Dyad Productions interview
We are at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe and having a quick chat here with Dyad Productions’ Elton Townend Jones - Producer/Writer/Director from Dyad Productions – and actor Stephen Cunningham who is currently performing Elton’s adaptation of “The Time Machine” at Assembly Roxy.
1. I have been lucky enough to catch two Dyad Productions at this year’s Fringe – Austen’s Women and The Time Machine. Both to me are wonderful works of theatre, how has the general public’s reaction to them been this year?
ELTON - Austen’s Women is now nine years old as a production and has had very positive audience response since the very start, and that was the same for this year. The Time Machine, which is our new production, has also been getting very favourable responses from both the public and critics at this year’s Fringe.
2. Rebecca Vaughan who performs Austen’s Women is also Producer/Actor/Writer at Dyad Productions. Is Dyad as a production company a combination of a singular vision shared by Elton and Rebecca, or do you both at times have very different ideas on not only what should be possible productions but also how to bring it to the stage?
ELTON - Rebecca and I bring different strengths to Dyad Productions, but we do have a single vision that any Dyad Production must create work that has a contemporary relevance and a message for 21st century audiences. If we do an adaptation, it's avowedly not a theme park or a straight re-telling, and any original work must also bring contemporary issues to light.
STEPHEN - That was one of the things that attracted me to this part. Elton’s script made the time traveller an interesting person and the adaptation has a modern, relevant story to tell.
3. There is an impressive looking list of productions on the Dyad website. What is it that first attracts the company to a possible piece of work to adapt to the stage? Does the story come first, as both productions that I have seen are very narrative driven?
ELTON - Dyad is at its core a company that likes to engage audiences with strong story-telling and a social and political message that’s applicable to everyone that sees it. Something transporting and transformative is always our goal, and we look at both literary adaptations and original work – all based on instantly recognisable subjects – to fulfil that vision.
4. The sets that I have seen at Dyad Production performances are minimal, but perfectly functional and relevant to the story of the production. Touring any production is a very costly business these days, so how important is it to find not only a good story, but also one that can adapt to economic requirements of a touring production’s budget?
ELTON - Any Dyad production, because it is story driven, invites the audience to participate; to contribute its imagination and meet us in the middle, so the sets are deliberately minimal – Modernist, in fact; blank pages upon which to cast the imagination; an every man's land of actor/audience interaction. For us, that’s a virtue of what we do. We also employ the very best light and sound designers – Martin Tucker and Danny Bright respectively. Their design derives from the writing and direction and is a vital support to the performance that reinforces Dyad's Modernist agenda.
5. Rebecca Vaughan and you, Stephen, are natural story tellers as well as skilled performers on stage, and these solo performances leave nowhere to hide for either of you and little margin for error. For us as an audience we have to absolutely believe in not only the story you are telling us but also, in “The Time Machine”, visualise the world that you are so skilfully describing to us. How difficult is it to get into that performance zone before a production?
STEPHEN - It takes about six weeks of intensive and detailed rehearsal to become ‘a natural storyteller’. That it looks natural means we’ve succeeded. Everything is thoroughly prepared before the first live performance. By the time I come on stage, the performance has been very specifically mapped by Elton – every gesture, every word, every emphasis - and I know exactly where every prop, or light and sound cue is. Once those elements are marked out, I can fill the performance, grow into it, and take it and the performance space anywhere. But it will always be exactly the same product.
6. To be an on-stage performer in any Dyad Production requires very high performance skills as an artist, but also very high audience engagement skills. How difficult is it to find people with both these skills as a production company?
ELTON - This is an area that we are expanding upon. We have previously had me in shows and another actor who played Marilyn Monroe, but because the workload on our main performer, Rebecca, has been so immense, we are now developing work in which we employ other actors such as Stephen. Dyad Productions is solely Rebecca and me. Our happy success means that we only have limited time between the two of us as writers, directors, producers and performers and are now looking at occasionally branching out with other actors, putting them into new work and possibly even reviving old shows but with new faces.
