The Pentabus Studio
Here’s our AD Elizabeth with some thoughts on what it’s all about:
I’ve been at Pentabus a year now, and ever since I started I’ve wanted to find a way to open up our site to more people. We’re based on a working farm, we’re lucky enough to have a lovely building in which to work, and we’ve got links with brilliant writers around the country as well as a loyal local audience. The idea of the Studio, which we’re launching today, is to bring those elements together and make Pentabus a thriving creative space for both artists and audiences.
What this means in practice is:
The Pentabus Studio is a physical space: our Rehearsal Room (the heart of the building, an old converted Victorian school) can also now be a Performance Studio. With blackout blinds, lighting and sound facilities, a fully accessible entrance and, when required, a little bar, we’re going to open our shows here, as well as host touring productions. It’s a flexible village hall type space with room for between 50 and 80 people, depending on the configuration. Having done a couple of trial events (including the brilliant Fuel Theatre/Uninvited Guests production of Love Letters Straight To Your Heart) in the past few months, we’re confident it will be a decent studio space.
We’ve also moved all the offices around and undertaken some basic maintenance work so we now have 3 Writers’ Rooms in light, quiet, calm parts of the building. Playwrights under commission or developing projects with us can use these whenever they like. Companies we share interests with can request a space for a writer they’re working with, if that writer might benefit from a different environment in which to work. On top of that we’re developing a network of Shropshire based writers interested in playwriting who can come and book in to one of our rooms. It means there will always be artists working on site, putting creativity at the heart of what we do.
My big dream is to convert one of our outbuildings – but that’s a more long-term project. There’s a run down barn with a lovely view of the hills that I think would make a perfect Designer’s Studio. Last summer it had a miner bee infestation (little blighters) so it needs some structural work. That’s our next big fundraising project for the year ahead – watch this space.
The Pentabus Studio is also a creative space: we’re starting a Young Writers Group and we’re running adult Playwriting Workshops on site in the autumn, encouraging people to come on retreat and access their creative thinking in a different kind of environment. We’ll continue to accept Script Submissions from writers whose interests chime with ours, and we’ll put in place more detailed programmes of Research and Development for artists we’re interested in working with. For example, writer Dafydd James and director Adele Thomas are coming to us in June to play around with an idea for a show set in a forest. They needed a space, some time and, most importantly, some woods, and we’re happy to provide all three and support them as they develop their idea.
Finally, the Studio is an open space: a way of thinking democratically about everything we do. It means offering shadowing and mentoring opportunities, free education resources, opportunities to meet the cast and creative teams of any projects we work on and that any artists working with us are welcome to come to our monthly Artistic Planning meetings and chip in thoughts and ideas.
There’s some further info on the website about all this, and more will be added over the next few months as we continue to be inspired by what the Studio can offer. Do get in touch if there’s any aspect of it you want to get involved in, or have suggestions about, or want to comment on. It’ll be a continually evolving thing, just as it should be, and we’re really excited about everything it might bring.
First Week of the Tour
The first week really seems to have flown past. Every audience has been fantastic and their feedback tremendous. It has confirmed what a wonderful piece of writing Tim Price has created especially as our version is so different from the original Pentabus production.
The mix of theatres and village halls ensures that the show is always fresh. We started in Whitchurch where the Sir John Talbot Theatre gave us a warm welcome and a wonderful Chilli. I should explain that Pentabus has a rider which states that as part of the booking we all get fed. One of my heroes, Pete Postlethwaite, in his autobiography, recalls a time when, for a summer season in Aberystwyth, the Liverpool Everyman company had Grass and Hashish on their rider. How things change. On a cold February evening in Shropshire, hot food is the priority!
On to Eye and a homemade chicken pie. Olly made the mistake of being talked into an extra slice of pie. He somehow failed to notice the desert spoons carefully laid out on the table and so was in trouble when the apple and pear crumble arrived (it would have been rude to have refused….)
A hearty soup was on the menu at Garway but I must stop talking about the food. Our designer, Jean Chan, has created not so much a set as a recipe for transforming a space. It is lovely to see the reaction of people when they leave us to get on with setting things up and come back a couple of hours later to see their village hall barely recognisable.
