Becca Gibbs – Spinning Wheel Theatre / Larch & Loam

Becca Gibbs began her theatre career as a Stage Manager in the West End however, following a move to Suffolk, she now co-runs a small touring theatre company, Spinning Wheel Theatre, where she works as a producer and set designer. Her other-half Andy is also working in the theatre industry as a scenic carpenter making sets and scenery for theatres across the UK and beyond from his Suffolk workshop. You might have seen our initial feature HERE.

The impact of Covid-19 left them both without any of their usual work; so they decided to combine their building and design skills with their newfound passion for gardening and outdoor activities by launching Larch and Loam; an online shop selling handmade wooden planters, vintage garden accessories and more, as well as taking bespoke commissions. We caught up with Becca to talk about being a theatre-maker in these times, and how it’s been managing both businesses.

Becca adapting to working from home!

Let’s start with an introduction – tell us a little bit for yourself, your work and your theatre company…

I, with my business partner Amy, run Spinning Wheel Theatre, and we mainly do rural theatre tours. We take professional theatre performances out to rural venues, such as village halls and community centres, as well as theatres and art centres. We also run community projects, we’ve just done a big project with care homes, and we do projects with schools.

What got you into the arts, and what’s your history with theatre?

Like a lot of people who work in our industry, I did drama at school but I didn’t particularly want to be on stage. In those days there weren’t options at school to do backstage stuff like there is now, but I got involved with my local theatre and did an apprenticeship there alongside my A-levels. Then I went to drama school and trained to be a stage manager, and I worked after I finished training. I mainly worked in the West End, and did some stuff at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I had a really fantastic career very quickly, and then I moved to Suffolk and decided to take a little bit of a different direction and started doing my own work.

That leads me nicely into my next question! How did the theatre company come about, and what made you decide to do your own thing?

I took some time out of working as a stage manager to do an MA in applied theatre, which concentrates on working with all different groups. It’s about using theatre as a tool, rather than just as a performance that you watch. It’s also about working with communities, at-risk groups, refugees and other groups, but using theatre in that way. Following that, I did some work for the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, where I met Amy who I run the company with. We were doing lots of things like [working on] youth theatre shows, and we both really fancied the idea of doing a show ourselves with professional actors. We got a little bit of money together and we put together a really small tour of a Shakespeare piece- it was a little bit rough around the edges but it went quite well, so we just built from there. It’ll be ten years next year!

Amazing! Not many people always realise the work that goes on behind the scenes, so what does the job typically entail for you – both from when you were doing your West End job, and to now running your own company?

Well as a stage manager, you pretty much oversee everything that goes on backstage. It depends on the show- if you take a big West End show there is lots of different staff whereas if you’re doing a really small show, then as a stage manager, you might be doing everything from lighting and sound to costume and props, even scene changes.

I still do a little bit of that within our shows because I really enjoy it and I can; but as a producer, my main two roles are about securing funding, as the sort of theatre we do doesn’t pay for itself. We purposely keep our ticket prices really low so that our work is really accessible, but because of that we need funding, so I spent a lot of time fundraising and managing budgets; then employing people and making sure they’re okay, I also design our sets. Amy and I work really closely together as she directs the productions, and I design the set, so those things evolve together. It’s a real mixture of creative, but also very practical and office based at the same time.

As we all know, it’s been tough for the arts this year; but what have you done to try and keep your own company secure moving forward, and how have you adapted?

The day Boris made his announcement about not going to the theatre, we were two days away from starting rehearsals for our tour of Spinning Wheel, which would have been out on the road for six weeks, but obviously we had to cancel. We also had a project with care homes happening, in which we had a group of community writers who wrote a piece based on some arts & crafts and music workshops and we used that to talk to the residents and extract some memories from them. The idea was that we would turn them into plays to perform live in the care homes, but obviously we weren’t able to do that so we turned them into radio plays which we recorded and sent so they could listen to them instead. That was quite an interesting learning curve!

