Ahead of the Old Vic’s latest production, Epidemic, director Alexander Ferris chats to Gary Raymond about the unique challenges of creating a play about public health concerns.
Alexander Ferris is just a few days away from the tumult of a typically intense and ambitious Old Vic New Voices production. Epidemic, to be performed in The Old Vic Tunnels, a cavernous theatrical venue in the heart of London built out of barely-renovated rail storage vaults, is a huge project involving around 120 community members, musical numbers, and a public health message.
‘The whole thing is quite rare in the way we approach things,’ says Ferris, ‘as we do a good strong period of research, usually six months to a year. That involves speaking to specialists on the topic we focus on, in this case health, and also to members of the community. And then we gather all of that material and we pass it on to a professional writer who we then commission to write this piece.’
It’s a long gestation for a huge production. Epidemic tackles issues surrounding the most common public health concerns as identified during the research process.
‘We spoke to doctors, health experts, we did a lot of work with the London School of Health and Tropical Medicine finding out about what the key issues are and we found out that the key issues to come out of both community and professional concerns were obesity and mental health. In amongst that you have the issues of people not really knowing where to get their information from, who to trust; their friends? The internet? Medical treatment? – and there is this idea that things get out of hand, epidemics are blown out of all proportion – like the debates surrounding the MMR vaccine, for example. So that was our starting point – this broad topic of public health.’
For such a large developing project the collaborative element is very important, and the emphasis is on original ideas, emerging talent and thinking outside of the mainstream.
‘We commissioned Morgan Lloyd Malcolm who’s one of the writers that has come through our emerging artists programme, but she’s also a very well-experienced writer in her own right. She’s a great writer. We wanted it to be something quite celebratory but also tackle the issues we wanted to talk about and not just be a lightweight piece of fluff. It had to incorporate the research but also have enough roles for 50 people of the community to perform, and 50 people to work on backstage. So we commissioned a composer called Suzy Davies and decided to turn it into a musical so it could be a bit more accessible otherwise it could have turned into a bit of a dry public health service announcement. Suzy, is a songwriter and not a traditional composer of musicals. The performers in the show have a wide range of backgrounds; so we have many different styles of music to suit the people in the production. For instance one of the actors used to be big on the Newcastle folk-scene, so Suzy has written a folk song for her, and another of the actors has Italian heritage so he has a kind of tango to work with, so it’s very mixed up and not at all a traditional West End musical. And John Ross, our choreographer and an award winning contemporary dancer, also has an aversion to jazz-hands.’
Ferris has been at the Old Vic for three years, but his journey to director of such an auspicious and ambitious project by the age of 32 began with school trips to the theatre in his home town of Newport, South Wales.
‘Well, I Grew up in Newport where there wasn’t really a massive theatre scene, but I eventually found a youth theatre in Abergavenny (which I’m pretty sure is still going), Gwent Youth Theatre. That was where I first started to get my teeth into things and began to think maybe theatre could be a potential career – to be involved in theatre in some way. I acted in a couple of Shakespeare productions and a Brecht and Animal Farm, and so I decided to study drama at university. So I went up to Liverpool and studied there and ended up focusing on devising and new writing.’
After some time acting and then directing in community projects and university productions, a graduate he returned to South Wales in 2001 ‘to see what the Welsh theatre scene was like in Cardiff and got a job at the Sherman Theatre [now Sherman Cymru]’. And what was the scene like?
‘It was an odd one because it’s quite a small community anyway; it might have changed since then, I don’t know. But it was a small theatre and I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s a small community [Welsh theatre] but the good thing is that I suppose if you’re a passionate person people get to know you quite quickly. And there was a website called Theatre in Wales and it had quite a vibrant forum which enabled me to wade in to discussions, because I didn’t know any better, and voice my forthright-young-man opinions about things and so I got to pick up on what was going on. I wanted to try my hand at working with new scripts. I went to Phil Clark, the Artistic Director, with an idea for doing new writing in a small experimental space they had there called Venue 3, and he very kindly allowed me to put on a night called Unzipped.’
Unzipped was a very successful (often script-in-hand) showcase for young writers and actors in Cardiff during the early to mid-noughties. It was a pound entry, and more often than not was sold out. Many similar ideas have sprung up since around Cardiff in the wake of Unzipped’s success.