The SpArC Theatre in Bishops Castle was our next venue. Our Stage Manager, Sam Eccles has a particular attachment as it was in Bishops Castle he went to school and did some of his earliest theatre work at SpArC. I understand it is under threat of closure and hope that something can be done to prevent this wonderful asset to Bishops Castle being lost. The number of people who stayed behind for a question and answer session afterwards and the quality of questions certainly demonstrated the appetite for the arts amongst local people.
Our first week was completed with a trip to the picturesque Leintwardine, home of the legendary Sun Inn. We didn’t get time to try the pub alas but were made to feel very welcome. In particular, we had a few technical problems and the patience of various volunteers who were trying to stop the fire alarms going off whenever we turned our lights on were greatly appreciated.
I think I speak for the whole cast when I say that the play is an actor’s dream as there are brilliantly funny lines and deeply moving moments. If you can get a roar of laughter and someone reaching for the tissues in the same performance, it’s very satisfying. I think we’re all continuing to refine the performances. Certainly, I’m still discovering things about my character’s journey through the play and enjoying the subtle changes.
It’s amazing to feel the atmosphere in the building change as soon as rehearsals begin. From just one or two of us working quietly in the office, the building becomes alive with actors, designers and stage managers all working hard to produce the next show. I enjoy the buzz of atmosphere that heightens as the weeks progress, it’s exciting for me to be watching from afar, only pressing one ear against the rehearsal room and sneaking peaks here and there. I can only imagine how the story is being developed, what’s being invented and how the final show will unfold.
This week everything seems to have gone up a gear. We’re in week 2 and so although the gang are still in good spirits, it seems everyone is far more serious and ‘down to business.’ The production team have been here this week, Simon, Jean, Rich and Sam. Between them they have transformed the rehearsal room into what the final space will look like, and the team are starting to experiment with the props and lights. As week 2 comes to a close (with a very yummy cake for Lynn’s birthday!) it’s exciting to see things heating up and coming together. The final week of rehearsals is going to be a very tense week for everyone, as loose ends are tied and final adjustments are made. Adrienne, the For Once sound designer, is coming into rehearsals, so it will be interesting to hear her ideas incorporated into the piece. We’ll soon be ready to get on the road, hear the final instalment in the final rehearsal diary next week…
Sarah Hughes – Administrator
As the first week of rehearsals comes to an end its astonishing to look back at what we have achieved in only 5 days! The detail and meticulous nature of the play gives you an idea of what the style of work has been like in rehearsals. We’ve been given a gem of a play beautifully written by Tim Price which speaking personally is a real pleasure to work on. The company comprised of three actors (myself, Mike and Lynn) one director (Elizabeth) and one stage manager (Sam) started out the week by really looking at what information the play gives us in regard to the lives and history of these characters. Also asking important questions such as in the case of my character: What is Owen’s velociraptor impression like? And what age was Sid when he swallowed a whistle? These seem like odd questions to ask (even odder, I imagine, if you haven’t yet read or seen the play) but to tie these memory’s down to a time and a place with a clear impression of that moment really does help to make this person you have to play all the more real. As week 2 beckons I can’t help but feel excited and intrigued as to what will be the new discoveries.
p.s. Both Mike and I have tried the sour dough toasties from Ludlow food centre and they are well good! Definitely deserve a mention!
Roots. They form the foundations of Pentabus Theatre’s mission.. and are the reason I’d found myself back in my home county of Shropshire, post graduation. The link? A fantastic week-long internship with the inspiring and lovely team at Pentabus HQ in Ludlow.
I’ve pressed the pause button on London life for a while, swapping the underground, Starbucks and pencil skirt combo for country driving, lack of street lights and even a sensible coat. My English and Drama degree gave me a fascination for the world of Arts Administration, so when I knew I’d like to get involved in a Shropshire-based arts company, I didn’t have far to look.
A few emails later and there I was, in the middle of the beautiful South Shropshire countryside, at Pentabus’ office, a converted old school building based on a farm. The location is a perfect base for their innovative and exciting approach to theatre; so far removed in distance yet so well connected with cities and companies nationwide.