We run a summer school every year for young people, aged 13 to 21, where we put on a full scale production in two weeks. Again, we weren’t able to do this so we ran an online version through Zoom instead, and rather than a production the group made a couple of short animated films which were really sweet. We also made an audio book at the end of the summer and into the autumn, which is a version of our production of The Velveteen Rabbit, and it’s got lots of online activities alongside it, aimed at pre-school through primary-school aged kids. That was another interesting challenge, and something that we had not done before.

On a personal level, my husband is a scenery builder within the theatre so we’ve both taken a massive hit; therefore we reapplied our skills to set-up a garden website, called Larch and Loam. We’ve got vintage garden accessories, and he (Andy) builds vegetable planters and wooden crafts, and he can do bespoke furniture and more. We’ve just had to adapt to the situation.

What inspired the business launch of Larch and Loam, and what do you think the future of that might hold?

What inspired us is that like with so many other people during the first lockdown, we spent all of our time in the garden. We’ve got a two-year-old, so we were desperately trying to find fun things to do, thus we completely overhauled our garden and turned it into a vegetable plot. Neither of us being massive experts particularly beforehand, but we got really into growing our own veg. We learned a lot along the way, we had some mishaps but we also had lots of success. We started building our own containers and things because we didn’t quite have what we wanted, and that’s how it all started. We just thought ‘maybe this is something that we could do as a business’, and we’ve got really quite passionate about it. We do hope that it will be something that takes off, and that we can carry on after all this is hopefully over.

Similarly, what do you think the future of the theatre industry is – such as digital elements?

With our work, I do think we’ll keep a digital element. It’s a great way of being able to keep in touch with our audiences. I don’t love the lack of accessibility of it though, I think there’s been a bit of ‘oh we’ll just do it online’ with the huge assumption that everybody has internet or a computer, or the bandwidth to be able to stream stuff, which is particularly challenging in the rural areas. It’s not a solution to the problem of not being able to see live events, that’s for sure.

We are planning a project next year where we can still go on tour, even if we’re still in a world of Corona, which I suspect we will be. But we are going to do a tour outdoors, and we are going to build ourselves an outdoor venue that we can take on the road with us. This way we can keep everybody separate, have lots of fresh air, and make sure we can produce shows that are Covid secure and safe. I’d like to think that eventually we will get back to a situation where we can all sit in a theatre together and enjoy stuff in the normal way, but I think that’s still quite a long road to go down.

In the meantime, what would you say the community can do to continue supporting the arts, and your company?

I suppose it’s as simple as just keeping in touch with us. Spinning Wheel has a mailing list where we produce a regular newsletter to let people know what we’re doing and when we’re able to do it. We’ve also got a lovely audio book and the activities to go with it, which are online and it’s all free – I’d love more people to engage with that.

Beyond just us, when you can support the arts then do. When you can see a show, go and see a show or when you can see a gig, go and see a gig. There are an awful lot of people who have been really devastated by what has happened, and a very large proportion of people in our industry who aren’t eligible for government support. There’s no furlough scheme if you’re self-employed, which so many of us are. That has been really heart breaking, to see friends and colleagues who have had to do things like sell their house in order to feed their family just because of the way that a lot of people are set-up employment wise. I think just support artists in whatever way you can!

Finally, tell us why you love what you do?

That’s a question I ask myself a lot, especially at the moment! I love it because it’s two things really. Personally I find it really satisfying as I get to be creative. My job is to be artistic, and I work with some fantastic people. The actors, technicians, and artists that we work with are just a really fantastic bunch of humans to hang out with. But the main thing is connecting with our audiences; it’s getting out into the community and being part of their village calendar. The projects that we do make a difference to people’s lives, even if it’s just temporarily. It’s not necessarily world-changing, but if you brighten someone’s day a little bit or make someone smile, and for example go into a care home and make somebody feel a bit less lonely for a few hours, then that is massive. It’s a real honour to do it.

For more information on either project, visit: www.spinningwheeltheatre.com / www.larchandloam.com.