Saturday, 6 May 2017

It's A Bloody Funny Play!

It has been great to have Martin Sherlock-Knowles, one of our founder members, return to work with the Company. He has directed our current production - Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall - and has brought it up to date with the inclusion of some filmed episodes. We asked Martin a few questions about his vision, his approach, and what else he has hidden in the sideboard...

Why did you choose to update Billy Liar?

First and foremost, I just wanted to hear Northern voices on a stage. When you read the text, it’s a fantastically well written play and probably the best example of a writer understanding Northern dialect that I’ve heard.

I’ve seen so many versions of Billy Liar whereby theatre groups have made a parody of Northern people.  I wanted to try and bring a more naturalistic quality to it with elements of theatricality, rather than vice-versa. There is also no reason why it should be set in the past because all of the threads of the play are just as relevant today.

Also, it’s just a bloody funny play.

What relevance does the play have for today's audiences?

Ultimately the play is about ordinary people (whatever that means) trying to make sense of life.  Billy Liar is also about being trapped but not really knowing how or having the supporting mechanism to break free. I believe that most people can relate to these issues.

Finally, it’s just a bloody funny play.

What were the challenges of putting the production together?

There are audio visual (AV) elements to this production, so it's making sure that you don’t get so caught up in those elements that you neglect the performance side. Also, the text is so tightly written, in terms of comedy and the relationship forming that the pace and energy has to be at the thrust of the delivery, if not the play can become that sluggish Yorkshire parody that I mentioned earlier.

Do you have a particular approach to directing?

Its all about community, everybody involved should feel part of something and there should be no sense of hierarchy. Life is full of hierarchy so theatre should be escapism. In terms of the performances, I just want people to come and have a good night out, so I try and bring as much to the performances as possible, using things like AV, to try and embellish this.

Are there any other stories/plays that you would like to direct?

I’m currently looking for the next play. Preferably just something that reflects some sort of reality of modern life.

What next for you?

Well hopefully, we (Paperzoo) can get our heads together soon and choose our next production.

Also, I'm looking to quickly move onto another play and in-between maybe do short films also. Nothing too fancy, like.

There are still a few of chances to see Billy Liar over the coming weeks. We are at The West Lane Baptist Church in Haworth on Saturday 13th of May, at Ilkley Playhouse on Thursday 18th of May, and the mini-tour ends on the 1st of June when we perform at 7Arts in Leeds.
Details, rehearsal photos and other info are on the website

Monday, 30 January 2017

Goodbye Big Brother

All of us here in the Zoo were very sad to hear of the recent passing of Sir John Hurt. Not only was he one of the most respected actors of the last 50 years, he was a great supporter of young talent.

Back in 2009 when we were commissioned by The National Media Museum to present a version of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel 1984, to mark the 60th anniversary of its publication, we were discussing various ways to portray the character of Big Brother. After several false starts, including a subversion of the logo for the then popular Channel 4 reality TV show, someone suggested that we contact John Hurt and ask him. As research for our production, we had watched Michael Radford's film version of 1984 starring John as Winston Smith. It seemed somehow fitting that he should appear as Big Brother.

We laughed...why would one of the greatest actors in the world get involved in a small-scale production by an unknown, unfunded theatre company from Bradford? But then someone asked, 'why not?' It had to be worth a try. So, a few days later, one of the Company contacted John's agent and asked if he would be interested in helping with our production. We waited for a reply. The best that we hoped for, if we got a reply at all, was the permission to use a photographic image of him as a projection.

A couple of weeks went by, and we had no word from John's agent. We carried on rehearsing the production, planning how we could film some of the sequences to make use of the screen in the Pictureville Cinema, still trying to work out how to represent Big Brother.

And then we got a reply: John would love to do it but he only had limited time between work commitments. He could give us a couple of hours, in a few days' time, in London.

As we were working with the National Media Museum, part of the National Science Museum group, we were able to make use of a room in London to film a short sequence that could be projected during the production. Quickly, Ben (who had made the initial enquiry, and was playing the character of O'Brien), Martin (who was directing the filmed sequences) and Oliver (the AV designer and photographer) got the kit together and headed off for London.

When John arrived he was already in character - he hardly spoke whilst the equipment was set up, and the shots prepped. He delivered a chilling performance. His years of experience meant that he knew exactly how much, or to be more precise, how little he had to do. His steely gaze looked right through you and, when projected onto the screen in the Pictureville auditorium, made you feel like he was reading your mind and seraching your soul.

