THREE monologues on a park bench in a Rowntree Park garden herald the return of theatre to York from the Glorious Twelfth onwards.
Engine House Theatre artistic director Matt Aston has assembled a summer season of open-air shows that will combine Samuel Beckett’s rarely-performed First Love with two premieres, Aston’s own new piece, Every Time A Bell Rings, and a new adaptation of the classic children’s song, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, co-created for all the family by Aston and Cassie Vallance.
The trio of productions will be presented from August 12 to September 5 in the Covid-secure setting of the carefully laid-out and spacious Friends Garden at Rowntree Park, allowing audiences of up to 75 to maintain social distance from each other in the park’s most enclosed space.
“Who’d have thought six months ago that we would be having such a stressful, terrifying, bizarre time since March,” says Matt, more heavily bearded in lockdown than when he co-directed York Theatre Royal’s somewhat stressful 2019-2020 pantomime, Sleeping Beauty.
“I first had idea of doing something this summer, running round Rowntree Park in the middle of lockdown on one of my Government-ordained bursts of daily exercise. Sitting on a bench [too late to tell him off now!], I was thinking about doing some socially distanced indoor theatre, but then someone suggested, ‘Why not do some outdoor theatre in Rowntree Park?’.”
The seeds for Park Bench Theatre were sewn. “The name Park Bench Theatre does what it says on the tin: performing theatre on or around a park bench, which I first did 20 years ago in Nottingham,” Matt says.
“The idea was always to keep it simple, having first started thinking about in April/May, knowing that it has to feel safe and secure but also feel ‘normal’, feeling like it would pre-Covid, but keeping the production costs basic.
“Theatre is social, sharing stories, and these shows will be a collective story-telling experience.”
His Rowntree Park exertions set the plays and their subject matter in motion. “I had the idea of someone sitting on a park bench and thinking about what they’re going through,” says Matt, explaining the trigger for Every Time A Bell Rings.
“I thought of the isolation and the fact that she might actually have been isolated for many years. I then remembered First Love was also set on a park bench and the idea rolled on from that.”
The first to open, running from August 12 to August 22, will be Matt’s production of First Love, Beckett’s 45-minute monologue about a man, a woman, a recollection, awash with the Irish playwright’s signature balancing of comedy and tragedy.
First Love was the last piece of the Park Bench Theatre jigsaw to fall into place. “I think the Beckett estate had a few questions about what we were doing, as it’s not a play, but it had been done at the Arcola Theatre [in London] as a learnt reading,” says Matt.
“For me, it reads as a monologue, but we’re being respectful to it as the short story it was written as. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, really accessible, really funny, and Chris is bringing out all the humour.”
The ‘Chris’ in question is Chris Hannon, best known for his CBeebies role as Dad in Topsy And Tim and as the pantomime dame at Wakefield Theatre Royal for more than a decade. “My first panto as director at Wakefield was his first panto as the dame there,” says Matt. “There was a tradition of never inviting anyone back, but he was so brilliant that he’s been going back ever since, and he writes it now as well.”
Next up, from August 26 to September 5, will be Aston’s 50-minute premiere of Every Time A Bell Rings, performed by Northern Broadsides and Slung Low regular Lisa Howard and directed by Tom Bellerby, back in York from London.
Tom had been resident assistant director at the Donmar Warehouse, London, after making his mark at York Theatre Royal as associate artist at Pilot Theatre and as associate director at Hull Truck Theatre from 2016 to 2018, taking in Hull’s year as the 2017 UK City of Culture.
The play’s setting is Lockdown, Easter Sunday 2020, when Cathy searches for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park in Aston’s funny and poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times.
“I’ve written it in Lockdown, having had a vague notion some years ago of doing a piece revolving around a woman dealing with grief when I was dealing with the death of my stepfather,” says Matt.
“I started having a go at writing a piece in the spare hours between child-care and then felt it would be right for Park Bench Theatre once I felt confident that we were going to get the go-ahead.
“Then I had the idea that someone else should direct it, and though I hadn’t met Tom before, I knew he’d returned to York and it made sense for him to come on board.”
After two shows with “very strong language”, the third will be a complete contrast: Teddy Bears’ Picnic on August 19 to 22, 27 to 29 and 31 and September 1 to 5, based on an original idea by Julian Butler.
“I really hope they don’t come to the wrong show!” says Matt, who is renewing his creative partnership with Cassie Vallance after she starred in his adaptation of Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale in the Theatre Royal Studio last Christmas.
Suitable for everyone aged three and over, this 30-minute show carries the billing: “Every year, Jo’s family used to have a big family gathering – a teddy bears’ picnic – but then she got too old and too cool for that sort of thing. Now she’s grown up, she wishes she could have them all over again.”