‘It was perfect for me as it gave me the opportunity to try my hand as a director at lots of different styles and lots of different genres. Off the back of that I put a show on in Venue 2 – the Sherman’s studio space – which got absolutely slated by The Western Mail, so I had my fingers burned a little by doing that. Luckily, there were some very good artists there like Simon Harris who was Artistic Director of Sgript Cymru at the time, and Phil McKenzie who was the Youth Director. I do owe a bit of debt to those who showed faith in me off the back of that [a characteristically ambitious triple bill, of cabaret and devised pieces, called L’Hotel]. I could have very easily lost heart but they were all very supportive. They both held their faith in me and allowed me to assist on a youth theatre piece, so they allowed me to get some good experience.’
Despite the setback – all quite evidently character-building – soon Ferris was on the next stage of his journey toward The Old Vic and Epidemic.
‘I ended up assisting on a Made in Wales show that went up to Edinburgh. I learned a lot from Jeff Teare who directed that, and then after a few years of knocking around the Welsh theatre scene and not really knowing what my next move was going to be a job came up at Sheffield Theatres at The Crucible as Young Associate Director. I kind of applied for it on a whim, not expecting to get it, and thankfully I got it, so I moved to Sheffield and worked there for 3 years directing youth theatre shows and school tour shows and also assisting on house productions. That was really where I started to get how the whole theatre industry works and they had amazing actors up there and amazing directors. I got to meet Howard Brenton on one of my first days there so I got to meet all of these theatre idols of mine. And then, via a brief stint at Bury-St-Edmonds, I made it to the Old Vic in London where I am now.’
And Old Vic New Voices is a particularly exciting area to work in.
‘It is kind of focused on emerging talent. Kevin Spacey, when he took over the theatre, made quite a commitment to educating people and making sure schools had access to theatre and also to give opportunities to young actors, directors, writers and producers so all those people who are starting out in the industry and really engaging the community. That’s kind of the point of New Voices, and he made a massive commitment to those things; it was one of the conditions he insisted on for him taking the job as Artistic Director.’
And the community-aspect of the production goes deeper than simply addressing concerns and presenting a mirror to those concerns in a theatrical environment.
‘We’ve also worked to improve the well-being of the participants – 115 community members working largely on a voluntary basis – so we’ve had a nutritionist come in and talk to the crew about diet and blood sugar levels and our dancers going through quite rigorous warm-up techniques, so there is that aspect to the community project as well.’
The result of such faith from the big players at The Old Vic is an intriguing community extravaganza, a musical that looks at public health issues.
‘The story focuses on a guy called Marlon who suffers from psychotic depression. He looks to his sister for help but she can’t help and he doesn’t really have anyone else. The doctors want to put him on more meds and use him for new medical trials as they don’t really know how to manage his condition and so he thinks, “you know what? I have to go and get out of the city”, so he has moment of panic in the doctor’s surgery, runs out and jumps in a mobility bus and rives off in a panic. And he’s halfway down the road before realising there are two people in the bus with him; a morbidly obese man and a wheelchair-bound old lady. He demands they get out but they can’t as they’re not mobile. So they go off on this adventure together. It’s a journey across country – they meet various characters along the way. Some of them help, some don’t. The media blow it all out of proportion and eventually the Prime Minister gets involved, and ultimately they make it to their final destination – which is just a journey to the sea – a very simple journey blown out of all proportion by outside interests.’
So how does that end up as a musical?
‘We had three months of Research Development and we work-shopped a lot of ideas including a kind of dystopian future where everyone is sick and it was like a warning from the future. And we did a showcase of that with an invited audience and the feedback was a) it’s too depressing, people are just going to switch off, and b) it’s very easy to not engage as an audience as it’s set in the future. So we tracked back and realised that what people want to explore is what are the issues facing them now?’
So it was a matter of accessibility. Epidemic is less musical, and more folk-opera, perhaps.
‘The thing I really like about Morgan’s writing is that it’s kind of like magical realism. There’s a sort of core reality to it but ultimately it is quite fantastical and it is a flight of fancy and obviously that works very well in terms of a musical. And Morgan also writes the pantos for the Lyric Hammersmith so she knows how to write these celebratory good-time shows as well. It is one of those shows that is quite silly, but does have quite a dark edge to it as well.’