Interning with Theatre Absolute: Joining the Conversation

What is it you’re looking for in a theatre internship?

In early June 2010, I was in Coventry City Centre doing some last minute shopping before jetting off to start a post-graduate internship at a theatre in the United States. Whilst walking through the city arcade I came across the new Shop Front Theatre and saw there were people inside having a conversation. I’d been intrigued by the theatre for a while but this was the first time I had actually seen anyone inside. I hesitated about walking on in (this was a shop, after all) but before I could one of the men inside came and opened the door: the artistic director, Chris O’Connell. I explained that I was going to be out of the country for a while but that on my return I would get back in touch about the possibility of getting involved with the theatre in some capacity. Having stumbled upon one conversation, I was now leaving with one of my own.

Being an aspiring writer, thinking about suitable internships has always proved difficult. What exactly is it I’m looking for in an internship? What exactly is it that I can offer a company? What are the positions available that can help me to become a better writer? Will a theatre pass me over for an internship in administration because they know I don’t want to ultimately work in theatre administration?

Such questions are not unique to writers. I know plenty of actors, directors, and producers who went through the same. Maybe they had done some acting, but were now more interested in learning about directing. Perhaps they weren’t completely sure they even wanted to work in the theatre. Maybe they just wanted to get a sense of how a professional theatre company worked. Though we often categorise jobs in the theatre into specific boxes (actors, directors, stage managers etc.) in reality each role may at some point cross over with another and it’s always good for the right hand to have a working knowledge of what the left hand is doing in any organisation.

Fast forward seven months from our initial conversation and Chris and I met, along with the company producer Julia Negus, to churn such questions over. Such open, honest and frank conversations became a staple of our working relationship; a way of constantly evaluating:

1.)  What the theatre needed?

2.)  How I could help facilitate this?

3.)  How facilitating this would help me?

The answer to the third question was quite often one word: access.

The Shop Front Theatre is a profoundly unique and democratic space. There are no private offices for private meetings (unless you count the tiny changing room, which is tempting considering the wonderful array of biscuits in there!), no arbitrary area where all the performances must be staged and no physical barriers between the box office, the drinks table, the lounge area and (sometimes) the stage. Anyone who has ever attended a theatre absolute show at the Shop will know that prior to and after each performance you can speak to the actors, director, writer, producer, volunteers and other audience members in a shared space. Each audience member is asked to fill out a feedback sheet and invited to continue the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. Productions are often scheduled so to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible (‘Always’, Chris O’Connell’s last play, had breakfast time performances) and tickets competitively priced so to break down some of the economic barriers preventing people experience live theatre.

But how did such an accessible way of making and showcasing work help me, an aspiring writer, when interning with the company?

I recently came across a tweet entitled ‘A Script’s Journey’ which listed the artistic process of a successful play. It was as follows:

Playwright’s Heart

Playwright’s Head

Director’s Heart

Director’s Head

Actor’s Heart

Actor’s Head

Audience’s Heart

Audience’s Head

What interning at Theatre Absolute did was allow me to see every stage of this journey in the same shared physical space. Let’s take Chris O’Connell’s play ‘Arcade’ as a case in point. The play, set in a café, was about an encounter between two people years after one of them had been sent to prison for killing a mutual friend. It engaged not only with the history of the Shop (it used to be a café) but also with questions surrounding performance space (part of the play took place out in the street).

Before he even started writing the play I remember speaking to Chris about how he wanted to engage more actively with the history of the Shop and use the space more inventively. I remember him staring out the window. I could see the cogs turning. Hear the questions he was asking. Then when I sat in on rehearsals I could see him work as a director in interrogating his own script. See the actors do the same. Have coffee with them. Discuss dramaturgical questions on the sofas. Converse about other aspects of the theatre industry (the working life of an actor, issues surrounding theatre funding, engaging with audiences etc.). Then when the show opened I could speak to the audiences about their thoughts – each and every night.

I’ve heard horror stories about internships where all the intern did was make coffee and fetch lunch for the employers. The justification for this is often that it doesn’t matter what you do in an internship; what matters is that it looks good on the C.V. But it doesn’t matter how good it looks on the C.V if you can’t give satisfactory answers at a future interview about what skills you learnt and how that’s relevant to the people interviewing you. Whilst interning at Theatre Absolute I made a lot of cups of tea and coffee, but the difference is that I would also make one for myself and be in the room when important decisions were being discussed and made.

I had other responsibilities, of course. I found helping to organise special one-off events and educational programming particularly useful as it helped me to nail down what the artistic policy of the company was. It also meant that even though I want to be a writer I was broadening my skills base so to prove more appealing to other employers when searching for part-time work.

But what I truly appreciate is that the company never forgot that what I wanted to do was write – in fact, they actively encouraged it. I had workshops and a reading in front of an invited audience of my short play ‘Public Housing’. I went on to develop this and submitted it as part of my application for an MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London. At my interview for the course I spoke extensively about my time at Theatre Absolute: my experience in learning how to interrogate a script, my knowledge of working in unconventional spaces in new ways and my desire to engage actively with audiences. Chris also wrote me a wonderful reference. My application was built upon the time I had spent with the company and so when I got accepted onto the course I couldn’t thank them enough.

