Would you rather hear the truth or a story? – An interview with Emma Callander

Bristol, Performance, Theatre

The first production of The Sum, the new Bristol based theatre company, Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is set to return to Bristol over the weekend, with tickets free for under 21s on Friday.

Inspired by real events, the play is centred around Titus Coventry, an eccentric character made homeless after Banksy stencilled ‘THIS LOOKS A BIT LIKE AN ELEPHANT’ onto a water cooler, which served as a home for Titus, near L.A. Despite being in the limelight of the media, public, playwrights and a dubious firm which seized the property, Titus is finally telling his story.

Young Arnolfini spoke to the director, Emma Callander.

How are the rehearsals going?

They’re going very well. This is re-rehearsals – the show started as a commission between A Play, A Pie and a Pint in Glasgow and the Tobacco Factory in Bristol as their first collaboration. It was commissioned in 2012, then premiered in Glasgow in September and the Tobacco Factory. This is its second life.

What was the response to the showing?

The first time was incredible. We got really overwhelmed by it. It had really positive responses in the press and the audience, which told us that we should do it again.

Was that surprising to you, given the ubiquitous connection between Banksy and Bristol?

It’s always a nice surprise to get good feedback, I don’t think that you ever expect it – it’s dangerous to expect it! We really felt confident in the piece, because it’s about a Banksy artwork and an action that Banksy made, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s really the story of a homeless man in Los Angeles and how his life was affected by Banksy coming into his world. I think a lot of people were surprised by that.

And there are Skype interviews with Tachowa that are going to be shown on Saturday?

On Friday at the Station, there’ll be some documentary footage of Tachowa himself being presented by Hal Samples, a documentary maker from Dallas, Texas. He’s flying over from Texas especially to show his documentary in Bristol, which is mad and wild for us.

On Saturday, we’re arranging a post-show discussion with a Skype link to Tachowa in LA. After that, we have a Police Rave Unit party in The Island, on til 4am.

On Sunday, we come to the Tobacco Factory to have a preview here, our final before going to Edinburgh on Wednesday.

banksy-this-looks-a-bit-like-a-elephant-2

Has Tachowa seen it? Was he involved in the beginning, with script drafts or anything?

Tachowa lives in a tent, in a forest, in Los Angeles. We weren’t in touch with him or the documentary maker at all when we created the piece; we made the specific decision not to be. We could make a verbatim piece of theatre about this which was very loyal to the truth, just representing the facts of what happened. But me and Tom [Wainright, writer] weren’t very interested in doing that, because a lot of those pieces are done, and they’re done very well but I think that’s something we’ve already seen. What we were more interested in doing was to play on the truth, and play on the situation because that, for us, represented the ideas of the press representing the story, or of what playwrights want to get out of people’s real stories, and what films want to get out of stories. Then you have all of these artists or media trying to pull and spin a story that people want to hear. The idea inside the play is: ‘What’s the difference between the truth and a story? What would you rather hear?’

We read an article in The Independent – ‘Did Banksy’s most recent work bring misery to a homeless man?’ – and took the facts that were inside, and created a piece of theatre with those basic facts. Everything else we used our own artistic licence.

It has its base in a journalistic investigation, and then evolved out of that.

Yeah, exactly. It’s inspired by a piece of journalism. Since the first performance in September, we’ve been in touch with Tachowa and Hal. We’ve spoken to Tachowa on Skype and he’s read the play and given us his blessings that we can go ahead and do it. We’ve got some interview footage and some sound from him that we’re going to put into the play. There’s footage of the tank itself, so the play now has got this strange element of life imitating art, because we’re now part of a documentary that’s being made about him.

The play about him is part of the documentary that’s made about him, and the documentary is then in the play…it’s all turning a little bit Charlie Kaufman!

I have a certain character in mind, after reading somewhere that he calls himself ‘The King of Portrero Canyon’ and mythologizes himself in that way –

He’s also got an AKA called Rollerball, who’s a superhero. Rollerball wears all silver and goes inline skating down Venice Beach promenade. He hasn’t been Rollerball for quite a while, but the other day we heard from Hal that he has started to become Rollerball again because of the play. It’s really buoyed his spirits, so now he’s going round being Rollerball.

Who plays Rollerball?

(laughs) We also didn’t want to use the name of Tachowa Covington, because the character in the play isn’t Tachowa Covinton. It’s our imagining of who this man could be. We used the name Titus Coventry, played by Gary Beadle, an incredible actor who’s slightly stuck with the fame that came with being on Eastenders for a long time as Paul Truman, then being on Absolutely Fabulous as Oliver. Since then he’s been at the Royal Court, he did Blue Remembered Hills at the Chichester Festival Theatre and now he’s here with us.

Working with Gary, how has he gone about putting page to stage? (cringes)

He’s been incredible. Me and Tom have created this play together and we’ve changed it a lot as we’ve gone along. Gary’s been key in that creative process but he’s also had patience with the two of us, because we’ve just been shifting the structure around a lot. After speaking to Tachowa, we wanted to put in certain facts and mannerisms that we’d learned from him. Gary’s seen some film footage of Tachowa, but we didn’t want him to speak to him directly because that would be a bit of a mind melt. It feels like a three way creative collaboration.

