Abigail Yeates, Artistic Director at Centre de Création & Anystage Creative
By Liam Klenk
Abigail Yeates is an artistic director who has worked with The Generating Company and Stufish. In 2018, she directed the electrical vehicle stunt show ELĒKRŎN in Macau. Currently, Abigail works with the Centre de Création in South West France. At the same time, she is also producing shows with Anystage Creative.
In this interview, Abigail tells us about her interesting career, her international working life, the many challenges she has faced, and about her dreams for the future.
Tell us a bit about your background. What brought you to the entertainment industry?
50 years ago, I was born in New Zealand and brought up in the UK West Country in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know about theatres back then. But I loved being active. I loved dancing. I attended ballet classes. In my early years, that was my main passion.
I dreamt of dancing school but didn’t think it would ever happen. Eventually, I was accepted into Swindon Dance School when I was 18.
A two-year foundation course that was affiliated with London Contemporary Dance School. I wanted to be a West End stage dancer. After a year, I went to the London Studio Centre at Kings Cross.
My first time in London and it was going to be a tough year. I didn’t have any funds so I was unable to complete my dance studies. No matter how much I slaved away, working every hour, it wasn’t going to happen.
I needed a job, so I found my way onto the international cabaret dance scene. At 19, I arrived in Japan. I spent seven months dancing for the locals and selling lavender air fresheners (don’t ask).
Three years later, after working across the globe in various venues and countries as a dancer, I returned to London. I went back to dance school. This time to the London Contemporary Dance School. I managed to score a one year placement in choreography.
The choreography side, working with Jane Dudley and Rosemary Butcher, was very inspiring. However, it was a Martha Graham School and that did not work for me physically. So, in order to vent my frustration, I ended up at the Circus Space in East London back in 1993.
Where did you go from there and how did your career develop?
Circus was becoming very popular in the 90’s. I started taking aerial classes and at that point I didn’t look back.
I studied in France at the Ecole du Cirque in Chalon (part time) over three years. It was then, I was first exposed to contemporary circus.
In 2000, I was offered to become Sky Girl in the Millennium Dome show in London. A year’s contract. I was 30.
A year later, Paul Cockle and Mark Fisher wanted to set up a legacy after the Dome show and so The Generating Company (Genco) was created. All soloists were asked if they wanted to become associate artistic directors.
Our first production was called Storm and, 15 years later, after many events, shows, stadium and original productions we moved on and started working full time with Stufish.
Mark Fisher had always supported Genco along the way. I had worked with him on a few productions before he sadly passed away in 2013. It was an honor.
During those 15 years, I had work as a choreographer and more so as a director, and I had completed an MA in choreography in 2004.
During my studies, I worked with acrobats and aerialists combined with dance movement and I loved working with music. My final piece was about the relationship between Maths, Bach and Escher as they had a common thread.
My first original show that I had created was in 2003, called Lactic Acid. I was interested in the relationship between movement and architecture.
The next production was called No Sweat an all female show made by women and about women, this was performed across Europe and at the Leicester Curve between 2011 – 2015.
Next, in 2017, was Soho, a full scale show about the colorful characters and the various bars and history of a place called Soho London.
Which brought me full circle in a sense as it was one of the places I had visited when I first arrived in London as a vulnerable individual.
When and how did you get into international projects?
The Generating Company had worked all over the world on various projects from 2001 – 2015. With Stufish Entertainment it was international work from 2015 – 2019.
Work led to work. From humble beginnings we were able to work on any project on any scale anywhere around the globe.
We were based in London throughout but then decided to set up a creative centre in South West France where we still live. It is where we research and explore all our ideas.
What brought you to ELĒKRŎN in Macau and what were your ideas for this show?
We were asked to pitch some ideas for a casino in Macau. We thought at the time we were not going to be successful, because for every 10 pitches you might get one.
As part of the presentation I wrote a show about ELĒKRŎN an environmental version of Mad Max. Instead of dirty fuel, it was about sourcing electric power in the future.
I had already worked with MPH (Top Gear Live) as show choreographer for at least three years in 2006-2008. So, I already had experience working with moving cars and bikes for a performance.
Top Gear prepared me for ELĒKRŎN. However an electric stunt show had not been created before. So it had its challenges. New ideas take time and in the commercial world time is money.
All the vehicles were hand built and needed testing. They fail and you have no idea why. A lot was learned along the way. We had very little time to pull the whole production together but we managed.
We were always trying to improve the show but turning around 40 vehicles and a ton of show props was a challenge. There were always technical issues and challenges.
But then again there always are. It’s the nature of live shows.
ELĒKRŎN was ambitious. We were asked to deliver a six month show and that was achieved and I would do it all over again.
How was your work experience in Macau? With a multinational team as well as with Melco?
I had worked in Shenzhen in 2009 with 600 cast members on a water show working with Russians, Chinese and Americans. We had jet skis, motorbikes, and synchronized swimming. So, I was used to large scale and multiple translators.
This time, working in Macau, was challenging from an audience perspective. The nature of the show is danger. It is a stunt show, but we couldn’t compete with what they had already seen on YouTube links.
We couldn’t put performers’ lives in danger each day. We did to a degree but we also wanted to keep the show safe and sustainable.
Then there were bureaucratic problems.
We had included a whole pyro package that never entered the arena as there were too many restrictions in Macau.
That decision had a huge impact on the show, we lost the impact of danger in that respect.
What did you feel were the greatest challenges the show faced?
Not enough hours in the day and working within the Macau working time directive. We had to work within a certain amount of time. So creation time was too short. Preview time was too short (we had less than a week to preview).
And not enough budget. Always looking for the wow factor but that needs time and money. Not having the pyro package that would have lifted the whole production. And, throughout, battling with the politics of it all.
What are your fondest memories from the creation process?
Firstly, having the opportunity to work on such an ambitious and exciting production. Watching scene 2 when all the vehicles enter the arena with a bunch of wild crazy performers all howling and yelping like something out of the Burning Man festival.
At the same time, trying to create a cinematic experience that was fitting to the theme of Studio City.
The drive of the back stage crew who were my heroes, who worked like demons to move beasts of stage props in and out of garages. A cast who were passionate about performing. The clowns who worked tirelessly each and every day.
The moment when the sports cars and motorbikes were executing some difficult maneuvers in time with the music and knowing that our stunt team were from Mainland China. All in all a total East meets West cultural experience.
Where to now? What are your hopes and dreams?
Currently my attention is working as the Artistic Director at the Centre de Création, based in South West France.
The centre offers a springboard for creating new ideas, encouraging and investing in creation, and professional development for a variety of theatre companies.
We have a yearly program of events. The Guildhall School of Speech and Drama, for example, who spends a month here each March as part of their MA in Collaborative Theatre Production & Design.
We run residencies throughout the year working with artists and preparing for our bi-annual festival in August 2021.
I am keen to continue working. Like all artists, I’ve changed, I’ve mellowed, the drive does not leave you. You just know how to handle things differently. I have faced many challenges along the way. Through overcoming them, I have grown stronger and nothing fazes me anymore.
I have been through a lot of situations where I had to put my neck on the line. You must be strong.
“You are alone” as Mark Fisher once pointed out, “no one will ever tell you, ‘Well done’,” you have to believe in yourself as there is always the next person waiting to knock you off your pedestal.
Where to now? I am keen to create more but just waiting for the next opportunity.
Long term, what do you think Covid-19 will mean for the entertainment industry?
There seems to be a development of online performance. We are thinking of creating a space where companies can develop their work and then broadcast live. We have the perfect venue in the perfect spot. Very quiet and surrounded by nature.
However you can’t replace live entertainment. It’s that shared feeling, that connection between the audience member and the artist.
With a live link you can make a cup of tea, walk away, pause, or fall asleep if you want to. During a live show there is an etiquette. You watch, you immerse yourself, and you are transported somewhere else for that time. It’s even a chance to let go of your daily life.
It’s the exchange of emotions and energy that does it for me. You can’t beat the drama and intensity of a live performance.
Is there anything else you want to share with us?
I have been very fortunate to go through some crazy work experiences. But what about the next generation, where and how can they get the opportunity? Especially women, who still have to fight much harder to be taken seriously in any business? I hope to be able to help facilitate change in this regard.
I am very passionate when it comes to directing shows from the concept through to production.
Sometimes I think, if I could re-wind the clock, I would train as a theatre director.
But if I had done that, I would not have been able to perform doughnuts in a Vauxhall Monaro. A Chinese race car driver would not have driven me in his back yard. I wouldn’t have auditioned a talented bunch of circus performers in the middle of Cuba. Or breathed a sigh of relief when the first and only night of Sheik Sayed’s 45th anniversary happened seamlessly in front of 40,000 people.
I have spent many hours living on the edge, delivering projects and shows over the years. I wouldn’t want to miss any of it.
Now, I work with Anystage Creative. A team of people who I have worked with for many years. We have built trust and an honest working relationship and we have been into the jungle many times, delivering shows.
Check it out: Anystage Creative is a world class company developing new and original ideas for international producers and presenters. We create ideas for visual shows for ANY scale of performance and in ANY venue.
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