Transfer Theatre Company Prepare for Second Production

Artistic director Roger Dane on filling a gap in the market and producing Polly Stenham's That Face in Voodoo, Belfast

Roger Dane is a man in a hurry. As the artistic director of Transfer Theatre Company – which was formed in September 2012 with the aim of bringing theatre created outside of Northern Ireland to Northern Ireland at accessible, affordable prices – Dane had the company's first production, an adaptation of Hayley Squire's Vera Vera Vera, up and running by the end of October.

The company’s second show, an adaptation of Polly Stenham’s astonishing That Face, opens on April 28 and runs until May 1. I meet Dane at Voodoo, the Belfast city centre pub more usually associated with mulleted day-drinkers and Led Zeppelin cover bands, but chosen by Dane as the venue for the new production.

'In London, theatre in pubs is well established,' says the Englishman, who relocated to Belfast several years ago. 'We don’t have that in Belfast, but that’s what we want to do here – that model is the entire basis for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I believe that there is an audience for theatre, and for arts in general, that isn’t being served by what’s out there [in Northern Ireland].'

Roger Dane

 

Dane (pictured above) considers, for a moment, what is out there, what is available for theatre-goers across Northern Ireland, and he does not particularly like what he sees. 'We’re so fixated with the Troubles and the Titanic,' he argues. 'We’re so bogged down in trying to bring business cases for everything. Everything has to be tied in with tourism.

'But there’s an audience out there, an audience that reads the broadsheet newspapers and reads reviews about what’s happening in London. Or maybe they don’t, maybe they just turn the page because they know they’ve got no chance of ever seeing those things. Things like That Face.'

Ah, That Face. There’s something of the Victorian melodrama about the play. It tells the story of a house with a monster in – a drunken, keening spider-woman, lounging at the centre of her web, tickled by the trembling of her two captives: the daughter she doesn’t love and the son she loves too much.

That Face created a sensation when it opened in the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2007, and it quickly moved to an extended West End run. Written by Stenham, a precious talent, when she was just 19-years-old, it caught the attention of the literati and led to Stenham's own youthful face being splashed across so many front pages (see below).

Martha, the drunken, pill-popping matriarch of the play, is an extraordinary creation: brittle, emasculating, fragile, contemptible and pathetic. If there’s something of the soap opera in her characterisation, then it’s of the Latin American variety: nostrils are flared, lips are curled.

The comparison with that other monstrous theatrical Martha, from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, seems unavoidable. She pops up like an angry pimple in every review I’ve read.

Yet That Face is a lot of fun. Laughter is cruel and mocking, and any and all screaming showily hysterical. There are frequent trips to the drinks cabinet, where booze is siphoned from cut glass decanters. A lot of fun indeed. And that, also, seems to be part of Dane's ethos for Transfer.

Polly Stenham

 

'I’m not trying to break into a mass market,' he explains – hence the unusual venue for his second production. 'What I’m trying to do is find a couple of thousand people who are prepared to go to the theatre two or three times a year. Those people would sustain an operation like this.'

To further this end, Dane has looked at alternative business models. Visitors to the company’s website will notice a crowd-sourcing initiative, a Kickstarter fund, where generous benefactors can make contributions toward Transfer productions, ranging from £1 to £500. If you wanted to give more, however, I’m sure they wouldn’t turn you away.  

'There are a lot of good actors in Belfast,' Dane observes, 'but a lot of them need to have day jobs because there isn’t the industry to support them full-time. Transfer’s ethos is to give those people interesting work, but to stage it in a way that makes it practicable.

'So we rehearse weekends and evenings, and we work really hard for two and a half weeks. Then it’s done as a project. That way, the actors are not out of action for too long, should a properly paying gig come up. I can’t pay them, as were not, as yet, generating that sort of money,' he adds, ruefully.

'Which is why we have the Kickstarter campaign. If it’s funded, then that will cover the production costs, which means that every person buying a ticket is paying their money directly to the actors and crew. Without Kickstarter it’s a traditional profit-share – production costs come first and the rest of the money trickles down.'

It worked for Vera Vera Vera, and now it's all systems go for That Face. I notice a theme in Transfer's first two productions. Just as Polly Stenham was 19-years-old when she wrote the latter, so too was Hayley Squires when she wrote the former. So, can we expect A Taste of Honey next?

'No,' Dane says, politely acknowledging the stupidity of the question. 'The age of the two playwrights is just a coincidence. Next up is Parlour Song, by Jez Butterworth,' he adds with some pride – another big name ticked off the list. 'It will on by the beginning of June.'

The Face runs in Voodoo, Belfast from April 28 to May 1.