“We’re about corrupting the normal and sending people on a mission”: An interview with Big Telly founder Zoe Seaton
Zoe Seaton set up Big Telly in 1986. Since then it has become one of Northern Ireland’s most highly reputed theatre companies, with a particular focus on site-responsive, touring and participation performances. A collaboration with Creation Theatre saw a successful run of The Tempest Live through the cloud platform Zoom, and now Seaton presents her latest theatrical offering, Operation Elsewhere, using the same video format.
We spoke to Seaton about the challenges she has faced with theatre since the coronavirus lockdown, the adaptation of Operation Elsewhere by the writer Jane Talbot, and pushing the boundaries of traditional theatre.
You set up your own theatre company, Big Telly, in 1986. Was it something you always wanted to do?
I always wanted to work in theatre, and for years I wanted to be an actress. And then when I was around 17 years old, I started going… No! I also really wanted to go to a university, not a drama school, I was interested in collaborating with lots of different people, and essentially that’s what I have done.
Prior to your latest production you received rave reviews and had huge success with your Zoom performance of The Tempest. Was it a scary prospect adapting this production for a video conference platform?
I suppose there’s this thing that if it hasn’t been done before there’s nothing to compare it to, so you might as well try. There was a real bravery in that. We had done an immersive game of The Tempest last summer in Oxford, with the cast in their own locations, running their own sites, managing an audience, a team, running the show on Whatsapp, so they were already technically fluid. Our good relationships with the funders meant we could keep everyone paid, so we had this 15-strong full cast that were on the books for that adaptation and now for Operation Elsewhere. It’s been incredible.
Your new theatre show, Operation Elsewhere, is a collaboration with Jane Talbot. Could you tell us how this transpired?
I’m interested in the mix between the real world and the fairy world, and I was recommended by a friend to read The Faerie Thorn by Jane Talbot. That was 6pm on Friday, and by 2pm on Saturday I had asked Jane if we could do an adaptation of it, I had completely fallen in love with it. Her language is just beautiful. We did an adaption of Operation Elsewhere for the real world first, then one for Zoom.
How will the experience of this adaptation in Zoom work for the theatregoer?
So you join it like a Zoom call, but you are at the border into Elsewhere. We send out information in advance, your boarding card, what you can bring with you into Elsewhere. So when you “arrive” there’s a border guard who takes you through. You have to take your shoes off, show him your liquids, like a border crossing, and then you go to Elsewhere. In Elsewhere, there’s mayhem!
What is the story about?
You go in and meet lots of various characters, then you met a changeling who really wants to be loved. He then comes across a bride getting married whose future husband clearly adores her, and the changeling wants a piece of that, so he conspires with someone to replace the bride so that he can be loved in the real world… It’s like if you went to Ireland for a weekend, had a few drinks, had a craic and you saw amazing scenery and heard a few stories. That’s what it’s like.
How do the cast perform their roles for Zoom?
Some of them have green screens and we’re playing with that. One actress plays a whole role from her cupboard though, and in some ways that’s more atmospheric. We try and use other ways to be creative.
You have previously adapted plays outside the confines of traditional theatre. Can you elaborate on any of the unusual things you have done?
We once did a huge production of The Little Mermaid in swimming pools. We had commercial divers as our crew. It ended up going around the world! I mean in Taiwan half the cast got ear infections from the sanitation of the water. You don’t expect your tech rider to say, “chlorine” on it!
We also have a four-seater Victorian theatre in a trailer, two seats in the balcony, two in the stalls, a stage and its own lighting rig. It’s miniature, so we have that space and we also take over empty shops, do theatre in cars and even boats. We’re about chasing a different experience, corrupting the normal and sending people on missions.
You received an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts for your contribution to the arts. What are you most proud of to date?
I’m proud of everything because we choose to do it out of the mainstream. You know Belfast is the centre of theatre in Northern Ireland, we’re 60 miles from there in a tiny town, choosing not to make work for an industry audience but for the people that might otherwise never go to the theatre.
If this lockdown continues to affect the arts, do you have another production in the pipeline after Operation Elsewhere?
Yes, we’ve got a few more actually. I think it will continue to affect them for a while actually, so we’re working on a version of Macbeth, we’ve called it A Game of Phones, which will involve phones as well as Zoom. If theatres come back into function by autumn, we might do a live version of a Zoom show, so you can see the actors on stage, putting up their green screens. We’re also working with creation again and starting an ensemble with video animation, games, artists etc within that.
Do you think it gives a new permanent future to the world of theatre?
Yes I do. I mean, with The Tempest, that’s how to tour Shakespeare to schools. They can’t afford to get a bus or the tickets, so we wanted to do Macbeth where the kids were watching a screen of the witch but then it cuts to the front entrance of their school and in walks a witch. It’s that thing about how to make online feel live and make the audience feel like they’ve had a theatre experience.
Operation Elsewhere is on Zoom from 2nd until 4th May, 2020, with 6 live performances at 3pm and 7pm. For further information about Big Telly and their future events visit their website here.