Interview: Alex Byrne – New International Encounters

In a rehearsal studio at the Junction in Cambridge a group of actors are rehearsing their Christmas show; nothing unusual there, and a scene that is being repeated in theatres up and down the country, but suddenly there is a snatch of Norwegian, a couple of lines in Spanish and a smattering of German. This isn’t going to be your standard Christmas show, then. Given access to the rehearsal room, there’s much more than gingerbread lurking in the woods.

New International Encounters (NIE) are a theatre company based in both Cambridge and Norway, founded ten years ago when six international artists wanted to work together. For Artistic Director Alex Byrne the multi-national approach is also its appeal: “I think there’s something lovely about hearing different languages, people playing and messing around with misunderstandings. That’s a reality of the contemporary world – you hear different languages all the time. There’s something lovely about working with actors from different training and backgrounds. That was a part of how we started out.”

With an office in Cambridge and an office in Oslo, the logistical problems take some consideration with planning taking perhaps longer than a single location operation. Despite the challenges Byrne doesn’t see the distance as an issue. “I don’t see the boundaries of a country as my boundaries to be honest – I think that’s a mistake, I think you see the continent or the world, its people who you want to work with, not necessarily places.”

The company is just embarking on its second week of rehearsal for its Christmas show, Hansel & Gretel, which opens at the Junction on December 7. In the rehearsal room, the actors are exploring the story, combining props, dolls and musical instruments as well as the multi-language text. For Byrne, the choice of Hansel and Gretel seems a perfect choice for this project. “We wanted to do something that was clearly a fairytale. Those Brothers Grimm fairytales have a real European feel, which works really well for us as we’ve got three non-English actors and two English actors.”

The darkness of the tale appeals to Byrne and he hopes it will to his audience: “There’s a lot of danger; it’s a terrible story of famine, starvation, cannibalism and murder. I’m aware that kids love the extremeness of it, the horrors as well as the joys of it.”

Watching the start of the second week of rehearsals, it is clear that the company are shaping the show together. It’s a process of improvisation, almost playing with the piece to see what works. “We develop the script as we go; the bits of script we were trying to remember today were bits we wrote down at the end of last week,” says Byrne. ”Next we’ll crash into the next bit of story, make a mess of it, pull it apart and try it lots of ways. Then at the end of the day tomorrow will try to write the next two scenes.”

It is also clear that music plays a big part with the cast incorporating accordions, guitars, trombones and a double base into their movement. Byrne’s love of old European folk music plays an important part in shaping the atmosphere to the show and a starting point for creating the show.

For him, though, music is not an additional element to the show but a key part of the storytelling. “I tend to use music as underscore. I think it’s really satisfying if you watch a scene with a bit of underscore, suddenly it grows into a song and then collapses away again. You’re not just watching some acting; everything onstage is delivering a moment, a detail or a feeling.”

With its focus on inventive story-telling, NIE’s Hansel and Gretel is far removed from the traditional pantomimes that fill theatres at this time of year. It’s not a comparison Byrne encourages. “I don’t see this as panto at all, though there are some things in panto I really like. I like when theatre interacts with its audience and wants to play with them. I genuinely try to make theatre where actors look at the audience, acknowledge their presence and talk to them.”

“Hansel and Gretel won’t be that broad, brash panto but it will be great fun and engaging. There’s good panto and bad panto, I think the only distinction in theatre is is it good or not? It’s about who is doing it, how’s it’s done.”

The commercial pressure of a Christmas show to supply vital revenue for many venues is one Byrne is acutely aware of and he recognises that many venues make their key budget at this time of the year. “It becomes a very pressured environment in which to make something but the Junction has been great,” he explains. ”They’ve been very clear that it’s our show. It’s a very supportive atmosphere rather than a big producer but I guess big venues that need to fill over Christmas would think they have to go for a mainstream straight-up panto.”

Although opening night for Hansel and Gretel is still in the distance, thoughts are already being given to a future life for the show. Discussions are beginning to be held with other venues both in the UK and international but there are challenges in taking a family Christmas show to another country “In England, there is a particular propensity to go to the theatre to see a family show around Christmas time but in other countries it’s different. In Norway, there is a tradition of doing family Christmas shows but they tend to be more biblical and religious so this market is quite specific.”

Beyond Christmas, Byrne and the NIE team are already making plans for 2012, and it looks a typically international affair. “We’re developing a project starting early next year called North, North, North, which will be a project about the journeys to and discovery of the North Pole. In January, four of us are heading to Longyearbyen, which is the most northerly town in the world, well inside the Arctic Circle, for a week’s development work for that project,” he outlines.

“In the summer we are working on a site-specific project that will be co-written by 300 schoolchildren from London called Tales from the River Thames. Then, in the autumn of next year, we are hopefully co-producing Hunger, by famous Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, with a Danish theatre. So that’s probably the next year mapped out.”

Despite the challenges facing all arts companies at the moment, there is a positive feeling in the rehearsal room. The last round of Arts Council funding was kind to them, and for Byrne it’s about keeping your nerve: “While we’ve got a really good plan at the moment, it’s sobering to think this time last year we didn’t know if we would still be running. It’s tough, tough times,” he says.

“We should be really optimistic as well; we’ve just done a week of rehearsals with fantastic people. I’ve got colleagues in Italy and arts funding there is a nightmare, it’s almost no money. If you go to Denmark it’s much more than here but I think we’re not in a bad state with theatre in the UK, there’s some great stuff being made here.”

And with that positive talk of creating great theatre, it’s back to rehearsals for Alex Byrne, and decisions over the stepmother playing the trombone while terrorising the children, an actor carry the accordionist, and if father should hide under the bed. It’s all in a day’s work for this inventive, international company.

Feature originally written for The Public Reviews

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