‘I’m pretentious. Look at me, I wear fucking braces’

talks to Alan Lane about making theatre accessible to the masses, and why his new show, Blood + Chocolate is taking York by storm

alan lane

Tired, ill and on his day off Alan Lane, artistic director of Slung Low, took the time to speak to me about his latest production and his production company, not forgetting his “sexy breed” dog Billy. With Blood + Chocolate going down a storm in the theatrical circles, I was intrigued to find out a bit more about Alan Lane himself and his Leeds based production company, Slung Low.

Blood + Chocolate is a promenade performance set across the city centre of York, listening to the characters’ whispering through headphones the show is set on a grand scale. Slung Low, Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal have come together to put on a World War One drama like no other. Inspired by the momentous story of the Lord Mayor of York gifting all local men in uniform a Rowntree’s bar of chocolate during the Christmas of 1914. We spoke about the trials and tribulations of working with such a large project, not before finding out how it all started.

Slung Low are a “theatre company that make theatre work in places that aren’t theatre”. Taking over unusual places as the settings for their shows; prior settings being trains, old schools, shopping centres, castles and seafronts in Scarborough in minus eleven conditions. However, 5 Railway Arches in Holbeck is where they reside on a more regular basis. It is used as a development and presentation space for experimental theatre. It also regularly sets host to other new and exciting companies, allowing them to demonstrate what they can do in a time where ” they are turning the tap of funding off, as people don’t care about theatre as much as they do about trees”.

Starting out as a “bunch of Sheffield University graduates” with the aspiration of establishing a theatre company, but not knowing what that actually meant, they had a rocky start of 5/6 years trying out many new things all of which were “quite bad, quite terrible” in his opinion. They knew that they wanted to create theatre that everyone would want to come see, not just those who love theatre already, which is refreshing to see in an era where young people and certain social groups find it hard to engage in the theatre, fearing it is still a thing for the toffee nosed upper classes. Alan believes that you don’t need to be part of the original demographic to enjoy great art – “Moby Dick is a brilliant book, but I’m not a whale”.

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Advocating that “shit theatre isn’t accessible…expensive theatre isn’t accessible – you’ve got to make it cheap to make it accessible”. Accessibility is key for Slung Low, with their performances operate largely on a ‘pay-what-you-decide’ policy, which allows their shows to be accessible to all. When asking about the possibility of people ripping them off he simply replied… ” I think in any group of people there is going to be an arsehole and there’s always someone who gives more than they should”. He detailed that by suggesting a price you are merely excluding those who can’t afford that price, deeming them unworthy of the work. Personally, I think more people should be taking a leaf out of their book, although Alan begged to differ. Telling me that “Slung Low is a beast of a thing” which has reduced him to a snotty, tired mess on the verge of death due to the hard work and dedication put into Blood + Chocolate, the biggest show they have ever made. It is this commitment against the commitment of the others involved that Alan thought was most difficult about working with two other production companies, telling me: “For Pilot this is the most important thing they’re doing this year. For Slung Low its absolutely the most important thing; we’ve moved our lives and families to another city for 2 months – it’s the biggest show we’ve ever made. For York Theatre Royal it’s something they might think about this week.”

Each having their own differing set of personal investments and radically different values, it is no wonder there is differing levels of commitment to the project, however, it was uplifting to see the sheer dedication Slung Low put into their work. With an artistic policy of “Don’t be shit, to think about the audience and to tell good stories” there is no wonder why their work has been so successful.

With a cast of 180 remembering everyone’s name seems like a mammoth of a task, yet Alan did just that. Not just first names either but last as well. Not being able to remember who is who without using both, Alan was upset in rehearsals last week when he called an actress by the wrong name. He disclosed that this was the most difficult aspect of working on such a large production. Alongside the fact that it almost impossible to go back on anything.
“It can take up to an hour and a half to reset a scene, so you have to just keep going – or know what it is going to cost you.”

Surprisingly though, Alan informed me that, despite the grand scale of the performance, that he wouldn’t say that it was any more expensive than any other show. With there being less people working on Blood + Chocolate than York Theatre Royal’s ‘See How They Run’ – well, paid ones that is.

To avoid being all doom and gloom, I queried Alan on what he’s gained from this experience, telling me he loves that it stops a city dead in its tracks for a whole evening. This obviously is quite problematic in itself: Alan expressed his concern with putting a 6 month masterpiece up against a drunk city when York Races came to town Saturday 12th October. The show, however, changes everyday – unsurprising given the circumstances of the setting.
“We are not striving to do the same show we did yesterday, we are striving to do the best show given everything that is happening tonight.”

It was a shame to hear that some people of York were set on sabotaging the spectacle of the show, but the whole team are there on hand every night. Alan confessed “I’m going to burn him if he tries it again” – speaking about an imbecile in a Range Rover who repeatedly ran down the road blocks in place. It was exactly this honesty and spontaneity that made Alan such an enjoyable intellectual to speak to, yet he had a softer side to him wherein he touched me with his story of a women in Stoke, unable to pay her bills – just one of the many forgotten people of a city – in which Slung Low helped out.

“I think when you spend a long period of time somewhere, and you’re not selling something, the people of the town who have been forgotten come to you and that’s very lovely but also very sad”.
To bring the interview to a close, I asked what Alan did in his downtime to relax wherein I got to see his very beautiful (“sexy breed”) black Labrador – Billy – who he takes for walks on his days off. I could go on for pages about the interview but I will end on his advice, for any budding actors, to go to the National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough at Easter. To, in his words, “give you a sense of actually what it is you are signing up for”. Warning that “there are some wankers in theatre, but there are also some very good people”. So don’t shy away, get involved in theatre.

One comment

  1. 25 Oct ’13 at 10:02 pm

    Stephanie Wood

    I worked on this production. It was incredibly tiring, working all day and performing 6 nights a week but it was worth every second. Alan is the most inspiring director I have ever met and unbelievably generous. Blood and Chocolate was an awesome piece of theatre created by an amazingly talented team. Thank you to Alan, Pilot, York Theatre Royal and Slung Low, I had a blast and feel incredibly privileged to have been a part of it all.

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