Known for his work with Edinburgh-based site-specific company Grid Iron, director Ben Harrison tells David Pollock about adapting to Covid restrictions and creating Chalk Walk, in which an actor takes one stranger on an hour-long journey
During the first lockdown, director Ben Harrison asked a dancer friend what she missed most about live performance. Her response? “The smell of the sweat of the other performers.”
Harrison understood. He says: “It’s real, it’s energy, it’s humanity. People working hard for each other and striving for something excellent. That’s been so cruelly taken away from us, but it will return.” And he sees his new project as “literally the first step” towards something that’s more live and connected.
This month, with lockdown still in place, he’s preparing to debut what may be the only live theatrical event taking place in Britain right now – Chalk Walk, an outdoor odyssey for one audience member, one performer, and a piece of chalk.
Q&A Ben Harrison
What was your first non-theatre job?
Stacking shelves at M&S.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant director to Ivan Cutting on The Wuffings for Eastern Angles in 1997.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s the collective endeavour, not the individual, that counts.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My maternal grandmother.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
When I say “touch wood”, I have to touch wood.
How have you been coping with the lockdown?
It’s been hard, but I had some writing to do which helped. And I do lots of yoga.
What culture have you enjoyed in lockdown?
Mostly discovering new music, as I get tired of screens.
In part, Harrison’s tenacity in putting on a show has been accidental. As co-artistic director of the Edinburgh-based theatre company Grid Iron, Harrison was already gearing up for his own adaptation of Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe’s book Doppler, which had been planned long before the pandemic.
Doppler is the satirical tale of a man who tries (and fails) to leave consumer society behind and live in the wilderness. The planned forest setting, meanwhile, looked like it might just survive as the only piece of live theatre staged during 2020’s all-digital Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“When the first lockdown began, I was very lucky because I was a quarter of the way through the adaptation of Doppler, so I had a lot to get on with,” says Harrison now. “The stressful thing was when we moved to the production. Was it going to happen? How could it happen? The uncertainty was draining.”
Harrison joined Grid Iron in 1996, a year after its foundation by his university friend and fellow artistic director Judith Doherty. The company made its name in site-specific work, from Douglas Maxwell’s playground-located Decky Does a Bronco in 2000 to Roam six years later, which used Edinburgh Airport as a backdrop.
Harrison, who has directed 29 of Grid Iron’s 35 productions, says: “As a company, we’ve always had to be adaptable because of the places we choose to work – for example, a working international airport. You have to roll with the punches and surrender quite a bit of aesthetic and creative control to the demands of the location, although this was the whole fabric of our society.”
After the first lockdown, the company was determined to continue. “Thank goodness for Zoom,” he says “It was great to go to work, even if only at the kitchen table.”
Doppler was a bold but ill-fated move to try to work through the pandemic within the rules. Unfortunately, lockdown tightening put paid to hopes of a socially distanced live show, while Storm Francis stopped the filming of a screen version in its tracks. Instead, a ‘making of’ film, due out early this year, will serve as a document of the time, while a live version remains a possibility this August.
In the meantime, there’s Chalk Walk, which is a personal production of Harrison’s – with actors and fellow devisers Neil John Gibson and Emma Snellgrove – rather than a Grid Iron work. Rehearsals for it, he says, have to be conducted while out for a walk with one actor at a time.
“Trust has been broken by this pandemic,” he says. “I remember early on, a little girl of about five years old and her dad, who I just happened to be walking past at two metres, and she shrank away in fear. That’s such an awful by-product of this. So Chalk Walk is a chance to grow together again; a dare to spend an hour with a stranger and it not only being okay, but hopefully profoundly creative and healing.”
What makes this show a theatrical work? “There will be some performative elements,” says Harrison. “But it’s not so much about Emma and Neil being characters, it’s more about them using their theatrical skills to be more heightened than if you went on a walk with your mate. It’s subtle. The key difference is the chalk and how it’s used. So you might draw a door handle on a bricked-up door, and at that moment it means something. There’s an emotional context to it.”
Born in London in 1970, Harrison is the son of a doctor father and a psychotherapist mother, although a theatrical connection existed through his grandparents – who were neighbours and friends of actors including Alastair Sim and George Cole.
“I remember going to see George in Drury Lane in The Pirates of Penzance, and them taking me to his dressing room as an eight-year-old,” he says. “It was both incredibly glamorous and normal, because that was George and I’d known him since I was born. [The theatre] didn’t feel like it was unreachable, for which I feel very fortunate.”
He wrote his first play at the age of 12, created actor-led company Stomping Feet in Norwich at 18 (the ethos was inspired by Kenneth Branagh, the name by Prince), which brought plays by Berkoff and Ionesco to a local audience, and continued to audition for drama schools with a zeal that he recognises was thoroughly precocious.
“I became obsessed with playing Antony in Antony and Cleopatra,” he laughs. “He’s a middle-aged warrior with a barrel chest – I couldn’t be further removed from that. Those audition panels looked at me like I was a lunatic.”
Eventually he moved to Edinburgh to read English, where he met Doherty while working on student plays at the Bedlam Theatre. The intervention of Scottish director and educator Maggie Kinloch convinced him to switch from acting to directing.
After graduating from Edinburgh, Harrison moved to London to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1995, just as Doherty was beginning the administrative task of creating Grid Iron.
Returning to Scotland a year later, Harrison jokes that he’s glad to have missed out the boring part of the company’s inception, although for the first three years the pair thought about packing it in many times. They were still living like students, he says, while he “practically lived on the £18 night bus to London and back”, taking directing work in both cities.
Grid Iron’s attention-grabbing first fringe hit was its adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber in Edinburgh’s historic and reputedly walled-up plague street Mary King’s Close in 1997. Then in 1998, Gargantua was a show on a larger scale, within the maze of vaults that later became the Underbelly venue; and in 2000, the outdoor Decky Does a Bronco gave people a new perspective on its work.
These three shows built Grid Iron’s reputation, the last leading to a tour of England with London’s Almeida Theatre – and Harrison’s role there as associate director between 2000 and 2002. Maintaining his own freelance directorial practice through his two and a half decades with Grid Iron, he was also a director of the Dutch company MUZtheater from 2004 to 2007.
“It’s important that I have a kind of semi-detached relationship with Grid Iron,” says Harrison. “It has allowed me to bring in collaborators I’d never have met if I wasn’t cross-pollinating from different places.
“We still get excited by shining a warm light on a crumbly brick wall, though,” he says of the company with which he is most deeply associated. “When the audience senses the history of that space, it’s rather thrilling. And you get a lot of soulfulness and a lot of control from that – much more control than in a theatre, because you can surround the audience with the entire environment.”
CV Ben Harrison
Born: London, 1970
Training: University of Edinburgh; Central School of Speech and Drama
• The Bloody Chamber, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (1997)
• Gargantua, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (1998)
• Decky Does a Bronco, Edinburgh Fringe (2000); tour (2001-02, 2010)
• Ghost Ward, Almeida Theatre (2001)
• Those Eyes, That Mouth, Edinburgh Fringe (2003); Beirut, 2005
• The Devil’s Larder, Edinburgh Fringe (2005); tour (2015)
• Roam, Traverse Theatre/Edinburgh International Airport (2006)
• The Tailor of Inverness, Edinburgh Fringe (2008-20)
• Peter Pan, Kensington Gardens, O2 and US tour (2009-11)
• Barflies, Edinburgh Fringe (2009); tour (2012)
• Crude, Shed 36 in the Port of Dundee (2016)
• Jury Play, Traverse Theatre (2017)
Agent: Rachel Taylor at Casarotto Ramsay