The Journey of Farm Boy

This week, one of the company’s highest profile productions of recent times has headed out on it’s fourth tour to date.  Farm Boy, adapted and directed by our former Artistic Director Daniel Buckroyd will play at 60 venues across the UK over the next six months. It’s a huge tour, infact probably the biggest single tour in my time with the company.

It’s also the culmination of an amazing journey for our replica Fordson Tractor that is as much a character in the piece as the two actors are and I thought I’d take a look back at the journey that this production has been on.

The Old Fordson Tractor

At the beginning of 2009, the year in which the show first took to the stage, Farm Boy wasn’t even a part of our plans for the coming year.  Daniel and I were focussing on an autumn revival of another New Perspectives production; The Farm that we’d toured in 2008 across the East Midlands. For a variety of reasons the ambition for that piece was never realised and we were left with a gap in our schedule.

Daniel came up with the idea of adapting the story of Farm Boy and developing it for a small tour to schools in the East Midlands; that was the original limit of our ambition, a four week tour to twenty or so schools in the region that sold out almost immediately and took place in October 2009.

John Walters and Matt Powell in Farm Boy 2009

And that might have been that… had we not bumped into James Haddrell from Greenwich Theatre at the Pulse Festival in June 2009.  We’d taken two productions to Greenwich Theatre previously – The Hired Man, and Sir Gawain And The Green Knight – and we started chatting about upcoming tours. He was intrigued by the idea of Farm Boy and asked if we wanted to try it out in a theatre space over the half term period. Why not? We thought. It had already entered our minds that there might be more life for the piece.  Michael Morpurgo’s work was (and remains) hugely popular, War Horse (to which the book of Farm Boy is the sequel) was already playing to packed West End audiences and we thought that our production could easily sit in small to mid-scale theatres.

So we went to Greenwich for three performances. The theatre arranged for Michael to come and talk after the last performance and he was lovely about the show. We also invited a number of colleagues to see performances in Greenwich to get a sense of whether it was something they’d book for their venue – the reaction from the majority being a resounding Yes!

Most importantly I think, was that we invited Scamp Theatre to see it with a view to working with us on a theatre tour partly because they had already had success touring another of Michael’s works Private Peaceful and also they had better contacts with the type of venues we were seeking to reach.

And from that moment we haven’t really looked back. Co-producing with Scamp, we planned for a summer run at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe followed by an eight week autumn theatre tour.

In the wonderful Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh we played to consistently packed houses selling 98% of available seats and earning the official festival ‘sold out’ laurels. Crucially we received a great range of national press reviews – most of them 4* – that helped with sales on the subsequent tour. Over 9000 people saw the show on that tour meaning that in 2010 alone more than 12,000 people had seen Farm Boy – more than had seen our whole programme of work the previous year.

John Walters and Richard Pryal at 59e59 theatre New York

And it didn’t stop there. In Edinburgh the show was seen by Peter Tear from 59e59 Theatre in New York and by June 2011 an agreement had been reached to take our tractor across the pond to the Brits Off Broadway Festival – Christmas in New York City!

Our audiences in New York were very different from what we’d been used to touring the UK, with a lot more adults seeing the play rather than the family and schools audiences that the 2010 tour attracted. But again the feedback was largely positive (even if some of the critics tried to make too close a comparison to War Horse).

And so on to 2012 and another co-production with Scamp that will deliver over 100 performances by March 2013. John Walters, who has played Grandpa since that first performance in 2009 and Gareth Bennett-Ryan who follows in the footsteps of Matt Powell and Richard Pryal in playing Grandson, will tell this wonderful story in venues from Berwick to Bridport, Colchester to Cardigan.

John Walters and Gareth Bennett-Ryan in rehearsal for 2012 tour

It’s an incredible journey considering this was a production that started out by ‘filling a gap’, but that has gone on to achieve so much for New Perspectives.  We’re really excited about the next few months and we hope our audiences will be as well.

Catch it if you can!

Chris Kirkwood, Executive Director

Full details of the Farm Boy tour can be found on the New Perspectives website.

