Jo Carrick & Lawrence Russell

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Red Rose Chain are an innovative theatre company, based in Ipswich – and they’re ready to wow audiences from the safety of their homes with their exciting Christmas production of Alice in Wonderland, streaming online between 18th December – 3rd January. We caught up with the Company’s artistic director Jo Carrick, and associate artist Lawrence Russell, who’s playing the Mad Hatter. We chatted about the show, the theatre industry and much more.

Let’s start with the basics – tell us a bit about yourself, the company, and your involvement…

Jo: I’m Jo, I’m the artistic director at Red Rose Chain and that’s what I’ve done my whole life. We are a theatre company but a huge amount of community work is at the centre of what we do. We work with professional actors and amazing community groups, including two youth theatres, and a company for adults with disabilities. The actors I employ are not only brilliant at their job but also fantastic in their ethos and the way they work with people within the community as well.

Lawrence: I’m Lawrence and I’m an associate artist at Red Rose Chain. My first show with Red Rose Chain was a Christmas show called The Tale Of Mr. Todd. I really enjoyed working with them so I came back and did Richard III and a few times since. It’s always lots of fun, particularly with the Christmas shows, because the kids and parents alike always love them. It’s amazing they’re still able to do this Christmas show, even under the circumstances, albeit in a very different and exciting way online.

As we all know it’s been a tough year for the arts, and I’ve got two parts to this question so I’ll start with Jo; what are you doing behind the scenes to keep your theatre secure and moving forward?

Jo: We had lots of options at the beginning of lockdown. We knew we weren’t able to meet our groups in-person and as time went on, we realized various live performances leading up to our big Theatre in the Forest production couldn’t take place in the ordinary way. However, right from the off, we decided to not stop and to continue engaging with our community groups and putting projects online. We have a film-making history in Red Rose Chain and we have that expertise in-house so we decided to use that. We’ve done a lot of green screen work to create productions and we started by doing a production of Jack and the Beanstalk for the under-fives. We then took our Theatre in the Forest online with Twelfth Night, which was a really exciting project. We had over 5,000 people join us on the night we screened it, and we managed to raise £25,000 to do some community work.

We’ve also done Zoom readings, including a reading of my play about Anne Boleyn and our groups have continued to meet on Zoom workshops. We’ve had lots of community engagement online. We did a big art project with people drawing and painting red roses, which have all been superimposed onto an image of Gippeswyk Hall and we discovered some of our disabled participants found accessing things online quite tricky so we created packs to be sent to their homes.

We also have an amazing group of prisoners that we work with at Warren Hill, and I’ve been working remotely with them through written word, so we’ve been sending letters and they’ve been writing scripts. I listened to the finished one this morning and they are amazing. We do a lot of heritage work, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, so we’ve recorded two radio plays about the Witchfinder General, as written by some of the prisoners that we worked with. Lawrence worked on this too actually!

We’ve been incredibly busy, just as busy as normal, if not more so, and it’s paid off because we were recipients of the Cultural Recovery Funds through the Arts Council and the government, which was a big achievement. That has managed to secure the stability of the company going forward, which is really exciting. I feel very proud of the way that the team has responded in terms of continually taking care of our participants.

As for you Lawrence, how have you been keeping busy?

Lawrence: I’ve primarily been doing theatre work as an actor up until now. Although some TV projects are still going on there’s not been a lot of theatre work around but I’ve used my time to create my own sketches on social media. Similar to what Jo was saying, just doing something and making sure you’re continuing your exposure, whether as a company or as an individual, so that people are still seeing your work.

Let’s talk about the Christmas show, this year it’s Alice in Wonderland – tell us a bit about it, what audiences can expect, and how the adaption to digital has been…

Jo: The green screen is our new method of working, which we developed a lot over the summer. When we first performed Alice in Wonderland, it was a three-actor show with one actor playing Alice and two actors playing all the other parts. Lawrence was one of those actors, playing an amazing range of characters. I thought, because there are so many roles in it, why don’t we offer them to all our freelance actors. I think that’s been really important because while it’s not a huge amount of money, it’s a job to do and an opportunity to be creative and come together.

We sent the green screens and the lights to everybody’s house in quite a logistical operation. Our amazing community director, Katy Frost, is also an amazing artist and she has created all the costumes which are also sent to the actors homes, along with any props that are needed. We have a method of working together online on Zoom, then recording on the actors phones and sending the clips in to be edited. It works extremely well, but because it’s on green screen we have to create the backgrounds too; Alice in Wonderland is perfect for this though because it’s really magical. It’s a crazy operation that we’re in the middle of though.

Lawrence: From an acting perspective, it’s just about picking your mark and picturing where the person you’re delivering the lines are and where they’re going to be. Fortunately, during this time, you start to get used to that when doing self-tapes too. Luckily for me as well, a lot of the lines came back to me quickly because it was one of the characters I was playing last time but there are challenges with playing it on screen, as the energy in your body is slightly different to being stage but I’m sure it’s still going to come across with the same level of energy and excitement as it would if people were in a theatre.

As far as the story goes, is it quite close to what the people know as Alice in Wonderland, or is it quite a different take?

