Over the last five years, 13-time Offie-nominated Arrows & Traps have become a regular fixture both on the London Fringe scene and on this blog. And the good news is they’re not going anywhere; the future looks bright as they prepare to launch their Renegade season with a new comedy, One Giant Leap, opening next month at the Brockley Jack Theatre, followed later this year by a national tour of The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde.
The tour marks a new chapter for the company, and there’s a lot to talk about – but first, here’s what Arrows artistic director Ross McGregor had to say about where it all began…
What was your vision when you established Arrows and Traps and how has that evolved over the years?
Originally, back in 2014, I was contacted by Simon James Collier, a writer/producer/director who was then based at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, to produce a season of six Shakespeare shows over two years. Unfortunately we only got to perform two of these – Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale – before there was a management change at the L&U, which left me with a half-finished set of ideas and four more plays that I was expecting to do, but then suddenly wasn’t.
So rather than give up and go back to my day job with a sour taste in my mouth, I decided to take the rest of the season on as an independent venture. Thus Arrows & Traps was born, and this is also why in the first two years our focus was on Shakespeare – as we went on to do Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Othello, which completed the set I had planned, and then opened the door to that big question: “What next?”
Right from the beginning of the venture, even before Much Ado, even before we were called Arrows & Traps, I knew I wanted to work with Will Pinchin, our resident movement director, as we’d worked together before and I really appreciate what he brings to the room, and how devoted he is to taking my big ideas and making them a reality.
One particular moment always sticks with me, that during the tech for Winter’s Tale, I brought in some fabric and some sticks and told him: “Right so yeah, we need to build an airship” – and in six hours’ time Will had made one! This is such an over-used phrase in this industry, but Will is genuinely the kindest, most generous person I’ve ever met, and it’s been an honour to have him work with me on so many shows – and it’s such a privilege to have him now acting on stage in our current season of shows, after his Offie-nominated turn as the Creature in Frankenstein, and playing Hans Scholl in The White Rose.
As well as moving away from Shakespeare (for now), we’ve taken on more literary adaptation work, with Frankenstein, Dracula, Crime & Punishment and Anna Karenina – and started to make a series of historical new writing that has been female-led in terms of narratives, about the lives of Sophie Scholl, Anne Lister, and Gerda Taro. It is with these two strains in mind that we move into our new Renegade season.
As the various phases of company cast configurations have come and gone, we now have a full creative team in place that work on each show, and last year we were appointed as the official associate company of the Brockley Jack Theatre, which was a great honour. In terms of the dynamic and company ethos and staging approach, I think our style has remained constant throughout, although perhaps we’ve consolidated it over the years, and since 2017 I’ve been the lead writer for all productions, which has helped us to zone in on precisely what kind of theatre we want to make, what kind of stories we want to tell.
Frankenstein, 2017. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
If you could do it all again would you do anything differently?
I’d think twice before working with a certain well-known theatre corporation again, that’s for certain. I’m sure they’re very good with their large spaces but with their studios, they’re all about the hire fees, and not at all about supporting or caring for the shows that they get into their spaces. On the other side of the spectrum, the Brockley Jack is run by Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard, two creatives who care greatly about every show that’s on at the Jack, they go out of the way to help you and make you feel welcome. Having been at the Jack now since 2016, I can safely say they put some other venue managers to shame, they’re incredibly skilled at their jobs, know their audience and their space, there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for you, so we’re really happy there and feel like it’s a theatrical home for us. But that kind of relationship we have with them is rare, and we certainly kissed a few frogs before that, venue-wise.
Other than that, there’s been a few difficult moments, and at times I think I took on too much, or had too many projects on in too short a space of time, and there’s a couple of moments that I look back on and wish I’d been able to see the good from the bad, focused on the strengths of the work, and not dwelt on the stresses, and tiredness, and anxieties that go with self-producing your own fringe theatre work, but it’s often really hard to do that when you’re in the throes of a production.
I’m very proud of the work we’ve made, and the recognition that it’s got, particularly recently, and I do believe that most failures contain a lesson if you look hard enough. I’ve certainly made a fair few mistakes since I started in 2014, but I feel like I’ve learned from each of them, and am looking forward to what the future holds.
Oh, and I wouldn’t do Titus Andronicus again. That show was probably our weakest for many, many reasons, and I think Shakespeare has got better options in the canon. I think I was lured by the fun of the violence and madness and darkness, but lacked the resources to do it properly. But I think that’s the only production I would retract, if I had my time again.
Anna Karenina, 2016. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
What have been the biggest highlights and challenges – for you as a director and writer, and for the company as a whole? Any favourite productions?