Once the filming and photography was complete, John relaxed and became much more animated. He asked about the Company, and about how the production was going. He then suggested that he read the final paragraph of Orwell's book so that it could be played over the last moments of the show. It was a brilliant idea. Every time we performed the show the audience would gasp as John's unique voice came over the speakers,

"Winston gazes up at the enormous face..."

John kept in touch during the next few months. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, he was unable to see the production. However, when he found out that we were to take the show to The Quad Cinema in Derby where he was Patron, he invited several of the Company to 'An Evening with John Hurt' - a screening of one of his films folowed by a Q&A session. On the night we were given the chance to meet him before the event, and he was as interested in us as we were in awe of him. He wished us luck with the tour, and seemed genuinely disappointed that we were unable to stay for the party after the screening.

We met him again in 2010 when he was guest of honour at the Bradford International Film Festival. He had a photograph taken with members of the Company and, once again, took delight in catching up with how the production had gone. We told him about the positive reaction that we had had to the show, and how his contribution had encouraged us to raise our game. He just smiled his twinkling, mischievous smile, and said in that wonderful voice of his, "Well, that is good to know, thank you."

No, thank you, John, for giving us your most precious gift - your time.

We Love Big Brother!

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Dentists, Humbugs and a Suitcase

We never seem to have enough time to do anything these days. I suppose it is a symptom of a busy life, pressures of a full-time job, or maybe it is just that we are getting older. All I do know is that it is almost exactly a year since we updated this production blog. Unbelievable, I know, but true nonetheless.

Have we been idly sitting by, gazing at our collective navels? Not on your nelly! We have packed the last twelve months full of theatrical shenanigans.

Firstly, there was the tour of The Dentist a new commedia by David Griffiths. We toured this to several venues in Yorkshire between February and April 2015. The project was a departure for the company as it was the first time that we have worked with an outside director. David Griffiths is a world renowned mask maker, and an authority on Commedia dell'Arte, and he made sure that we were as true to the style as possible. Our clever, collapsible set was designed by an HND Production Arts student, Aamta Waheed, and the cast included several alumni fromThe Northern School of Creative Industries. It was great to work with Josh Fyson, Sophia Kelly, Steve Normandale, and Dominic Scott on this project.

Photos by Danielle Turner for Paige Turner Productions

An extract from the production was chosen to be performed at a Higher Education conference in July 2015 as an example of staff and student collaboration in practical research.

In September 2015, as part of British Science Week, Paper Zoo were commissioned to work with educational writer, Kate Brennan from Act the Facts, on a new piece of theatre-in-education called Humbug Billy. The play, set in 1858, tells the story of Bradford sweet seller, William Hardaker - 'Humbug Billy' to his friends and customers - who unwittingly sold a batch of humbugs laced with arsenic leading to the death of 20 people. His case prompted new legislation pertaining to the labeling and sale of poisons. The issue of food adulteration has not gone away as recent news stories have shown.

For this project the company was augmented with current HND Performing Arts students, Jason Rankin and Ryan Buck; alumni Sophia Kelly, Steve Normandale, and Richard Orange; lecturer Andy May; and a couple of the O'Keeffe kids! The performances also included live science experiments that invited the audience to try out various tests to identify mystery white powders.

The project has now taken on a life of its own as it has been adapted for touring into Secondary schools. A successful tour was organised and the HND Performing Arts students from The Northern School of Creative Industries took the production into four local schools.

The latest project that we are working on is a production of Claire McIntyre's 1990 play, My Heart Is A Suitcase. Stuart Davies is directing, and we welcome back to the Company Rachel Greiff who last worked with the Zoo on Hard Times. Other cast members are Julia O'Keeffe, Kate Shackleton, Dominic Scott, and Sophia Kelly. We have lots to tell you about this play, and we promise that it won't be so long before we do. Keep an eye out on our website for details of the tour. We will update it as we confirm the venues.

As ever, thanks for stopping by and supporting Paper Zoo Theatre Company. We really appreciate it.

