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Massive Owl Residency - Mayfest

Bristol-based performance company Massive Owl began making their new show Castle Rock during a residency at Arnolfini back in May 2014. They joined us again last year for a week in the Dark Studio. They are performing this new work for, city-wide festival of theatre, Mayfest. The team over at Mayfest interviewed the three members of Massive Owl about their show Castle Rock (14-15 May) in the run up to the festival...

Tell us about the show.

Sam (Powell): We like describing the show like this: imagine if instead of Rob Reiner making the film Stand By Me, David Lynch made a live art/theatre show of it. Then you might have imagined something that looks and feels a lot like our show, Castle Rock.

The show is an attempt to adapt the film Stand By Me and the book the film was originally adapted from: Stephen King’s The Body. We like to call our version a ‘distortion’. Castle Rock tells the story of a boy who wants to cheat death, and who, through the process, meets a deer and a train, both personified by performers. So you can already probably guess the show is rather surreal.

We tell our story with help of a loop pedal, to create a live soundtrack, a projector, which we operate from on-stage and which blasts out flashing coloured lights and we even have a sneaky cameo of ‘Sweet Dreams (are made of these)’ by the Eurythmics.

The show is about loss, the acceptance of loss and about challenging audiences expectations on how you can tell a story. It is also a kind of love letter to movies of the 80s.

Where did the idea come from?

Danny (Prosser): Most of the ideas for our shows, at the very very (very) beginning, start with us reflecting on the last show we made and asking ourselves “So what do we want to do next?”.

One of the central concerns of our artistic practice is exploring narrative in more experimental forms (or live art storytelling, as we like to call it). Our last show, We Used To Wait, which we performed at the Bristol Biennial Festival in 2014, pushed this concern to its very limits – often described more as an ‘experience’, narrative became quite unrecognisable. After that show we had this hunger to bring narrative to the foreground again, while continuing to challenge ourselves in some way. So we decided to do something we had never done before with narrative. We decided to begin with it, to make narrative our starting point for a new show.

This quite swiftly led us along to realising that we were potentially entering the quite conventional practice of ‘adaptation’. But with our live art/experimental perspective. And that’s where the idea that eventually grew into Castle Rock, came from.

Why did you pick Stand By Me?

Jenny (Duffy): As Danny said, the three of us spoke about starting with an already preconceived narrative and attempting some kind of adaptation. Sam and Danny had previously toyed with the idea of making a version of Stand By Me whilst they were studying and so this was kicking around in our initial conversations.

We weren’t sure if we wanted to work with a book or a film and were originally really interested in working with the Haruki Murakami book, Dance Dance Dance (which is amazing and we should definitely make a version of at some point). It ended up being choice between Dance, Dance, Danceand Stand By Me and, after a residency at the Arnolfini back in May 2014 where we spent time working with both stories, we chose Stand By Me.

We were really drawn to the both the film and the Stephen King novella that it’s based on and I think a large part of that was because the story had already been through a process of adaptation from the book to the film and this really interested us.

Which other films have shaped your understanding of the world of Castle Rock?

Jenny: The work of David Lynch was one of our biggest influences in making Castle Rock. We watched Blue Velvet whilst we were making the show but were, and are, influenced by his whole approach to making film and TV. Twin Peaks was a big influence particularly in thinking about and shaping what our fictional town of Castle Rock was like.

Another film which has more recently influenced our world is The Lobster, in particular the quality of the performances of the characters in it. There is a scene in Castle Rock where Danny and I have a conversation and the whole time I’m trying really hard to channel Rachel Weisz’s character.

Sam: Rear Window by Hitchcock. When we started to get really stuck in with the way we use projection and sound, we referred to Hitchcock a lot. The slow tense movement of the camera, the saturated colours of Rear Window and the shadows. There are some nice film noir inspired shadows and uses of lighting in Castle Rock.

On a completely different note, we also talked about Sin City, and the concept of a live comic book – there is a sense of that in Castle Rock too, especially with the projected text.

Danny: I am going to have to kind of cheat too and say a TV show rather than a film. I want to mention Fargo, the televised adaptation of the film of the same name. I was really influenced by its approach to adapting a pre existing narrative and talked about it a lot. There is something uncanny about how the television series directly references the film while taking it somewhere else completely – I don’t think you have to have watched the film to love it. That’s something we are trying to do with Castle Rock, create a world that is referencing the film/book but yet also be a world that at times is very different to Stand By Me.

Also, special mention to every film ever made in the 80s, The Goonies, Dirty Dancing, Ferris Buelleretc.

How has the process of making the show worked?

Jenny: The process of making the show has been quite a long one, we’ve definitely ‘gone on a journey’ with it. Outside of the creative process, as a company we experienced various high and low points in getting it made. There was a point, somewhere in the middle, when we were all unemployed and working in a random church hall, where we spent a good three days stamping and trying to create different rhythms for the piece, which never made it in… But I feel really proud of how we’ve worked together making the show. As a company we work completely collaboratively together devising our work and I think that with this show the collaboration felt very fluid and we supported each other really well creatively. I think that was partly because we were engaging in new ways of working and we’re really excited early on in the process about the way we could tell our interpretation of the story.

What do you think about the relationship between theatre and film?

Sam: We have always been influenced by film when making our work. The theatrical language we use can at times feel very cinematic. In the process of making every show we’ve talked about, referenced and used the language of film to try and understand what we’re making. For the most part, I would say, we are borrowing from the qualities of film in order to make the experimental nature of our work more accessible. We think most people see more movies over theatre and are more accustomed to the language of film in popular culture – we’re using that to try and open the door to our audiences, whilst maybe subtly making that imbalance more visible through the more experimental nature of our work.

We have always said that we are influenced by film without actually ever using it in our shows, for example we’ve never projected recorded film, but for the first time in Castle Rock, with our use of projection, we’re making more direct references to the experience of watching a film (subtitling, camera movements, soundtrack). I guess this comes from making a show about a specific film(s), and we are really excited about the ways in which the content and form of this new show is referencing the relationship between theatre and film more.

What do you hope an audience will get from watching the show?

Sam: We hope audiences are moved by the story, struck by the show visually, come away thinking differently about how stories can be told and potentially even feel challenged by a more experimental approach to adaptation.

If you’ve read the book or watched the film, we can promise it will be very different from what you might expect. So don’t worry, you won’t need to speed read the book or do a home screening of the film… This show is for fans and non-fans of Stand By Me.

Tell us about Massive Owl. What’s next for you?

Danny: Well, we are a performance company based in Bristol. Myself and Jenny live here and Sam lives in London. We are a company formed by our interest in making work collaboratively, without any assigned artistic leads, like a director. That is the very core or foundation of the company, and everything else follows. Like our interest in cinema or our interest in liveness or challenging the conventions of storytelling. We are part of a really supportive artist collective also based in Bristol called Interval, where we share knowledge, resources and an office. We are also associate artists of Live Collision, an amazing producing company and festival run by Lynnette Moran and based in Dublin.

And next up will be a new show and more Castle Rock gigs. Castle Rock is the first show in a planned trilogy of shows, the next one will follow on and continue to explore bringing together live art and storytelling through adaptation. We are planning on starting the next part of the trilogy later this year, alongside touring Castle Rock.

You can see Castle Rock at Bristol Old Vic Studio on 14-15 May (8pm Sat, 5pm Sun).  For more information on Mayfest events at Arnolfini click here.

Massive Owl used our Space in Kind Opportunity. For further information please click here.

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