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Backstage: ‘We’ve got an 8-metre, blow-up Candylion’

Box office manager Heather Jones being shown the Candylion set model by production coordinator Fiona Curtis
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For David Evans, theatre is about creating something out of nothing. “One of the most exciting things is when you walk on to a blank stage, and somehow, within 48 hours, you have made a new world,” says the head of production at National Theatre Wales, who knows this better than most. “Usually,” continues Evans, “you start with a painted floor and build the world from there. When you work for NTW, it could be a field, it could be a mountain, it could be an aircraft hangar, but the principle is the same: you’re creating something that no one’s going to expect. That’s really thrilling.”

The team is currently working on NTW’s Christmas show, The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion, which features an inflatable, 8 metre-wide, hot pink lion that looks like it has escaped from a bouncy castle. Described as part-theatre, part-gig, the show features music from Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, script by Tim Price, direction by Wils Wilson and design by Laura Hopkins. Having performed a Christmas show in a tent, battling gale-force wind and battering rain, this year’s show is mercifully indoors, at the SSE Swalec Stadium, Cardiff.

What, then, are the challenges of this show, given that an indoor space is tame by NTW’s standards? “The size of this show has given us pause,” explains Evans. “It’s 38 metres long, so that’s a lot of truss and a lot of masking. We’ll have to mask the roof, because it’s glass, and that’s acres of material. You can spend vast amounts of money on seemingly nothing.”

“We don’t always try to make a theatre, we’re just trying to make a space for a performance. That’s quite a distinction. We have done shows where we have just created a theatre, but on other occasions we’re providing the equipment necessary to stage a performance of some description, where the audience are much more integrated. With this one, it’s both a performance space and a theatre – we’ve got to create a controlled environment,” he says.

Director Wils Wilson in rehearsals for The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion
Director Wils Wilson in rehearsals for The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion

Fiona Curtis, production coordinator, agrees: “We’re essentially building a black box theatre into another space. The trick is that we have to be able to steer people, while keeping options really open. The set needs to work from a production point of view and it needs to last for 20 shows; there’s a lot of practicalities around building something manageable.”

That said, the production team is not new to this way of working. Production manager Jacob Gough praises the ingenuity and hard work that go into building an NTW show, wherever it is. “A big part of it isn’t just the practical stuff, it’s about the attitude and the people,” he says. “There’s a real can-do attitude – ‘We’re going to do what? Yeah, okay, let’s do it’.”

“We take the show and then work out how we’re going to do it,” agrees Evans. “It’s very liberating. You’re not trying to put it on a stage, as such. There are rules and disciplines about putting things on stages, which can be marvellous, but with these shows you get to start again and try new things. Then we learn all those lessons and never do it like that again.”

Curtis echoes this: “It doesn’t suit everyone. Some people try it, and then decide they want to work in a building, they don’t want to get rained on, they want to work in a set space. And that’s totally fine. It’s not for everyone.” Evans agrees: “A proscenium arch presents a different set of parameters. People create things that are mind-blowing, in what is actually a much more limiting environment than the one we work in.”

For Evans, a challenge with this show is making it family-friendly. “The kids are not tall. Partly we deal with it by putting the performers up high, and partly it’s down to audience management – trying to encourage them to sit down on the floor. We’re aiming for age four upwards, so how do you create that wide appeal? It’s basically an excuse to get excited about visual stuff, because you know that’s what works for smaller people.”

Gough is keen to talk about making sure that NTW’s shows are open to all, too: “One of the big things we work really hard at is making shows accessible. Because we’re in a building this time, things like wheelchair accessibility are much easier. Rather than resting on our laurels, we’ve ramped it up and made sure that every show is captioned, we’re audio-describing one show, and we’re holding one relaxed performance.”

If NTW’s way of working appeals, it must be a very exciting place to work. Evans is practically bubbling with enthusiasm for his job and this show, in all its hot pink glory. “We’ve got a blow-up, 8 metre-wide Candylion. Isn’t it wonderful? What other job gives you the opportunity to make something like that? It’s ridiculous. You couldn’t put that on a normal stage.”

The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion runs at the SSE Swalec Stadium, Cardiff, from December 16 to January 2. Visit nationaltheatrewales.org for full details

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