FARM BOY Rehearsals / Day Ten

James Pacey’s Rehearsal BLOG – Day Ten

It seems an age since I last blogged. In that time the piece has continued to evolve and go from strength to strength. As well as observing the majority of rehearsals, I have been tasked with producing a teachers’/learning support pack. This is intended to be a series of stimuli that teachers can use to spark creativity and discussion with a class. I am quite keen that any resource be used after viewing the play – I strongly believe that any preparation done by pupils beforehand will only serve to emphasise the fact that they are watching a play, rather than going in with no expectations. In some ways I think the magic might be ‘lost’. Daniel and I both agreed that the more visual we can make the resources the better. Nevertheless, despite several years teaching experience it has proven a real challenge to come up with appropriate material. Hopefully what we’ve settled on will spark ideas and imagination, and at the very least give the teachers’ a semi-finished lesson plan!

I am continually reminded of the slightly bizarre fact that a moment can seem perfect in one rehearsal only to be completely wrong the next. What factors have changed to cause a once great idea to now be an awful one? We (a term I use in the very loosest sense) are constantly putting layers on top of layers, fine tuning details and ever changing work. At what point do these ideas become finalised? Is there ever a risk of adding too much to a piece? How late in the day does Daniel dare leave it until he is satisfied? But then, I know from experience that there will always be moments that remain less than satisfactory. Matt and John respond very well to the ever changing piece (although their scripts are covered with corrections!)

Linked to the above is Daniel’s persistence that a moment is repeated over and over until it is right. Only a few months ago I would have been wary of constantly repeating bits for fear of incurring actor’s frustrations – a poignant reminder as to how our own insecurities can hold us back.

Another observation, albeit one without a specific point, comes from Friday’s rehearsal. There is a moment where the father character stumbles during the ploughing match, represented here by John falling to his knees and dropping a chair. This is certainly the most aggressive moment in the play (a stark contrast to the tone of the rest of the piece), and the violence of the act, as well as the harsh noise should have quite an impact on the audience. As I say, a comment without a point but something that nevertheless something that really stood out.

James Pacey (Assistant Director)

FARM BOY – Rehearsals / Day Eight

James Pacey’s Rehearsal BLOG – Day Eight

So, pasty consumed, here I am again. I never ate this unhealthily when I was at the Playhouse. I blame Matt Powell. Still, it can only be a good thing that the above is really the only negative comment I can make about the piece and the process overall. The long process of re-examining every moment and tweaking every nuance has now begun, and it continues to intrigue me as to how much can continue to be teased out, despite a good piece already being in place.

In many ways, the play already works without the music. As a pure piece of storytelling it is effective. If I play devil’s advocate for a moment, I would be cautious as to whether the introduction of music is going to adversely affect the process-will it require extensive re-jigging and is there the risk it may work against the details that are already there?

Daniel Buckroyd - Farm Boy Adapter/Director

Daniel Buckroyd - Farm Boy Adapter/Director

Daniel is very much like a composer when he directs. Whereas a previous director I worked with had a very laid back, yet still involved, approach to rehearsals, Daniel is very much more hands on. At times he is like an excitable school boy, barely able to contain his excitement and enjoyment of the work. He moves his hands with a flourish as the actors rehearse, as if they are musicians who will respond to his every nuance. His expressions mirror those of what, we hope, the children will display and at all times his enthusiasm is infectious. He has such a clear idea of what he wants, and will interrupt the action frequently to mould and direct. Though he welcomes suggestions and thoughts there is no doubt that this is his piece. This is fascinating for me to watch, in particular with regards to how the actors respond to him as a director. Nevertheless the atmosphere is as relaxed and as creative as previous shows I have observed/worked on. It just goes to show that there doesn’t seem to be any ‘one’ way to direct.

From my experience on Garage Band and now this, my appreciation for the care a director takes over his actor has grown drastically. To give an example, on Tuesday Daniel wanted to introduce the image of Grandpa tossing the coin to decide who gets Joey. After several attempts with a 1p piece, John expressed gentle frustration that it wasn’t weighty and large enough. Now, in the past, I would have moved on from this, either saying something along the lines of “we’ll get a bigger coin for performance” or, worse, “see how you get on with it.” Now, with both of these no malice or ignorance would have been intended, rather such an instance would not have registered as posing a problem in the grand scheme of things. Daniel however stopped, and attempted to rectify the problem then and there. There were similar instances during the rehearsal process of Garage Band. I am quickly understanding that despite what I may think, if an actor has an issue then it needs resolving, whether it be for their piece of mind or simply meaning they can nail that moment. I said to Daniel some weeks ago on the train that in the past I have looked at the generalities of a piece and tended to brush over the minutiae. The above is a perfect example. My wife keeps telling me to stop being so self-critical, but lord above, there is so much I would like to go back and change about King Lear.

