Ghosts of the Past: Patrick Connellan on co-designing Read All About It!

Posted on 5 July 2018

With less than a week to go until Read All About It! opens, our design and production teams have been busy setting up at the Coventry Evening Telegraph Building, ready for tech rehearsals taking place at the end of this week.

In between fit-up, meetings and rehearsals, co-designer Patrick Connellan, who has a long-standing connection with Coventry and the Belgrade Theatre, found time for a quick chat with us about his work with fellow designer Abby Clarke on the show, explaining how it has been carefully created to blend in with the remarkable building where it takes place.

“What we’re trying to do is respond directly to the building itself – not just the literal fabric of the building, but all its history as well, which is something you can see and feel everywhere,” he says. “From the audience’s perspective, aside from all the incredible stories the show is telling, a lot of people will just want to come and have a look around because it’s an interesting place to be, so it’s about finding ways of enhancing that experience.

“The very worst thing we could have done with a site-specific piece like this is bring in a big, elaborate set, so while we are bringing in bits of furniture and other objects, we’re also trying as much as we can to use what’s already there.”

CET Building

Authenticity is key here, and many of the props which have been sourced elsewhere are still real period items, very much in keeping with their surroundings. The ultimate goal of the design process, he says, is to “make the building live again”.

“It sounds a bit mystical,” he laughs, “but it is almost as though there are ghosts in the building that we’re trying to bring back to life. I love going up and down the staircases, feeling the wonderful timber bannisters and thinking about the thousands of hands that have done the same thing over the years.

“From our point of view it’s all about how you place things – so it might be adding a splash of ink somewhere, or arranging furniture in a particular way. Without giving too much away, we’re also going to be using elements of sound and projection to give a sense of all those ghosts.”

Among the objects being brought in to the building are some donated by members of the public following a recent props call-out.

Youth Theatre

“One of the things we asked for was typewriters, and the aspiration was initially to fill a big room with 100 typewriters on 100 desks, with the deafening sound of people typing frenetically playing out. We didn’t get 100 in the end, but we do have quite a lot, and what’s really interesting is that they’re all from different periods, so again, you’re getting a sense of that journey through history.”

Aside from what’s been found and donated, there are also two major props which have been created from scratch. Both are featured in Middle Youth Theatre’s performance, inspired by the Keresley Miners’ Strike.

“One of the things we’ve done is very carefully recreate the miners’ wives’ banner, which was a real banner that was used at the time. We’ve also got a Margaret Thatcher puppet, which is actually based on something that I saw at a demonstration in the early 90s, all made out of rubbish. We’ve replicated that by making her hair out of carrier bags and things like that, but I also took a bit of inspiration from Gerald Scarf’s famous Thatcher cartoons.”

Thatcher Puppet

There have been costumes to consider too – over 100 of them, in fact, thanks to the huge number of youth and community participants – which are a similar mix of found and made items.

“There are a lot of them, and they’re covering periods from the late 50s and 60s right up until the present day! Our first thought was that we would provide costumes for all of the characters, mostly from stock, but as we went along we slightly changed track, partly to give the City Final participants more involvement in creating their characters and thinking about what they might wear.

“In the end, we’ve asked them to provide certain base elements, which we’ve then added to so we can make sure everyone’s in keeping with the appropriate period. That’s true for all of the groups apart from Senior Youth Theatre, who are the Coventry Telegraph workers who lead audiences through the show.

“With Retold, we’ve also gone for something based on a late 50s, Coventry Evening Telegraph reporter feel, for both the male and female dancers. Because they’re dancing, we did have to think carefully about things like the braces on the trousers, making sure they didn’t catch, and choosing the fabrics really carefully so that they’re comfortable to wear.”

The foyer area where Mercurial Dance perform Retold has posed a particular challenge, requiring a design versatile enough to accommodate three different strands of the project. As well as providing enough space for dancing and a cabaret-style table layout for Retold, it also has to work as a space to welcome audiences for Lord Iliffe’s address on the opening of the building in 1959, presented at the start of City Final by Senior Youth Theatre. It’s also acting as a dance hall set for members of the Belgrade Arts Gym: Shine On group, who will perform their Locarno Ballroom inspired story in the space.

Model Box

There’s a lot of ground to cover even in this small part of the building, then, but Patrick is confident the many stories populating the space will fit together neatly as part of a wider, overarching narrative.

“I think they take you on a really interesting journey, and while all the stories don’t necessarily relate directly to each other, they all have an association with the Coventry Evening Telegraph Building itself. Ultimately, I think the point is about the ownership of stories, where they come from, and what happens to them once they’re handed to the press. All of these stories in one way or another are based on real things that happened, things that people will have experienced and will have their own memories about, so it’s all about the relationship between the press and our lives and our stories.”

Read All About It! runs at the Coventry Evening Telegraph Building 10-14 July as part of the Coventry City of Culture Trust’s build-up programme to 2021, supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England, Coventry University, University of Warwick, Coventry City Council and Coventry Business Improvement District. More information is available here.

Some photos by Alan Van Wijgerden