The Grizzly Bit

As I’ve mentioned before, Scuttlers is gritty: it’s violent, and has several fight scenes. Last week we worked on a slow motion fight scene with two cast members using belts – practicing control, and getting enough momentum in the belts without losing precision. We’ve had a lot of fun with the cast practising reacting to a physical blow, and so far have managed to keep accidental contact to a minimum!


We’ve also had a new beast to deal with this week: the theatrical hire sword. The play features a sword, which has added a whole new dimension to health and safety. nly designated people are allowed to handle it, and our actors have to practice with it three times before each rehearsal to meet the risk assessment. Oh the joys! That said, it does look fantastic on stage, and James, our ‘soldier’ is having fun incorporating it into his character.

Part of making our actors look like the scrappy hard-knocks they are portraying, is roughing up their beautiful faces. Debbie, our DSM for the show, is a dab hand at make-up and is adding an extra layer to the aesthetic of the show by giving the cast some grizzly scars, scrapes and bruises. The trick being to use a layer of liquid latex underneath the colour to get the texture. The cast is loving their new looks – and are turning heads in public on lunch breaks.

Jamie scar 2


We’ve also got the added fun of blood packs. So far we’ve only had one prematurely burst on stage – fingers crossed they’ll behave themselves for the final night! So…top tips for making a blood pack:


  • Cut out two rectangles of cling film and layer them on top of one another (only use one layer if you want it to burst really easily)
  • Make a circle with your thumb and forefinger, place the cling film on top and push it through the circle making a small indent for the ‘blood’ to go
  • Pour the blood in slowly. We’re using professional fake blood (which smells strangely like raisins), but if you’re looking for a DIY option I’ve used a cornflower, water and food colourant mixture in the past
  • Take the four corners of the cling film and twist them together really tight
  • Tie the twist in a knot – like you would tie a balloon

Done! Now tape it your actor and you’re ready to go…

Sammy Gooch – Assistant Director


Show Week

Where has the time gone? Before you know it it’s show week, and we’re speeding full pelt towards performance night.

This week has been a blurred and busy week of highs and lows. Like most people who work freelance, my work ebbs and flows, and this week everything has definitely picked up! The focus is squarely on pulling the show together, and I find myself rushing every day this week trying to piece together 12 hr working days. It’s all fun, and something that anyone working in this industry is used to: cue an unhealthy coffee addiction, failure to put on a clothes wash, and a general back-step in self-care!

On Tuesday we experienced the obligatory ‘bad rehearsal’. There comes a point in every play where either the actors run out of steam, or they approach a run like they are going through the motions. This is definitely what happened on Tuesday – in the words of Tina the cast had ‘forgotten the artistry’. They had lost sight of the grit of the play, and the fierce, violent, scrappy nature of the characters. When you can see an actor thinking about their dinner, or whether they are in the next scene or not, then forget about it. In the cast’s defence, they recognised that energy was lacking: there’s nothing worse than a cast doing a terrible run and coming out the end thinking they’ve done a cracking job.

One (of many) things that Tina really excels at is motivational speeches, and having sent the cast home for an early night, we approached the next day in a different head space. The focus was on getting the actors back in their heads: concentrating on the emotions and reactions of their characters in the moment, rather than thinking about the play as a whole. We started with a vocal and physical warm-up, then lined the cast up in their two gangs and got them to hurl insults at one another – getting the adrenaline going. In costume, we gave the cast 10 minutes lying on the floor reflecting on their character, giving them space to focus. This run was infinitely better, the cast threw themselves into it – the reactions were better, the ensemble ad-libbing was more committed, and the violence more raw that we’d ever seen it before. The cast were working up a proper sweat, and came away feeling dead proud.

Today is the get-in in the theatre, and with the silks now up, everything seems to be pulling together. The show is by no means perfect yet, and we’re encountering the typical pitfalls at this stage (missing a bed that has been delayed at the postal depot), but nothing outside the norm. That said, we’ve not done a rehearsal with the blood packs yet…what could possibly go wrong?

Sammy Gooch – Assistant Director

The Fight

With such a large ensemble, choreographing a fight scene step-by-step could take days but time is of the essence, so how do we achieve this? By creating a strong, striking sequence that has the emotional weight and gravitas.

We begin by having the two ‘gangs’ line-up opposite each other, in pairs. A and B. A’s create a series of five contact points on B, i.e. A’s left hand to B’s left upper arm, right elbow to left shoulder, both hands on right side, and so on. We asked B’s to do the same on A’s, and for the pairs to repeat their movements to commit them to memory. The pairs took turns: A’s making their five contact points on B’s, then B’s doing the same. Once this was feeling smooth, we then asked the pairs to alternate movements: A’s make the first movement, B’s the second, and so on. Here begins the origins of the fight: provocation and retaliation.

