Corpus is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.
In anticipation of our playwriting competition, Cambridge Creatives talks to directors Josh Bailey, Mojola Akinyemi, Maddie Lynes, and Cara Dromgoole about their experiences at the Corpus Playroom, where the winning play will be staged.
Corpus is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. Hosting everything from new writing to Shakespeare, sketch comedy to debut hour-long stand up, the intimate studio has always been a space for experimentation, for the shock of the new. It was founded in 1979 and - infamously - was a favourite haunt of Stephen Fry’s during his time as a student.
Due to its uniquely L-shaped layout, based around a square stage with the seats split across two sides of it (each side out of the other’s view) Corpus poses as much chance for challenge as it does opportunity. Essentially this means, as Mojola Akinyemi (who’s original play Great Mother - Iya Ayaba debuted at Corpus earlier this term) summarises, ‘the actors need to perform to two audiences at all times’. Maddie Lynes is the director of David, which is the Corpus late show for this week, who recalls how ‘When we were doing our technical rehearsals for David, and we were able to be in the space for the first time, we did lots of vocal exercises to make sure the actors could be heard from wherever an audience member may be sat; sometimes that involved making sure the actor’s voice travelled all the way round the corner from one side of the playroom to the other.’
Director Josh Bailey, however, notes a special opportunity for poignancy, whereby an ‘awesome down-stage corner, from which an actor can be seen from both audience sides’ helps to ‘bring focus to scenes. When an actor moves into the corner, it pulls the other actors’ attention down-stage. It’s a great way to not only single out a particular character, but also to give the stage over to how that character is affecting others in the scene’. This term, Josh is putting on the Complicité associate company The Wardrobe Ensemble’s The Last of the Pelican Daughters, a comedy centering around the homecoming of four sisters. Josh explains to me how Corpus’ intimacy is helping to tell the story: ‘You get to break the third and fourth walls, and peer into the lives of this joyously queer family from two distinct viewpoints. Its symmetry as a space has informed our staging, and speaks to the influence that Wes Anderson’s storytelling aesthetic has had on the show’.
On the other hand, Maddie notes that for David, student writer Beattie Green always had Corpus in mind, and so directing was a process not of adaptation but fulfilment: ‘The TV was always going to be in Corpus Corner, the two sides of the stage (the fourth and fifth walls) were always imagined as the windows out of Grandad’s house, and the upstage door was always going to be where Grandad would ferry tea in and out from the kitchen. Aside from these more practical aspects, David is a play centred on emotionally precarious themes such as grief, love, and loss. And it centres on a family who don’t perform big displays of emotion, who often fail to say the right thing, and who are all privately dealing with some iteration of personal difficulty. With such themes as well as such subtle and suppressed narratives for each of the characters, the play demands an intimate space, so Corpus makes a lot of sense.’ Cara Dromgoole, having directed an adaptation of Christina Rosetti’s poem Goblin Market in Easter term 2021, reflects on how social distancing interacted with her staging: ‘We put up blacks to make the room more focused’, playing with the openness that physical distance prescribed and making use of the ‘powerful diagonal’ of the stage and its audiences.
Unlike the vast backstage of the ADC - Cambridge’s other, considerably larger student theatre, with a more traditional proscenium layout - Josh notes that ‘the lack of wing-space in Corpus also demands you to think creatively and resourcefully about your use of set. For example, inspired by a moment from the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, we are wanting to evoke the spirit of the Pelicans’ home through nothing but the warm glow of a floor lamp. That’s a great thing about the way Corpus acts on you as a space - its limitations demand you to trust in your audiences’ imaginations.’ The other directors share this sentiment. Having her play put on in Corpus allowed Mojola to see things in her script that she’d never noticed before. She tells me that Great Mother - Iya Ayaba ‘had some meta-theatrical elements that were made more creepy and scary due to the proximity to the audience. It’s really fun to play with!’
So what’s next for Corpus? The Last of the Pelican Daughters starts its run next week, whilst Mojola suggests she ‘might like to see more comedy’ at the space in the future: ‘there is the potential for so much audience interaction that could be really fun to mess about with when doing comedy’. Maddie Lynes offers writers a tip: ‘it has been so exciting to work on a piece of new writing which involves the story of a character who is in his 80s and I would be really excited to see more new writing on at Corpus with characters and experiences that we don’t often see represented on stage’. Cara sees it as a space open to a range of ideas, with ‘quite a big voice in shaping whatever play is within it, bringing audience and actors closer together, and conscious of maintaining that connection’.
The Cambridge Creatives Playwriting Competition is open for submissions until December 15th