David worked at Forest Forge from 1994 to 2015, as resident designer he designed over 70 productions for the company. He also wrote and directed many plays, and ran outreach programmes, including the ground-breaking Art and Health initiative at Salisbury Hospice, creating work with cancer patients for 17 years. Since leaving Forest Forge to work as a freelancer, he has returned at least once a year to design, write or direct our professional shows. We invited David to speak at our ‘Artists Talk’ webinar, the following blog covers the areas of David’s career discussed.
- I want to talk a little bit about training as a designer, my early career that brought me to Forest Forge, the ‘Forest Forge way’, becoming a writer, becoming a director, my priorities now and what Forest Forge means to me.
- I hope my reflections might help people starting out in Theatre, or be interesting to anyone already working or passionate about theatre.
Let’s start with a question: WHAT MAKES A PLAY, OR PRODUCTION, MEMORABLE?
The simple answer is A great story, well told. For me, this is the essence of good theatre, and it all begins with the script (unless of course you are working in devised theatre or other, non-script based work).
But the script, however important, is just the start. You can have the greatest play ever written and it still leaves the audience cold, or confused, or just disappointed, by the production. Conversely, a mediocre script can be elevated to a work of beauty by excellent production values.
There are so many elements that need to be just right for the magic to happen.
In a lot of theatre, there are many people responsible for a production. At Forest Forge there are less, but you still have the writer, the director, the designer, the stage manager, the technicians, the actors, the costume makers or buyers, the composer, musical director, choreographer, fight director, administrative support, marketing department, producers, education, the list goes on and on. This list is a list of roles, often with Forest Forge this list is covered by no more than seven people all multi-tasking like mad!
I have been lucky enough to work in many different areas of production, so I have had plenty of opportunity to influence a production I am working on. There is little in life more satisfying than seeing a vision you have become a reality before your eyes, this is what has kept me excited by theatre throughout the course of my career.
“Don’t be afraid to change direction.”
When I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had never been into theatre at school. I was lucky that I got involved with a small community theatre company in the city where I lived. I did a bit of acting, a lot of stage management, and without realising it, I did quite a bit of designing. I decided to try to get into Drama school and train to be a Stage Manager. I went to Rose Bruford College and trained on a three year technical theatre course. I would recommend to anyone wanting to go into theatre work to find a course like this with as broad a range as possible of technical skills. As a designer, it is essential to have a working knowledge of set building, props making, costume construction, scenic art, lighting design, sound design etc. As a director too, I think you will get much more respect (and good work) from people in all departments, if you have a good idea of what their different jobs entail. This education never stops, designers and directors should always be open to learning from the people they work with on a production.
Within weeks of starting my course I realised I did not want to become a Stage Manager; it just wasn’t for me. What I wanted was to design! I was lucky that I persuaded the staff at the college to let me change, and I became there first ever design student! It was a wonderful three years and I got to work in some fantastic theatres with some amazing designers. A big influence on me at this time was The Theatre Royal Stratford East where I worked on quite a few productions, working with designers Jenny Tirimani and Sue Mayes, Director Philip Hedley and writers such as Barry Keefe.
After Rose Bruford I spent a year at Motley design school which was then based at the Almeida Theatre. Margaret (‘Percy’) Harris who ran the course is a legend in British Theatre Design, the one simple lesson she taught me was “The script, the script, the script!” this is the most important thing. The script has everything you need, and the designer’s job is to give that script life. Percy recommended reading the script many times:
1st. Read it as an ‘audience member’ for your own entertainment.
2nd.Read as a ‘journalist’, this is an investigation, take a note book!
3rd. Read as a ‘scientist’, work out how this play really works.
4th. Read it as an ‘artist’ work out your own artistic response to this work.
Then read it again at each stage of your design process; research, sketches, mood boards, story boards, scale model, etc. Don’t ever lose sight of what it is that was your initial inspiration.
“Hang on to the people you work well with, avoid the ones you don’t.”
After training I stuck around in London for a year while I found my feet. I got work as a design assistant with some amazing designers, I also developed my skills as a set builder and scenic artist. There were three people who I worked very well with; a painter, a welder and a designer. My work with the painter Doug Wort led to me working on a production with Glenda Jackson at the Almeida Theatre, I found I was pretty good at steel cutting and welding and my work with one particular builder, Bill Herd, led to me working on a set at the National Theatre, with the designer, Isabella Bywater, I ended up painting an opera in Paris. But after a while I decided I wanted a regular job in a rep theatre. Isabella had a show coming up at Salisbury Playhouse and she discovered they were looking for a scenic artist. She put in a good word for me, I blagged my way through the interview process and landed the job. This was a huge break for me as I became the one-man resident design team at the playhouse. In three years I worked with many great freelance designers who taught me so much, about design and about paint techniques. I was also lucky enough to meet two inspirational men at Salisbury Playhouse; one, the best builder I have ever known, David Bates, the other, a wonderful young director called Kevin Shaw. Kevin was running the youth theatre and I became his designer.
When Kevin left Salisbury Playhouse to become the Artistic Director of Forest Forge in 1994, he rang me up, I was working in Colchester at the time, he asked me if I would be interested in designing for Forest Forge. I dropped everything and moved back to Salisbury. It was the best decision I ever made.
Forest Forge, a nurturing company.
“Turn challenges into opportunities.”
