Alex Byrne

Beauty and the Beast is this year’s Christmas Show at Cambridge Junction.  It is a joint presentation by Tobacco Factory Theatre and New International Encounter.   Alex Byrne formed NIE in 2001 and directs the show.  We spoke to Alex before Beauty and the Beast opened in Cambridge.

Why did you set up NIE?

I started off wanting to make theatre and was working together with a group of friends to create new shows.  In 2001 I was working in a few different countries and had met up with and worked with some great people, we wanted to continue working together so we decided to make our own project.  That project became the company.   I think we were very lucky, the first three shows we made in 2001/02 and 2005 were all really, really successful.  They were three special shows, a couple of which toured all over the world and that really set the company rolling, we made contacts in lots of different places but of course, in the end I was living here in Cambridge – because of our connection to The Junction and through the funding of The Arts Council of England, thats how we became to be based here but we have contacts all over Europe and we have another office in Oslo in Norway whom we work with all the time.

Part of the reason for the company is to bring artists from different places together and making new work that they collaborate on and that is what we have done all along.

The last NIE production I saw was ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’ – not what you would call a traditional Panto but then you don’t do that do you?

No, in a way this is an alternative to traditional family panto.  A really good Panto can be a really great night out but the idea of ‘Beauty & The Beast’ and indeed ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’ and also ‘Hansel & Gretel’ that we done here at The Junction a few years ago, is that they are an alternative to Panto.   It will be a great big brassy fun Christmas Show but it is not a Panto – there is no Dame, but there might well be some interaction with the audience. It is more focused on the story and on the fairy tale.

Is directing a Christmas show more restrictive than any other type of show?

No actually.  It is a different task.  What I really love about them, and I’ve made three of these family shows now, I really like the idea of making work that is for kids, for Mums & Dads and Aunties & Uncles and Granma & Grandads.  What is fabulous is when families come to the theatre together.   Trying to make a piece which has something for all of them is a wonderful thing to do.  When it has worked for us it is really joyous.  We have to think it through – how does play for a kid of six and is this still interesting for adults?   A great piece of work, as long as the subject matter is appropriate, should be able to appeal to anyone who is excited by seeing a great story and I think Beauty & The Beast is a great story.

So what can we expect from Beauty & The Beast?

It is a journey into a dark story, obviously part of it is a love story.  It has a lot to do with what beauty is and what beastliness is and how they can be reconciled with each other.   It is a lot about family, about parents and children and how kids grow up.  And because all of our shows are musician shows it will be full of live music, all played by the cast as part of the show.

We have put the theatre into traverse, which means that the audience will be on two sides and I think that is going to work really nicely about being in an enchanted forest, or at least a castle in the middle of an enchanted forest.   Rather than sitting and watching a show that is in front of you over there you will feel like you are really close to the stage and part of the action.

It is possible to book tickets to ‘relaxed performances’ what are they and are they directed differently?

Not so much.  I guess it is an awareness amongst the audience that you are coming to a relaxed show, and that means that if somebody might be concerned about bringing a younger kid to a show, maybe hasn’t been to a theatre before, or who has some additional needs that the sometime stuffy rules of theatre don’t really apply.  And it also means that you can do a few things in terms of how you start the show and how you introduce what’s going to happen to make it a little bit easier if there are people in the audience who might have trouble with that – we tend to leave the house lights on a little bit and have the actors come out and say hello to the audience and let them know whats going to happen.   People get just the same show – hopefully (laughs) the same brilliant performances, we won’t change that!

You have you just under a month to go, how are rehearsals going?

Yes, we are getting on with it. It has been lovely, we have a lovely group of five performers.  We have been working a lot with music this week.  We have also been working on The Beast a bit and what he is going to look like and how he appears on the stage, working with some masks and some animation.  We are feeling really good at the moment.  It is always funny when you are in the middle of making something, we are having a great time in rehearsals, laughing a lot despite the fact the Beauty & The Beast is quite dark and scary despite it’s happy ending.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

We have been having a lot of discussion about what the beast should look like.  When you work with a mask what it should look like physically and how, if it is going to be a bit scary, how does that work for a family audience.  It is one of those things that we really won’t know for sure until we get to the first night.

What is the best part of being a director?

Well it’s not the pay!  I suppose in a way that I am very very lucky to run a company which is publicly funded and imagine ideas that I want to create and be able to go out and find a team to deliver them.  There is something about it coming together, getting into the room with other artists who are inspiring, who are also daunting, and sometime scary – scarily brillian.  Its working wit fab people that’s what makes it worthwhile.

You benefit from Arts Council funding but work internationally.  Are the arts funded better or worse in other parts of the world?

They are funded differently.  We are also lucky to be funded by European Union money and we are not sure whats happening with that in the future. With the Arts Council we are lucky enough to be part of their national portfolio programme.   There are other countries in Europe that spend more money on theatre, there are some who spend less.  If you look to countries where we work most often, Denmark, Sweeden, Norway, Germany – they fund a lot more theatre for children than adults then even here in the UK, even though some of te quality here in the UK is very good.  In some countries we meet people who are very jealous of the sort of funding that we have here, there is nothing like Arts Council funding in, for example, the United States, but if you go to Denmark where there is a very very bright and lively children’s theatre scene.  What is interesting about the UK, and about London in particular, is that there is a real dialogue between the funded and the commercial. That is something that is very unusual, you don’t see it in many other places.  The idea that theatre can make money, which it can do in the UK, is unusual.

Have you got a dream theatre that you’d love to work in?

That’s interesting.  It is funny, we have done a couple of projects – for example ‘Around The World in Eighty Days’, which opened here at The Junction and then went to Tobacco Factory in Bristol – both of those places have fantastic audiences and that is the thing.  The space in the theatre itself is one thing, different spaces have different mods and different requirements but it is when you meet a fabulous audience that is really wonderful.


Since we interviewed Alex we have had the pleasure of seeing Beauty and The Beast, read our review here

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