Digital Productions - Interview with Executive Producer Claire Summerfield

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Ahead of the screenings of GRASS films and Night Tree in the USA, our Executive Producer Claire Summerfield gave an interview to the New Vic about the practice and processes that led to our digital work. Here's what she told them...

(With thanks to: The New Vic and Sarah Saltwick, Holden & Arts Associates)

1. How was your digital work created?

Grass was the company’s first major theatre commission, which premiered at the Unicorn Theatre, London in 2016 after a small regional tour. Since then it has toured to three continents and been seen by just under 15,000 children and their families – not bad for a show with a limited audience capcity of 75!

Night Tree was also created as a live show first. It premiered in 2019 where it had a week long run at The Gulbenkian and then moved to Pavilion Dance South West as their Christmas Show.

2. Why was this digital work created in this way?

When the pandemic hit the UK we stopped being able to share our work with our audiences, and we stopped being able to create work. You can imagine this wasn’t an easy period…However what it meant we could do was a lot of thinking; thinking about what we wanted to make and who we wanted to make it for. Slowly the idea for the Grass films developed. And Rosie, our artistic director, disappeared off to the park one day with a dancer and using her iPhone as camera explored ideas for a film.

The live show is really sensory – it's performed on live Grass (Sod), and the audience sit really close up to the dancers – so you smell the earth when you watch the show. We wanted to try and capture this in the film. Shooting on location was a must. But rather than re-create the live show we wanted to use the techniques of film – all the various shooting angles, perspectives and playfulness with time – to create something bespoke that grew and adapted to the artistic medium.

We had some money tucked away and after seeing the outcomes of our initial R&D decided we had to make the films.

We also did some research with our networks in the UK, Australia, Europe and the US and discovered there was very little, if any, dance being made specifically for broadcast for younger audiences. This sealed the deal and the two Grass films were made.

This led to Pavilion Dance South West commissioning the Night Tree films, which premiered in February 2021 – right in the middle of probably the UK’s toughest lockdown period. It was very heart-warming to think we could offer something joyful to families at such a tough time – and which also offered them a way to escape to the outdoors.

3. What was it like working in a digital format for your theater company?

Rosie has a very visual approach to creating work – our live stage shows are richly layered, the visual world supporting and enhancing the choreographic. This meant transitioning to film was quite easy. What we had to learn a lot about, was the technical elements and how different a process it is. The fact we were working from material we’d already made, made this easier. We devise most of our live work with the company dancers. In film, so much has to be planned so meticulously – such as the shot list, locations, schedules etc that it would have taken us a lot longer, and it would have cost a lot more, to make a completely new work that didn’t already have the choreography at its core.

Also, unlike live performance – and this seems obvious saying it now – but what happens before and after the shoot is the biggest bit of the work. This is the absolute opposite process for creating a show where everything happens before opening night. This has meant we’ve had to adjust our working practices quite a lot, and understand that just because the ‘film is in the can’ it’s a long time before we’ll be able to share this with our audiences.

4. What was the most interesting part of this process?

Wow, a big question!

I think for a company that is disabled led we have truly discovered new ways of reaching audiences; audiences which might not be able to, or don’t want to, come to a venue, disabled audiences or audiences that want to watch our work when they want to and how they want to.

All of work has sensory components to it, we want to create worlds for the work to inhabit that is experienced in truly visceral ways.

Film, as it is a fixed form that can be multiplied in many different ways in many different formats relatively cheaply, has meant we can offer audio described versions for audiences who are visually impaired, captioned versions for deaf audiences, and short accompanying sensory films for audiences with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities – something which is exceptionally hard to do when you are touring and doing only one or two nights at a venue.

We’ve been thinking a lot about how suitable our access tools are for our audiences – for example we discovered there is very little audio description in the UK that is created by children for children. So, we did precisely that for our next project – the Getting Dressed Films, which premiered last week.

We also quickly realised traditional text based captions are not suitable for children who haven’t yet learned to read, so how can we use animation and images so the youngest deaf children can access our work?

All fabulous creative processes that mean not only more young people can access our work, but that they have input on how its developed.

5. Is there anything else you'd like us to know?

I could go on! Making films has been such an extraordinary journey for us as artists and as a company. We’ve learnt A LOT, had an absolute ball, got over some challenges but most importantly managed to keep creating dance work to share with our audiences. We believe that every person deserves great art that includes and expands their experiences. Our vision is a world where dance, play and exploratory movement are central to the lives of children and adults, as vital and fluent as language. We think these films are helping us take a step towards this world.