Friday, 20 February 2015


We have been rehearsing The Dentist, a piece of pure, classic Commedia Dell'arte by David Griffiths, for the past few months. It has been an interesting and challenging journey beset by so many personal hurdles for many members of the cast, but we have constantly reassembled ourselves and pulled together as a group in the true spirit of ensemble. This has demonstrated everything that is so wonderful about being part of a theatre company. There is love, support, humour, and understanding. We are truly blessed to have these experiences in our lives; they are food for the soul, creating memories and knowledge that will feed us through our lives wherever our paths may take us afterwards.
I have found it immensely difficult to give myself to creating these roles at this time. I am struggling to come to terms with my mother's dementia and ill health, being her carer whilst holding down a job, and running a family. But it is the dementia that has shaken me to the core. To see someone changing before your eyes, to see the negative aspects of their personality become magnified is truly horrible. To hold on to the fact that this is not the person we know is bloody hard!
It has been the searching for Arlecchino that has given me something to focus on. To be in the rehearsal studio where I have to focus and take control of my emotions, putting them on one side whilst I concentrate solely on finding this character has not been an easy task. The character is far removed from me.
Now that I have seen that written down, I wonder how far from any of us Arlecchino actually is. He is, I suppose, one aspect of our own character; one of the archetypal parts that make up our whole consciousness. He represents the baser parts of our humanity; he is hunger and gratification, but not greed. He is the innocent, naive part, the child-like part of our psyche. He follows his instincts and desires but unlike the more sinister and aggressive character  Brighella, Arlecchino knows contentment until the next hunger pang strikes! He lives in his senses, and makes decisions based on his 'sense life'. You could say that he is driven by the desire for comfort. There is no sense of him being able to put himself outside his own sense of "what I need" and feel any empathy for another person. There is little chance of him demonstrating any kind of self sacrifice for someone else. He is totally self-centred.
This then led me to design and make his coat. In the play he is described as a "patchwork quilt" and as I was arranging the harlequin patches the discussion arose whether they should be placed in a logical, regular pattern, or in a random sequence. This, I thought, was a very interesting point as Arlecchino's thinking is not random, it is energised by his instincts and he is able to put this energised thinking into practice. He is not like the character of Dottore who is all theory and rambling sentences but little substance. So I decided that there should be a logical pattern to the coat but not symmetrical as this would suggest a balance in his thinking, borne out of an ability to reflect on his actions whereas he is more about action and practice born of need /desire without any reflection to balance it.
Arlecchino is very human. He has humour, friendship, love and relationships. He is not cut off from others or isolated in his misery like the egotistical Pantalone. Neither is he completely self-sacrificing - he likes his comforts too much! He is not 'free' like Flávio who has compassion, kindness, and, despite the best efforts of his father, achieves a kind of balance and resolution at the end of the play. Arlecchino aspires to true freedom but is not quite there yet.

Julia O'Keeffe is a founding member of Paper Zoo Theatre Company and can be seen in several guises in The Dentist.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Julia's Learning Partnerships

As if keeping all of the Zoo Creatures in check, teaching on the HND Performing Arts course at Bradford College, and raising three growing children were not enough to keep a person busy, Company founder member and one-woman engine room, Julia has found time to take on another challenge.

Working in conjunction with The Royal Shakespeare Company and Bradford Theatres, Julia is the Learning Performance Network co-ordinator for the Bradford area. Her role is to provide the artistic and creative input into the LPN which links secondary schools, primary schools, and special schools with the RSC to provide a living, active approach to the teaching of Shakespeare's texts.

The first cohort was set up in September 2013 with Bingley Grammar School, in Bradford, acting as the hub school, and has four further schools all benefitting from regular practical workshops from Julia and other practitioners from the RSC. As well as the students, staff also get to learn the techniques used in the rehearsal room to bring to their teaching; techniques that can be used across all subjects in the curriculum. Students get to grips with Shakespeare's language and imagery in ways that make it accessible and fun. Regular trips to Startford-upon-Avon, as well as visiting productions allow the students to experience the excitement of a full-scale production. The three-year project builds upon the learning undertaking in year one and leads to a Shakespeare festival in year three.

The practice of the LPN is backed up by years of active research into learning and play, and has been written about in many books and articles. There is also a link with the education department at The University of Warwick where Julia has been studying for a post-graduate award in teaching Shakespeare.

The second cohort has now been set up with Samuel Lister Academy taking the lead, and things are all set for work towards a series of performances linked to the RSC's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in 2016.

As Julia says,

"This is a wonderful project that empowers students and teachers, parents and communities to get involved and be part of active learning. Shakespeare features even more in our school curriculum now, and if it is to be enjoyed, and for its wisdom to endure, it needs to be brought to life in an active arena. This is what is being given back to education through the LPN, taking active rehearsal room techniques straight from the heart of Stratford and into a classroom near you." 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Welcome to our newest associate artists

We are very pleased to welcome our newest associate artists to the Zoo. Sophia Kelly and Danni Shepherd have joined us recently to be part of the cast for our Spring/Summer 2014 tour of Hard Times. As well as being weavers in the production, Danni will take over the role of Louisa Gradgrind, and Sophia is playing Mrs Pegler and Stephen Blackpool's wife. Both Danni and Sophia are currently studying Performing Arts at Bradford College, and have shown themselves to be very talented and reliable members of the course.

