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Creating Orpheus

Published 14 September 2015

There’s commitment to a role and then there’s COMMITMENT TO A ROLE.

Christian Bale might gain or shed a few pounds for a role. Jake Gyllenhaal might spend a couple of hours a day for a few months in the gym. I’m not knocking their work – though I might be a touch flippant about their achievements – but they get paid millions of dollars for such extremes.

The cast of touring theatre company Little Bulb’s Orpheus, a jazz retelling of the musical Greek myth inspired by the music of Django Reinhardt, have dedicated years of their lives to learning instruments and styles of play for the stage production that opens at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio this week.

Years of back-breaking, finger-bleeding, soul-testing, nerve-shredding practice have gone in to delivering this production… and not for eye-bulging amounts of lovely cash (I suspect) but for the love of the production. That’s commitment.

Think I’m overstating it? Dominic Conway, who plays Reinhardt in the production, let us into his preparation for the show that began life at the BAC:

 

When Alexander Scott shared his vision of a production of Orpheus set in 1930s Paris with me playing my hero Django Reinhardt in the title role, I was conflicted to say the least. I loved the idea of it, but the thought of playing Django sent me into a panic.  

I sermonised manically and at length on the need to get in an experienced jazz guitarist for the role, but he wouldn’t be persuaded, so I drew up a vigorous practice schedule and set to work the minute I got home. 

I wasn’t the only one with a challenge; the whole company had to go from lo-fi folk band to hot jazz ensemble. Fortunately, we had two years to undergo this transformation.

In Little Bulb we believe passionately in acquiring skills for each new production. When we started out we could all sing, more or less, and we all dabbled with instruments, but not necessarily the ones we play in Orpheus. 

In 2009 Shamira Turner began learning the accordion for a show we were making about a teenage folk band. A couple of tours later and she was very good at it, but for Orpheus the bar was raised fiendishly high. Similarly, Clare started playing double-bass in 2011 for a haphazard comedy; that show only required the basics, so it took a pretty steep learning curve to be able to put the swing into some of Orpheus’ more up tempo numbers. Alexander too, in a show of solidarity, learnt the clarinet specifically for Orpheus, so I had no one to complain to about having to play outside of my comfort zone. If anything I had an advantage because I’d been playing guitar for years and had some familiarity with Django’s music. 

This familiarity, however, wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped. I soon discovered that I’d been playing Django’s music completely wrong for years; everything from how to hold the guitar to what beats to emphasise, all of my habits had to be unlearned.

Many guitarists spend their lives mastering Django’s startling and incredibly specific technique, I had two years to cover as much ground as possible. I went to stay with virtuoso Gypsy guitarist Lollo Meier. He has a spare caravan for students who come from all over the world to visit him in his encampment in Eindhoven. We played all day long until my back ached; it was ideal.

Two years later things were starting to come together. We brought in brothers Tom and Charlie Penn, very experienced on percussion and piano respectively, and their expertise helped to create the illusion that we all knew what we were doing. 

We opened the show in April 2013 at Battersea Arts Centre. I remained terrified all throughout the first week, but over the course of the run I learnt to relax. We didn’t know what audiences were going to make of it, but we ended up with the most diverse crowd we’ve ever played to and the response was fantastic. A year later we reprised the show; that was a chance to do it all again but with less anxiety. 

Later that summer we took the show to the prestigious Salzberg International Festival. This brought with it a fresh wave of nerves along the lines of how will it go down? Will it fit into the venue? What will they think of our singing at a festival renowned for world-class opera? Luckily they went for it, and now we prepare to load the van again this time to a world-class opera venue closer to home as we begin a tour of England starting in London at the Royal Opera House. 

As for my nerves about playing Django, I’d say they’ve shifted slightly to a sense of responsibility. Django was deservedly proud of everything he achieved in his lifetime, and no doubt he’d be pleased to see how his music still inspires people today. I’m not sure quite what he’d make of our sometimes silly tribute, but he’d certainly be happy to have his music played live on stage at the Royal Opera House, even if it is played by a bunch of actors who can’t say no to a challenge. 

Orpheus plays at the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio Theatre as part of the 2015 Deloitte Ignite Festival from 15 to 19 September. Tickets for the London run are sold out, but you could still get day seats or returns

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