7. Austen’s Women has returned to The Edinburgh Fringe after an absence of a few years for a run of only nine shows, and they all seem to be selling out. Has the success of that production surprised you with so much theatrical competition around this year?
ELTON - No, has to be the simple answer to that. Dyad Productions are in production and tour all year round - Edinburgh is just a part of that. We never, ever expect audiences to simply turn up, but Austen’s Women has been a success wherever it has played. In fact we were confident enough of it as a production that we have used it as a vehicle to financially support the Edinburgh run of The Time Machine as a project.
8. The Time Machine for most people as a story falls into two sides. On one hand we have those that know the original H G Wells story and on the other hand people who are more familiar with the 1960 film starring Rod Taylor (I know there was recently a 2002 film adaptation, but this is the classic one). Which did you decide to base the core story on?
ELTON - We wanted to stay well away from any film adaptation and return to the source material, re-writing it from the ground up not only for the logistics of the stage, but more importantly so that we could use it to question where society is going post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-terrorism, post-North Korea – post-internet, even – and the coming, dangerous social changes that HG Wells could never have envisaged in his original novel. This is my Time Machine, my Planet of the Apes. Wells is the lift-off point, the inspiration, but Dyad’s version, my version, is something very different, disguised as the original. What happens if the world ends this afternoon? What do we become? And how can we prevent that? We're not doing The Time Machine because we like the book. We're doing it because we're worried about where things are going and we want to challenge the audience into reflecting upon doing something about that.
STEPHEN – For Dyad it was important that this was a modern take on the story and, while retaining the essence of the original source material, there was never any intention of presenting someone else’s vision of the future or their interpretation of the time traveller.
9. This story of “The Time Machine” is of course one with some updates to it. How difficult was it to incorporate those updates while at the same time staying true to the original source material when the story is so well know to so many people? With the wrong touch in writing, our trips into the future could so easily become heavy handed commentary on current events.
ELTON - There was always going to be this balance of introducing the new while still retaining enough of the old so that audiences were in a familiar story space, but also at the same time being faced with some new questions about where we are as individuals and a society as a whole not only now but as we head into the future. It’s about what we want to leave behind.
STEPHEN - Elton saw our time traveller as a precariously balanced individual. He had the genius to create this time machine, but the hopes and dreams that he had for humanity and his desire to build his machine and see the realisation of these have been shattered as he has seen mankind’s ultimate fate, and – whilst time travel has an effect on his physical well-being – this realisation has an apparent effect upon his already fragile mental health.
10. Any time traveller these days is of course coming right up against our very well known television time traveller. Although a very different story, has the popularity of television time travel helped with audience attendances for this production?
ELTON - I am an unashamed Doctor Who fan, so a few in-jokes and nods to my favourite TV show were inevitable, but we were never specifically targeting that audience. We saw this as more literary philosophy than sci-fi, but it can't be denied that even the good Doctor's original roots were cribbed almost entirely from The Time Machine.
11. Both Austen’s Women and The Time Machine have one thing in common, and that is one person telling us as an audience a story. We have probably been telling one another stories since we first began to communicate with one another. The requirement as human beings to be told a story seems to be somehow hard wired into us. Would you agree with that statement?
STEPHEN - Telling stories to one another is probably as old as mankind; we seem to have a need to be told a story, and that need is at the very core of Dyad Productions. As long as the story itself is of a universal human interest and the characters real and believable then you can tell any type of story.
12. Without giving any secrets away, what is in store for Dyad productions after The Edinburgh Fringe and into 2018?
ELTON - The Time Machine is going on tour next spring. There are about 40 dates in the tour schedule so far. Jane Eyre tours this autumn, and Christmas Gothic over Christmas. Dyad Productions is always in some stage of production with a project, and we usually have one new production complete from conception to final production within a year. The Edinburgh Fringe is usually our platform for that production – our lifting off point, our trade fair for press and promoters – and we fully intend to be back again next year to celebrate our decade at the Fringe.
Forme more information on Dyad Productions visit their website at.
Interview by Tom King