Sophia Kelly

Sophia is in the final year of her HND in Performing Arts, and has been at the College for almost five years. In that time she has taken part in numerous productions both on stage and on screen with the British Youth Film Academy. Her youthful appearance means that she has often been cast to play parts younger than her actual age, for instance, Sophia has appeared with The Touring Consortium's productions of 'Kes' in 2009, and 'To Sir, With Love' at The Alhambra Theatre as part of the national tours of those shows. Sophia has been involved in feature-length and short films with the BYFA, including 'Richard II', 'Faust's Growth', 'The Rochdale Pioneers', and 'Cache' (due to be premiered at The National Media Museum in April) Sophia has just completed her first directing project in which she staged an extract from Tennessee Williams' play 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. We are sure that she will continue to develop her artistic and theatrical vision, and we are delighted to be working with her on Hard Times.

Danni Shepherd

Danni is about to complete her Level 3 Extended Diploma in Performing Arts with the maximum marks of D*D*D* and has impressed everyone with her natural ability and dedication throughout the two years she has been at Bradford College. Danni is much in demand as an actress, and has gained a lot of experience over the last year or so, performing in numerous productions and short-films. Danni is in the process of auditioning for drama school and other training opportunities. She has an audition coming up with the excellent Fourth Monkey Theatre Company ensemble, and we wish her the best of luck with this. Hopefully, Sophia and Danni will enjoy working with us on Hard Times and we may even be able to encourage them to write a post or two about the production process.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Catching Up With The Zoo Creatures

Things may have gone quiet on here for a while, for too long probably, but don't be deceived, the Zoo creatures have not been in hibernation. Whilst the Company as a whole took a rest from mid-September once the Hard Times tour was over, the individual members of the Company have been keeping busy with other projects and activities. The next couple of blog posts will be dedicated to catching up with what people have been up to. After that, we will be bringing you news and views from the Zoo about current productions. Thanks for your patience so far...

The first of the catch up pieces concerns Paper Zoo founder member, David Peel, and the very busy time he has had in the last few months.

After his cameo appearance in Clio Barnard's brilliant British film, The Selfish Giant, Dave was recently cast as a BT engineer in the forthcoming feature film, Altar, which was shot on location in the village of Minskip near Knaresborough. The film, which has a supernatural theme, was written and directed by Nick Willing, and features Olivia Williams (best known for her role opposite Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense) and Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket, Birdy etc.)
Apparently, Dave's audition tape caught the attention of the film's producer who immediately saw the charisma and character that Paper Zoo audiences have known and loved in all of his stage appearances. So much so that Dave was offered the role in a matter of days! Dave was not so sure that it had all gone so well,

"To be honest, when I left the audition, I thought I'd blown it because I was rabbiting on at Nick Willing and the others in the room (among them the film's editor, and renowned casting agent Amy Hubbard) I called my agent and said so but within days I had the part! I was so overjoyed at the news. Whatever it was that I did, I must do again!"

Dave has since been on to take on a rather different role, this time that of First Assistant Director on the shoot of a pilot for a new sit-com called 'School on Report'. The project which was directed and co-written by Bradford actor Lee Otway, is aiming to be commissioned for a full series. The four-day shoot took place in two local schools. The first, Thornhill Community School, was used to having cameras on site as it recently featured in the recent hit Channel 4 series, 'Educating Yorkshire'. The second school was Ralph Thoresby in Leeds. The cast is made up of some impressive names given that this is Lee's first directing project. Well-known character actors John Henshaw and Mark Benton were both involved, along with a young cast of talented local teenagers.

"When Lee asked me to help out, my first thought was 'do I want to?' I'm an actor and I know nothing about being an AD. But as soon as the project began I utterly, utterly loved it! It has to be said that it was made easier by everyone on set being just brilliant and understanding of my mistakes. It is another string to my bow, and now all fingers and toes are crossed for Lee and his co-writer Ross Marshall for them to get the commission that they truly deserve and have earned."

As if this were not enough, Dave has also been working with Bradford-based Freedom Studios again. He had previously been part of the small group of actors who had performed the new works in the Street Voices 4 season last year. The company's artistic director, Deborah Dickinson, asked Dave to come and read, along with other local actors, a script by local writer Chris Wilson. The play is about the famous Batley Variety Club and has the makings of a brilliant play. Chris is a talented writer and Freedom Studios are very generous with their time and support for local writers, directors and performers.

You can find out more about Freedom Studios here