Director Adrian McDougall talks to Mark Ludmon about Blackeyed Theatre bringing back its touring adaptation of Jane Eyre with live performances and streaming on demand.
Blackeyed Theatre was six months into a 10-month tour of its adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s much-loved novel Jane Eyre when Covid-19 hit. They were preparing to go on stage for the show’s first night at the New Theatre Royal Portsmouth but, after Boris Johnson told Britons to avoid theatres, the decision was taken – in line with the rest of the industry – to halt the tour after that evening’s performance. “We were due to run through to July – and the last month was to be China,” founder and artistic director Adrian McDougall recalls. “I sat down with the cast and was honest with them and basically said there was a low chance of bringing the show back within the touring period – and certainly not China as it was the epicentre at that time.” However, it has turned out it was not the end of the road as on 3 and 4 November, the cast will not only be reunited on stage in front of a live, socially distanced audience at the Wilde Theatre at South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell in Berkshire but also be filmed for streaming the show online throughout the autumn.
It is the culmination of a busy period which also saw Blackeyed Theatre stage one performance of a previous touring show, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in September, also in front of a live audience and filmed for streaming. “I have never worked harder than the last seven months,” Adrian says. “My first few weeks were really dedicated to working out how to offer support to our Jane Eyre company who suddenly found themselves without work. Like so many freelancers, they don’t have the rights that an employed person would have in that situation.” Blackeyed Theatre succeeded in getting a grant through Arts Council England’s emergency response fund and much of this went to supporting the Jane Eyre cast and crew. But at the same time, Adrian was determined to find ways for a theatre company to remain “relevant” at a time when venues were shut. “Overnight, we had lost our purpose because clearly without theatres being open, what we do is just not possible. So it was about diversifying, finding new ways to reach audiences, new ways to be relevant.”
For the first time, Blackeyed looked at presenting work digitally. Supported by the Arts Council grant, a previously filmed 2018 production of John Godber’s comedy Teechers was put online and made available to schools over the summer, supported by extra resources such as video interviews with the cast. It was accessed by over 500 schools and seen by around 13,000 students, earning a bit of money through a licence fee. “A lot of time and effort went into getting our stuff online and developing products that people would be interested in actually buying because free online theatre only goes so far,” Adrian explains. “It’s not sustainable and it doesn’t send out the right messages, in the long term at least, in terms of the value of theatre. There are lots of wins to it. Creating stuff that schools want to see, providing some income for us, which is vital, and also providing royalties to actors and designers, directors, etc from past shows.”
Blackeyed Theatre is now building up a digital library available on-demand, with a film of a 2011 production of British musical Oh! What a Lovely War added alongside the films of Jekyll and Hyde and Teechers. “We learned a lot with Jekyll and Hyde which was the first time we properly filmed one of our shows in a way that was meant for broadcasting,” Adrian says. “It is a difficult balance filming a live performance, particularly if you have a live audience in there. You need a live audience to give the actors that little bit more, to get a sense of that shared theatre experience, to have that hubbub that you get from an audience, but equally with that comes the challenge of how do you capture something on stage on screen in a way that reflects the energy of it.” Particular challenges are lighting, with shows like Jekyll and Hyde and Jane Eyre being gothic tales where the staging uses darkness and shadow. “It’s about getting the lighting levels where we can still make it work for both, and it’s also about getting cameras close enough to the stage so you can capture everything in detail but not so close that the audience can’t see it.” Adrian, who directed Jane Eyre, admits that film was “alien” to him but he has learned quickly. “We’ve never considered it until the pandemic hit. It’s difficult to see it now but I think, in the long term, it could be one of those silver linings in that it’s certainly pushed us as a company to embrace digital and to use it.” He was pleased that an audience survey linked to Teechers revealed that the digital product increased people’s engagement with theatre. “Overwhelmingly, it was felt that having access to online theatre streaming, far from replacing going to the theatre, it encourages people to want to go to the theatre more and make it accessible to a far, far wider audience than we would otherwise reach.”
With Jane Eyre’s cast in a “bubble”, next week’s performances will take place after a day and a half of rehearsal to get them back into gear. But Adrian doesn’t expect there to be any changes from the winning formula that was enjoyed by over 19,000 people in 40 towns and cities before the shutdown. “It will be a case of re-creating but the interesting thing will be what new things the actors bring into it in terms of perspective and emotion. When you go away and come back to it after a significant break, often that brings with it a freshness. With the six months we’ve all had, it will be interesting to see what impact that could have on what is a very emotionally charged show.”
He describes Blackeyed Theatre’s show as a “faithful” adaptation of the novel, with a cast of five featuring Kelsey Short as Jane and Ben Warwick as Mr Rochester plus Camilla Simson, Eleanor Toms and Oliver Hamilton. The actors are also musicians, performing live music by composer George Jennings to help drive the action-packed narrative along. It is a universal story of an independently minded young woman finding her way in the world but Adrian suspects that some aspects may have gathered new meanings for audiences after seven months of social distancing and shielding and the challenges many people have faced. “The play is about Jane continually fighting in the face of adversity to love and be loved, and she’s met with constant challenges including the loss of loved ones. Through that, she does come across as a very isolated figure – without parents and born into a family where she is not really loved – and she is constantly trying to find that human connection and love. It’s a long road she walks, and it’s a very lonely road at times. It’s fairly universal, like any great novel, but I think particularly this year it is a story that will resonate. It feels very much that we have all been fighting against the odds for the past seven months. It’s ultimately a very positive message: the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity.”
Adrian expects it to be an emotional experience for them all returning to the stage for live performances of Jane Eyre. “I sat in the audience for Jekyll and Hyde when we did it in September, and it felt there was an incredible hunger for that shared live experience. At the final curtain, there was a real outpouring of emotion certainly from the cast but also it felt from the audience in terms of what we’ve been missing, what so many people have craved: that communal shared experience you get in the theatre.”
Jane Eyre will be at the Wilde Theatre in Bracknell on 3 and 4 November and then available to stream on-demand online throughout the autumn via blackeyedtheatre.co.uk.