People’s Light & Theatre Company, in the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern, has found an artistic partner in Glasgow’s National Theatre of Scotland. “They share our values,” says artistic director Abigail Adams, “especially about professional artists working with young people.” The U.S.-U.K. collaboration—which began to take shape three seasons ago when Adams visited Scotland scouting innovative theatre practices, and also includes Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre—culminated this year in a circus-y, audience-involving production of The Winter’s Tale that ran Jan. 31–March 3 at People’s Light, charming critics and audiences, and solidifying the theatres’ trans-Atlantic relationship.
The seeds for The Winter’s Tale were originally sown when, through a 2010 Pew Center for Arts & Humanities management-initiative catalyst grant, five Scottish artists lived at People’s Light’s farmland campus for a two-week ensemble lab, focused on devising theatre through self-generated material. Seventeen teens, aged 12 to 15, joined a multigenerational crew of 13 People’s Light resident company members—actors, directors, playwrights and teaching artists, ranging from their early twenties to their mid-sixties—for an intensive workshop that fulfilled Adams’s vision not only for ensemble-created work, but for greater artistic continuity within her 38-year-old organization.
The Scottish team, like the resident artists, represented a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, from musician and composer Michael John McCarthy (who subsequently returned for The Winter’s Tale) to choreographer Janice Parker to playwright-director Catrin Evans. NTS associate director and co-founder Simon Sharkey, a veteran of 20 large-scale, site-specific, ensemble-created productions that have gained wide attention in Europe, led the lab, which culminated in presentations shared with an invited audience.
The Scottish artists employed techniques ranging from Lecoq and Laban to automatic writing, found objects and soundscapes. If the international component proved difficult, Adams says, it was not for artistic reasons but for logistical ones. “Internationalism can be hard to pull off,” Adams concedes. “It was hard to get the team through immigration, for one thing, due to the fear that they’re taking Americans’ jobs.”
Sharkey’s immersive, distinctly personal approach, which he applied to expansive, community-involving projects at home, succeeds in all kinds of situations, even with non-actors, and the People’s Light participants warmed to it quickly. “It’s about finding one’s own stories,” Sharkey explains, “whether in a classroom, brass band or football stadium. If you tell the personal stories, the historical, political, bigger stories come to light.” In the first week, lab participants focused on generating “loads and loads of material” from their lives. In the second, they honed their indoor-outdoor performance, with the goal not only of sharing a final product but revealing the process as well.
Longtime resident company actor Melanye Finister admits she had “reservations about putting my own life on stage” at first. “It’s been an interesting negotiation.” But the process, even the veteran actors admitted, was freeing. As Graham Smith jokes, “I put my personality on the top shelf and haven’t seen it since!”
“The beautiful thing is,” Sharkey goes on, “that you put stories into a form that is compelling, and everyone is interested. It’s a universal thing.” This philosophy helped make the mix of American and Scottish cultures an illuminating experience. “We’re both Western cultures, but we only know each other through certain media,” Sharkey notes. “Still, we all have rich experiences to share.”
To Sharkey, such work heralds a change in traditional theatre-season structure. “The demographic has changed,” he suggests. “There are so many other competing mediums and new demands from audiences.” He sees People’s Light as having “the facilities, the outreach and the ethos” to succeed in an evolving theatre landscape. “The generosity between kids and older generations, especially, is a two-way thing I’ve never seen so prevalent anywhere else.”
Moreover, he sees a vital similarity between People’s Light and NTS: “Both of our companies continue to grow and change. We have comfortable company relationships, but we’re not afraid of new things. We like to take risks without compromising stuff we’re good at.”
For the teens, all veterans of People’s Light educational programs (plus some staffers’ progeny), working in a multi-generational ensemble proved revelatory. “We’re with them as equals,” says 14-year-old Deanna Drennen of her senior collaborators. Meredith Rupp, 15, concurs: “We can have honest conversations without them talking down or condescending.” Lexie Pyne, 14, sees her participation as providing life lessons about “talking with people, working with people—social skills.” And sometimes the simplest lessons are the most profound: 16-year-old Caroline Seifert learned that “adults are people, too.”
During another phase of the catalyst grant, People’s Light’s summer 2011 workshop with visiting Scottish artists and New York’s Epic Theatre—whose former executive director Zak Berkman is now a People’s Light associate artistic director—work began with guest director Guy Hollands (from Citizen’s Theatre) on The Winter’s Tale. Hollands was charged with infusing new energy into Shakespeare’s 400-year-old romantic tale of transformation and forgiveness.
The result presented The Winter’s Tale as performed by a 19th-century traveling troupe, a “low-tech, outlier band” that celebrated the power of company. The large cast, including a dozen teens from the summer workshops and 14 adults, created an outdoor festival before and after the play, climaxing with the effigy burning of the Witch of Winter. All played instruments and sang six songs composed by McCarthy, who with local musician Jay Ansill provided onstage accompaniment.
Set and costume designer Philip Witcomb, a New York–based Brit whose career began in Scotland, put audiences on three sides of his rustic barnwood stage in People’s Light’s 340-seat flexible mainstage space, and costumed the cast in tattered Threepenny Opera–style circus garb with a steampunk edge. Associate artistic director Pete Pryor performed the role of Autolycus as a growling emcee reminiscent of Tom Waits, wandering the audience with a microphone.
For Hollands, directing a full production in the U.S. came with immigration headaches, and he had to deal with more constrictive American union rules about schedules and breaks. However, Adams notes, “He also found this company far more prepared than what he’s accustomed to.” For example, she says, Christopher Patrick Mullen, who played Leontes, “showed up with most of the play memorized, which is our house style.”
Both Hollands and Adams see a future for their international collaboration, despite the challenges of navigating U.S. border restrictions. And Adams and Sharkey are developing a three-to-five-year project for teens and adults from both countries about the nature of work in the 21st century that will hopefully play in both Malvern and Glasgow—a huge logistical challenge. Whatever happens, Adams is certain that People’s Light has developed “lasting friendships that will lead to more work.”
Mark Cofta is a Philadelphia-based critic and arts journalist.
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