We’ve done some strange things in our time - performing Macbeth on an empty stage at the Grand Theatre because the set was being held at the Russian border; shifting four tons of coal in a van when our Edinburgh Fringe venue cancelled on us the day before opening; abandoning our expensive homage to Marc Chagall when a Catalan bishop demanded we remove the beautiful blue cloth we had suspended in front of a church in Formentera – but this Christmas is the first time we have ever created a piece of live work in the knowledge that there will be (for the moment at least) no opening night.
The piece you can’t come and see just now is The Clockwork Crow – an adaptation of the 2018 novel by acclaimed Welsh author Catherine Fisher. It tells the story of Seren Rhys, an orphaned girl who his handed a mysterious package by a stranger on a freezing railway station, on her way to an unknown new life in a remote Welsh mansion. Think The Secret Garden meets The Box of Delights, with a Welsh steam-punk vibe…
Everyone is, by now, grimly accustomed to the fact that theatres are closed, and many are dying – at Volcano, however, we are privileged to be in possession of a cavernous and versatile ex-retail space that includes galleries and garages, cafes and corridors. We reopened the bits we could at the end of July and have done our best to keep things happening within the limits permitted. With an optimistic eye on gradually easing restrictions, we devised a Christmas family experience that would allow people to travel through the building in their extended household bubbles, taking on Seren’s quest to find Tomos, the missing boy reputedly taken by the Tylwyth Teg. Without ever meeting other audience members, you would begin where Seren does on the chilly platform, spy on the gossip in the kitchen, wander through creepy corridors, and travel through mazes and meadows in search of the golden staircase that leads to the magic realm.
Volcano gets things done at a furious pace, but we can’t outpace a virus. As the ‘firebreak’ ended and the rules tightened around us, we had a creative team already in place. Our lead designer, Gudny Sigurdar in Iceland, Zoomed and WhatsApped mood-boards and crazy ideas to her brilliant deputy Bourdon Brindille on the ground – a store-room that used to hold props and costumes became the shadowy retreat of Seren’s bedroom; a little-used corridor became the railway carriage where she takes her first peek at the feathery-mechanical contents of the mysterious parcel. The formidable housekeeper Mrs Villiers had donned her marigolds and The Crow was wound up and ready for action.
The political classes talk a lot of the need to ‘balance’ the interests of people against those of ‘the economy’, as if the economy did not consist of exchanges between people. Economies have actors – many more than you will find in theatres. Actors of the theatrical kind, meanwhile, are also workers – they pay rent and buy coffee and train tickets and Christmas presents for their mums. The volunteers on whom we depend spend their lunch expenses on falafel from the shop round the corner, and, having been part of something ambitious and collaborative at a time characterised by limited horizons and personal isolation, go on to be the people who create impossible and brilliant things in the future.
Our work receives public subsidy – a modest but serious investment from Arts Council of Wales has enabled us to weather the current crisis in reasonable health, to make adaptations for this strange new world, and to keep employing people to create new things, made with stuff sourced from Swansea and beyond. So that is what we do.
It feels good to make something real again. We hope you will be able to see it as soon as the rules allow us to open. Watch this space…