Last week we caught up with Julian Bond, co-founder of Liverpool based theatre company Burjesta Theatre, in the Casa – the pub his company call home. We had a chat about Burjesta, their upcoming play Revolution, and what he thinks about the current state of Fringe Theatre in Liverpool at the moment.
What are the origins of Burjesta Theatre?
Burjesta Theatre came about in 2011. It was co-founded by myself and Mikyla Jane Durkan. We co-write to this day, although we have a lot of people involved with us in many different ways – you quickly realise that theatre is a very collective experience.
I think we’re on our fifteenth production in the last 5 years, a combination of original work, adaptations, classics, you name it. We’re based here at the Casa, where we have our residency. The idea for our company was to do theatre that was relevant to people in and around Liverpool – theatre that was accessible, they could afford to come to, and which didn’t insult their intelligence.
We had a whole lot of organically felt criteria, it was how we felt about things, and that we had something to say about the state of affairs on whatever subject matter we were looking at. We wanted to take away the elitism of theatre from it being a predominantly middle-class concern and make it accessible to working class people. Burjesta was born from a very working class building mentality.
In keeping with the working class theme, your next production is Revolution – can you tell us a little bit more about it?
It’s an original piece of work by ourselves. I did the writing and research on it and it has been a labour of love which I have been working on-and-off on for the last four years. I knew the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution was coming up this year and I wanted to convey the events in such a way that would be understandable to people who might not know anything about the revolution historically.
So, I’ve tried to cover the basics, while still attempting to reflect an incredibly complicated political situation. I thought it would be very relevant to an audience today, the things that were motivating many millions of people in Russia 100 years ago – a better life, adequate housing, food, not to get killed in wars, etc – are the very things that people are fighting for today.
In Britain you have millions of people still using food banks, you have wars all over the place that are coming back to haunt us, you have slum landlords, and inadequate housing massively on the rise both in Liverpool and elsewhere. All these things that are going on so I wanted it to be a kind of reminder of “well, this is how they dealt with it,” have a think about what’s going on, about what you’re doing, and if what you’re being told to do is adequate.
Considering you were the writer, what was your process when developing the piece?
It was very obsessive, I’m probably the cliched obsessive writer. I read every bloody book I could find on the Russian revolution from every perspective. From Bolsheviks of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. Their opponents the likes of Kerensky, the Tsar’s diaries, ambassadors from all over Europe and American Journalists like John Reed who wrote the famous 10 days that shook the world. Anybody I could find I read and made far too many notes on and from that used whatever was useful.
It wasn’t just one source, which would have been comparatively easier to do, there were amazing accounts that didn’t necessarily follow my political convictions, there’s a character called Vasily Shulgin who was a monarchist and an antisemite who was totally opposed to the revolution but he writes very observantly and very thoroughly with passages laced with black humor concerning the events. I also learnt from having looked at Shakespeare’s history plays and you know the genius of Shakespeare is that he puts all political viewpoints and their opposition in, he doesn’t just give one side.
So that was another aim to represent faithfully all the parties from their perspective, even if how they saw it is factually incorrect, that’s how they saw it. To represent them faithfully is the key and hopefully we’ve achieved that through both the writing and the acting. The idea is that we don’t mock our opponents, or set them up to look stupid. They’re human regardless of where they’re coming from so you have to represent them accurately.
You mentioned that you have a residency in the Casa, what do you think the city can do to help to foster and develop Fringe theatre within Liverpool?
Have more venues would be the quickest answer. The residency here has been a huge help. I can’t imagine doing half of what we have if we didn’t have a residency here. I’m fully aware from contacts in other theatre groups on our level who are constantly struggling the whole time to find adequate rehearsal spaces that they can actually afford and a venue that they can perform in.
I think the Lantern theatre was doing a great job for however long it was in existence for. In my opinion, it put on the most interesting theatre in Liverpool during those years; often more so than the mainstream theatres. That’s my personal choice, I think Fringe theatre has more to say.
Now that the Lantern has gone there are very few venues. There’s a mass of people who want to perform and produce original work of all shapes and sizes and people are performing in venues that aren’t really designed for live theatre like pubs, cafes, halls, and churches which are clearly not theatrical and sometimes they want to perform in such a venue for a particular reason. A friend of mine has a performance set in a cafe so she’s chosen a cafe in which to perform it – which makes sense. But by and large, these places aren’t designed for that purpose.
We took part in the Liverpool fringe festival which took place in June and we had ten different shows on at the Casa in a week, we put on a couple ourselves and there was around 8 visiting groups. There was loads of diverse stuff going on, weird and wonderful – it was great! When you have venues continually being closed down and turned into the luxury flats then people are going to struggle. There doesn’t seem any desire to fund fringe from a national or local perspective so I think it’s a bit of a sad state of affairs. I don’t think we’re in a great state at all right now unfortunately.
As How To Do Theatre, we’re always looking for people to help our readers by asking people to impart a bit of their theatrical knowledge – what’s the best bit of advice you can give to our readers?
Don’t wait around for someone to tell you that you can do it. Go do it yourself and find a way. There is always a way, you might have to struggle, you might have to fight, but I’m old enough to come from the old punk movement of the 70’s which was a very much ‘do it yourself’ mantra and that’s what we did. It was our mentality with Burjesta theatre, we’re just going to do it and see what happens.
Set up, write your own stuff, put it on, make your mistakes. That’s key, you can’t just think you’re going to have great success all the time. I’ve performed my stuff to one person in an audience and gone through the heartbreak of dealing with that, but if you’ve been through something like that it toughens you up. I’ve made loads of mistakes. You can’t do it without messing up big time and then learning from it and improving – but you’ve got to do it.