Dancing through the difficulties

Producer Joel Cottrell talks about the joys – and jitters – of putting on Contagion, a new work from Shobana Jeyasingh Dance that is touring to non-theatrical spaces.

I have to start with a slightly embarrassing confession: in my career as a producer, I’ve actively avoided getting involved with work that’s outdoors, site-anything or for festivals. Occasionally I’ve failed (once I ended up producing a seafront hip hop festival) but, by and large, my strategy of pointing out that there are people more qualified – and more enthusiastic – than me has paid off.

Why? Principally, it’s about control; I like knowing precisely what the parameters are and the mechanisms behind them, whether they’re technical, communications, marketing or financial. However, when I joined Shobana Jeyasingh Dance (SJD) earlier this year I discovered I’d have to make an exception.

SJD produces and tours the work of a choreographer who has been making ground-breaking pieces for over 30 years. As a result, the staff at receiving houses know all about the company; when I walk into an empty auditorium and introduce myself to a member of the programming team, I feel at home. Suffice to say, I’ve got a box – both literal and figurative – that I am reluctant to step outside of.

Joel Cottrell
Joel Cottrell

It therefore came as something of a surprise when I joined the SJD team to discover that the first thing I’d be producing would be Contagion, a touring performance-cum-installation, commemorating the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19. It would visit non-theatrical spaces with a spectacular set and complex video design. Fortunately, my overwhelming excitement at working with Shobana and the team assuaged the rising apprehension at the prospect of it.

I’m writing this slap bang in the middle of the process. We’ve just finished studio rehearsals and, in a month, we will premiere the work in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I’ve already faced down some of the challenges I’d imagined before we started – plus some I hadn’t – and I anticipate there will be a few more before the tour ends at the British Library in November.

Technical concerns have come to the fore over the last few months. I’m a subscriber to the theory that delegation is often the most effective solution to a problem; when in doubt, defer to an expert. I found a production manager with extensive experience of rural, site-specific and non-ideal condition touring; his knowledge, pragmatism and chirpiness have been invaluable.

He’s had to contend with a truly challenging context: touring a set, six projectors, lighting, rigging and a sound system, all of which has to be rigged and focused within eight-hours. Oh, and the projection is mapped to the set, which consists of 23 identical but idiosyncratically arranged plinths.

Winchester Great Hall, which will host one of the performandes © Joe Low
Winchester Great Hall, which will host one of the performances © Joe Low

Each of the venues meets a minimum size requirement, but some exceed it by a factor of two or three. A couple are open to the public seven days a week, meaning that get in time is restricted to the evening or early morning. All have mains power but the projectors and lights require a total of 63 amps over three phases – medieval banqueting halls and churches don’t tend to have this available.

Quite early in the development process, during a discussion about the difficulty of mixing sound in vast (and vastly different) venues, someone mooted the idea of giving the audience headphones. This would negate the need for speakers and ensure that the sound could be precisely consistent across all venues.

The composer, Graeme Miller, was immediately enthused by the idea of creating sound specifically for a binaural experience. He felt the intimacy that could be achieved was perfect for the subject matter, particularly as he was interested in using found testimony from survivors of the pandemic. Following a production team trip to see (and hear) Complicité’s The Encounter, which gave us a glimpse of the potential of binaural theatrical experiences, an elegant solution to a complex problem was found.

The other departments, lighting and projection, have thrown up their own difficulties and, in each case, anticipation and compromise have been the watch words. But what about the dancing? No sprung floors (in one case, a curved concrete floor), no dressing rooms or rehearsal studios and three shows a day. What’s the solution?

Thus far, I have focused on managing the expectations of the dancers and doing everything I can to prepare them for touring. I’ve also asked for their suggestions: we’re touring with blankets and portable heaters (where there’s no heating) and yoga mats (so the floor doesn’t matter so much when they’re warming up). The costumes were even altered to incorporate kneepads.

Beyond technical issues, there have been other unusual considerations for us. How do you best support a venue with few staff, some of whom have never programmed a live performance before? What if they don’t have front of house staff when you need to hand out 200 pairs of headphones?

The answer, invariably, has been communication. Where experience has been somewhat lacking, unfailing enthusiasm has stood in its place. Our marketing associate, Vic Shead, has visited each venue, big or small, and found that this effort has reassured and further enthused all the staff she’s met, not to mention offering her useful insights into an audience we’ve not previously encountered.

Imperial War Museum North, another host venue
Imperial War Museum North, another host venue for Contagion

I’ve thought more carefully about front of house briefings than I have since I worked as an usher. Contagion is an exciting event to have arrive in your town and I hope to help local staff and volunteers understand and enjoy the part they will have in this, offering a sense of shared ownership for everyone involved. At the same time, I need to teach a team of volunteers how to troubleshoot headphone problems, stop children climbing on the very tempting set and assist patrons with finding decent sightlines. It’s a genuinely exciting challenge and one that calls on muscles I haven’t flexed as a producer before.

I have no doubt there are surprises in store, but I don’t for a moment question the team’s ability to respond to them. I have always been very willing to defer to other people and perhaps that’s a cop-out, but I know the technical or marketing expert beside me understands the problem better than I ever could; it’s my job to support them doing theirs, and vice-versa.

Thank goodness theatre is a team sport.

Contagion opens at the Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed on 15 September then tours to Winchester, Ipswich, Sunderland, Manchester and London. It was co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW.