Stage Presence: An interview with Judith Aston

As part of RWA’s current exhibition Centre Stage: Celebrating Theatre in Bristol, Marketing Manager Holly McGrane spoke to Judith Aston about her role directing and producing the immersive artwork A Theatre Within A Theatre. 

How did the project come about?

I’m a lecturer in the film making department at UWE and within our faculty we have the Centre for Moving Image Research (CMIR). CMIR


Judith Aston

approached Bristol Old Vic with the offer of a bursary as part of their interest in creating partnerships across the city and in promoting the development of new moving image work. BOV suggested employing this bursary in the development of work for the Centre Stage exhibition. I had already been involved in a project that worked with people from Bristol Old Vic and so Dr Sarah Sparke (CMIR Bursaries project manager) and Chloe Elwood (Bristol Old Vic executive producer) approached me to create a new work for the RWA show.

The brief was to do something that reflected an aspect of the architecture of the theatre – that was the starting point.

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Theatre Within a Theatre, Centre Stage, RWA. Photo Jack Offord


Has the focus or themes of the work changed at all during the process?

I had a tour of Bristol Old Vic with Tom Morris (Artistic Director, Bristol Old Vic) and he started talking about the multiple points of view of an audience member and the relationship between performer and audience. It so completely dovetailed with my own practice and interests that I felt I had to adopt that concept too.

In the work, we are trying to explore aspects of the theatre experience. One of the core things was the issue around sightlines and how theatre, as a live experience, differs from cinema, particularly in terms of audience relationship.

As part of the process, we visited Bristol Old Vic during The Crucible. It was a wet November and we would come in at four in the afternoon. The actor who played Giles Corey would come in quite early and walk around the galleries at the top of the auditorium and just whistle – with the whole theatre to himself – to warm up. Later the other actors would start arriving, maybe warming up on stage, and we would be there taking it all in. That was such a wonderful experience for us – that sense of being part of it, part of the show itself. I wanted to recreate that privileged perspective through A Theatre Within a Theatre.


There are so many elements to the piece – how was it all constructed? 

I recently worked with some of my final year students on a project called The Russian Winter and I have continued working with them on this project, as well as on a piece for the Bristol Proms.

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A Theatre Within A Theatre, Centre Stage, RWA. Photo Jack Offord

Theatre Within a Theatre has been a totally collaborative artwork. I have been a sort of producer and director – it’s more like working on a play or film rather than a traditional painting or artwork model of working. We are all ‘the artist’, working together to create this piece.


You mentioned the idea of an audience/performer relationship in theatre. How important was this when you were developing the work?  

I have a PhD in Interaction Design, originally looking at the human/computer interface where the interaction is between a person and a machine.  In my work, I like to combine that training with my ongoing experience with multimedia, across different disciplines – moving image, sound, text, still image. I felt it was a natural progression to start exploring the relationships between actors and audiences, stage and auditorium. In a way, this project pulls together lots of things that I have been thinking about.

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A Theatre Within A Theatre, Centre Stage, RWA. Photo Jack Offord.

There is a sense of anticipation in the theatre. Often audiences love it when something goes wrong because they feel part of a privileged experience. Seeing how people respond when something does go wrong gives them a view behind the scenes – that sense of being part of the show.

Film is evolving to give a more unique, live experience. There has been a big rise in directors giving live talks and live bands in cinemas, to create a unique experience.  Donald Norman (director of The Design Lab at University of California) said that everything is designed to be interacted with, from a door handle to a book.  In a very digital world, I think that there is a thirst for handmade, tactile crafting.


What does theatre mean to you?

Through this project, I have been brought back to my childhood love of theatre and live performance. I find myself drawn, more and more, to working with moving image in live performance situations.


How do you want audiences to experience, and respond to, your work?

We want the audience to leave with the feeling that they have experienced the theatre from the privileged perspective of the actors and the people who make the theatre.

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A Theatre Within A Theatre, Centre Stage, RWA. Photo Jack Offord

When you visit the work, you need to give it time and tune in to the sound. Once you do tune in and pick up the fragments, it starts to carry the concept. There are different ways to experience the work, which runs on a sixteen-minute loop topped and tailed by two quotes about the theatre from Peter O’Toole.


What’s next for A Theatre Within A Theatre?

Because it was done on a small bursary over a three month period, this is only a first step towards something much bigger. This is its first iteration. I hope that, as in the theatre, the audience will give feedback and I will be able to develop it further. In May, during the Old Vic’s big celebratory anniversary weekend, the project will return again and ideally we will be able to create an all-encompassing theatrical experience.

A Theatre Within A Theatre is part of Centre Stage: Celebrating Theatre in Bristol at Royal West of England Academy until 24 January 2016. Entry to the exhibition is free.

A Theatre Within A Theatre was made possible by a bursary from UWE Centre for Moving Image Research, with additional support from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre and the Royal West of England Academy.



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