Interview with Marvellous Machine

Back in November 2016, I had the pleasure of watching a stage production of Angela Carter’s ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, adapted for the stage by Oxford-based theatre company Marvellous Machine. For my latest interview, I sit down and talk with the talented duo behind Marvellous Machine: Louise Egan and Becki Reed.

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Caleb Sivyer: Could you each tell me a little about your background and how you first came across Angela Carter’s work?

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories 2.jpgLouise Egan: I studied Carter at A-level for English literature and we read The Bloody Chamber, though I don’t think I really fully understood it at that time. However, I went back to it a year later and I sank in a lot more, and I appreciated more how rich and wonderful Carter’s prose is. I think I understood it better on a second reading. There is just something about the way Carter’s writing completely sucks you into the worlds that she creates. After that, I went to university to read drama and for our dissertation we could either do a fully-written academic piece or a mix between a creative piece and a written piece. So for the creative part, I chose to adapt The Tiger’s Bride along with a couple of the other stories from The Bloody Chamber into a play, although it wasn’t ever produced. I also wrote an accompanying analysis and so I read a number of other works by Carter, mostly as a reference point. One of the main texts that I looked at was The Sadeian Woman because that text was published around the same time as The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. It was interesting to see how these texts crossed over in terms of themes and ideas.

unicorn-coverBecki Reed: My background is in music and theatre. I hadn’t heard of Angela Carter until I met Louise. She introduced Carter’s work to me because we wanted to do a play together and she told me about her dissertation. Since that time I have read a number of works by Carter and have come to love her stories. I particularly like her collection of poetry, Unicorn. Interestingly, my boyfriend’s mother used to know Angela Carter, when they both lived in Bristol in the 1960s. Apparently, she is referenced in Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, although when I read the book I couldn’t tell where!

“[M]y boyfriend’s mother used to know Angela Carter, when they both lived in Bristol in the 1960s. Apparently, she is referenced in Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance.

CS: Did you know that Carter was interested in folk music? She and her husband Paul set up a folksong club at a pub in Bristol. At the recent Strange Worlds exhibition at the RWA, you could listen to the only known recording of Carter singing a traditional ballad.

BR: Yes, I believe I’ve heard stories about Carter’s interest in folksong.

CS: Also, at the Fireworks conference in January, one of the speakers, Polly Paulusma, analysed the influence of folksong on Carter’s prose.

LE: I can relate to that idea of Carter’s prose being musical. Puss-in-Boots, one of the other stories from The Bloody Chamber, is particularly a very musical piece, and I’ve read about the influence opera had on that story in terms of its rhythm. I also know that she wrote about Bob Dylan, of whom I’m also a huge fan.

CS: How did you both relate to Carter’s work as people who work in theatre and music? Did you perceive dramatic/musical qualities and potential in the stories?

“I’m also very influenced by particular theatre companies, such as Kneehigh Theatre, who themselves adapted one of Angela Carter’s texts for the stage, Nights at the Circus.”

LE: When I decided to adapt Carter for the stage my main motivation was that I wanted a challenge. The essay portion of my dissertation was an exploration of how magic and the supernatural can be represented in the theatre and the idea that the collective experience of seeing a piece of performance can create it’s own sort of “magic” which relates to the Nights at the Circus - Kneehigh Theatrespiritual and religious origin of theatre and drama. So, I was specifically looking for a piece which had supernatural or magical elements; I was interested in how you can make something surreal or magical happen on stage without using the kind of special effects you get in movies. That’s one of the main reasons that I love theatre: it’s immediate and you see things being created in front of you. I’m yet to see it, but I’m interested in seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I believe utilises what I call “stage magic”, where the audience can see how the trick works, but with suspended disbelief, it feels like it could be real magic! I’m also very influenced by particular theatre companies, such as Kneehigh Theatre, who themselves adapted one of Angela Carter’s texts for the stage, Nights at the Circus. I didn’t see that particular show but I’ve seen a lot of their other work including their adaptation of another fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel which was very inspiring. Many of their productions are based around folk and fairy tales.

CS: Do you think that particular stories by Carter are more easily adaptable for the stage than others?

LE: Most of Carter’s work that I’ve read contains at least some element of the unusual or supernatural. I suppose some contain less than others; The Magic Toyshop for example, is relatively rooted in reality when read in comparison to the stories from The Bloody Chamber. But as mentioned, I was specifically looking for something which would challenge the company in finding ways of representing things in the text effectively on stage, things that would be difficult to adapt…

“I was specifically looking for something which would challenge the company in finding ways of representing things in the text effectively on stage, things that would be difficult to adapt.”

