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BWW Interview: The Creative Team Talk THE LAST FIVE YEARS at Minack Theatre

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Staging Jason Robert Brown's musical in this open-air venue

BWW Interview: The Creative Team Talk THE LAST FIVE YEARS at Minack Theatre
The Last Five Years at Minack Theatre

The Last Five Years is one of the few musicals that seems as if Jason Robert Brown wrote it precisely with a pandemic in mind.

Two souls relay to the audience the journey of their turbulent relationship together through song, and even traditional staging dictates that the two actors barely share the stage at the same time, let alone touch each other. It's the stuff of socially distant dreams.

Throw into the mix a Government mandate for open-air theatre to resume, and you've got a winning formula. We spoke to the creative team of The Last Five Years at the Minack Theatre - which has been running since Monday, starring Emma Kingston and Waylon Jacobs - to understand what makes this production of L5Y different, and why its central themes feel so pertinent right now.

Note: this interview was conducted with producers Chris Passey, David Jenkins and Ben MacSkimming, director Omar F Okai, designer Andrew Exeter, and associate designer Natalia Alvarez.

Tell us how the decision to produce The Last Five Years at the Minack Theatre came about - who approached who? How long has it been in the making?

Chris: That would be my fault! As soon as outdoor theatre was allowed to happen, this production became possible both in terms of social distancing, but also in terms of the theme of isolation and the opportunity to have a forensic look into relationships.

Ben: I got a call from Chris and immediately came on board. I knew the opportunity to make my professional producing debut at the Minack was one I couldn't possibly pass on.

David: It's been a dream of mine to see a piece of theatre at The Minack, and the opportunity for that first production to be one I co-produced was too good to miss. So when Chris called, I knew I had to be involved.

The impending fate of our industry a few months ago, and the news that outdoor performances were being permitted, sparked a conversation regarding the possibility to trail blaze. Not only did we want to be seen to take positive steps forward in bringing this industry back, it was also a unique chance to offer a number of job opportunities where previously most jobs had been lost.

An important factor for the decision was the most amazing offer from the iconic Minack Theatre in Cornwall to house the performance. The final piece of this brilliant opportunity was assembling the most creative and diverse group of professionals.

Chris: The entire process, from initial phone call to opening night, was just six weeks.

BWW Interview: The Creative Team Talk THE LAST FIVE YEARS at Minack Theatre
The Last Five Years at Minack Theatre

Other than the beautiful coastal setting, is there anything about the specific direction of this piece that makes it different to previous versions?

Omar: In this production, the direction explores the themes of faith and conflict within an interfaith marriage, and the concept of accepting 'the other'. This occurs during the songs and dialogue, and is never usually explored in this piece, so by dissecting the songs we can go beyond the narrative. Musically, this is being explored through Jason Robert Brown's composition, and in collaboration with Leo Munby (our musical director), who cemented the synergy between the written word and the compositional dialogue.

Andrew: Visually, the production also presents a bold, fresh new image which underpins the importance of text and scriptures within the musical.

Natalia: Through set and costume, we explore the contrast that takes place narratively to heighten the conflict within Jamie and Cathy's five-year relationship, and it's been exciting to explore the natural contrast of our space and the Minack's living environment.

How does it feel to be creating work for so many people in the current climate?

Chris: Absolutely terrifying! But we've brought together such an astonishing team that the whole process has been incredibly smooth. This was in no small part thanks to our production stage manager Eve and her amazing team.

With the reset button pressed on the entire world, it was absolutely essential to us as producers to have relevant cultural voices in the room to accurately reflect the narrative, and we were delighted to be able to bring assistant director Rebecca Wicking into the room to bring such imperative cultural accuracy and respect.

Ben: We're also so lucky to have Waylon and Emma on board as our dream cast who have been nothing but supportive and flexible with online rehearsals in the build-up to moving everything to Cornwall and this incredible space.

BWW Interview: The Creative Team Talk THE LAST FIVE YEARS at Minack Theatre
The Last Five Years at Minack Theatre

Talking to David Pugh, producer of Educating Rita which closed last month, he spoke of the joy, and the challenges, of creating a production at the Minack. The wind speed being his biggest issue! How have you fared so far?

Andrew: Creatively, the Minack presents a plethora of exciting challenges that makes it almost impossible to separate the space - it becomes the 'fifth member of the creative team'.

Natalia: The architecture and environmental challenges meant the narrative world of the show has to reflect the living environment in which the show exists, and presenting a show set in New York has particularly pointed parallels to a natural space like the Minack.

Ben: We're very lucky that, if our production has been interrupted, it has been by dolphins! Weather is always a constant worry with outdoor theatre, but the incredible band are under cover in case of any 'moment' of weather not quite behaving.

What has the audience reception been like so far, and do you think this production could have a life after this run?

Chris: Audiences have been hugely grateful for the opportunity to once again watch live theatre and have commented on the incredibly diverse creative team and cast - this was integral to our vision from the beginning.

Ben: We are really excited about this production and we think it's an incredibly important piece of theatre. We would certainly love more people to see it and hope that we could make that happen, but we are, along with the rest of the world, entirely in the hands of the pandemic.

It has been incredibly exciting and clear that a story like Last Five Years resonates with people of all ages, races and genders, because the themes are universal and needed in a time of enforced human separation.

The Last Five Years runs at the Minack Theatre, Cornwall, until 19 September

Photo credit: Kyle Richardson

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From This Author Caroline Cronin