As a result of the pandemic, Manchester-based LGBTQ+ theatre company Green Carnation was on the verge of calling it a day. But thanks to an Arts Council recovery grant, it weathered the storm and this autumn will return to the stage with Philip Ridley’s psychological thriller, Vincent River.
Green Carnation’s Dan Jarvis told me why this was the piece that he and co-founder/director Dan Ellis have chosen to return with.
“We’re big fans of thrillers and this is an edgy, tense 90-minute thrill ride,” he explains. “Philip Ridley writes these intense cat and mouse-style games and, in Vincent River, he examines hate crime, loss, prejudice and sexuality. There’s no interval so the whole piece builds and builds into a real pressure cooker of a play. It keeps you guessing until the end and it’s got very clever twists and turns. We thought it was a really exciting piece to come back strong with.”
Ridley’s script, set in London’s East End at the turn of the millennium, involves two connected souls meeting for the first time. Anita is grieving the murder of her adult son when a mysterious teenager turns up at her door. We see how their evening together pans out. For Jarvis, the piece fits the company brief to tell queer stories through quality theatre.
“We’re always looking for established LGBTQ+ plays that are exciting and a bit different. It’s also the sort of intimate play that will work really well at Hope Mill Theatre. They gave us our first break so it feels a bit like a homecoming.”
Formed in 2018, the company is named after the green carnation that Oscar Wilde wore in his lapel as a secret symbol of his homosexuality. Producing exclusively LGBTQ+ theatre, however, doesn’t mean that Green Carnation is aiming at one particular audience or collaborator, as Jarvis explains.
“We don’t only work with LGBTQ+ people but we do actively look for actors with LGBTQ+ experience. That doesn’t necessarily have to correlate with the role however. The Anita character in Vincent River for instance isn’t LGBTQ+ but we’d really welcome an LGBTQ+ person playing that role.”
He continues: “We encourage people who are under represented across all communities and global majority backgrounds. We try to be pro-active in righting an imbalance of under-representation in the work we do. We also try to nurture local talent from the North West.”
Even with the best of intentions, it must be a potential minefield for casting directors these days in terms of representation. Barely a week goes by without a story making the news about a particular role being given to an actor who doesn’t directly relate to the character.
One factor is key for Green Carnation. “The important thing is to ensure that the right voices are in the room,” says Jarvis. “You might not always be able to cast as per the orientation of the character but you want a lot of the other people helping to tell the story to have that lived experience.”
Surely another important factor in casting a two-hander is ensuring that the actors have chemistry?
“Absolutely,” agrees Jarvis. “We’re doing our audition process slightly differently this time. There will be initial, standard auditions but then, for the second round, we’ll pair people up and see how well they work together.”
The last Green Carnation production, a 2020 tour of Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg, was cut short because of Covid. The impact on the company was considerable.
‘The pandemic knocked the sales out of us. We only formed in 2018 and were still early in our journey but the huge financial impact of losing the remainder of the tour made us wonder if we’d have to call it a day. With Vincent River, we just want to pick ourselves up, get our confidence back and remind people what we’re capable of.”
Despite being able to look forward again, Jarvis believes that the fallout from the past two years will be felt in the arts for a long time to come.
‘Luckily for myself and Dan, Green Carnation is not our primary source of income and our livelihoods don’t depend on it. The amount of job losses in the business, however, has been tough for the industry as a whole. We’ve lost so much talent that we would have worked with – performers, designers, technicians – people whose income came from freelance work that just dried up overnight.”
He adds: “It’s been hard trying to entice these skilled professionals back because of what happened. Many have since retrained and left the industry.”
There has long been a school of thought that the arts isn’t a ‘proper’ job. This was never more apparent than in the early stages of the pandemic when the theatre world went dark and next to no support was forthcoming. As a result, it’s understandable why many arts practitioners would be reluctant to return to the business. Jarvis believes that the perception of the arts needs to change.
“We have to try to re-imagine what it looks like to work in the arts now and how it can be as supportive as possible to its freelancers and professionals. Another big challenge for the sector is to demonstrate that the arts are important and vital in so many ways, especially the economic impact. The financial return for every pound put into the arts is more than agriculture. There’s also an enormous social and cultural impact through inclusion, wellbeing and creative engagement that can save money on health and social care costs.
“It’s not the complete answer but it is a really strong mitigating factor as the arts raise people’s quality of life. If we keep making all this clear, the Government might see the power of our industry and start to offer more investment.”
Vincent River is at Hope Mill Theatre from 12-19 October, 2022
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