After losing its show’s set to a fire at Battersea Arts Centre in 2015, Gecko is more prepared for disaster than most theatre companies. Artistic director Amit Lahav tells Fergus Morgan about surviving setbacks, the company’s latest project – a feature film on the BBC – and redeveloping an old factory on the waterfront
On March 13, 2015, physical theatre company Gecko was preparing to perform its acclaimed show Missing at Battersea Arts Centre. At 4pm that afternoon, a fire destroyed large parts of the building, taking Gecko’s entire set with it. It was a devastating blow, but for artistic director Amit Lahav, it was also galvanising.
“It was difficult, but it was also exciting,” he says. “We lost everything in that show in one moment, but the following Friday we performed it at Queen Elizabeth Hall with no set, no costume, no lighting, nothing, and that night was one of the most exciting and uplifting performances I can remember being involved in. The fire probably took the company to a new level. I suppose what I’m saying is: adversity can be an opportunity to lift yourself to somewhere remarkable.”
Lahav has found that experience of adapting to setbacks useful this year as his company, along with the rest of the performing arts industry, faces up to the unprecedented adversity of coronavirus. It has helped him feel hopeful about the future, and – pandemic aside – the Ipswich-based national portfolio organisation has a lot to look forward to as it approaches its 20th birthday. As Lahav puts it: “There is a lot going on.”
First up is the premiere of its debut feature film, Institute, on BBC Four. It is an adaptation of the company’s celebrated 2014 show of the same name, which Lahav created and starred in and which Lyn Gardner labelled “visually stunning” and “a beautiful, frustrating puzzle”.
“At the time, I was thinking about mental health – my own mental health and the mental health of people around me,” Lahav says of the stage show’s origins. “I had lost people close to me through depression and other things. I started to see how incredibly lacking in care we can be, but also how remarkably caring we can be, and I became fascinated by the duality of that. That was the seed of the piece. Our ability to care, our ability not to care, and how we can develop a greater sense of empathy.”
The result of an extensive production process was an extraordinary show – a dark and disturbing four-man dance, set in a Kafkaesque office-turned-hospital surrounded by towering filing cabinets – that has toured nationally and internationally every year since its debut, travelling from Southampton to Sydney to Shanghai and beyond.
The film version has been a long time in the making. In 2015, Gecko produced a 30-minute performance called The Time of Your Life for the BBC’s Live from Television Centre strand of programming. That project sparked a conversation – five years later, with companies The Space and Illuminations on board as co-producers, it has finally turned into Gecko’s first feature-length film.
Lahav was confident that, in adapting Institute from stage to screen, none of the former’s intensely visual quality would be lost. That’s partly because of his approach to making theatre, he says, and partly because of the style of film he was determined to make.
“In a way, I feel like I’ve been making film for 20 years already, only for the stage not the screen,” Lahav says. “When I’m making a show, I see everything in a pictorial way. I see things in close-ups and establishing shots. I see things in gestures and symbols. It’s a kind of filmic theatremaking, I suppose.”
He continues: “I was very clear that I didn’t want to make a film of a performance, or a dance film, whatever that means. I wanted to make a film. I wanted to use the camera language that we are all familiar with – the establishing shot, the two-shot, the reverse shot over the shoulder, the super close-up. I wanted the movement and physicality and expressiveness of the work to stand alone, and to be filmed beautifully, but not in a dizzying, wild way.”
Lahav produced a screenplay for the adaptation, adding in five extra roles to avoid the doubling up used in the stage version. The filming itself took place at RAF Bentwaters, a disused facility close to Gecko’s Suffolk home, over just nine days in 2019. That was followed by three months of post-production, with Lahav there every step of the way.
I wanted to learn. That was fundamental, because my sense is that this is just the beginning of Gecko making film
“I interviewed everyone involved – the director of photography, the editor, the designer, the art director, the whole team – and I told them that I would be there with them at every moment, until the very last second,” he says. “I wanted to learn. That was fundamental to this whole thing, because my sense is that this is just the beginning of Gecko making film.”
If Gecko is about to branch out into film-making, it should soon have a new home from which to do it. Supported by Ipswich Borough Council, the company is redeveloping an old factory on Ipswich’s waterfront into the Creation Space – a large facility featuring a fully equipped studio and workshop, in which Gecko and other companies can work and rehearse.
“It is what we need, because it is exhausting making a show when you are endlessly ferrying stuff to and fro, and sending stuff off to be altered all the time,” says Lahav. “So this is the dream. This is absolutely the dream.”
However, it is a dream that has inevitably been affected by coronavirus. The timeline for the redevelopment has been pushed back, as has the timeline for Gecko’s next stage show. The company has made a show about every three years since its inception in 2001, and its next production – “the one that everything has been building up to”, according to Lahav – will be its eighth, whenever it happens.
“It was going to premiere next year, and we were two weeks away from going into the studio to begin the process of making it when lockdown started,” says Lahav. “It’s difficult to say exactly when it will happen now, because everything is so uncertain, but I feel positive that it will. I’m not making any compromises in my head at the moment.”
Lahav has found the delay frustrating, but he has used the time to develop his ideas for the show – it is a particularly personal project, focusing on migration and inspired by his grandmother’s journey across Yemen as a four-year-old – and he actually feels lucky that the lockdown came when it did.
“The plus of this particular story is that we were cash rich at the moment that lockdown started, because we were about to spend a lot of money on building our new show,” he says. “We hadn’t spent anything on it yet, and that has meant we had a bit of a bedrock to help us survive this period.
“Initially, there was that awful feeling: ‘Why are we getting chopped down when we are absolutely flying?’ But it’s like I said about the fire and about adversity – it’s also an opportunity. And it’s still all going to happen. We are still up for it, whether it is the film or the building or the show. We aren’t going to stop. We’ve got to keep going.”
Institute is now available on BBC iPlayer. Details: geckotheatre.com