Jo: I think it’s pretty close. I took the best bits of Through The Looking Glass as well because you don’t want to be without Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee for example; but it’s definitely Alice in Wonderland, it’s got them all in there; the Cheshire Cat, March Hare, Mad Hatter, and Caterpillar. It’s a strange book to adapt because there’s not really that much of a story, but I tried to create a bit of a story within it that Alice wants to get through to a garden and wants to become a queen. I think that works really well, but the great thing about the book is the characters, they are so wonderful and great to interpret. I’ve been really spoilt too because I’ve got this amazing group of actors and matching them up with the roles has been really fun.

We have Jo Sawyer playing Alice, who is absolutely brilliant. I’ve been really lucky working with her; she’s a brilliant singer and performer. She’s also West End artist and was in Wicked when it had to stop for the lockdown, but we’ve worked with her a lot in the past, she and Lawrence were in Being Earnest together too which was a really fun project. It’s been great to have Jo, and she’s the anchor of everything. Every shoot is done with different actors because of the different characters and episodes but every time we’ve got Jo there and she’s so lovely and open in the way she approaches the role.

Lawrence, I was going to ask how is it playing the Mad Hatter because it’s quite an iconic role so how do you make that your own?

Lawrence: We had a lot more time when we did it the first time around in the theatre and when doing it then it was as though the Mad Hatter had come from some sort of musical background because we had some songs that reflected that. Approaching it, I was trying to work out what he was doing in each of the scenes and why he was doing it. The key things are in the lines, the changes of emotions and how we used it with different people. It’s a lot of fun. We ended up going with a Scottish voice with a delicate side to it, perhaps that suits his hat-making background more and being precise and delicate. I think we discussed him being quite organized as well, there’s a primness to him, which ties in with the hat-making and I think there’s always something a bit more other and special about the Scottish accent that kind of takes you away to a different world, which is what you want to create with Alice in Wonderland.

How have you found the response so far, particularly in terms of ticket sales?

Jo: It’s great! We’re overwhelmed by the support we get from our audiences. It’s extraordinary. It’s going to be available right through the Christmas period, so if people want to watch it more than once or share it with their families, they can. It feels very important to us to be connected with our audience, with Twelfth Night in the summer we had people sending in photos and videos of them having picnics and barbecues with bunting and lights in the garden. We’re looking forward to people having their Alice in Wonderland Tea Parties, kids dressing up, and feeling really connected.

Lawrence: Yeah it’s definitely bringing families together, including different parts of my family who can’t be together at Christmas. I’ve got my brother and his family watching it at the same time as my mum in another house, and cousins in another house. They’ve all agreed on a date and time to watch it, so it’s bringing everybody together.

In your opinion, what do you think the future of the theatre industry holds – do you think there will be more digital elements, or a mix of both?

Jo: I know everybody’s very worried but it feels to me that theatre is something that’s very strong. It’s been there for many years and it has had all sorts of interruptions in the past and it always keeps coming back. Obviously there are different people struggling in different ways but the actual essence and survival of theatre hasn’t really worried me. I think this new digital age also brings about some positives, my dad’s a theatre person; he’s an actor/director and has been all his life, but he’s 88 so doesn’t get to go to the theatre as much as he would like or used to. We’ve been able to show him how to watch some of the online shows and he’s really enjoyed that. I think that is a big development, particularly for people we can’t go out or are perhaps living with various different disabilities. I think including a digital element in our shows is something that we will be doing going forward in a way that we weren’t before.

Lawrence: Also, you’ve got a lot of theatres turning to online. It’s through these restrictions that something good has come from it because they’re working in a different way and still drawing people in, and perhaps even drawing another audience in. Now they’ve been forced to do it, they’ve got that other string to their bow and another way they can create work which is good because its getting the work out there and there are a lot of positives that have come from it. As long as they can hold on and keep going, the it will come back just as strong, if not stronger.

How else would you advise the community to support the arts locally, and in particular yourselves?

Jo: We have our Macbeth for next summer on sale and some people have bought tickets way in advance to support us, the earlier you can buy tickets the better! Donating and getting involved with something like Alice in Wonderland is also very good. Simply just turning up and seeing show I think is the most important of all.

Finally, tell us why we should watch the show, and what you’d like to say to the audiences?

Jo: This is our biggest show ever because we’ve got 20 actors in this show! Having worked with them all before, they are extraordinary. Lawrence is a comic genius, and quite well known for being so. Watch it if you want a bit of a laugh, and something beautiful and creative. It’s not thrown together to get some donations, it’s a piece of art that is being created by a group of artists who really care about audiences so watch along and experience it because it’ll be fun.

Lawrence: I think you’ve only got to watch the teaser trailer to see how gorgeous it’s going to look. I’m really excited to see everybody come together. It’s a completely different dimension to if you had seen it live a couple of years ago, but it’s a lot of fun and will look gorgeous. There are a lot of big characters and it will entertain kids and adults alike!

Alice in Wonderland runs from 18th December-3rd January, and once you receive the link you can watch it as often as you want, whenever you want until 3rd January. For more information or to book visit: redrosechain.com/alice-in-wonderland.

Red Rose Chain has also collaborated with The Riverside Bakery to offer a Mad Tea Party package delivered to your door. Check out the Red Rose Chain and Riverside Bakery’s social media pages for more information. Email: hello@riversidebakery.co.uk, Call: 07501868694, Facebook: Riverside Bakery Suffolk, Instagram: @TheRiversideBakery.

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