“Julian Butler and I had the idea for this show when we were doing The Storm Whale, and Cassie and I are creating it over the next few weeks,” says Matt. “She was brilliant in The Storm Whale and has been doing fantastic work online with Crafty Tales, so I’m thrilled to be working with her again.”
Roll on, August 12, for the first Park Bench Theatre performance. “The relief is being able to talk about putting on shows, rather than all the other stuff that’s going on,” says Matt. “Loads of people have been doing creative things in lockdown, and it’s good that Park Bench Theatre has come about in that time.”
Yet Matt strikes a note of caution for the winter ahead for theatre and the arts at large, however. “As I’ve said for many weeks, any organisation that relies on anyone being indoors for any length of time faces a problematic situation,” he says.
“I think the Government will let one industry take a hit and I fear that industry will be the arts, despite arts and culture bringing so much to the national and local economy.”
Full details on Park Bench Theatre, including tickets and the audience use of headphones, can be found at: parkbenchtheatre.com.
First Love by Samuel Beckett, August 12 to 22, 7pm; August 15 and 22, 4pm matinee.
A story of a man, a woman, a recollection, awash with Beckett’s signature balancing of comedy and tragedy. Performed by Chris Hannon, directed by Matt Aston. Running time: 70 minutes. Contains very strong language.
Every Time A Bell Rings, premiere by Matt Aston, August 26 to September 5, 7pm; August 29 and September 5, 4pm matinee.
Lockdown. Easter Sunday 2020. Cathy emerges from her own isolation to search for solace on her favourite park bench in her favourite park. Touching, funny, poignant look at how the world is changing through these extraordinary times. Performed by Lisa Howard, directed by Tom Bellerby. Contains very strong language. Running time: 50 minutes.
Teddy Bears’ Picnic, premiere, August 19 to 22, 27 to 29 and 31; September 1 to 5; 11.30am and 1.30pm. Co-created by Cassie Vallance and director Matt Aston.
Every year, Jo’s family had a big, brilliant family gathering – a teddy bears’ picnic. Then she grew too old and too cool for that sort of thing, so she stopped going. But now she’s grown up, she wishes she could have them all over again. Running time: 30 minutes. Suitable for everyone aged three and over. Bring your favourite teddy and a picnic.
A word from: Helen Apsey, head of culture and well-being at Make It York
“This is a fantastic initiative to bring live theatre back to York in the beautiful surroundings of Rowntree Park. It is a great addition to the city’s summer offering – providing a safe outdoor theatre experience designed for families and people of all ages.”
A word from: Abigail Gaines, Friends of Rowntree Park trustee
“We are thrilled to have open-air theatre in Rowntree Park. The park has been a lifeline to many during Lockdown, and hearing it inspired the writing of one of the plays makes hosting the performance even more meaningful.
“The park is a key place for families and we know they will love the family performances. The Friends of Rowntree Park always support arts in the park and are very much looking forward to the shows.”
Yes, headphones will be required to hear the dialogue, sound effects and music in performances. All audience members will be given a receiver on entry that headphones can be plugged into.
Audiences are encouraged to bring their own set, but no wireless or Bluetooth ones. Instead they must be plug-in headphones or earphones. You can buy takeaway headphones for £1 when you book your ticket online, for collection when you visit.
The Friends Garden is an enclosed lawn at Rowntree Park that will have socially distanced seating in an outdoor Covid-secure setting with clearly delineated areas/boxes marked on the grass – three metres square – for audience members to sit in.
Up to three or four people from the same household can sit in each box. Further individual seats will be spaced around the side of the lawn.
The capacity for First Love and Every Time A Bell Rings is 75 tickets; the maximum for Teddy Bears’ Picnic is 50 as boxes will be slightly bigger for up to four people from the same household.
Audience members are encouraged to bring blankets for the first few rows and chairs for the back few rows.
If you have any symptoms of Covid-19, have been diagnosed with the virus or have been in direct contact with a diagnosed individual in the past 14 days, you must not attend the event.
If unable to attend due to other illness, contact the box office to arrange a ticket transfer. Tickets can be refunded only if the booked performance has sold out.
HEALTH AND SAFETY MEASURES
IN conversation with City of York Council, and in line with Government guidance, Park Bench Theatre has implemented a range of measures to ensure the health and safety of audiences and staff. The measures are under constant review and apply across all performances throughout the season.
Arriving: Gates will open an hour before the show start time to allow everyone to arrive at their leisure and avoid large queues. All tickets will be digital and checked without contact at a social distance at the entrance to the performance area. There will be a one-way system to enter and exit the performance area.
Social distancing: Each household or social, bubble will be seated at a safe distance from other households or social bubbles. Volunteer stewards will direct audience members to their designated bubble.
Food and refreshments: Bring your own food and drink to all performances but no alcohol is allowed.
Departure: Stewards will manage the departure so large crowds do not all leave at the same time.
Loos. All performances take place without an interval. The Rowntree Park loos will be open before and after all performances.