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Careers Clinic: How do I best use my research?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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Having grown up in a small seaside town, it’s still a thrill that I get to travel around the country as an actor and even (occasionally) appear on stages in the West End.

However, it’s nice to be recognised on home turf – I was very pleased when I was recently invited to put together a theatre piece for my hometown’s first ever festival, which takes place in a few months time.

Being a small town, we’re not exactly flush with theatre spaces, so I’ve been allocated one of the older buildings with a view to doing something site-specific.

I’m definitely up for the challenge, and, as there’s a lot of history attached to this particular venue, I thought I would pick up on that theme for the show.

Bearing in mind that this is my first show in which I am working as a producer as well as an actor, there’s quite a lot to be done between now and the festival. On the one hand, I don’t necessarily want to get completely bogged down in historical details, but on the other, there have already been many local lectures and school plays on the theme over the years.

Can you help me come up with something a bit more theatrical?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE The Killing of Charles Bravo is a site-specific production running until May 19 at the Bedford public house in Balham. The pub was the venue for the inquest into the real-life murder on which the play is based – a notorious poisoning and infidelity scandal that was the talk of Victorian London.

Kate Gibson, actor and executive producer of the piece, says that striking the balance between education and entertainment is the key to success in this kind of venture, and while agreeing that you don’t want to get “bogged down in detail”, feels initial research that is too superficial can also interfere with the production’s ability to grip audiences.

“I obviously had the help of the internet but I also did a lot of deeper reading about everything surrounding the Bravos, including historical context and each person’s given circumstances in the 1800s. You want and need to get information to form the story and often the gravitas of the piece, but you don’t want to treat it like a lecture. There has to be a cut off with the information, so being selective is a must.

“That said, everything that we write about and show is as authentic as possible, so we don’t make facts up for the sake of a story arc, and that is the hook – that it is all painfully real heightens the theatricality. It brings to light the old ‘if these walls could talk’, and with that realisation of reality, disbelief is suspended as soon as we are in the space.’’

The Bravo case is still officially an unsolved mystery, which adds an extra layer of intrigue, but over the years I have seen gripping theatrical presentations of periods and events I not only ‘knew the ending of’, but had the major plot points drummed into my head at school.

On the other hand, I’ve gone to shows fully prepared to be engaged and enlightened on fascinating and emotive slices of history, only to have a leaden ‘this meeting happened and then that meeting happened’ approach turn real events involving real people into the most artificial and unconvincing end result.

Selection is indeed the key, but where the initial research and reading stage comes into its own is when you discover enough material to enable you to select things you may not have picked out from a quick Wikipedia search.

Just as with modern life, it is often the small, telling human moments that put the big events in perspective, and the extra time put into your preparation is usually where the inspiration for those small moments – factual or improvised – will come from.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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