Winds of Change

It was in 1997 that Propeller came into being. Back then I was putting on a production of Henry V with Jill Fraser at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury.

The idea was simple: follow certain classical traditions such as using an all male cast, use as much live music and sound generated by the actors as possible and employ an aesthetic that meant something directly to all of us — then it was the modern British Army.

The idea was to take the audience outside during parts of the performance in an attempt to turn the evening into an event that people wouldn't forget. Something gelled and after an enormous international tour we decided to do another one. By the time we reached our third show we thought it was about time we had a name and so 'Propeller' was born.

From the start, it has always been very important to me that Propeller was a creation of the work we were doing, rather than an idea made up in another room, a box we had to fit our aspirations into.

The play was, and still is, the thing. It also seemed natural to give the actors some degree of ownership of the work they did and so I have endeavoured to give them a permanent place in the company unless they choose to opt out. An actor's life is deeply insecure, so it seemed important to me to give tangible security to people to help bond us into a group where everybody enjoyed the fruits of any successes we had.

To me, success should breed opportunity — not just opportunity for me, but for all of us involved in the work we do. This approach means the company is led by the actors and it has an independence not so easily enjoyed by other companies with more hierarchical management structures. It has also engendered enormous care and responsibility for the work we have done by all those who have created it.

Over the last 14 years we have played in New York, Swindon, Bangladesh, London, the Philippines, Norwich and Milan to name but a few places. We have graduated over time from pushing our sets in flight cases through departure halls into a major touring outfit sometimes needing three sets to cover the different continents we are playing on, and we have grown slowly and carefully, building an audience for our work while being careful not to expand beyond our means.

Regional touring has always been at the heart of what we do and our latest two productions of The Comedy of Errors and Richard III which open in Sheffield, mark the beginning of a major new partnership. One is a comedy and one is a tragedy, but it is sometimes difficult to decide which is which . . .

Richard III is a darkly ironic look at the effect that power has on all of us. The play's eponymous antihero is the most charming and mesmeric villain ever created. A man that audiences genuinely love to hate. It is funny, disturbing and at times profoundly moving.

Alongside it is a play with one of the warmest hearts in the English language. A Shakespearean comedy that is a piece of architectural genius, that generates enormous situation laughs in the spirit of a knockabout farce, but which has a soul that delivers one of the most moving and heart-warming last scenes of any play I know.

Both these productions are fast, physical and full of surprises and we have tried to push our own boundaries in producing these new versions of old favourites.

It is an exciting moment for all of us, yet the shadow of what is to come is starting to cause us great concern.

It is profoundly worrying how much money is being cut from the arts industry. I say industry because the word implies sustainability and over the last 10 years the arts has proved that it is a good investment. Public investment of £121.3 million for theatre is estimated to generate in the region of £2.6 billion annually split between the West End (£1.5b billion) and the rest of the country (£1.1 billion).

Over the next four years, 30 per cent of the £450 million put into funding culture in this country will be cut.

I only hope that businesses like Propeller will be able to survive and that, crucially, the next wave of British artists will get the support they need.

The best thing you can do to help is to buy a ticket and to keep coming to the theatre wherever you are. Enjoy the shows.

Edward Hall
Founder/Artistic Director
Propeller Theatre Company

Originally published in the Yorkshire Post, January 7, 2011

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