memories in the show, and Julie managed to pick up a fake grenade from one of the stalls upstairs to include inside. Downstairs in the basement maze area, a lot of that was unused stock, which was great for us. And then we bought in some furniture which looks antique and beautiful but was actually fine for us to screw into to make things safe, or to make things like a fake wardrobe where you can go into a secret little room. But many items were brilliantly and kindly donated by Jacob’s.
In terms of developing roles for each actor, was that an organic process or did you have a preconceived cast of characters in mind?
Well we knew that we wanted this upstairs/downstairs thing because that was something that came out of the work of last year, but the individual characters were handed over to the actors. We played a lot of drama games and exercises through which the cast could develop their character quite organically. Some of the Hijinx academy students, though not all, required a bit of extra support during the show and they were paired up with a non-disabled actor so they were not left totally vulnerable during the performance. But it was mainly up to the company themselves to say, ‘I want to play this kind of character’ or ‘I want my character to be like this’.
How did the cast deal with dark atmospherics of the piece? I thought it was exciting to see an inclusive theatre piece that encompassed such disturbing subject matter – it was very Kafkaesque down in that basement.
Yes. Well that was partly down the cast, which was another great lesson for me. Because I would suggest a certain theme, such as memory loss, and they’d take it down this dark route. It’s great that they were totally willing to just go there. A few of the cast, once again needed a bit of extra support in dealing with that, others were a driving force, saying ‘I want this storyline. I want my character to be really dark and frightening’. It was only the other day, while we were rehearsing the final scene, that I thought, ‘God, there are some very dark undertones that these actors are willing to play’. And we shouldn’t patronise these inclusive companies because, let’s face it, everyone enjoys the element of darkness to some extent. I think we should embrace that and celebrate the fact that these actors were willing to go to those places which make theatre exciting.
Any plans for future collaborations between Punchdrunk and Hijinx?
Well I’d personally love to come back to work with Hijinx. I know Punchdrunk as a company have enjoyed working with them. I love Cardiff and not missed London even a quarter as much as I thought I would, and I think that’s because I’ve had such a brilliant time here. I’m feeling really excited about the possibility of further collaboration. But all I can tell you right now is watch this space.