Interview with... Theatre director Tom Bellerby

Last year a new work burst on to the stage of York Theatre Royal’s studio, swiftly stunned audiences at Edinburgh Festival and picked up award nominations in the process. A a glorious year for Beulah, a folk tale inspired by the thoughts of William Blake and written by Alexander Wright, was capped when producers Hartshorn-Hook picked up the show, and the previously produced Some Small Love Story also written by Wright, and scheduled them in for a national tour in 2013.

So Beulah is back and on the road as part of an unconventional musical double bill. For director Tom Bellerby it is a chance to relook at the story and approach it with fresh eyes.  He tells the tale to James Eaglesfield:

“I’m returning to it well over a year since I first had my first involvement with in. The idea had been swimming around in Alex’s head for a couple of years and then I got involved. It started as a pub conversation in which quickly became us doing some research and development in to it. In November 2011 we ran a few workshops, looking at some of the ideas. Alex then wrote the show before rehearsing it for the first time in June last year. Then it was on to Edinburgh and a mini tour after. And now I’m just so very, very lucky to be doing it again and to be doing it on the scale of the tour that you don’t always have the chance to do. It’s a great set of venues. 

Director - Tom Bellerby
It is not a show about William Blake, it’s a show about an idea that he had and it feels Blakeian so it is that that I draw on more than anything else. A big part of Beulah is the way we measure of world in time, in seconds, in hours, but is that the way we truly experience our world? We may measure it that way but it’ that feeling that a hour can feel long or short although an hour is always the same amount of time.” 

Since the success of 2012 though, 50% of the cast has been changed – though to be fair Beulah is a two-hander!

“The biggest challenge is that we lost one of the original actors and Beulah in particular depends on that relationship between the two actors. Beulah talks about abstract forms, so it is very important for me as a director to make those two actors on stage to feel as comfortable with each other and with the audience as possible. That is something that you can’t fake. There is something about seeing a couple of actors on stage and thinking ‘I bet they enjoy having a pint together at the end of the show’ and you can’t really audition for that.

Musically Beulah uses such a vast array of instruments so we needed someone who could fit in but also build on that. So they were the bigger worries, so once I was happy that we had found someone to replace Ed(Edward Wren) I was able to move on to looking at the things we didn’t do last time that I had wished we had to and that’s mainly around the technical aspects of the show. I’ve worked with our AV designer Ed Sunman and we’ve redesigned our projections, we’ve re-recorded some of the sound to improve the technical quality as we are now going to venues with the facilities so we can use that. In terms of the scale of major changes, there haven’t been many. Beulah was designed to feel purposely small scale, purposely intimate and whilst the reputations of the venues we are going to may be big the stages aren’t vast.

Having a new actor in has really focussed our minds and made treat it as going through a new process. If we had had the same cast it would have been easy for us to roll out the old show, rehearse it in a week, and get it up to scratch but as we had Ryland (Ryland Teifi) coming in it felt like an opportunity to re-discover new connections with what the show is and what we wanted to achieve. There are a few subtle changes but they will probably make a big impact.

I have taken the rehearsal process back to the first stage, even for Jim who has been in it from more or less day one including the research, and we did two days of text work – which may have been going over old ground for Jim (original cast member Jim Harbourne) but he actually found new things in it. So I approached it as a new production. Ryland came with his own ideas and added new things to it.”

As well as examining the way time works and how we perceive the world, one of the standout features of last year’s production was how the cast pick up and play an array of instruments littered about the set. With music being so integral to the show, surely Bellerby must be the master of one or two instruments himself…

“I play nothing, I don’t sing but I am a fan of music and listen to a lot of live music. It has been interesting as I have to leave most of the music decisions to the actors. I approach music as a kind of dramaturge, in the sense of how it fits in the show. In Beulah, music is not part of the narrative, it doesn’t forward the story, it’s about is about creating the atmosphere, creating the emotion of where we are in the narrative. I would listen to it and say ‘ tonally it doesn’t feel quite right, we need more sadness’. So I would use very basic approaches to ensure that the musicality of the show felt in line with the narrative. Ed and Jim, the original cast, were incredibly talented and we’ve been lucky that Ryland has come in and is a multi award winning Welsh folk artist so he has just slipped right in and been able add his own things, so it has been great. I now regularly find myself part of the Beulah band as an enthusiastic foot-stomper, shouting along with various things.”

With music being a shorthand to emotions, do the audience need to be in tune with theirs?

“It is a play that very much plays on emotions and some people will like world that more than others. One of the interesting things between me and Alex is that I am not like that in normal life. The banter elements in the show were not part of the original script and were added by me as I didn’t want everything to be ethereal. I didn’t want to paint everything with an emotional brush.”

Beulah and Some Small Love Story can be seen at: 
York Theatre Royal, Cocktail Room, York, 5 - 7 March; 
Fauconberg Arms, Coxwolds, 9 March. 

The musicals will show independently at The Arts Theatre: 
Beulah only – The Arts Theatre, London 18 – 20 March; 
Some Small Love Story only - The Arts Theatre, London 21 – 23 March