Interviewing Proteus' Mary Swan

As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Kaveh has been touring with Proteus Theatre's childrens show Brrr for the past few weeks. It's been to a few arts centres but much of the touring has been to rural communities which see little or no theatre for the rest of the year due to locations. Nearly There Yet very much want to take more of their work out to rural communities in the coming years and in fact, next summer The Flying Bazazi Brothers will be popping up in villages all over summer with their show. This week, we interview artistic director of Proteus, Mary Swan, and ask her a little bit about her involvement with rural touring and just what the attraction is.

How did you get in to creating work for rural touring?

My first role as a professional Director was with Solent Peoples Theatre, who toured their work to rural venues throughout the south of England. I had only made work for professional theatre spaces prior to this so it was a real culture shock, but having worked in outdoor arts as well, the adaptation skills one develops working outdoors was invaluable in developing my work for rural spaces.

      Have you done other kinds of work in theatre/arts before?

I started out as an actor, but I have worked in Street Theatre, stand-up comedy, puppetry, teaching and lecturing theatre techniques and have written several scripts for my own work and for other companies.

      What do you prefer about rural touring to bigger venues/cities?

I love taking work to an audience working in ‘their’ space – you have to adapt your performance, set, everything to make the show work in these spaces and that makes every performance of the same show unique. It’s also far more testing for the work itself – you can’t rely on technical aspects of a show – like lighting or sound – to paper over any issues with the script, performances or direction; you can literally see the whites of the audiences eyes and you know instantly if the piece is working for an audience or not in a way that just doesn’t happen in formal theatre spaces. You also get a real connection with your audience – you are performing often to an entire village who all know each other - you are the strangers!

      What kinds of challenges do you face with rural touring?

Obviously the technical aspects are the most challenging – from having enough plug sockets to low ceilings, from no heating to unexpected pianos in the space – often finding the venue in the first place can be a challenge, as well as getting large touring vans down tiny country lanes. Over the years we have developed at Proteus a way of making work that we call ‘concertina’ – everything from the set to the lighting design can be scaled up or down on a show, meaning that we can take the same piece to mid-scale professional venues and village halls.

      Do you have a favourite tour/show/venue from your career?

That would be like picking a favourite child! But there have been some amazing moments; in a tiny, packed village hall Salisbury doing a show about ex-military personnel suffering with post traumatic stress disorder, an audience member at the end of the show spontaneously stood up and told the story of his battle with PTSD after he had served in Bosnia – cast, crew and audience all in tears by the time he had finished. The gasp of amazement when during ‘Houdini’ the actor disappeared in front of the audience’s eyes on the exact spot where one audience member told me she had been doing yoga the previous night “so no trap door – that’s incredible!” And the Christmas show tour where deep snowfall meant that while the touring van was big and heavy enough to make it to the village, no cars could – but the undaunted audience walked up to three miles in the snow to see the show. But perhaps my favourite thing about rural touring is the sheer democracy of it – increasingly theatre is cited as being elitist – the fact that people can see the same piece of high quality theatre in their local village hall which then transfers to the West End or New York (as we have done with our work) for an affordable ticket price, is the overriding reason why I do it.