Category Archives: Footsbarn Theatre

The Footsbarn Travelling Theatre comes home

From , November 8, 2008

After 17 years in exile, the original nomads of the theatre world have returned

A general view of the Footsbarn Theatre

As the song goes: “Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an actor’s life for me.” I would guess it was a life like Footsbarn Travelling Theatre’s that the singer had in mind. I’m standing in a field in Canterbury, in the centre of a circle of wagons – mobile homes for the actors, crafts-people and crew who staff this 37-year-old company.

There’s a big top here, too, where Footsbarn will later be performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And a little top, where they flog the booze. As for the song’s other specifications – “a wax moustache and a beaver coat/ A pony cart and a billy goat” – well, I haven’t seen them yet, but they would be quite in keeping.

Footsbarn are back in their native Britain for the first time in 17 years. At the Edinburgh Festival their tent overlooked the city from Calton Hill, and their Dream became one of the Fringe’s hot tickets. They have since been touring the UK – pitch tent, perform, dismantle tent, move on – and arrive in London next week. “It’s been fantastic,” says the artistic director Paddy Hayter, over tea in his caravan. “I think we will come back more. Well, more than we have been doing. Because we haven’t been coming back at all.”

Footsbarn is made up of exiles, prophets refused honour in their own land, with a higher profile overseas than among compatriots who have largely forgotten them. But, in select circles, Footsbarn enjoy near-legendary status. Founded in Cornwall in 1971, they were the forebears of current folk theatre darlings Kneehigh, who cite their influence. Shakespeare’s Globe supremo Dominic Dromgoole, who programmed them on Bankside earlier this year, is another fan. “They are genuinely bananas,” he says. “That’s why I love them so much.”

The troupe was founded by Oliver Foot (nephew of Michael, son of Sir Hugh Foot, aka Lord Caradon) and John Paul Cook, who sought “to make theatre that was accessible to all ages and classes”, says Hayter, who joined in 1973.

The company situated itself in a barn on Foot’s family farm, from where it launched a series of “original, popular and accessible” theatre events, says Hayter, based on Cornish legends and classical plays. Their style was a grab-bag of European performance practices, circus skills, street theatre and carnival. According to Hayter, little has changed. “We still go on the street, we make every effort to attract audiences,” he says. “We did street parades in Edinburgh. It means that people who never come to the theatre still get a bit of the fun.”

The only difference is that Footsbarn now parade across the world, not just Cornwall. They left the UK in the early 1980s – a flight that legend credits to Margaret Thatcher’s malign impact on the arts, but which Hayter also ascribes to wanderlust. “It was a combination,” he says. “We got the desire to travel, plus the fact that we weren’t getting the subsidies to make us stay.” The plan was to leave on a five-year world tour. “But we never came back,” says Hayter. Now based in a farmhouse in the Auvergne region of France, Footsbarn is a multinational company whose personnel hail from 12 countries. Their Dream stars only two British performers alongside those from Indonesia, Japan and France.

But, like their Cornish forebears, these actors are more than just employees. Footsbarn members live together and create theatre collaboratively. There is no leader, though “you need someone who guides it a bit”, Hayter admits. “But I hate it when you see the director named, when you see a show referred to as their Hamlet. Our shows are always the work of everybody.”

I test the theory on two of his colleagues, the veteran French actors Vincent Gracieux and Muriel Piquart. And while Piquart admits that “sometimes I miss someone outside looking at it [the production] and helping”, they agree that Footsbarn’s methods yield rich rewards. “You have the freedom to invent,” Piquart says. “You work more with the public than with a director, not following specific instructions. The public is giving you the instructions.”

“All theatre was like that centuries ago,” adds Gracieux.

“The director is a modern invention.”

Maybe that is the essence of Footsbarn – theatre as it was years ago. With troubadours, not actors. There is certainly an out-of-time quality to their Midsummer Night’s Dream – it’s in with playfulness, improvisation, live music and broad humour, and out with the psychological realism of much 21st-century theatre. It is certainly strange to watch two fiftysomething actors (Hayter and Gracieux) in the roles of the youthful lovers Lysander and Demetrius. And I was frustrated by the unintelligible English of the Japanese actress Akemi Yamauchi as Titania. But the show’s loveably vintage air, the atmosphere of old-school, unpretentious entertainment, is hard to resist.

It is a feeling inseparable from the sight of that commune of caravans, or from the experience of sitting under canvas. As soon as you enter Footsbarn’s world, you are challenged to consider a different way of doing things. “When audiences realise that we live like this, they are very touched,” says Piquart. “When they see the caravans and the tent, already they are dépaysés” – meaning de-countried, or moved into another world. Footsbarn’s shows, Gracieux says, “create a fundamental relationship between audience and company. We go towards them and they come towards us, and we meet in our space, which is somewhere special.”

I think they are right, and I marvel at the sacrifice that the company members make to achieve this. “Sometimes I wonder where I’m from,” Hayter says, with a smile. He brought his children up with Footsbarn, educating them in the school that travels with the troupe. “And they’re all fine,” he says. “I’ve lived more than 30 years inside the group. I’ve been very privileged.” But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. “You have to grit your teeth sometimes,” Hayter comments. “It can be tough if it’s pouring with rain and you’re stuck in the mud, or if there is no money.”

Piquart will soon take a break from Footsbarn after a four-year stint. “I need time to change and meet new people,” she says. But her departure is not a rejection of the minstrel lifestyle. “Of course, sometimes we miss toilets, sometimes we have no water, no electricity, la la la,” she trills. “But that’s not a problem. It is a pleasure to know the price of water. To know what electricity is. You realise that in this culture, we have got everything and we don’t know the value of things.”

I wonder if this return to Britain has taught Hayter the value of a home. The company revisited Cornwall in July, and “the guy at the garage told us ‘my dad took me to see you when I was 11’. And for an English person to play Shakespeare in his mother tongue to people that can understand is a great pleasure,” says Hayter. But a permanent homecoming isn’t going to happen. “I don’t think that the theatre world here ever took us seriously,” Hayter continues, a little sadly. “We were always considered to be hippies and all that.” This actor’s life, then, looks destined never to come to a standstill. “The thing about travelling,” he says, “is that once you’ve started, it’s very difficult to stop.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Victoria Park, London E9 ( 0844 7550017), Nov 7-30. For more pictures, visit