It’s now almost three years since Chris and I had that first meeting and the conversation we started back then is still on-going. In September 2012 the company commissioned me to write a short play for schools as part of the ‘100’ project. Not only is it my first professional writing commission, it’s also an opportunity to give something back to the company for having supported me and to write something for Coventry’s up-and-coming generation. It’s an immense privilege.

In March 2011 it was announced that Theatre Absolute would lose its core funding from the Arts Council and for a time it looked as though the Shop Front may have had to close. Yet since Coventry City Council announced they would allow the theatre to keep the space the company has rewarded them by proving good on its promise to provide artistic programming of the highest calibre. Furthermore, the company’s record for investing in Coventry talent is superb. Naomi Said’s ‘The Wedge’ began life when she attended one of Chris O’Connell’s writing gyms and the play was nurtured by the company all the way to full production. Strongbox Theatre, a company set up by Coventry University students, was able to utilise the space in showcasing their show ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ and went on to take it to the National Student Drama Festival. And I have been delighted in hearing from other interns and work experience placements about their own positive experiences with the company.

What Coventry is seeing now is the fruit of a whole series of conversations. Conversations which all stem from the company’s unyielding desire to engage with its artists and its community. It’s this spirit of inclusivity, this desire to reach beyond its immediate base and engage with new artists and new audiences, which make it such an asset.

If you want to play a part in its future success, perhaps it’s time you started a conversation of your own…


Richard Walls

April 2013

Latest news from Chris O’Connell

Hello, Chris here, artistic director of Theatre Absolute. It’s time to check in with news of what’s been happening at Theatre Absolute. I notice it was November when news from the creative coalface was last posted. That was during the making of ‘The Wedge’, written and performed by Naomi Said. It turned out to be a fabulous production. Embracing the limitations of the shop with no set, only four lights and a single soundscape, it was stimulating in its absolute simplicity and performed with unerring courage by Naomi. The shop was teeming with bodies for the week of its run and once again brought familiar faces, and new attenders. We are particularly proud of it because Naomi and Theatre Absolute met at the shop during one of our Writing Gyms. It is currently poised to tour and find a new life beyond the shop. Details of its future movements will be posted both on Facebook and here on our website.

The New Year brought new challenges for the company as I wrote and directed a ten-minute piece called ‘Always’, commissioned by Holding Space, funded by Arts Council England. Scripted to interact with filmed and animated images, ‘Always’ was a tight knit collaboration between myself, ‘experience’ designer Ashley Brown and actor John Flitcroft. John has appeared in several Absolute shows, and it was a pleasure to work with Ash for the first time. At only ten minutes, the choices one makes of how best to tell the story are specific and risky. Narrative is narrative and whether 90 minutes or 10 minutes, the same rules of a typical Theatre Absolute production still applied: character, story, intensity, immersion. Certainly the latter was achieved in new ways, as this was the first time we had worked with an artist such as Ashley, who created a smorgasbord of images, projected onto three walls within an intimate 8 x 12 foot space specially built and created at the very back of the shop. Combining both text and imagery is of course not unheard of in the theatre – many companies have worked in this way, but it was a first for us in that the images and the text were both central to and inseparable in their telling of the story. Made for 1 to 15 people at a time, ‘Always’ was seen at a variety of times throughout the day, ranging from 8.30am to 8pm shows.

‘Always’ finished on the 16th March, and the shop was immediately chocka block with a new show from Coventry’s Highly Sprung. ‘The Mobile Phone Show’ by Jim Cartwright was a charming piece performed by Sprung’s fantastic young company. It was great to see the Shop used in yet another configuration and full to the brim with audiences and cast each night. Next up is Ian Tilton, rock photographer and the man behind many of the legendary photos of Kurt Cobain, and The Smiths, amongst many others. Ian will talk and launch his SET IN STONE Stone Roses photo book with author Claire Caldwell on the 18th April. Later in May we welcome Coventry University to the shop with some final year degree shows from the performing arts students.

For the longer term, there is our 100 project which will see four new pieces of work created between now and summer 2014. Have a look at the Projects page, on this website. This last week the project has really started to blossom, and early in the week I met playwright Steve Waters to look over the drafts of his play, which will premiere in June 2014. I say drafts, plural, because it’s looking like his piece will become a triptych of short plays. I also met up with Richard Walls, who is writing a short play for premiere in November this year. At second draft stage, Richard and I enjoyed a lunchtime pint as we dissected and challenged and considered what might happen next as he develops the piece towards a rehearsal draft. Richard’s piece deals perhaps more directly with the anniversary of the Great War than Steve’s, and is told through the eyes of a woman. You’ll have to come and see both of them to know more!

As if that’s not enough, filmmaker Jay Langdell is about to hold auditions for his short film – a truly moving evocation of boy soldiers, which he is due to film later this year. Julia too has begun an intense period of research and development for her artwork and has been spending some time liaising with Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, and their collections.

If you want to know more about, and keep in touch with the work we are producing at the UK’s only professional shop front theatre, be sure to contact us here on the website, or Like us on our Facebook page.Always-02Always-01