As The Passion production, which took place in Port Talbot last Easter, is launched as a feature film, Sharon D Calcutt reports on the stage management of the show and recalls how the event unfolded
Easter in Port Talbot last year was not dominated by the Easter Bunny – townspeople had an altogether more dramatic take on the week. National Theatre Wales and WildWorks, in collaboration with locals, produced a three-day promenade production of The Passion that journeyed through the streets of the town.
The play started at dawn on Good Friday with a scene on the beach watched by a couple of hundred people that had heard about it by word of mouth. By Sunday night the audience had snowballed to more than 22,000 as Michael Sheen’s Christ was crucified. With a huge influx of people, all the hotels full and an increase in trade of 35%, this has been hailed by locals as “the most positive thing to happen for a long time”.
Sarah Cole was the production manager of this huge event, supported by a five-strong stage management team, who were later nominated for the National Awards for Stage Management team award. As well as having a core team of professionals and 1,800 members of the community to organise, the whole event was filmed for both a documentary and a full-length feature, which was launched last weekend, along with an exhibition about the event called Memories. Entitled The Gospel of Us, the film premiered on Easter Sunday at Port Talbot Apollo Cinema and goes on general release tomorrow (Friday).
So where do you start planning for a production like this? Sheen started working on the concept two years beforehand with a steady stream of creatives and production staff joining him until August when the first call for the community cast went out from Adele Thomas, the project associate. Rehearsals started in September with the support of the community stage managers, Ian Abraham and Gemma Thomas. The core team of 15 professional actors then joined for the last five weeks of rehearsals with the rest of the stage management team.
One of the biggest challenges in the rehearsal period was finding somewhere big enough to fit everyone in and still have room to work. All church halls, shopping centres and outside spaces were commandeered and even then the whole company only got to work together during the actual show. Dealing with such a close knit community required a whole different set of skills. As well as dealing with the show, the team found themselves stage managing the whole town – childcare, lost cats, and pub opening times all factored in to decisions that could only be made face to face.
And so with the local police briefed that the fake guns being brandished in the centre of town were nothing to worry about and phones and digital radios charged, the company set about a ten-day tech. Due to the availability of the cast and the fact that many of the venues were public spaces, work had to happen after hours at evenings and weekends, all on quiet streets and in closed shopping centres. There was up to a two-week gap between teching sections and performing them. There were even some sections that couldn’t be teched (most notably the crucifixion scene), so they had to be accomplished live.
During the performance the team was augmented by 60 technical volunteers, led by assistant stage manager Kevin Smith, allowing the stage management team to stagger their scenes. The first sequence of the army arriving by boat at daybreak (members of the local rugby club) was run by three stage managers from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama who then ran to the minibus waiting to take them to set up a scene later on in the day. With some teams positioning themselves ahead of the show and make sure everything was ready as well as tracking the action, the logistics volunteers proved invaluable.
Managing creativity meant making sure the company ate and slept while remaining warm and dry so they were always at their best. Sheen wanted to sleep on the mountain and in the police cell so food was taken to him and the ever-present Nigel, his security guard. The catering was run from a large hall, opposite another communal space which served as a dressing room from which minibuses ferried the cast to and from the many locations.
While the entire experience was excellent, the top three moments were the transformation of a car park during the trial when the chief of police stood on a truck, torturing Sheen with the audience shaking the vehicle shouting, “Sheen is king! Sheen is king!” A bit of a worry for Matthew North, the stage manager – however the power of an audience of thousands being swept up in the narrative was awe-inspiring. Another close runner for pole position was the appearance of the Manic Street Preachers on the Saturday night at the Last Supper. However, all agreed the most breathtaking element was the crucifixion. Staged on a roundabout to the backdrop of beautifully lit fountains, never having been run before, Sheen said he would give Donna Reeves, the deputy stage manager, a cue line. Then the scene started and the show finished as a man died and was resurrected in front of 22,000 people.
For details about The Gospel of Us, visit nationaltheatrewales.org