“What is a firebird? It’s a bird that rises from flames and ashes to start a new life. Dramatic, eh? Right up our street!”
So opens the new show from Firebird Theatre, a Bristol-based company of disabled actors (currently aged from 24 to 72) who have been making work for over a quarter of a century. Over the years, Firebird has invited collaboration from leading theatre-makers, writers and musicians including John Nicholson (Peepolykus), Tristan Sturrock (Kneehigh, Theatre Damfino) and Sarah Moody (The Devil’s Violin) – as well as poet Claire Williamson, who has helped them shape their stories for this new show and others.
The company members enter wearing costumes in all colours of the rainbow, with a large round screen suspended above them like a giant raindrop. Actor Fionn Gill takes the role of The Storyteller and starts to tell stories inspired by the firebird, a symbol of the quest for freedom and renewal, underpinned by a determination against the odds. These are intercut by personal stories from the company, stories which show the same determination to break free of prejudice and constraint, spread wings and be whoever you truly are.
If some performers have disabilities which make it harder for them to speak, others speak on their behalf, and so the storytelling becomes a blend of testimony, live performance and moving image on the round screen. Personal detail is irresistible and creates sparks in the imagination, particularly when it’s eccentric: “I have two umbrellas, I call them Lesley and Gina…”
Firebird is a company that likes to take its time unfolding an idea from its starting point, fully exploring its themes and allowing the material to grow and develop organically in the process (as with past Shakespeare-inspired shows The Tempest, The Nine Lessons of Caliban and its ‘prequel’ Prospero, Duke of Milan). After a short scratch performance as a work-in-progress at Bristol Old Vic last May as part of the theatre’s 250th anniversary celebrations, A Spark and a Beating Heart is now right at the beginning of its journey of bedding-in and becoming familiar material for the company to perform publicly to audiences.
Words are a powerful means of sharing stories, memories, hopes and experiences as an element of live performance, and they can also act as an obstacle by creating a need to ‘get it right’. Firebird’s shows work best when the performers spread their theatrical wings and break out of a linear storytelling form in favour of more spontaneous movement, visual elements, playfulness, humour, sound and song. The journey they make together as a group is always as authentic and impelling as any end product.
Thanks to the commitment and energy of the cast, this brand new show in its ‘baby shoes’ certainly went down a storm on opening night – the outburst of clapping, cheering, waving and stamping from Firebird’s many fans, friends and family in the audience felt like a suitably fiery finale, and was testimony to the power of theatre as a shared experience.
“We are a family of actors who like different audiences. We want them to be happy and see good theatre: our theatre!” Job done.
A Spark and a Beating Heart was performed at Trinity from May 11-13. For more on Firebird Theatre, visit www.firebird-theatre.com
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