I read that putting together a character in a one man, one act play is like the Tin Woodman from the Wizard of Oz, who accidentally loses all his limbs and replaces them until the only thing he doesn’t have is a human heart. It’s finding the heart that is most crucial.

Has the heart changed since your first showing and now?

No. It’s the same heart. Absolutely. Gary found the character really early on. He just clicked. He has a bit of it in himself as a person. That soul has been there since the very beginning. Solo shows are really difficult, especially to create. You have to work out that person is talking and who they’re talking to. The premise of the show is that Titus has come back to the tank to tell his own story. The journalists have told their story, Banksy’s told his, a playwright wants to tell it-

It’s been told by everyone but him, until now.

Exactly. He’s talking to the camera, which is YouTube. It’s everybody in the world who might watch it; it’s Banksy, it’s the public, it’s the journalists – everybody. That camera then opens out to the audience, so we feel like we are that audience behind the camera. We’ve also given him a co-star, which is a rat called ‘B’. B is very real for Titus. He speaks, but only Titus can hear him. There’s the question of whether that’s imagined or some mental health problem, but for us he’s the co-star.

What you mentioned about the camera is very interesting – in an audience, you have a hundred different cameras. How do you direct the audience’s line of vision?

It’s a lot easier in a one person show than with 15 characters on stage. Gary’s a very engaging performer – you’re with him most of the time. We’ve got other bits and bobs on stage that give you information, such as his trolley containing lots of things from his life. There’s B, obviously, the focus going to B for his lines is Gary’s responsibility. As soon as he gives his everything to B, then the audience is going to go there too. In terms of design, we’ve got a new element that’s coming in now: the documentary being projected onto the stage. We don’t know what that looks like yet because Hal is turning up from Texas tomorrow! The lighting designer turns up tonight and the video designer the day after. It’s going to be a case of the three of us working really fast to be able to manipulate the focus.

Is that a position you’ve been in before?

Working this fast? No. (laughs) It’s just been necessity for the project. But it’s really exciting! We were talking to my lighting designer yesterday and her take on it is that instead of using colour and colour shifts, she’s going to be using shape to focus people.

There’s music as well: Portishead, Massive Attack – is that purely a creative decision or for their Bristolian origin?

It’s kind of playing on the same theme that everything in the show plays on: stories. If you were going to make a Hollywood film about Bristol, you’d use the Bristol sounds. Also, when Banksy started, it was the mid to late 90s. That was his Bristol time, so it’s the sounds of Banksy’s Bristol as well as it being a slightly mythologized version of Bristol as well.

Massive Attack have just done something at the Manchester Festival with Adam Curtis and I watched Portishead’s Glastonbury set…

It was amazing!

They’re great performers.

It’s strange because their music is quite timeless, as well. It really lends itself to soundtracks, that’s why it’s in so many movies. They create incredible atmospheres and take you on journeys. It’s a gift for a theatre maker.

gary

[The assistant director is Ed Franklin, a 19 year old theatre student. He’s written a blog on his experience here.]

How important is it to have a young theatre worker involved as intern? Have you noticed anything different in his approach?

I’m a massive fan of having an assistant director whenever I direct. The biggest reason for that is to have  another pair of eyes in the room with a completely different take on it. Me and Gary have worked on this a lot before quite intensely; it’s been so refreshing to have a completely new voice who hasn’t experienced the whole development process. Gary is a generation older than me, Ed is a generation younger than me – we’ve got quite a nice span of people coming from really different backgrounds, ages, positions in life. Having those three voices come together is really important. Some directors like to be dictatorial, but I’m a big fan of the more minds in the room the better.

Is it anything to do with theatre being a young person’s game? Or is it purely how different people think?

I don’t think theatre is a young person’s game. Not at all. Quite the opposite. A lot of theatres are struggling to get a younger audience in. You look across the crowd and the general hair colour is grey-white. I’m a big fan of engaging younger people in theatre but sometimes that can be a struggle, hence why we’ve made a show where it’s free for under 21s.

In terms of creating theatre, I think it’s just the stories that are spun again. You always hear stories of younger directors like Same Mendes directing The Cherry Orchard at 24. You hear the stories about that because people love to hear of the ‘young genius’. But there are so many directors, designers, producers, actors who’re going right up into their 80s – they’re the ones that we learn from, it’s just that they aren’t newsworthy because they’ve been doing it for so long.

There’s a lot of focus on emerging talent. Then a strange thing happens when you’re mid career: the opportunities aren’t there. You have to take the responsibility to head out and make them. From there on you’re on your own.

Where are you?

This is the first production of The Sum, the beginning of a new company. I guess I’m just on the edge of emerging going into mid-career, which is a really exciting and very scary place to be. (laughs)

You can purchase tickets for Friday’s event (or reserve a space for under 21s) here: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/event/7211532889/

Details on Saturday’s event can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/480934848657243/

And Sunday’s preview here: http://www.tobaccofactorytheatre.com/shows/detail/banksy_the_room_in_the_elephant_fundraiser/

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