As an assistant director there is a fine balance to tread between sitting back silently observing, and becoming an annoying and unwelcome ‘co-director.’ I find the silent observational route is so informative, but on occasion I do try and throw my penny’s worth in. It can be rather satisfying when such a point involves a re-examination of the text, such as a particular moment today when the son/grandpa/ (in the guise of John Walters) admits his growing despair. It reminds me that as a would be director I need to constantly be aware of how the text progresses, and one line several paragraphs previously can inform/affect the delivery of a line later on. Similarly, as Daniel pointed out, a line can work in a literary sense, but not when spoken. It also helps when the director has a clear sense as to how each line should be performed.

On another note, there is an ever changing dynamic to the play, and I love how Daniel is trying to explore the various states of tension, from building up the excitement of the ploughing to the release that comes after the handshake that seals the bet.

I’ll leave you with the quote of the day – “That’s NOT a chair” (John Walters – trying to convince himself that the old brown chair IS in fact a heavy plough).

James Pacey (Assistant Director)

FARM BOY – Rehearsals / Day Five

James Pacey’s Rehearsal BLOG – Day Five

I currently sit writing this, feeling exceptionally guilty at my consumption of a Cornish pasty for lunch; my justification for this comes from the scene we were looking at just before lunch in which the boy refers to the “pasty that mum made for our lunch” or words to that effect – watching the scene several times has embedded the word “pasty” deep in my psyche!

Nevertheless, a point does emerge from the musings of my stomach. Daniel was keen to emphasise the varying energies of the two characters playing roles, and essentially ‘performing’ to the audience, and at the same time telling and creating a story together for the first time. There is a real challenge for our two actors to ensure that each time they perform the piece it has the spontaneity of being the first time they tell it. While this is true for all theatre, it seems especially important here, given the nature of the play and the age groups to which it is being performed.

There was an intriguing exploration of the conventions of props becoming objects today, specifically that of the old wooden chair which so far has been used as a horse, a plough and even … a chair. So too, is the tractor ‘becoming’ a horse, as well as also being used as its maker intended. By using one or two objects to represent other objects, does this then create a necessity to use all props as something else, or can there be instances when “a cake is just a cake?” Do we run the risk of audience members asking ‘why is such and such an item not being used as something else?’ Or am I creating questions unnecessarily??! I suppose it comes down to justification – as long as we can justify a prop’s inclusion/change within a truthful context then there is no issue. It is fascinating how a wooden chair can so easily inspire the imagination; as Daniel says, “we see a horse.”

Matt Powell & John Walters

Matt Powell & John Walters

The aim of the day was to work through the play, though I don’t think it can be described as a simple blocking session. Daniel is spending considerable time re-working and examining each ‘chunk’ before moving on. Rather than some directors who would simply work out the basic moves and then start again from the beginning, Daniel is keen to ensure that each move has justifications and doesn’t feel ‘stagey’ – such is the nature of the piece. The challenge for Matt and John now (Boy and Grandpa respectively) is to remember the work done the next time they come to look at it. I am always excited to see how much work is going to change – I know from my own experience how an idea can seem wonderful and just work, but then when you come back to it several days later it can look awful. Let’s see what happens.

 

It’s very comforting to have a director who has such a clear “through-line” of the piece. Daniel knows where he wants to go, and has a strong view on what works and what doesn’t. At the same time, he is very open to suggestions from us all, but he has a clear vision for the piece, and a real understanding of the conventions he is creating. When I was observing Garage Band, there was a clear intention to answer questions about the text and its sub-text. How important is this for this piece? Do we need to know, for example, whether Mother has sabotaged the tractor? I suppose, whatever the characters would know, we will want to know.

Again, an interesting day, and no doubt there is much I will wish I’d done. It’s coming together well. There is something profoundly touching about the simplicity of the piece and the power of the relationships. The brief connections that the characters make to the audience are also oddly moving, notably today when Grandpa talks about his own mortality. It is on the one hand a morbid topic to mention to 7/8 year olds, but on the other hand a deeply personal confession that creates a wonderful connection.