In terms of highlights, both as a director and writer, it would have to be The White Rose. That was the first original piece I wrote, that didn’t have a novel or source text behind it. Being based on a true story, I knew what characters I had to use, what the remit of the story was that I wanted to tell, and where it would ultimately end up – but the beats, scenes and characterisations were all original and written from scratch, which was quite challenging. I was really proud of that show and what it accomplished. To choose a story that not many people in England knew about (Scholl is incredibly well-known in Germany), and to produce it in a summer period (a natural low point in the year for most theatres), and to get 8 five-star reviews, and 4 four-star reviews, as well as an Off West End Award Nomination for Best Production and sell out 96% of the run – it was an incredible experience, and so gratifying. The cast for that one was phenomenal as well, absolutely no weak links, everyone was on their top game and cared so much about telling the story as best we could, and honouring the memories of the real people they were portraying.
Other favourite productions for me have to be Anna Karenina – that was so beautiful, such a good script by Helen Edmundson – and I enjoyed the scale, challenge and detail of Three Sisters, I loved the style and poetry of TARO, and the ferocity and scope of Frankenstein. A personal highlight for me was to get an Off West End Award Nomination for Best New Play, and another for Best Director, both for Gentleman Jack, which I wrote and directed. That was so lovely to hear, I was so honoured, as I’ve sort of fallen into writing plays almost by accident, mainly because I struggled so much with getting the rights to the things I wanted to direct, or found a distinct lack of scripts available on the subjects I wanted to focus on. I just started writing as a sort of solution to the problem of producing the work, not really thinking about what that meant, and how that sort of made me a writer. I sometimes struggle to consider myself as a playwright – but really – I’ve written six now, and nothing’s been dreadful yet, so maybe I should work on changing my self-perception a little.
In terms of challenges, one of the biggest recently was writing Gentleman Jack and TARO both at the same time in six weeks. That was a nightmare. Such a stupid amount of time pressure. I mean, I usually like time pressure, in moderation. I have an odd process for writing as I usually book the slot first, design the posters, write the copy, put the show on sale, then write the script. I know that’s probably sounding like an insane way to do it, but I have a problem with self-discipline, so if I know there’s a date by which I have to get the script done by, no excuses, otherwise I’m going to let my company and the venue down, then that forces me to write it in time. And once I get going, it’s normally quite a quick process, as the characters start to find their voices relatively early on. It’s normally just a case of getting a first draft done in a few weeks, realising where it’s overwritten, and then taking four or five runs at it to edit it down. Most of my stuff has the framework of an adaptation or a true story, so there’s always a narrative structure preset for me. It becomes largely about working out how to tell the story, rather than working out what the story is. So yes, that seems to work normally, but having to do two plays at once for our recent Female Firsts season was an absolute nightmare of a task, and not one I’d volunteer for again any time soon. You may have wondered why those two plays were a little shorter than our usual fare, it’s because there was literally no more time to add any more pages.
TARO, 2019. Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
In recent years Arrows have won critical acclaim for your portrayals of female figures from history. As an AD what made you decide to take the company in that direction, and why is it important to you to tell these stories?
Yes, I suppose it has worked out like that. For the most part, it was unintentional or based primarily on practical concerns. I always felt actresses got short shrift when it comes to drama, particularly in classical texts, which seems maddening to me, particularly when you consider the ratio of women to men working in the acting field is about ten to one. I’d done Frankenstein and Dracula, two novels largely about men, or where the women were sidelined to supporting roles, and whilst I did what I could to minimise that – making Renfield and De Lacey female or giving Mina, Elizabeth and Lucy a bit more agency, etc – I thought it was time to even the balance and make a season of shows that had female characters as the central focus.
Because whilst I appreciate those productions which take something like Richard II or Henry V and turn it all female – those sort of things just always seem like experiments to me, and always jar a little. Gender is wound into the writing for me, King Lear and Prospero react like fathers with daughters, not mothers with sons, Benedick and Mercutio’s immaturity seems inherently male, as does Othello’s jealousy, and Lord of the Flies is a depiction of what happens to a group of boys, not girls. Changing the gender would change the characters, and most likely alter the plotlines – if a plane of school girls crashed on an island and were left for an extended period of time unsupervised, of course there would be conflict and shocking behaviour and extreme actions, but not in the same way that it occurs with the boys in the novel. So I preferred to write all new original roles that favoured female casting. Sophie Scholl, Anne Lister and Gerda Taro took centre stage, and in the case of the latter, we even divided the roles between younger and older, present and past, to further the opportunities for casting more women, giving more opportunities.
I don’t necessarily see the fact that these heroines were female as a reason to tell their stories, in and of itself. I chose to tell these stories because they’re great stories. If they happen to be about women, then great, but that in and of itself isn’t a validation of their need to be told. Certainly in terms of their time periods (1942, 1810 and 1935), the fact that the protagonists were female and trying to do something not readily expected of them raises the conflict and drama of the narratives, but what interested me more about Scholl, Lister and Taro was their strengths, their mistakes, their vulnerability, their stubbornness, their kindness, their sense of self, their passion, their ambitions, their cruelty, their moments of realisation. That’s the reason I told their stories.
Check back soon to hear more from Ross about what the future has in store for Arrows & Traps… but in the meantime, tickets are on sale now for One Giant Leap (2nd-27th July) and The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde (from 3rd September – check the website for full dates and venues).
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