BR: The tears of the Tiger transforming into tears would be a good example of that.

LE: Yes, and the transformation scene at the end of the story. In fact, there was a lot of stuff that made us think “how on earth are we going to adapt this?!” But that was part of the fun of it, working out how to get these images and instances to work on stage.

CS: And what about scoring the play? Did the text help you in any way to figure out how to create music for the play?

BR: It’s definitely a very poetic and magical text, and I found it very inspiring. And then when Louise presented me with her script, I quickly began thinking about what kind of music I felt would suit the story. I mean, you can put music to anything really but what’s important is the direction you decide to take. We decided that we wanted a folky feel. Again, I’m inspired by similar theatre companies to Louise, so Kneehigh is one of my favourites too. Music-wise, they do a lot with violins and accordions, and often use a folky style. So that’s the kind of base idea we started off with and then after reading through the script we started thinking about the kind of music we wanted for each part of the story.

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Image: Stephen Poole

LE: We also looked at Russian and Italian folk music because both of these countries are featured in The Tiger’s Bride. There were also a few parts where Becki took a line from the story as inspiration for the music. One song, ‘He Will Come and Take You Away’, was lifted from the scene between Beauty (as a child) and her English Nurse.

“I was also inspired by particular words in the text, such as ‘tintinnabulation’, which I think is an interesting word. I spent time thinking about how to make that sound effect.”

BR: I also wrote a whole song, which occurs during the break, and there are a few lines that I picked out from the story in that too. I was also inspired by particular words in the text, such as ‘tintinnabulation’, which I think is an interesting word. I spent time thinking about how to make that sound effect. The clockwork servant is also said to play an 18th century minuet, so I started listening to that kind of music before writing my own.

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Image: Stephen Poole

CS: You also had someone accompanying you during the performance, right?

BR: Yes, Tim Hennessey. During the composing process, I wrote the main structure and body of the score, and Tim helped develop these. I also roped him into being my second musician in performances as I wanted a range of instruments besides the piano.

CS: Did either of you discover anything about Angela Carter’s relationship to theatre?

Wise ChildrenLE: I didn’t especially look into this aspect of Carter’s work while working on The Tiger’s Bride. My main focus was on that story, and reading other stories by Carter and a some analyses of the story. But it’s clear that Carter had a strong connection to the theatre, which you can see from texts like Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, both of which are hugely theatrical. And that’s part of the reason I’ve enjoyed her work so much. Theatre has always been my passion from a really young age, so to see that reflected back so sumptuously and passionately is really great.

CS: Could you talk a little about the adaptation process? How would you describe it?

LE: The very first thing I did was to take apart Carter’s prose and then transform it into a script format. And that’s what we used in our first rehearsals. Next, we started on character analysis. We drew mind-maps for each character in order to get a better idea of their traits and how they might look or move. Actually, the very first thing we did was we all read the story aloud, the original that is, not my script.

“We drew mind-maps for each character in order to get a better idea of their traits and how they might look or move.”

BR: In fact, I don’t believe we ever read aloud the entire script together in one go. Instead, we rehearsed each scene separately by first reading that entire scene together.

LE: Yes, that’s true – it was more or less the same.

BR: The script was used mostly for guidance actually. I remember looking through the script after we had done everything and there was quite a lot in there that didn’t necessarily happen because in the process we had to take stuff out.

James
James Webster as The Valet

LE: Yeah, a few parts were taken out such as scenes where Beauty is just talking to the reader. That’s fine when you’re reading a short story but when it’s just a person standing on stage talking that’s not necessarily very interesting from a theatrical perspective. So we tried to find ways we could show what she was thinking rather than having her say it. And then there were parts that we ad-libbed as well, especially parts by James Webster, who played The Valet. He just really had fun with that character. It was really interesting to see other people’s interpretations of the characters. Elwira Trofimczuk definitely brought an edge to Beauty, which she does have in the story but Elwira really brought that out more and in a way that I hadn’t necessarily perceived originally. She also has a lovely vulnerable layer to her as well.

CS: Did you ever discuss your interpretations of the story as a group? Was this a part of the adaptation process at all?

