• Cyphers Theatre Company

After Northanger Abbey

Co-Artistic Director and adaptor of ‘Northanger Abbey’, Katherine Rigg, describes the tour and what’s happening next…

Over the past few months, we’ve been revisiting Northanger Abbey. We first developed and previewed the show in 2017, performing in Winchester and at the Pleasance Theatre in London. This summer, we’ve returned to Winchester and also expanded our travels to Canterbury, Northampton and Farnham. As a small theatre company, touring is both exciting (look at us, we’re on the motorway!) and nerve-wracking (what if no-one turns up?). It’s a fantastic opportunity to take work we really care about to new spaces and share it with new audiences… But it’s also a bit like betting on a horse. You’re invested in something you think is good (and like the name of) but you can’t really know how well it’ll do until it’s up and running. You have to watch, gritting your teeth, until it makes it to the end. Or falls over.

As the adaptor, my job was technically finished once we stopped fiddling with the script, which was the end of the previewing period. But since we work in a particularly collaborative way at Cyphers, I got to be in the re-rehearsal room at a point where the writer has often been removed. So luckily for me, I was involved in new discoveries and stagings, and our four returning actors (and director) brought fresh ideas after a bit of time away. We had one new actor for this tour – Helen Percival replaced Toby Vaughan in the mind-boggling combination of Mrs Allen/John Thorpe/Captain Tilney. From a writer’s point of view, a change in cast means you learn more about your characters (heightened when they’re playing more than one part!). Every actor will bring a role to life differently, and they show the writer that many different people can be made from the same set of lines. It’s fascinating to find more variations on a character you think you know.

It wasn’t just the actors who brought something new to the Northanger Abbey script. On this tour, we performed at four very different venues: a country house set in beautiful grounds (Charlton Park), a Norman round church (Holy Sepulchre), a Guildhall in the heart of Winchester and at Farnham Maltings – the latter’s buildings have lived as a tannery, brewery and now an arts centre. Each of our venues brought its own history and personality, and their spaces demanded different stagings. Thankfully, the style in which we work celebrates this.

We deliberately use minimal tech, set and props in our performances. Partly because we’ve got no significant funding and need to pack the set neatly into a hatchback… But mostly because we enjoy the inventiveness of using very little to create a lot. We like to use what we’ve got around us – like the architecture of that particular space – to bring the story to life. We’re interested in the liveness of sharing that space directly with the audience.

Each building gives its audience a very unique experience of the story, and we’re there to facilitate that. On this tour, the Bath society scenes in Northanger Abbey really came to life under the gilding of Charlton Park’s ballroom, yet it was the Gothic hum echoing hauntingly round the Holy Sepulchre’s Norman walls that made that performance memorable for me. Personally, I’ve learnt a lot from how the spaces have helped us create Northanger Abbey differently every night, and how they’ve acted like another member of the cast. Hopefully they’ve helped us encourage the audiences to read the book and/or visit that building again. Then we’ve done our job and can drive back down the motorway very happy.

As a touring theatre company, our audience reactions feed directly into how we make our next work. So we’ve been absorbing what went well on this tour, what we can push further and what we can do to entice and surprise next time. Although the Northanger Abbey tour is finished (for a little while), we’re going straight into exploring ideas for a new show. We’ve got a week coming up in the Pit Theatre at the Barbican to test new ideas, followed by further development time at two South West venues in the autumn/winter. We’re going in with a novel we know but, crucially, this time is also about exploring lots of things we don’t yet know how to do. Such as how we can integrate live music into our work. Our mission is to empower people to engage with classic stories, and we don’t want to get complacent or predictable in how we do it.

I’d love to tell you more about our next play…once we’ve sorted the minor details of exactly what it is and, um, how we’re making it. In the meantime, our social media (@CyphersUK) and newsletters will take you along with us on the process of making this new piece! I hope you can join us.

Images: Petros Poyiatgi

Katherine Rigg is a co-Artistic Director of Cyphers Theatre Company and also works for the JMK Trust. She trained on the MA Text & Performance at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Birkbeck (distinction) and prior to that gained a first-class degree in English from St Andrews. Previous adaptations for Cyphers include Northanger Abbey and Gothic Tales by Candlelight. As a writer, Katherine is mentored by the Tron Theatre’s Creative scheme. As a producer, Katherine has worked as the Laboratory Associate Producer at Nuffield Southampton Theatres (on productions such as I Won’t Make It On My Own, Now:Here, The Grapes of Wrath). Producing credits also include: The Poetry We Make (Flugelman Productions) My Shrimp and I (Inditeatro), Great Expectations and Beacons (Attic Theatre Company).

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