Outdoor Theatre with Heartbreak Productions | Living North

Outdoor Theatre with Heartbreak Productions

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Heartbreak Productions
Most theatre companies, when putting on a show, will be more worried about backdrops and lighting than wind direction and where the sun sets. Most theatre companies aren’t like Heartbreak Productions
‘Heartbreak are more likely to be found performing in the garden of a stately home or the grounds of a castle than in the buildings themselves’
Heartbreak Productions
Heartbreak Productions

Heartbreak is the child of Maddy Kerr and Peter Mimack, and for more than 20 years they’ve been touring the country putting on open air productions from Cornwall to Inverness. This summer the company they created will once again be out on the road performing at venues across the country, including several dates in the North East.

‘Venues’ might be too strong a word. As an open air theatre company, Heartbreak are more likely to be found performing in the garden of a stately home or the grounds of a castle than in the buildings themselves. So let’s start with the obvious: what happens when it rains?

‘We carry on,’ laughs Maddy. The only time the shows stop is if there’s a risk to safety – meaning lightning. ‘In summer the showers can be sharp but short. If it’s really battering down we’ll pause for five or 10 minutes and generally it passes over. Hats off to the audience – they tend to stay, put black bin liners on their heads and say, “We can’t get any wetter, you can’t get any wetter, let’s get to the end and see what happens!”’

Maddy remembers a show a few years ago, a performance of the Merchant of Venice, during which a severe thunder storm hit. ‘The organisers had very thoughtfully provided a bar,’ she recalls. This gave refuge to the audience, who leapt up, leaving chairs and picnics in disarray to reach shelter. Ten minutes later, in what Maddy describes as a ‘magical moment,’ the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and it was once again a beautiful evening, complete with clear blue sky. ‘That’s the wonder of the British weather. It can change so quickly.’ 

Maddy’s love of outdoor theatre has been with her since she was a child. ‘I had visited the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, which is a beautiful theatre set into the cliffs, more or less every year of my life since I had been born,’ she explains. She and her partner Peter had both attended drama school, and in the summer of 1992 they took their first production out on tour. Maddy wasn’t in that production herself (she has the very good excuse of having been heavily pregnant at the time) but she’s been in countless productions since. ‘For the first 10 years I think one or the other of us was in every production we did,’ she says. Since 2000, Peter and Maddy have both been directing. ‘I’ve also been in a couple, but I think the last time I was in an open air show was probably 10 years ago,’ Maddy continues, ‘I’m 51 now so I’m a tad old for that!’ 

The logistics involved in putting on the same show all over the country mean everything has to be meticulously planned. Sets, props, costumes, music – and the actors themselves – have to fit in a van. The team then travel together for the whole of the summer. This year there is one team putting on Jane Austen’s Emma and an adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost set in the roaring Twenties (for which the set and cast will double) and another team putting on David Walliams’ best-selling children’s book Mr Stink. 

It’s certainly an intense and challenging experience for the cast. ‘We do become very close little families,’ says Maddy. She stresses the importance of casting the right people not only for each part, but for what happens off stage. ‘You spend your time traveling to the venue, setting up the stage, doing the show, taking it down, going back to your B&B, then getting up the next day and doing the same again. Ego definitely has to be left at the end of the motorway.’ 

The team stay where they can – sometimes it’s a utilitarian budget hotel (where they can struggle to fit the long van in the car park), but there are also special places all over the country where people have taken a liking to the Heartbreak team, and do their best to make them feel at home. At one B&B in Scotland, the owners keep the bar open late waiting for the cast to return. ‘They sit down and play games and become part of the actors’ relaxing post-show, which is obviously quite important,’ says Maddy.

One of the venues Heartbreak will be visiting this summer is Jesmond Dene, which Maddy says has special resonance. Her partner Peter grew up in Newcastle, where his father was a Methodist minister, and he returned there to attend university. ‘It’s a place that’s very close to his heart,’ Maddy explains, ‘For him it’s almost like going home.’ 

The group often perform in spectacular, historic settings such as Belsay Castle and Warkworth Castle. Maddy describes the feeling of history that comes from performing in settings like this. ‘Everyone gets a great sense of privilege,’ she says, ‘Here we are, doing something we love for not huge amounts of money but in these extraordinary, wonderfully dramatic places.’ 

Given the long hours in the van, rain-soaked performances and months on the road, you might imagine it’s difficult to get actors to sign up for a season with Heartbreak. Not so. ‘There are two veteran people I can think of who have done 10 productions each,’ says Maddy. ‘They have been suckers for punishment!’ This year, there are three returning actors, including the man who is playing Mr Stink. ‘It’s nice to have people who know how Heartbreak works, but you need new blood and new perspective and new eyes looking in all the time as well.’ Even though they don’t take part any more, Maddy and Peter make sure they visit each production they have directed once a week while it’s on the road, to give them notes, move the shows on – and take them out for a meal. ‘They do become part of our family.’ 

Aside from the action on stage, Heartbreak like to create what Maddy calls a ‘framing device’, a world which comes from the story that the audience can walk into and be part of. At this year’s Mr Stink performances for example, the audience will be invited to the 10th birthday party of a little girl from the book, with stalls set up and games to play before the show begins. People are encouraged to come early, bring a picnic and join in. ‘It’s not like turning up at a West End theatre at 7.25 and you just take your seat. It’s a very interactive experience for everybody,’ says Maddy. ‘It’s not compulsory, but anybody who wants to is more than welcome to join in!’

Heartbreak Productions will be performing at venues across the North East throughout the summer. Go to www.heartbreakproductions.co.uk for details. 

Published in: May 2015

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