This technique as one used by Frantic Assembly in their work, and is something that I’ve previously used in a different context. In a University piece, I used this technique conversely to create a relationship between two characters: the idea being to have the two actors facing each other, and making a series of contact points that you join together to create a sense of relationship/connection. Check out Frantic Assembly’s ‘Chair Duets’ series on YouTube for a greater understanding of what I’m talking about:

Back to the fight scene! So each pair now have a sequence of ten movements – great – but how do we turn this into a fight? What we now ask the actors to do is to think about joining up those movements, making them flow, and also to bring in reaction. If a movement was previously a hand to an upper arm, can this now be turned into a punch, and if so how would the body of the person receiving this punch move in response? We are doing this all in slow motion, and if speed were on a 1 to 10 scale, we’re working at level 1. Working at this speed allows the actors to explore the extremes of the movement, and once this is working we then add in facial expressions. The idea is to add each aspect of the fight in layer by layer. What we’ve got now is a really solid backbone of our fight scene, that allows us to play around with space. Tina decides to bring in all of the actors in really close proximity, so that the fight is condensed: it looks claustrophobic and purposefully chaotic. The music we have for this scene is slow and poignant, and this kind of slow-motion movement really lends itself to the style of the piece.

What we’ve achieved in a couple of hours is a choreographed fight scene. We’ve not had to pick out individuals, or overcomplicat anything, but still achieved a strong ensemble piece that works for this scene. It also is a nod to the previous movement sequences we’ve worked on with the ensemble, so ties together the show in a climactic way. As I’ve previously stated in this blog, I’ve never worked in a capacity like this with such a large ensemble, and I think often approaching scenes like this can feel daunting to a director. The best thing you can do is keep things simple, and guide the actors so that their input does a lot of the work for you.

sammy - the fight

Sammy Gooch – Assistant Director

Set Design as a Character Itself

I like to think of a theatre set as an extra character in a show. As the only ever-present feature of a show that keeps moving and changing, it’s arguably the most important character too. If you imagine that a silk material used as a backdrop is a person (bear with me), how would it speak? What would it’s personality be like? In my mind, it would be a female character who is very laid back, easy-going and relaxed; she goes with the wind and is a bit ditzy. If a Victorian Mill was a person, what would it be like? A tough and imposing male bodyguard who always stands eerily still and has a bad attitude? Thought so…

What conflicting characters! But how much more interesting is it to include two very contrasting designs in the same space? Imagine if everybody on Coronation Street got along… who would watch it? Nobody! That’s why we needed a little conflict in the design and why the character of the set is completely contradictory to the themes of the show.

At the start of the design process, I had designed a very detailed and dark Victorian Street scene to reflect the themes of the show: violence, anger and survival. But that felt a little obvious. Overdone. Now, we have a very airy townscape with lots of white space and minimal colour, with the mills eerily framing the scene and the smoke billowing into the skies. I think there is (as Tina Shuker-Abel – Director of Scuttlers would say) an onion layer going here – that means something deep and symbolic is going on, FYI…

We’re in 1800s Victorian Manchester here, which is so far removed from our lives today that we can’t even begin to comprehend the living conditions. Smoke. Filth. No drains. Human waste rotting on the streets. The mills never stop clanging. Fighting for survival every night. Not knowing when your next meal will be. Gangs. Knives. The stench.

Life in these conditions was so basic and primitive that the only priority was to survive. There was no time for the extraneous details. No colour. No joy. No hope. The new and simplified version of the set reflects how basic and (here comes the onion layer) primal life was. That’s why the mills are the only solid, black colour on the set; they are what the characters depend on to survive. Everything else is peripheral.

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Jess Rooney – Assistant Designer

Having a Voice

Back in the rehearsal room, and we’re running the first Act again with the ensemble. Everything is beginning to pull together, and Tina is layering the physical pieces we’ve been working on. Sat at the director’s table today is myself, Jess (assistant designer), Tina (although she’s constantly up amidst the action) and Di Clough the lighting designer. At one point, addressing the cast, Tina points along the table and jokes: ’this is what parliament should look like!’ Although the Arts is making changes in terms of gender representation, often productions tend to fall short in this respect, so I’m really proud to be part of a project where often male-dominated roles are female-led.

