Vamos Theatre is a leading full mask theatre company based in Worcestershire. Their previous productions, including Nursing Lives, In Your Face, Storybag and George and the Dragon - a Right Royal Riot! have toured nationally since the company was established in 2006. Vamos is a close knit team who are dedicated to devised work and physical and fantastical adaptations of human stories, which are often rooted in real life histories and events. They use original music, puppetry, physicality and humour to create their unique productions.
Much Ado About Wenlock is their latest creation. Set in 1850 in the small market town of Much Wenlock, the show takes its audience back to the unlikely roots of the modern day Olympic games, and a doctor who used the small town’s Olympian games as a method for social change, improved health and liberation.
So, were the Olympian Games in the small town of Much Wenlock really the inspiration for the modern day Olympic Games?
Yes! Few outside of Much Wenlock, the small Shropshire town on the Welsh borders, know that it is the true home and inspiration for the modern Olympic Games. In July every year, Much Wenlock quietly celebrates its own “games” in honour of the town’s physician, Dr William Penny Brookes, a utopian figure who, in 1850, devised the idea that the working people of the town could be liberated from their labours, drunkenness, and ill health through athleticism and other more curious forms of physical activity. Dr Brookes’ first games in 1850 did, of course, feature Olympian athletics, but they also included traditional English country sports and rather more bizarre events such as spelling and knitting races! This annual amateur event in Much Wenlock became the basis of his National Olympic Association, which would itself become the inspiration for the Frenchman Baron Pierre Fredy de Coubertin, the man most often credited with rekindling the Olympic torch in Athens in 1896.
And why was it this story in particular that you decided to use for a piece of full mask theatre?
The Olympian Games were physical, visual and based on the stories of a community. Mask theatre is visual and physical so the story and the theme married together well. Also, the characters behind the tale were a gift; for example, the stern school mistress (historical school master) who supported the games and the Reverend who was strongly opposed to them, being of the opinion that the games would be immoral because they would distract the working men and unnecessarily mix the classes. All of the politics and confrontations behind the mild mannered event were a basis for brilliant theatre.
Full mask is obviously an incredibly specialist technique. For anyone who has never seen it before, can you tell us more about full mask and what makes it so incredible to watch?
There are no words. The whole piece is told through gesture, pace, stillness, movement, music and sound. Full mask does not hand the whole story to the audience on a plate, we are asking you to work and meet us half way. Because each individual is reading the piece they are interpreting and writing their own script, therefore, it becomes a much more personal and emotional journey. Audience members often come out of a show saying they are amazed at how much can be said without words and even though the masks are fixed it seems as if they are constantly changing expression.
But Vamos’ work isn’t only about Full Mask, what else is key to your style of theatre?
All of our work is based on true, and often historical, stories. The stimulus of the initial idea can be small, for example the idea for Nursing Lives was born out of postcards, letters and notes, to and from nurses that were found by a demolition team when they were pulling down the old Worcester Royal Infirmary.
The most important factor with all of the stories that we choose to tell is that they are human stories. Yes, Much Ado About Wenlock is about Dr. William Penny Brookes but it is centred around the lives and the struggles of the Sankey family and how the ‘Wenlock Olympian Games’ impacted on the family. Our next show Finding Joy is in the early stages of production at the moment and tells the tale of one family’s experience of dementia. In particular, Finding Joy is the story of a teenage lad, Rowan, his grandmother, Joy, and their unique, quirky, and inspiring relationship. This will be touring February to June 2013.
All of Vamos’ work is devised...can you tell me how this impacts the creation of a new production?
The process for a new show happens over the course of ten months to a year. Rachael Savage, Artistic Director spends time researching and writing the basic outline for the script, this is usually a skeleton of scenes and characters. We then have three or four play days working with Rachael, Janie Armour (Musical Director) and the actors. During these days we play with characters, themes, scenes and stories. We then have a six week devising and rehearing process, during this time we work with a large team of artists and directors.
The devising process is a real collaborative journey, on Much Ado About Wenlock we worked with Movement Director, Neil Bettles (Thickskin Artistic Director, Frantic Assembly Creative Associate) and Clown Consultant, Cal McCrystal (National Theatre, Spymonkey, 4 Poofs and a Piano) who brought their own specialism to the piece. Rachael and Mask Maker, Russell Dean (Strangeface, Trestle Theatre, BBC, The Old Vic) then work together to create the masks. The actual show masks arrive about three weeks into the process after the actors and director have a clear understanding of the characters. By devising the show over a long period of time all of the strands of the production have a chance to inform and inspire each other, producing a total piece of theatre to surpass all audience expectations.
For more information on Vamos Theatre’s work go to www.vamostheatre.co.uk