Walking through the door could have been scary.. but I was greeted by smiles and coffee. Perfect! My days in the office with Elizabeth, Thomasina and Sarah were filled with support, advice and suggestions; and I really enjoyed the projects I was set over the week.
I archived play texts; going back through the collection gave me a real insight into how varied Pentabus Theatre’s work is. I spotted the local links, and then which national theatres and venues had been lucky enough to host a Pentabus production and find out more about rural issues, too. The well looked after scripts and memories of past productions act as just one of many inspirations for future work. I was intrigued and excited to hear about some of Pentabus’ collaborators, and also how they inspire and nurture writers, from sixteen-year-old students eager to learn more about what it takes to become a playwright, to well-renowned writers intrigued to collaborate with a fantastic Shropshire company.
One of the most exciting mornings saw me sitting in on a future planning meeting. I happen to be a bit of an organisation junkie, so seeing what it takes to forward plan for a theatre company inspired me to write even more to do lists, and stay connected with what’s coming up in the near, and not so near future. The week has whetted my appetite even more for a career in Arts Administration, and I’m excited to find out what the next stepping stone in reaching my goals will be. Having goals is paramount to such an exciting company’s success.. and without giving anything away, the next couple of years are going to be a fantastic time to find out more about Pentabus Theatre, with projects that reach out to communities as local as Ludlow, and then much further afield whilst still staying true to their roots.
Another of my tasks during the week was to research and deliver letters to the most local neighbours, inviting them to find out more about Pentabus, attend upcoming performances or even host an actor during their rehearsals.
Taking just half an hour from my day for frosty walk around Bromfield will hopefully encourage locals to invest their own time too, to explore an exciting company right on their doorstep.
That’s something Pentabus does so successfully, communicating with and combining people and place. The people? A small yet highly organised, inspirational, and well connected team with fantastic ideas. The place? The beautiful rural village of Bromfield, Shropshire. I feel lucky to have played my part this week in not only exploring Pentabus’ roots, but my own!
Juliet Young, Pentabus Intern, January 2013
Its been four months since I joined Pentabus as Administrative Intern, and what a four months it’s been – a whirl wind that has swept past me as I stand wide-eyed in amazement, and boy am I learning a lot.
If, like me prior to discovering Pentabus, you thought people who enjoyed their job were deluded and that such a thing was a total impossibility, have faith! After a string of jobs that reduced my brain to nothing but a small pile of waste, I had quite frankly given up on ever finding a job I enjoyed, or ever making my hefty University debt worthwhile. And then I stumbled across Pentabus’ advert for an Intern, and I haven’t looked back.
On my first day at Pentabus, I drove nervously along the farmyard tracks, sweaty palmed and twitchy. But my nerves soon calmed when Thomasina greeted me with one of her famous cuddles and Jenny took me under her wing and showed me some of the amazing work I was about to get involved it.
Not only have I learnt a great deal about Arts Administration, but I have also developed personally during my time here. Pentabus has provided me with many life lessons, including how to multi task, how to keep a pot plant alive, and that carrying an ironing board through Hampstead Theatre will NOT help you fit in. And for someone who thought Ludlow on market day was the height of busy crowds, a visit to London for Blue Sky was quite a shock. But in all seriousness, my visit to London was something I might not have had the courage to do before. My first time in the big city pulled me from my comfort zone and into the big wide world. The trip wet my appetite for Theatre and left me desperate to experience more.
I can’t believe how well I seem to be settling in at Pentabus, and the amount I am learning is mind blowing. The team are the most welcoming I have ever worked with, and are always at hand with lavender oil and flapjacks when you are at your most withered…I can really see now why Pentabus is such a thriving success, a solid team who are highly professional and supportive of each other, 40 years experience in Theatre and Elizabeth’s amazing ideas – it all makes for many more years of innovative theatre making. I am privileged to be a very small cog in this well-oiled machine, and I look forward to learning more.
So we’re two weeks into the rehearsal process, and so far so good. We’ve even had time for a road trip, (for research purposes, obviously.)
First things first. How are four city dwellers adjusting to life in the countryside? I think everyone’s keeping themselves together, we haven’t quite reached the half way point yet. Dominiques shoes keep getting eaten by her landladys dog ; Jacob’s just eating pistachios for dinner; Sarah’s found solace in the local swimming baths and I’ve learnt that good footwear is essential in the country. Brogues don’t cut it out here, especially when you’re running through a field of sheep.