Well, that’s enough for now. I’ll just leave with you a quote of the day, which came as a result of Daniel’s musings on what father’s death reminds him off, prompting Mr. Powell to observe: “Clark Kent’s dad’s death on the farm in Superman?!”

James Pacey (Assistant Director)

FARM BOY – Rehearsals / Day One

James Pacey’s Rehearsal BLOG – Day One

I guess I’d better begin by introducing myself. I’m James Pacey, on board for the process of Farm Boy in an Assistant Director capacity. My ‘career ambition’ (!!) is to work as a professional theatre director, be it on a long term contract with an existing company or on a freelance basis. To that end, I am endeavouring to acquire as much experience as possible by looking in on a variety of rehearsal processes. I recently assisted Giles Croft on the Nottingham Playhouse’s production of Garage Band which was a wonderful and incredibly insightful experience. I am also director of 2 B Theatre Ltd based in Nottingham for whom I recently directed King Lear at the Sandfield Theatre. Though I am passionate about directing, I haven’t really studied it at a technical level, and as such feel that immersing myself in a variety of processes and observing a range of directors will only better equip me for the future.

The first day of rehearsals proved to be a relaxed and relatively gentle start, with the only real stress coming from the loudest thunderclap I’ve ever heard halfway through the afternoon! Introductions and greetings were followed by an uninterrupted read through of the text, as well as the presentation of the tractor, which, though unpainted, is a truly astonishing feat of set design. I felt like a kid again, so hopefully the children in the audiences will be blown away by a real tractor in their school. John couldn’t resist having a go, though a desire not to give into my instincts prevented me from mounting the ‘beast’.

Farm Boy Rehearsals

Farm Boy Rehearsals

Daniel appears to have taken a very story-telling approach to his adaptation. Though there are two actors performing the words, the piece is essentially two characters telling a story to the audience. It is a deeply personal and affectionate piece, told through the touching relationship between a grandfather and his grandson. It’s amazing to me how engaging it is, primarily because of the closeness between the two characters. Interesting as well how my memories of my grandparents are affecting the way I observe the piece. Hopefully the audience may have similar responses.

Though Daniel has steered clear of stage directions and a traditional scene structure, there are nevertheless frequent occasions when the story shifts in terms of time or location and/or the tone of the piece alters. It was to my eyes crucial then that Daniel and the actors spent the remainder of the day reading slowly through the script again, and deciding exactly where these ‘jumps’ (be it in time, tone or scene) were.

One thing that concerns me is the problem of establishing different places. The audience will, hopefully, understand that the world in which they are greeted is a barn, but how do we change that space to become a war-zone, a village etc without appearing too theatrical or staged? Similarly, in assuming the roles of different characters, particularly when the boy assumes the role of grandfather (which perhaps may confuse?) a prop, or an item of clothing could serve a purpose here, as could a change in the soundtrack or a sound effect – Matt Marks the composer joined the company for the afternoon.

It has been a fruitful and informative day. As with Garage Band I’m kicking myself that I did not spend longer doing cast/team script analysis on my own previous project. Still, that’s why I’m observing, to learn and develop. Roll on next time!

James Pacey (Assistant Director)

John and Matt join us for Farm Boy

We’re very pleased that John Walters and Matt Powell will be joining New Perspectives for our tour of Michael Morpurgo’s Farm Boy. The tour starts on 25th September at Friesland School Performing Arts Centre in Sandiacre, Derbyshire. The school has a fantastic performing arts/dance studio, and we’re delighted to be opening the show there. Pupils from primary schools in the area will be visiting to see the first performance before it tours to schools in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire. 

John WaltersJohn is a wonderful actor – perhaps you saw him in the BBC’s Doctors yesterday! He has many theatre, TV and film credits to his name, including the West End production of  The Woman in Black and Saving Private Ryan, in which he played a Frenchman – speaking fluent french can come in handy!

 

 

Matt PowellMatt has various Short film credits to his name as well as stage roles in Nicholas Nickleby and Blood Brothers.

John and Matt will play Grandfather and Grandson in this wonderful story by former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo. Daniel Buckroyd has adapted the story for this tour, following successful adaptations for New Perspectives, including David McKee’s Not Now, Bernard & Other Monster Stories, Michael Morpurgo’s The Butterfly Lion and Richard Benson’s The Farm.