LE: To be honest, we were more interested in telling the story, and allowing people to interpret it for themselves, than in the intellectual analysis of it ourselves. Some people might watch this and just see it as a modern fairy tale while others might read it as a feminist retelling. I did read and analyse the story a lot myself before entering the rehearsal room so that I had a firm grip on what I thought the meaning of the story was, as well as other possible interpretations given in books and essays. But because most of the company knew each other before we started, I think we all came to this project from a similar place. Many of us have fairly similar backgrounds, and most of us work in the arts, so I think we just chose people who were more or less on our wavelength, people would just get this story. We did briefly attempt to have a sit down discussion over “what’s it all about?” but we really found the best way to draw out our interpretation was to get it straight onto it’s feet and start playing around with ideas that came instinctively to us.

“Some people might watch this and just see it as a modern fairy tale while others might read it as a feminist retelling.”

BR: I don’t remember there being any significant creative differences. After the auditions, we didn’t cast straightaway. We more or less jumped straight into rehearsing the play, giving people different parts and then swapping over to see what worked best and how each actor would portray different characters. After a few rehearsals, we then made our decision on who should play what role.

LE: Yes, we just found a group of creative people we knew we’d enjoy working with, and then we tried different people in different parts until about the fourth rehearsal. That was a way of getting the play on its feet and getting us started. It helped us to get everyone on the same wavelength in terms of the style of production. I wanted to make everyone feel that this was not my play, or Becki’s play, or any one person’s play, but a group project. We wanted everyone to feel that they were part of an ensemble. I think that’s really important in theatre, to have the person standing in the background doing set-changes to feel that they are a part of the show as much as anyone else. So in the beginning we had James, for example, playing Beauty for one rehearsal! We did that so that we could see if there was anything he could contribute to that part, where another actor might have approached it in a different way. We knew we were never going to cast James as Beauty but playing around with the energy of different actors and characters brought a spontaneity and openness to the rehearsal process.

“I wanted to make everyone feel that this was not my play, or Becki’s play, or any one person’s play, but a group project. We wanted everyone to feel that they were part of an ensemble.”

CS: So Marvellous Machine is a very group-oriented company then?

LE: Yes, absolutely. We were all contributing ideas. I was there really just to steer it in the right direction and make sure it made sense overall. And of course to choreograph the whole thing, making sure actors make the correct entrance and so on. But really the characterisation came down to the actors and the mood of it was massively affected by the music and the wonderful lighting design by Kat Padel who played a lot with creating interesting shadows. So really my job was just to step back a bit and say “this is working” or “this isn’t really working” or “let’s chip away at this bit”.

CS: Can you talk about the set designs and props, which I thought were fantastically creative?

LE: Thank you. I built a lot of them. But we also scoured charity shops and parents’ attics!

BR: We had the longest list ever of all the props that we needed for it.

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Photo: Stephen Poole

LE: For such a short story, there is a surprisingly large amount of objects that are needed! And we had a lot of fun working out how to use props and set to represent certain aspects of the story, for example, we changed The Maid’s hand held magic mirror to a full sized wall mirror with the glass removed and gauze stretched across it so that when a light was shone behind it you could see Ashanti Wheeler, who played the Father behind it. We were also on a very low budget, but then I really believe that you don’t need a lot of money to make good theatre. You can have an incredible piece of theatre with just one actor on stage and no props. What I am really passionate about is inventive theatre where you find ways around the fact that you don’t have much money. Another company that I’m really inspired by is Milk Presents, who are an associate artist of Derby Theatre. A few years ago, I saw them in Edinburgh where they performed a version of Bluebeard entitled Bluebeard: A Fairy Tale for Adults. Lyn Gardner, writing for The Guardian, described the show as “Play School-meets-Weimar cabaret” (https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/aug/11/new-edinburgh-act-milk-presents) which I thought was a perfect description of their work. It wasn’t an adaptation of Carter’s Bluebeard story, The Bloody Chamber, but the show’s mischievousness and darkness were very Carter-esque. One of the things they did, which really inspired me in a kind of “do-it-yourself” way, was to use an overhead projector. So, they’d draw something, a kite for example, on a transparent slide live on stage and then you’d see it projected up on the back wall and the actors would interact with the projection. That’s just one example of using something cheap in an unexpected way to create something new out of it, which was the approach we tried to take with The Tiger’s Bride.

CS: And what about the costumes used in the play?

LE: The general look of the costumes was loosely based on ideas I had whilst I was thinking about the play during my days at university. We also raided a costume store and were just very lucky in finding things…

BR: …like the monkey-tail that we found in one shop!

LE: Yes! We like the term “homespun” or “do-it-yourself” for describing what we do. For the maid’s costume, which is a little different to the others, I think I had seen an image of a girl wearing that sort of costume in a fashion shop in Paris once. And the idea of the maid being stripped down to her underwear I found interesting. She wears just the hoop part of a petticoat, along with a corset and blouse, and I think that works quite well in the context of the story, with the underlying theme of female sexuality and identity.

