Company at the creative cutting edge

Savannah Gordon. Picture: Robert Day
Savannah Gordon. Picture: Robert Day
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The always innovative Pilot Theatre company is back on stage after a foray into the movies. Nick Ahad spoke to artistic director Marcus Romer.

The last time I saw Marcus Romer was at a film premiere. I was there to watch the movie and Romer, the artistic director of Pilot theatre company was there to introduce the movie his theatre company had made.

Yes, really. It may be a bit of a surprise that a theatre company should be making movies – although not to those who have watched Pilot closely. The York-based company has always been at the forefront of innovation.

In 2007 Romer returned from an Arts Council funded trip to a TED conference. The investment in the trip was well worth it.

TED Talks have spread like wildfire – they feature speakers from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design and are incredibly inspiring. Everyone knows about them now, but Pilot was there six years ago, bringing the concept to York Theatre Royal. It is the sort of thing Pilot just does – it looks at what technology makes possible and makes it possible here in Yorkshire, as soon as possible.

In a show last year, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, it featured the main actor running on a treadmill almost throughout the whole piece. It created a set with projections.

You can see why it makes perfect sense for Pilot Theatre Company to make a movie – and not just a movie, but one shot entirely on green screen.

Romer says: “People seem to think that Pilot is ahead of the game when it comes to using technology, because we use video and music and that sort of stuff in a way that isn’t typical. The truth is though, we have lots of technology available to us in the theatre.

“We just happen to look at the other technology that is out there – like digital technology – and work out how we can use it. I remember back in 1998 when we were sending out CD Roms with our education packs and people were pulling funny faces at us doing that.

“Well, some people are pulling funny faces now, with the technology that we’re using today. That’s fine by me. We’re using what’s in the toolbox – and the toolbox is getting bigger.”

There’s using a bigger toolbox, though and there’s making a movie. “We got the rights six years ago to the Young Adult novel The Knife the Killed Me. It took six years for the film to make it to screen, but that’s something that we now have on the list of Pilot productions. For me, though, what was interesting and important was the story at the heart of that (the movie, funded by Universal, was shot entirely on green screen in studio). We could have thrown as much CGI as you like at that film, but unless the story and the performances at the heart of the story worked, then all the CGI in the world makes no difference.”

So what is the obvious move for a theatre company once it has made a movie? A classical Greek play. Obviously.

Antigone could be a bit stuffy and a bit Greek drama with people in togas, but this is a Pilot production,” says Romer. “It’s fun sometimes to get people in to see something and then crack open their expectations. Some young people will be studying this on the syllabus for their GCSEs and A Levels – although that’s not why we’ve programmed it – but for some of those young people that means seeing our production of this story will be their first experience of theatre. They will come and see a play that has a strong central female character that is told in a surprising and vibrant, colourful, very Pilot way.”

Roy Williams has adapted the Sophocles play, which will feature an all-black cast and tells the story of Antigone, who defies the King of Thebes when he refuses to bury her brother. It seems, given the fact that the last Pilot production was the movie of The Knife That Killed Me, an odd choice. Perhaps not.

“Young people are faced with extreme circumstances. This is a play about extreme circumstances: it’s about power struggles and corruption and defiance and betrayal – there is a reason the story is still being told after 2000 years.”

Antigone opens in Derby next week, before touring the country and coming to several Yorkshire venues, including Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield on October 15-18 and to Pilot’s home turf, York Theatre Royal, October 21-25. So what is next for this most inventive of companies?

“For me the biggest thing we have to do over the next three years is remain creative. We’ve built into our planning what I call ‘airlock spaces’. It’s a slot in the schedule where we haven’t planned anything, because that means we can respond to what’s going on around us. I want us to be light on our feet and able to respond to what is in the news and what people are talking about.”

The future is definitely looking up for Pilot.