#NWConnect: Interview with Poltergeist’s Jack Bradfield

We are very proud of our North Wall Creative Associates: 10 individuals and companies with a special relationship to The North Wall, representing the best and brightest of UK Theatre.

Poltergeist Theatre make puzzle-box theatre that collaborates with a live audience. They experiment with genre, and wrestle with big, difficult ideas under the surface. Winners of the Untapped Award 2019 for Art Heist and the Samuel French New Play Award 2018 for Lights Over Tesco Car Park, both sell-out hits at the Edinburgh Festival. 

We spoke to Artistic Director Jack Bradfield:

Could you tell us about your relationship with The North Wall?

The North Wall took a chance on Poltergeist when we were a newly-formed student company. I’d written a play, and they invited us to perform it on their wonderful stage. They then supported our first professional piece, Lights Over Tesco Car Park, enabling us to take it to the National Student Drama Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, and London.

In our final summer we helped develop HAUNT Festival with The North Wall: a one-day takeover of the building which brought together young artists like ourselves from across the country to run a scratch night, take risks and debut new work. It was a brilliant way of growing the North Wall family.

The North Wall has become our home in every sense: intellectually, emotionally and even literally (providing accommodation and generous access to their rehearsal space).  Ria and John are always there for advice. They let us test out ideas, offer new creative leads, and remind us that our work doesn’t just exist inside the rehearsal room. We’ve been so lucky to build our foundations here.

What’s at the heart of the work that you want to make?

When Poltergeist formed, we wanted to make work not just for fellow students, but for a city. We knew what we liked: experimental theatre that played with form, but we also knew there was a welcoming, playful way to do it. That was our original mission, and it still is.

However, the more work we’ve made, the more we’ve appreciated the real value of Poltergeist. We’re taking our first steps in the industry, and we’re still working out what on earth theatre should be. In the end, Poltergeist is an on-going learning experience. We’ve regularly set new challenges for ourselves. It’s a way of puzzling out who we are as artists. Every time we come back into the room, we’ve taken another step on that journey.

Finally, to me, making theatre, has always been about something very simple: creating a moving, thrilling, live experience that speaks to the moment. In some ways, I think that’s what everyone is chasing. The catch is: it’s really difficult to do.

What’s a day in the Poltergeist’s rehearsal room like?

As we’re such good friends we find it useful to start with a five minute period of focus during which we shift into our professional selves. Bonus: it means we’ve still got loads to talk about at the end of the day when we finish up.

Outside the rehearsal room we read, research, and ponder on ideas that we might be interested in pursuing. Inside the room, however, our rehearsals are led by physicality and play. We find our stories and sequences through games. For example, we might run an ‘open canvas’ exercise, where we improvise physically to start to feel out the world of the show. Then, as we move toward the performance, we’ll begin to lock things down, write down text, and shift into a more ‘traditional’ rehearsal process. As is the blessing (and the curse) with work like ours, there’s always the possibility of throwing whole sections out and starting again.

There’s no right answer about how to block a scene or write a sequence. You have to trust yourself and your collaborators that you will find the show’s shape together. In the evening, when I pull together thoughts and words from the day, we’ve always ended up somewhere I didn’t expect.

What have your experiences been like at the Edinburgh Festival?

We’ve had a great time at the Edinburgh Fringe — our work has found an audience and we’ve been able to meet some of our theatre heroes. We also ate a lot of chips.

Still, it can be an exhausting time, particularly for performers. As anyone will tell you, there’s room for the festival to grow and change. Personally, I’d love to see a greener Fringe. If you’re thinking about where the Fringe can go next, I’d like to point to the campaign Future Fringe, who have been imagining what Edinburgh might look like when it reopens.

Could you tell us about #LightsOverLockdown?

Yes! When Covid struck, we were getting ready to tour our new show “Art Heist”. Instead we organised a free stream of our first show ‘Lights Over Tesco Car Park”. We ran a watch-along, where we tweeted facts about the making of the show. (Have a search for the hashtag on Twitter.) Tesco was a play that resonated with lockdown. It asks what an act of collective imagination does to a room. Does it tie us together, and if so, how long does the magic last? During lockdown, that felt more pressing than ever. We ended up trending!

What collaborations have brought you joy?

All of our shows have a devised element, and are by their nature collaborative. We love that. Recently, Poltergeist began working with artist and designer Shankho Chaudhuri. Like all good collaborators, he’s brought fresh ideas to the table, encouraged us to think outside the box, and ended up enriching the final piece. I distinctly remember looking at his fantastic designs for the set of “Art Heist” when we transferred to New Diorama last October—that was a moment of joy.

Which artists or pieces of work (any medium) helped you through lockdown?

In lockdown, when I couldn’t leave the house, I’ve found other worlds to explore.

I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction. Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a funny, imaginative and rich account of misfits in the vastness of space, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is a chewy moral puzzle about humans and robots.

I’ve got really lost in games. The Last Of Us 2, Animal Crossing, a handful of old Final Fantasy games.

In fact, the art that really helped me through lockdown has been stories told by friends. I’m part of a Dungeons and Dragons group that has proved a real respite. It feels a very old fashioned way of experiencing stories — worlds invented and spoken aloud between friends — but it’s something that has given me new understanding of the basics: character and plot. I couldn’t recommend it enough!

What advice would you give to early-career artists?

Find an audience. Your work can’t be for everyone in the world—theatre is a medium that relies on a group of people entering a room together. I think once you’ve discovered an audience that’s in tune with your work, you’ve got some very valuable companions. On a really simple level, they can give you instant feedback: just watch their faces in a preview! Trust them, and keep them in a part of your mind when you’re creating. They’ll give you a great deal back.

Keep trying new things. I definitely don’t know who I am as an artist yet. I’m still trying to tread as many paths as possible, to figure out what stories I want to tell, and how I want to tell them.

What are your hopes for the future of the theatre industry?

During Covid I’ve had lots of conversations with friends about the future of theatre. Something that excites me is the idea we might look again at traditional structures. I’d like to see buildings led by designers, projects that tell stories through sound as much as through text, I’d like to see funding models interrogated to make sure any opportunities offered are robust and dependable for artists. I think there’s a chance here for our generation to be the change we want to see.

What makes you happy?

Being in a rehearsal room with Poltergeist. I hope it happens again soon.

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