When I first heard about Scuttlers – a circa 1885 story about gangs in Ancoats Manchester – my first thought was ‘will this pass the bechdel test?’ All too often we see in scripts, particularly those that are set a little further back in history, in which female characters are given a back-seat in the action. Rona Munro, however, completely goes against this. She delves into the lives of female Scuttlers, who were often just as powerful, and definitely as foul-mouthed as the men. Munro doesn’t just shoehorn these female roles in either, but is reflective of the gritty way of life for these young people. Munro not only examines female relationships – how young women depended on each other for support – but how young women were huge influencers within gangs. She depicts the characters as influential, and both physically and verbally violent, in a way that we often don’t associate women of this era as being. Not only this, but Munro also looks at gender identity in interesting ways: particularly in the character Polly, who wears male clothes as an assertion of her identity and status in the gang. These characters are complex, and above all have a voice that goes beyond the stereotypical male-female gender roles that we are often accustomed to seeing.

Sammy Gooch – Assistant Director

The Theatre Set Design Trap

It is so easy to become trapped inside your own design ideas. After developing a sketch for a backdrop, the page almost becomes inscribed in your own mind. It makes sense to you, of course… you know why you decided to add a chimney there, or why the smoke billows to the left, or why you decided to add a lamppost on that corner. But sometimes you can get caught like a fish in a net, an endless cycle of confirming your own pre-existing beliefs that you have fulfilled the creative vision of the show. Without being open to feedback, you are at risk of becoming the stereotype of a creative designer; a spectacle-wearing, edgy enigma who simply refuses to listen to anybody but their own self-fulfilling prophecies, peering down their nose at anybody who dares to question their designs. (You’re destroying the aura in the room, darling!)

So, with that in mind, I’ve been asking as many people as possible about their opinions on my designs so far for Scuttlers and making small adaptations in light of their suggestions. You could say that the set is becoming a collaborative process between myself and those around me. I’m doing this because the set is not just for me; it’s for a whole auditorium of people and I understand the dangers of becoming trapped in the belief that ‘my way is the highway’. (Nine times out of ten, it really isn’t!).

How on EARTH do you come up with an entire industrial landscape?, I hear you ask. How do you decide where a building should be? How do you know what colours to use? It’s very rare that I will begin a sketch with a comprehensive idea of what is going to be in it. This is how my internal monologue sounds when sketching out a scene…

Let’s start with a basic row of houses. Standard. Ooh, if the light is coming from the right to the left, that means the shadows would be on the left of the houses, so let’s shade that in a bit. And if there are houses, there needs to be some streetlamps, so we can add one of those in. If there are houses and streetlamps, the people who live there need somewhere to work, so let’s pop a mill in the background. That’s a big mill. We need more people to work there, so let’s add some more houses in the distance. But don’t be as harsh with the outline, it’s in the distance! We need some wider indication of where we are now though. We’re in Manchester, so we could add a nice dip in the Pennines in the background. It rains a lot in the Pennines, so we’re gonna need some clouds…

And that’s how easy it is to get trapped inside your own head!

The good news is that the design has been finalised now. Just a few more final tweaks in colour and hue and we’re good to go! Here’s just a sneak preview…

 Sneak preview - blog 4

Jess Rooney – Assistant Designer

There is nothing quite as exciting as sitting in a red velvet seat in a packed theatre auditorium waiting for a show to begin. There is a certain buzz in the air, the anticipation of the house lights dimming growing by the second. The anxious checking of watches and soft flicks of brochures as the pages are turned. Camera phones illegally darting upward to capture the memory of the intricate ceiling with pastel paintings of the past. A constant hum of energy that grows and grows. All the while, the soft beating of hundreds of hearts inexplicably speeding up in expectation of a great show.

As the curtain is pulled from its post, the set and backdrop are revealed. In my design process, I am always thinking about this moment. How the room bursts with excitement. A chorus of ‘ooooooo’s’ emanating from the mass of people. As an audience member, what would I want to see? What mood do I want to create? How can we create a five-meter-high representation of the play Scuttlers?

One thing that I have enjoyed about this project is how theatre offers more creative allowance in design. There is an unspoken agreement between the audience and designer that the backdrop can be a little skewed from reality. Just like the ‘fourth wall’, where the audience knows that there is nothing really there for the actors to look at, but it’s allowed. In theatre, you have the capacity to make the buildings just a little bit too tall. Make them lean inwards just a little too much, even if it is structurally impossible in the real world. The smoke that stems from the chimneys can move illogically if you want it to. It’s theatre! Theatre offers the opportunity for people to escape from the structures and ties of everyday life. It’s a place completely immerse yourself into a different world for the evening. As designers and directors, we are creating the context of this world from the very second that curtain is pulled back.

One of the best ways to test your idea is to create a miniature version of the set. A scale model. That’s what I’ve been doing this week. I have developed three paintings using acrylic to form the backdrop of the set. After getting feedback from the Director and cast, I’m going to simplify the designs so they can work a little better with the lighting. The paint worked very well on the silk but I am mentally preparing myself for a five-meter high version and beginning to think about logistics now. We’re gonna need a bigger brush…

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Jess Rooney – Assistant Designer