“We like the term “homespun” or “do-it-yourself” for describing what we do.”

CS: Becki, how did you plan the music for the play?

BR: Because of the space we had for the performance, we were very limited to start off with. We knew very early on that we would be performing the play in a very small space. Therefore, we couldn’t have a big band.

LE: And when we first went back to the space after booking it, it was even smaller than we had realised! But we worked around it.

5 Beauty and her Double.jpg

BR: So originally my idea was to have a violin, accompanied by a cello and accordion. That was my idea at the beginning, but finding these musicians to commit to this kind of thing is really difficult. But then I started experimenting with weird instruments like the melodica, which Tim ended up playing. I bought that instrument on a whim actually. I had seen a comedy cabaret show a few months back, Bourgeois & Maurice, that featured one. They called it something like ‘that authentic French sounding instrument’, which amused me. I felt this could replace the accordion sound I was looking for.

“I started experimenting with weird instruments like the melodica […] I had seen a comedy cabaret show a few months back, Bourgeois & Maurice, that featured one. They called it something like ‘that authentic French sounding instrument’, which amused me.”

LE: The Globe used one in The Two Gentlemen of Verona too recently.

BR: So, I had seen productions using melodica to an interesting level of musicality, so I thought actually it might be alright to use this ridiculous instrument, which was also pink! I thought it sounded quite cool and it worked with the themes that I had running through the music. And then I got the glockenspiel in there because I wanted something a bit more tinkley for the maid’s theme and the earrings. Then I decided to play piano instead of having guitar because it’s a bit more powerful and there’s a bit more oomph behind the piano than with a guitar. It’s got a good range and a nice bass. So my original ideas changed but I kind of stuck to the structure that I wanted, but instead of a violin, a cello and an accordion, we had a piano, a glockenspiel and a melodica.

LE: It was the same as with everything, from casting, props, costumes right through to the instrumentation: it was what we could get our hands on. Making the most of what we had.

CS: Would you say that you actively embraced the element of chance in the production process?

“Something really good can come out of having the play less structured and being open to new things.”

LE: Yeah, something really good can come out of having the play less structured and being open to new things. Like James’ adlibs for example. We had a really relaxed rehearsal room and his adlibs came about because I was encouraging people to come up with ideas,to be inventive and to go off-script if they felt like it. If I felt like an adlib wasn’t working, I’d just ask that actor to change it but I’d also encourage people when particular changes worked.

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Image: Stephen Poole

CS: Do you have any plans to perform the play again at some point in the future?

LE: We’d very much like to put it on again. We are planning more performances but we haven’t had a chance to arrange anything properly yet. We’re looking at dates in September or October to perform it in Oxford. People can join our mailing list or follow us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook for further info when we have it!

BR: It was completely sold out when we performed it and we had lots of interest afterwards as well.

1 St Aldate's Tavern.jpg

LE: We even had people queueing up for returns! We were really surprised and thrilled, as this was our first production. When we first put the tickets on sale we were worried that some performances might have to be cancelled, such as the Saturday matinee which sold much more slowly than the other performances. But eventually it completely sold out which amazed us.

“It was completely sold out when we performed it and we had lots of interest afterwards as well.”

CS: What has the response to the play been like?

LE: We’ve had quite a bit of feedback actually. People came up to us after the performance and talked to us and we’ve had some comments on our Facebook page and that kind of thing. We’ve also had requests for the programme that we designed for the play.

CS: The image you used on the programme, and indeed on all the publicity for the play, was very beautiful. Who designed that?

Facebook Cover Photo
Design by Iris Nevin

LE: That was designed by our neighbour, who is an artist, Iris Nevin. We love her artwork, some of which you can see on Instagram. She makes a lot of images of women, which is partly why we thought she would be an appropriate person for this job.

BR: She’s the one who really convinced us to do the play in the first place. We had been talking about it with her and she strongly encouraged us to go through with it. So she’s kind of our inspiration. And then she just offered to do the artwork for us.

CS: Where does the name, Marvellous Machine, come from?

Marvellous Machine Image

LE: I wanted something related to our first production and so I found the phrase in The Tiger’s Bride, where Carter uses it to describe the mechanical Maid. So I pinched it from her! I spent some time highlighting phrases that I liked in the story, hoping to find something for the company name, and that one really struck me as working nicely for our purposes. I liked the onomatopoeia and the idea that the company could be the “machine” that creates something marvellous.

