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“Universes Within a Building”: An Interview with Hannah Drake

You may have thought that Romeo and Juliet was set in fair Verona, but Insane Root’s latest production sets it in a dilapidated Victorian swimming pool in Bristol’s Eastville Park. We spoke to Director Hannah Drake ahead of the performances 20 June – 29 July, about the company’s particular brand of site specific performance.

Culture Calling: Insane Root theatre company is renowned for bringing new adaptations of classic plays to unusual venues. What is it that first inspired you to work outside of the traditional theatre context?
Hannah Drake: I always used to like losing myself in books. I also love theme parks, and the idea of stepping into another world. I think theatre does that really beautifully because it creates universes within a building that can take you to different places. There was something really exciting about creating that feeling but taking it one step further and making it a really 3D experience, so that it’s completely surrounding you and you get to walk into a world, literally, as opposed to into an auditorium and then looking at a world. So it was about trying to break down that formal experience…

Image Credit: Thomas Katan
CC: Breaking down the “fourth wall”…?
HD: Yeah, the fourth wall. But also, something that’s come out of the work we’ve done is that we’re finding a new connection to a city that we love, and finding hidden gems. There are a lot of companies doing site-specific work, and what makes it so exciting is that you tend to use places that people don’t know about, and they get to learn more about where they live.

CC: So you’re very committed to rediscovering elements of Bristol as opposed to other locations in the UK?
HD: Certainly at the moment. The core company are all Bristol based, and I grew up here. There’s just so many wonderful places in Bristol. But we’d definitely not say no to going beyond! We did The Tempest last December in a Medieval crypt, and the people we worked with have a network of crypts, so we might look at touring it.
Culture Calling: When did you first hear of Eastville Park’s Old Swimming Pool and why did you think it was a good performance venue?
HD: Around 14 months ago we got an email from one of our audience members who knew of our work. She’s a permaculture design students and she said “have you heard about this pool?” We (myself and Justin the producer) went along and had a little look. We were a bit sceptical initially because its open air and everything we’ve done so far has been underground, and because open air theatre can be a little bit unfocused. But we walked into this slightly decrepit, but beautiful, community garden, Victorian swimming pool thing – we didn’t really know what it was! But it had quite a natural amphitheatre to it, and because we have a specialism in Shakespeare, we were thinking about which of his plays would fit here. Because it felt a bit like a run-down Italian piazza, it started to lend itself to the Italian plays, and we decided, “right, Romeo and Juliet, look there’s even a balcony over there!”

CC: Is there anything else about the swimming pool that lends itself to being a setting for Romeo and Juliet?
HD: The architecture certainly lent itself to some iconic moments. I’ll be honest I’ve never really like the play before. It’s only been through doing it in this way, in a kind of stripped down, fast, re-imagined version, that I’ve started to love it, and have seen how clever it is. And because the space is a mixture of old and new, man-made and natural, it seemed to really express that tussle in the script, between the very formal societal pressures, and the hatred of the feud, versus the passion people feel that they want to be free. Our work is also very musical, and the pool has an interesting acoustic, so that was also one of the reasons to use it.
CC: So do you write original scores, or use popular music like Emma Rice frequently did for her Shakespeare adaptations at The Globe?
HD: We have brand new compositions. Insane Root is made up of myself and Justin Palmer (producer), and we tend to do the script adaptations, cutting the plays down to just over an hour. Then the third member of the company, Ellie Showering, is a phenomenal singer and composer. We’ve worked with her since we started and it’s really coloured the way we create shows. We’re very ensemble, and we use a lot of close harmony, acapella singing. So we use music to weave scenes together but also to create an emotional undercurrent that takes from the beginning to the end of the story.

Image Credit: Thomas Katan
CC: Are you setting the play in the traditional time period? Or have you shifted the context?
HD: We’ve taken our inspiration from the space itself. You’ve got echoes of the Victorian era, but you’ve also got graffiti from about 2 years ago, and you can hear sirens from the motorway! So it felt incongruous and alienating to put someone in a Shakespearean world. So for us, it’s a contemporary aesthetic, but with a folk and sea-shanty kind of soul.
CC: Where will the audience be sat? Or is it more of an immersive performance where they will be moving amidst the action?
HD: We don’t have formal seating, apart from some for people who are unable to stand because we don’t want to be discriminatory. But if we were to put in formal seating banks it wold change the space from a found space to a theatre space, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. There are steps that become natural seats, but at the moment we don’t really know what the audience are going to do – that’s part of the excitement. We’ll invite them to come in and find where they want to be, and then we might move them out of the way when it’s dangerous because we have a lot of fight sequences and dancing. But it’s very much going to be open to the audience to find the view they want to have, and to be enclosed in this world altogether. There’s an informality to it.
CC: It must be so interesting to see how different people react to being asked to find their own space…
HD: It is. We’re also really keen on getting schools in to see our work, because Shakespeare can often feel very off putting if you only ever look at it on the page. We’ve got a couple of shows for entirely school audiences, so I’m really excited to see what they do in this environment!

Image Credit: Jack Offord

CC: How much rehearsal time do you get in the venue itself? Is it difficult to transfer from a rehearsal room to a site specific performance space?
HD: It’s quite tricky, because there’s no rehearsal room that will match the pool, purely because of the size. We’re quite lucky to be using a community hall that’s pretty big and open, but we’ve made sure we go to the site at least once a week to run some stuff.

CC: So you’ve performed within the Suspension Bridge Vaults, the Redcliffe Caves and now a dilapidated Victorian swimming pool! What unusual venue in Bristol would you like to tackle next?
HD: There’s a few. Our plan as a company is to produce some sort of show every 7 months, but I think the beauty of what we do is that it’s so unpredictable. At the moment we’re working in a massive swimming pool with a cast of 10, but we’ve also got plans for a family show next Autumn with a cast of 4, and a Spring show with a cast of 2. But until we find the right site, we don’t decide what we’re going to do, because everything we do comes from the space.
Romeo and Juliet will run at Eastville Park Lido, Bristol, from 20 June – 29 July.