Rehearsals have been lovely, each day revealing something new and exciting. The last week and a half has focused on a lot of text work. We’ve asked reams of questions; made a list of ‘off stage characters’, (Petes our favorite, sitting up there in his control tower…ah Pete…funny bloke…) We have titled each scene; found our ‘key events’; worked through rewrites and had an impromptu singing of bananaramas ‘I’m your Venus’. All in all, a bit of silliness mixed in with a lot of hard work. All of which culminated in a well deserved mid week treat…a road trip aka the best day ever!! Yesterday afternoon was spent visiting a local airfield and driving through a couple of villages, trying to get a sense of where these characters would live and work. It was a great afternoon. Sarah got to sit in a plane, Jacob spoke to the real life ‘Pete’ in his control tower and Dominique took pictures of rainbows (there’s always one). Fun, informative and (I’m sure the cast will agree) an essential part of the rehearsal process.
So, rehearsals started today for Blue Sky. I always think of rehearsals as the writer’s reward, when you can finally emerge from your lonesome office and spend some time in the company of actors, the director and the rest of the team. Pity the poor novelists who never get such a treat. The great bonus of working with Pentabus is you get to do this in beautiful Shropshire. As I’m writing this, beautiful Shropshire is somewhat hidden behind a veil of mist and rain. But I know it’s there, somewhere. . .
When I started to write Blue Sky two years ago, there was plenty in the media about the still-unfolding story. By then it was no secret that US agents had been kidnapping people they considered terror suspects, bundling them into planes and transporting them to third countries to be tortured – and calling it “extraordinary rendition”. But oddly many people remained ignorant.
All the vocabulary around this practice was extraordinary – from “enhanced interrogation techniques” to “black sites”, it was chilling in its perversity. But even though it was written about in the press, many people didn’t really understand what had been going on, and others thought the whole thing so far-fetched that it couldn’t be true. At that point nobody dreamed that a secret document, blowing around in the bombed out ministry building in Tripoli, would reveal Jack Straw’s role in facilitating the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhadj, an opponent of Gadaffi, back into the hands of the regime. Or that that document would lead to legal action being brought against Jack Straw personally.
One of the reasons people couldn’t grasp it was because of the deliberately misleading language being used. We weren’t supposed to understand it. And the whole thing was unimaginable. It conjured up a world of terrorists and CIA agents that was like fiction, not like real life. You can’t imagine US government lawyers sitting around discussing the level of pain that you could subject a person to before it’s officially torture (pain equivalent to organ failure was one of the cut-off points discussed). You don’t think that when the US president says, “Torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture,” he is actually lying.
The story of extraordinary rendition was so bizarre that it took a great deal of tenacity, skill and painstaking slog for journalists to uncover. One of them was Stephen Grey, whom Elizabeth and I met when I was just about to start writing the play. He vividly described the bewildering feeling of realising that things he had suspected had been there all along, he just hadn’t been able to perceive them because they had been so cleverly, and deliberately hidden.
We have all seen reports about rendition on TV, in the newspapers, on live feeds. The information is there, in so many formats, but somehow it ceases to mean anything at all. Theatre is a way of making it real again. It’s a way of making you imagine yourself in relation to these big, impossible stories.
Elizabeth’s first season at Pentabus, Radical Rural, is proudly political. There’s been a flurry of interest in the state of political theatre recently. There have been a number of political plays set in the corridors of power, giving the audience a fly’s eye view of what goes on in there that we don’t normally get to know about, from A Walk on Part based on the diaries of Chris Mullin to James Graham’s This House currently at the National.
It’s enjoyable – though often depressing – having your suspicions confirmed about the people who are supposed to be running governments and countries. But I didn’t want to set Blue Sky in among the Bush administration, I didn’t want to put Donald Rumsfeld or Tony Blair on stage, nor set it in Guantanamo. I wanted to bring it all right back down to us, the ordinary people, to make it personal and intimate again.