CS: Does Marvellous Machine have plans for a second production at some point?

“We’re currently looking for inspiration for another production. I’ve been reading Edgar Allan Poe lately, partly because he was an inspiration for Carter. So this would allow us to stick with the Gothic elements of The Tiger’s Bride.”

LE: Yes, we definitely want to. We’re currently looking for inspiration for another production. I’ve been reading Edgar Allan Poe lately, partly because he was an inspiration for Carter. So this would allow us to stick with the Gothic elements of The Tiger’s Bride. A couple of years ago now, I saw a production by Les Enfants Terribles called Ernest and the Pale Moon which was incredible. Although it’s not an adaptation of one of his tales, it was heavily inspired by Poe. While at university I also studied at Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, which is another story where something fantastical happens at the end. And that must have been a challenge to adapt for the stage. The trick is finding the right story that would work on the stage and for this company.

CS: Have you come across Angela Carter’s essay ‘Through a Text Backwards: The Resurrection of the House of Usher’? She reads Poe’s tale backwards, which then reveals a different set of meanings. Perhaps that would be interesting to do on the stage?

“I decided to adopt the method of the painters of the double portraits I described a moment ago. I decided that I would invert “The Fall of the House of Usher” — play it backwards, in the same way as one can play a movie backwards, and see what face is showed to me, then, and what story that face told about the Ushers and their author.” (Angela Carter, ‘Through a Text Backwards: The Resurrection of the House of Usher’)

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_crop.pngLE: I haven’t but I’ll have to look that one up. Becki and I were talking about The Fall of the House of Usher in the pub recently. I was telling her the story and afterwards someone on the next table turned to us and asked what on earth we were talking about! [Laughs] We’ve also both got other things going on outside of Marvellous Machine. I have some ideas that wouldn’t work under that particular umbrella. We’ve tried to adopt quite a specific ethos and style with Marvellous Machine, it’s important to stick to that with what kind of things we perform and in terms of our approach. So as my taste is pretty wide ranging, I’d like to expand my horizons and experiment with different styles of theatre, which I would want to explore in a different context, separate from my work in Marvellous Machine.

“I’d like to expand my horizons and experiment with different styles of theatre, which I would want to explore in a different context.”

CS: What do you both do when you are not working as Marvellous Machine?

LE: We both work on the ticket office at a theatre!

BR: I also do lots of musical stuff. I teach music privately and I also do other musical directing. I have my own youth theatre company who I am the musical director for. As well as writing and performing my own music. So quite a lot going on! [Laughs]

LE: I think Becki is clearly the busier of the two of us! [Laughs] On one level, our production of The Tiger’s Bride was partly a career step. It’s difficult to get experience without experience! So we figured, why not just do something ourselves. But of course, it was mostly about our passion for theatre and for adapting this particular story. That was what drove us, the enjoyment of it.

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Image: Stephen Poole

BR: Yeah, it was really fun. I felt so lost after our last performance. I kept wondering what was next!

LE: It was a really strange feeling on the first night because I was so nervous before “curtain up”. But then the performance went by very quickly and I suddenly realised that it had gone well! And then when it was all over, I thought “ok, now what?” In some ways, it was only really after Christmas that the feeling sank in, having been so busy over the holidays, so now I’m ready for the next adventure!

CS: Thank you both for your time today. I look forward to hearing more about Marvellous Machine in the future.


Becki Reed.pngBecki Jayne Reed is a musical director, composer and performer. Originally classically trained, she studied contemporary music at Dartington College of arts. She is involved with a lot of youth work, both teaching and running musical workshops, as well as being involved with a number of theatre companies, including being the musical director of Marvellous Machine. Listen to her music at https://soundcloud.com/becki-jayne-reed

 

 

Louise Egan 2.jpgLouise Egan is a theatrical producer and director currently based in Oxford. She studied Drama at the University of Lincoln and has since had a great deal of experience in the theatrical industry including working with Oxford Playhouse and a number of arts festivals such as Oxford Fringe and the newly founded Oxford OffBeat Festival. In 2014 she founded Marvellous Machine theatre company and continues to direct and produce their work. Marvellous Machine have plans to perform The Tiger’s Bride again this year (venue TBC) and are currently in the early stages of planning a summer production. Louise is currently volunteering as a rehearsal assistant on the Oxford Playhouse Young Company production of Jane Eyre, adapted by Polly Teale and directed by Jo Noble.

 


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