Why running an outdoor, touring theatre company is so special – even in the rain
Love, we’re Irish. If we didn’t come out when it’s raining, we would never go outside.
The lady that uttered those memorable lines to me had no idea, I imagine, of quite how much they’d stick with me over the years.
At the time I didn’t give them much thought, as so often happens with moments that only later become poignant for us. I laughed politely and showed her into the Sylvan Gardens at Killruddery House, where we were performing that evening.
It was only after the show, when the get out was done and I was sat back in my tent in the rain, sipping on a warm beer and trying to find some dry socks, that I thought about it again.
On the road
I have the very great privilege of being able to represent and introduce to you Off the Ground Theatre, a company I’ve loved since I was a teenager. In a nutshell, the above aphorism sums up what we do. We are an outdoor, touring theatre company based on Merseyside who have been taking productions around the UK & Ireland for almost 25 years.
It all started in a field. To be exact, it all started in a field in which Dan, our Artistic Director, and a group of castmates and friends, were drunk. They were out on another tour with Castle Theatre Company, around venues in the south west of England.
That particular night they had just finished a show at a venue near Stud Homes in a village called Upper Dicker. Not a joke. The tour only lasted a week, with five performances, but Dan remembers it with such fondness that it felt like they were away all summer. Many of those cast members became such good friends that when the following summer came around and Castle Theatre Company weren’t taking a show out on tour, they decided to go at it on their own. How hard could it be, right?
Strictly speaking, that’s not where Off the Ground was born. It had originally been conceived as a student theatre company in Durham, going by the name of Rolling Rock Productions. No prizes for guessing why not many people jumped at the chance to hire a group of 20-somethings who had named themselves after a beer… But that summer in Sussex was when Off the Ground began making plans to be a touring theatre company, and we’ve been doing it ever since.
Bigger and better
The following summer that same group of friends got together to put on Twelfth Night. Following year on year were productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Educating Rita, The Arthur Siphid Big Band Experiunce, Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad, 3 Musketeers, King Arthur, Hamlet, Dirty Underwear and Macbeth.
By the early 2000s, the company had gotten a sense of just how difficult it is to pull together a touring schedule and production each year with next to no resources and very limited funding. Off the Ground Youth Theatre had started up by then too, into which so much of the company’s time and resources were going in order to establish it as a home for quality theatre education and training.
Many of the founding members of the company had moved away or were forging careers outside of theatre, and it looked as though the writing was on the wall for those halcyon summer days.
We decided that 2002 would be our last hurrah, so to speak, in terms of outdoor touring theatre. An invited cast of past tourers, current staff and old friends was assembled. Everyone was made aware that this aptly chosen Midsummer Night’s Dream would be the last of the summers we would choose to spend on the road. We were all getting too old for DIY ham sandwiches in a layby for lunch, for sharing tents and communal hangovers.
Then something really odd happened. Something odd that, looking back, really shouldn’t have been quite so surprising. Everybody loved it. Every bit of it. From the wet socks and late nights to the seemingly endless travel; the setting up in the cold and the awful audience numbers in the rain. Everybody mucked in together, determined to make it work. By the time we got to the end of that summer, nobody could let it go.
What we needed was a more sustainable long-term solution to our touring theatre branch. It sounds so corporate and uninspiring when you write it like that, but part of growing into the theatre company we are today has been about realising there’s a time for competing with and attempting to upstage a braying Irish donkey just to get a smile out of an audience all hiding under umbrellas, and there’s a time for having tedious meetings with the team to draw up a fully costed five-year action plan.
The company formalised, after that summer, a set of objectives and principles that would form the heart of everything we would do from then on. Off the Ground Theatre had to stay true to its name, encouraging as many people as possible to get started in theatre, whether it be onstage, offstage, in tech or production or anything else anyone could conceive of helping with or wanting to try.
The youth theatre became crucial to the company in that sense. Students could gain work experience on the summer productions, if they wanted to. Many students who chose to do so went on to audition for the summer productions once they were old enough and are still with the company today – indeed, that’s where I got started.
Networks were established, and strong links with youth theatres and schools across the north west who continue to support and aid one another. The cast of that 2002 A Midsummer Night’s Dream stuck with the company for years, tutoring at the youth theatre and offering a way for those with no, or very little experience to work with industry professionals and to learn. In doing so they inadvertently created a sort of conveyor belt of creativity and care for the company.
Students who were with us in a youth theatre capacity, or who had worked with us as part of that ever-growing network, would audition for the summer productions. Once there, they would learn from the more experienced members who could provide links and access to further opportunities. When those same students came back to us further on in their careers, they were the experienced ones, and offered that same guidance to a whole new intake of people.
That’s still at the core of how we work today at Off the Ground. Anyone can come and get involved, and once involved can stay as present and important to the company as they would like to be.
In the last few years we've tried new styles of directing and storytelling, such as Chris Tomlinson’s epic Jason & the Argonauts or Ellie Hurt’s mesmeric, colourful Sinbad. Both Chris and Ellie came to the company through different networks, sticking with us for years afterward.
We've taken on physical theatre festivals, arena opening ceremonies, studio tours and city-wide parades. Tours opened the door into the wider theatre world, and we still tour every year. Well, we did until the pandemic, which has hit us hard. In truth we barely survived. But we did, and we'll be back at the touring game this summer with our Adventures of Robin Hood.
Life on tour is always a tricky business, mind, and it takes a lot of people pulling together in the same direction to make it happen. Doing anything outdoors in the UK and Ireland means that rain is inevitable, even at the height of summer. Indeed, our Cyrano de Bergerac tour was so wet we think we invented a new genre of theatre – outdoor theatre indoors.
It can be utterly miserable at times. Nothing is less conducive to fun than the prospect of taking down a tent in the wet, sitting on a minibus for six hours, to put the same soppy tent back up again, and then perform to an audience smaller than the cast, all with a bit of a hangover. But the result of that effort is how you get nights like the night at Killruddery House.
Off the Ground Theatre are now the only company allowed to perform in the all-natural, 17th-century amphitheatre, but at 7:20pm, with ten minutes until show time, the theatre was less than a quarter full. By 7:30pm we would find ourselves on the brink of turning people away, full to absolute bursting point.
I asked a mum of five, as she tried to corral her kids into the theatre, why she would bother coming out on a night like this, "are you mad?" I said, and that’s when I received the unforgettable response at the opening of this article.
Rain bonds performers and audience in a strange way. It’s a feeling of all being in it together, which chimes with the touring experience as a whole. And so it was that night, where a packed-out audience in the driving Irish rain sat through our most electric performance of that entire summer. At the end of the evening nobody, cast or audience, wanted to leave the stage. Like the cast of 2002, nobody wanted to admit that it was over.
In those moments, you see how much it means to the people that have worked to make it happen, and you get a sense of how it only all comes off when everybody does their bit. In moments like that, it doesn’t feel like work at all.
Connor Wray is Executive Director at Off the Ground Theatre. Born on Merseyside, he enjoys acting, but is primarily a writer, holding a MA Modern and Contemporary Writing from University of Reading. He tutors and manages productions at Off the Ground Theatre, but has also advised, written for or collaborated with companies such as YEP, Barewater Productions and Turntable Theatre. His debut novel, Dear Henry, came out in 2016, the same year his first play was staged.