Wherever you work, whatever stage you believe yourself to be in your career, stay open to development. Every day is a school day. I have been lucky enough to work with many inspirational people and I have learnt a lot from each one. When I came to Forest Forge, it was a small company that had been going for several years, set up by Carl Hibbard who had just moved on to new ventures. When Kevin and I came along, the company was working out of a small office (which was little more than a cupboard!) in the grounds of Ringwood School. They had a van and they did three tours a year. They had no rehearsal room and only two permanent members of staff, Kevin and Karen, the administrator. This was a small operation with BIG ambitions! Within a few years the company had its own purpose built premises, a state of the art building with workshop, rehearsal room and offices, a youth theatre, a growing outreach programme, more tours and three times as many permanent staff.
Forest Forge defines the art of turning challenges into opportunities. As a designer, I worked closely with Kevin to try to maintain the highest production values on a shoestring budget, touring one-night-stands to tiny village halls and community venues. Everything had to fit in a van, get in to a space in just over an hour, be set up by the actors plus one stage manager and a lot of enthusiasm! In the early days the acting team would be resident for a whole season; 3 actors would work on a devised autumn show, then one actor would be added for the Christmas show, then a fifth actor was added in the spring for the ‘classic’.
As well as designing the plays I started taking an interest in the words. I slipped into the role of compiler when we were devising work. I would sit in rehearsals writing down all the lines that we liked as we devised. Eventually I mentioned that I was interested in becoming a writer, so Forest Forge paid for me to go on a residential writing course with The Arvon Foundation. This was a wonderful experience and a great example of how Forest Forge is prepared to develop their staff. I paid them back for their faith in me as I was soon writing the schools tour Christmas production for the company and by the time I left the company, had written 15 plays for them.
I also had the opportunity to direct while I was at Forest Forge. An opportunity came up when a director pulled out of a production with just a month to go before rehearsals. The chair of the board asked me if I was confident to step in. I had never directed a thing in my life, but I had a good knowledge of the play, having designed it, and I thought I had a vision of how I would direct it so I said ‘yes’. Again, I am indebted to the vision of Forest Forge for seeing my potential. That production, ‘Molly Sweeney’ became the first of many plays that I have since directed for the company.
Other things working at Forest Forge taught me:
*ALWAYS THINK OF THE AUDIENCE.
I know this might seem obvious, but believe me, there are plenty of theatre practitioners for whom the audience are considered a necessary evil and at best an afterthought. Forest Forge places its audience at the centre of its every thought.
*CUT TO THE CHASE.
Forest Forge could never be described as indulgent! They tour to village halls, often the audience are sitting on hard plastic seats in a draughty building. They will not stand three hours of Shakespeare, no matter how brilliant it is. The company developed theatre that has an urgency, a pace, a sense of humour and an inclusivity that cares for its audience, entertains, and hold them close to its heart.
*HOW DO WE TELL THE BEST STORY WITH THE LIMITED TOOLS WE HAVE?
Working with limited budgets, with limited personnel, and limited time. You have to have limitless imagination and enthusiasm. Good working relationships are essential within a small team. Big ambitions and the willingness to ‘put in a shift’ are what has made the company such a success for over thirty years now.
Life ‘after’ Forest Forge.
“Find the story that hasn’t been told.”
Of course I have never really left Forest Forge! Since 2015 I have been back each Winter to write, design and direct the Christmas show in association with BumbleFly Theatre. I have loved working on these storytelling pieces that have been taken to the heart of the Forest Forge community. I have also returned as a designer on the fantastic new play ‘Hidden’ which toured last year. I have continued to work with the Youth Theatre, and my play ‘The Ark and the Dove’ was rehearsed and performed at Forest Forge this year by associate artist Michele O’Brian. I also built the set for my recent production for Farnham Maltings, ‘The Man who Left is not the Man who Came Home’.
But since moving to Manchester I have been concentrating more on my writing, at the moment this is the area that particularly excites me and challenges my creativity. While I was ‘Writer on Attachment’ at Salisbury Playhouse in 2013 I began work on a play that I finally got round to completing last year, the play, ‘Winter Came’ became longlisted by the Bruntwood Prize for playwriting last October and I have since been lucky enough to develop it further with the help of Forest Forge, I hope to be able to bring this to the stage at some point soon.
During the recent Covid 19 crisis, my writing has kept me sane! I have been lucky enough to have a few new monologues of mine produced in lockdown, including ‘Not The End’ the story of a young carer during lockdown, produced by M6 Theatre Company, as part of their ‘Love in a time of Carona’ project, you can see this Monologue performed if you go to their website. Meanwhile I have begun work on a novel, ‘Peeping Toms’ which I hope to be published towards the end of this year.
My priorities now and what Forest Forge means to me.
“Tell it well…”
I’ll end with another question: WHY DOES ANYONE WORK IN THEATRE? Well I can’t speak for others but…
I want to CHANGE the world for the better.
I want to MOVE people.
I want to INSPIRE people to grow.
I want to ENTERTAIN people.
I want to LEARN.
And I want to make the BEST THEATRE I CAN.
Forest Forge CARES for its community:
It takes theatre to your DOORSTEP.
It NURTURES the next generation.
It RESPECTS and LISTENS to its audience.
It CHALLENGES people to use their IMAGINATIONS.
It INCLUDES communities that might feel isolated.
IT GIVE THEM A VOICE.