Dennis Kelly, in his provocative speech ‘Political theatre is a complete fucking waste of time’, wryly expressed his disappointment that theatre doesn’t change legislation or prompt government policy. I’m not sure that even the granddaddies of British political theatre – Edgar, Hare, Brenton, Wesker et al – ever thought it would. But sometimes it makes us wonder about things anew, makes us think differently about ourselves, and that in itself is an achievement. And sometimes it does something just as important as changing government policy, which is to change people’s hearts.
6 months in . . .
Well, I’ve been the Artistic Director of Pentabus for 6 months now, so it seems a good time to pause and take stock of what’s happened so far – and prepare for what’s going to happen next.
First things first. I can work the coffee machine. It’s trickier than it looks with an annoying habit of catching the filter on the lid as you put the coffee in. But most days I can crack its idiosyncratic ways which is a weight off my shoulders. I can also now remember the alarm (having set it off on numerous occasions and scared the sheep), log on to our bank website without causing a security alert (ditto; although I don’t think the sheep noticed) and unjam the photocopier. I’ve only broken one table and one window so far, which is pretty good going considering how clumsy I am. And I’m able to drive through the farmyard without bumping down a pothole.
More seriously, I’ve learnt tons about programming and accounting and the Arts Council and working with a Board of Trustees. It’s a totally different way of making creative decisions, with all kinds of factors to weigh up. Far from being restrictive, its been liberating (so far!). I’ve had to quesiton long held assumptions and think about programming in a very specific way. We’ve had really robust conversations amongst our staff, our board and our supporters, examining how and why we do what what we do. I have complete respect for my predecessors here, and anyone working in similar small theatre companies. It’s a tough job, especially in today’s funding climate. But there’s nothing like being forced to justify yourself to make you think more clearly about your choices. Some days I can quite literally feel my brain expanding at all the new information I’m taking in. It can be hard, trying to be in rehearsals as a director, planning seasons as an artistic director, and coming up with company strategies as a chief exec all at the same time; but mostly its really exciting, and the team here at Pentabus (John, Thomasina, Lynda and Sarah) are, without exeption, brilliant. They’ve been patient with my crazy ideas, supportive of my good ones, and incredibly helpful with the many gaps in my knowledge. Their expertise, combined with my enthusiasm, feels like a good mix.
The most interesting thing being inside a company is thinking long term rather than short term. As a freelance director, you tend to be fairly short term in your thinking, planning work (if you’re lucky) 6 months ahead. But here we think on much longer cycles. Something we programme this year might be a stepping stone to a project we want to make in three years time. The seed of a partnership now might grow into a full blown collaboration in the future. A current commission might take years to come to fruition. We have big conversations about the kind of company we want to be, and what that means for the kind of shows we make. Every decision is examined through a long-term prism. It means our eyes are on the horizon rather than looking down at a desk, and that feels like a really positive way to work. What we have to do of course, especially with politics and technology changing so quickly, is leave space to be able to respond quickly when we need to as well; to be fleet of foot on occasion as well as secure and steady for the future. In fact (to use a rather currently appropriate metaphor) to be both a sprinter and a marathon runner.
We’ve got tons of exciting stuff coming up – our next 6 months will see us produce three more shows in our Radical Rural season, making 6 new plays in total this year. And after that, well, there’s our young writers group coming through, a very exciting co-production next summer, and big developments to our base here at Pentabus. All will be revealed soon. . . . in the meantime, make sure you come along to Blue Sky, or Staging the World, or The Mistletoe Bride. You’d find details and booking information on the Current Programme page of our website. We hope to see you at one of shows soon.
Hello, this is Harry Miller on work experience at Pentabus.
It’s been a ‘eventful’ few days, ‘trying’ to put up a HUGE frame for a screening in October of ‘Macbeth’. Also trying to pack up a ‘pop up’ tent for the latitude festival was impossible!
The team have put me up to all sorts of tasks, like doing a scale plan of the building, researching and buying a new blue ray player, calling up news papers and just being transferred endless times from switch board to switch board! I also attended a team meeting and marketing meeting. I then realised how there are such a small amount of actors/actresses in Shropshire whilst writing up a short list for Elizabeth to use. But altogether it’s been a very enjoyable experience, thanks to Thomasina, Elizabeth and John!