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Caroline Clegg - Creating Work for Feelgood

Caroline Clegg is a freelance theatre and opera director and lecturer. She is founder and Artistic Director of Feelgood Theatre Productions.


"I draw my inspiration from a multitude of sources.  It can be a chance conversation, a book, a film, a play, a piece of music, a memory, a painting or simply by being in an inspiring environment that leads me to ask questions - questions that challenge my artistic drive and passion to bring a story to life, to create a new show. I buy a clean note book and write a working title on the first page, and the journey begins, months, sometimes years before rehearsals begin.


My only self-imposed rule is to follow my instincts. The process is slightly easier if we are using an existing script but if we are creating a site-specific show I spend a great deal of time visiting the location alone and with the writer to listen to the ‘grain’ of the site.    With Heaton Park it’s like my second home.  I played there as a child and have spent over 15 years creating work there, and it still excites me.   When I find a new location or am asked to create something somewhere new it is the beginning of a new adventure.

The environment has to become an active player in the creative process, the site and text each enhancing the other. Taking theatre away from a proscenium arch or out of a traditional arena allows all the elements of the site to be ‘alive’, to inform and transform. I keep in mind Schechner’s four maxims; entertainment, ritual, healing and education, or as a very good friend of mine asks when I have seen a performance, did it make you laugh, cry or think?  


On these early site visits people wonder what we are doing wandering in woods or in unusual buildings seemingly talking to ourselves. We are like curious children delving headlong into the story and playing make-believe.  A key element in this early exploration is to fuse the rhythm of the site with the internal energy of the piece; the forward-moving energy which usually comes from the journey that a principal character is on or an underlying theme within the text.


Once we have an initial idea of pace and journey we find 6 to 8 locations where the action will take place.  We then link these locations by creating an exciting and accessible route for the audience, finding extra areas for cameo scenes or chance happenings to glimpse as they pass by.  I want audiences to step into the adventure, to leave the 21st century behind and enter into another world. If we take our audience into the glades of the forest what would they want to ask Arthur and Merlin?  What is the added emotional or dramatic power of seeing and hearing Wilfred Owen writing his poetry in the Imperial War Museum?


With the over-all concept, storyline and a series of ‘located picture’ ideas we begin to build the team.  As a project-based company we create a new team for each production, looking for new talent to join the regular artistic team; some of whom have been working with the company since its inception and who will cheerfully declare that they have the battle scars to prove it!


The writer (if it’s a new commission) designer and musical director all meet together at the beginning of the process so we can explore the nuances and voices of the site together and we begin our collective explorative journey.   My long term colleague and designer Allison Clarke has a unique gift of combining traditional and post-modern ideas and as we both visualise in colours and shapes we conceptualise outside the box - often very outside the environmental box too.   New designers come on board for specific projects and all have an interest in site-specific work.   We have worked with Faith Watson, Carol Donaldson and Thomas Hopkinson as musical directors and all have shaped Feelgood’s vocal a capella harmonic world with influences from world music, classical music and importantly from day one we interlace the found sounds of the space into the creative process.  We use acoustic instruments in our work and rarely amplify sound – it’s not always possible to cable electric to our locations and my preference is always for acoustic which through my research I have found affects the audience in a more immediate way.    By the same token, we do not use microphones.    Our performers certainly have to have mastered a good level of projection and professional delivery! 


We like to push the artistic limits in our work and make to the maxim of creating theatre with a definite sense of risk and adventure.  Audiences enjoy being frightened, amazed, inspired, and made to laugh out loud and together we push the dramatic boundaries to find ways for the audience to experience these emotions through the sheer joy and thrill of world class story telling theatre.  We discuss the type of multi-skilled performer that we need for the production and whether we are going to involve members of the local community.   Of utmost importance to us is that we engage with the community, especially in Heaton Park where we are working in ‘their local park’.  Every Feelgood show has an integrated education programme which is dynamic, inclusive and always a little bit unusual.   


We begin rehearsals with a strong framework of a working script, a design, a sound scape, songs and movement ideas and this is presented to the actors.  Then a further exciting creative phase begins as the actors explore the story anew, bringing multiple levels of meaning and texture and lifting the narrative off the page.


We spend a week indoors and then begin to work in the environment which is now our set; come rain or shine. The actors constantly improvise with the narrative and the singing, using challenging vocal and physical theatre techniques to create a show that has a sense of adventure and daring.


Acting within a site specific space or a large natural environment requires a different kind of focus in order to engage with the audience, who have many things to distract them, unlike in a traditional theatre space.  The actors soon to learn to embrace the possibilities and restrictions of the site, to work with the wind, the rain and the occasional curious visitor such as a gaggle of geese or a herd of cows passing by.


By the end of the second week the actors are no longer thinking about ‘acting’ in the space. As a team they have begun to inhabit the environment and project their voices and physical presence with ease amidst what can at first be quite an overpowering set.  The process of developing the show is a very collaborative one between myself, the writer, musical director, choreographer and the actors and finally, and most importantly the stage management.  Each member of the team has a character and is in costume.  This helps us to maintain the suspension of disbelief and allow the story to unfold without the audience ever seeing how we make it work.  Stage trickery is more complicated in site specific, but all the more special if for example Dracula flies through the trees without visual wires, an actor is seen in one scene and magically gets ahead of the audience to appear on the rooftop in front of them.    Site-specific is very filmic.   My creative process is in stages – the close up, the mid shot and then the all-important long shot perhaps as the sun is setting or the moon is above an area where I can put an actor. For these long shots, no words are necessary.  The environment is there as your lead actor if you understand all its nuances.  It has its own rhythm, pace and beauty and if you embrace it, it will reward you with filmic pictures that the audience will take away as a lasting memory.   The environment nurtures the performer, the audience and the play.


The front-of-house team and promenade leader are also in costume and they work closely with stage management to add the final touches which ensure total immersion for the audience.  When the audience arrive they leave their cars in the car park and enter into our real imagined world. Some step in wholeheartedly. During our production of Robin Hood, a young boy ran past me during a promenade and when I asked him where he was going he said, he couldn’t stop, because he was looking for the Sheriff of Nottingham. His mum was hot on his heels and with a broad smile on her face she told me: “I feel like I have stepped into a film, and I am loving it”!


Some audience members prefer to meander slowly with a glass of beer, others climb a tree to observe or sit on the grass.  New friendships have been made at our shows as groups of people enter into the spirit of sharing the story as they walk from scene to scene.

Feelgood also tour to traditional theatre spaces and have won many awards for such. A regular space to premier our work is The Lowry and we have toured across the UK, Europe and Zimbabwe and into the West End at The Trafalgar Studios and Duke of York’s.  We have performed important issue based work in The House of Lords, in cathedrals, parks, on military bases and garden centres; the space is ours to metamorphose in order to communicate.     

Feelgood have been named ‘innovators’ of site-specific work and we have been doing it a lot of years alongside many others and inspired by pioneers such as Mike Pearson of the amazing Brith Gof, incredible Welfare State, wonderful Grid Iron in Scotland and the new generation of immersive work by Punchdrunk and Shunt.   Whatever title you give to a piece of theatre it has to engage and not simply join the latest trend. 


I want to breathe life into a story, to give it meaning and for it to connect with the hearts and minds of the audience. If a child finds the Sheriff or an adult hums a tune all the way home we have done our job.  I am more passionate now about creating theatre than I have ever been. I believe it can create moments of pure joy, of pure magic, and whether you come to see us in a theatre or somewhere else I hope that our transformations make a connection with you and make you laugh, think, cry, or simply smile at our daring."

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