In August this summer, a cast of 14 leavers from St Helen’s and Abingdon School travelled to Edinburgh to perform the brand new play Contact Light, written by Old Girls Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson, as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival. As a play that follows a group of teenagers who have just finished secondary school, it explored how to find your way in uncertain times – a message that seemed particularly poignant to the cast, being on the brink of a new life chapter themselves. We were lucky enough to perform in an award-winning venue called The Pianodrome, a performance space constructed of over 50 recycled pianos. It was such an amazing opportunity to be a part of such a professional production, and also to be able to see many of the other fantastic shows at the Fringe this year. This experience was such a perfect end to the era of joint productions we have all been a part of over the years and I’m sure many of us will be back next year to see what Fringe 2020 has to offer.
Emma, 2019 leaver
In 2017, the then Head of Drama at Abingdon School Jeremy Taylor commissioned two former St Helen’s Old Girls to write a new play, a bespoke piece that would factor in the need for the kind of mixed-gender ensemble casting productions that are so rare. A year later, and after Charly Clive had filmed Pure for Channel 4, Ellen Robertson had had her first solo play Nesting mounted at the Watermill Theatre, and the pair had written and performed their dramedy Britney to critical acclaim, they delivered Contact Light, a piece about “teens, moon landings, sex, and meteors”.
We work-shopped the play in July 2018 with some Lower Sixth students, just before the summer before their final year at school. For them, portraying characters who themselves are on the cusp of heading off into the world proved a daunting, if irresistible opportunity. The read-through done, we began to wonder if Contact Light might thrive better outside the confines of a school environment – somewhere like the biggest Arts festival in the world? Jeremy brought on former Head of Drama at St Helen’s Jo Watt to direct and plans were quickly drawn up to investigate giving the play and the students a suitably stellar platform on which to perform.
Edinburgh Fringe venues are typically cunningly adapted but sparse places, rooms and offices adapted for performance, ruthless in their efficiency of design. Maybe there was a different kind of venue that existed that could provide a unique theatrical opportunity for the play and cast. Enter The Pianodrome – a pop-up venue that had made its debut at the Fringe just a year previously. A large geodesic dome landed in the Royal Botanic Gardens and inside, five eight-foot high banks of zigguratted seating in an amphitheatrical configuration all made from upcycled pianos salvaged from the threat of landfill. This year the Pianodrome was to move to Leith and into the Pitt Market, Edinburgh's fashionable street-food locale. And although close to finalizing its Fringe 2019 timetable, it still had some slots left.
And so for six nights, Andie Fay (played with striking maturity by Alix Addinall) hosted her end-of-school party for her motley group of friends – the ever-bickering Liv and Lexie (Alba Eisner and Alek Auton), year aboves Joe and Gus (Henry Muller and Yazan Odeh), geography-set associates Wiggs, Steve, Isaac and Porter (Ben Adams, Tom Mills, Jacob Henney and Callum Ravden), best friend Cassie (Dulcie Good), and the vampy Megyn (Nia Perks). Additionally, Andie’s secret friend-impressing weapon is booked to play at her house – The Gorgons – a post-punk, onstage-performing outfit comprising of front-woman Seph (Emma Richardson), guitarist Mona (Jess Ferguson) and bassist Erin (Tash Squire), but to complicate matters, Andie's eleven-year-old brother Percy (Rupert Mathieson) is insisting on sitting on their roof and watching the Perseid meteor shower.
Aided by the incredible Pianodrome that incorporated working pianos into the seating structure, rendering it a living, playable sculpture, the on-site staff and video artist Mettje Hunneman's hypnotic light sculpture that the venue suspended from its rafters, which provided us with our otherwise un-conjourable meteor shower, Contact Light at the Edinburgh Fringe was a palpable hit. The cast, all Fringe newbies, fully and exuberantly immersed themselves in the festival spirit and a Tuesday night after-show event at the Pianodrome played host to the annual Loose Limbed meet, an occasion where past St Helen’s and Abingdon School alumni now making a living in the world of acting, play writing, film-making, comedy, screen-writing, prop-building, costume-designing and more, can rub shoulders with present students, offer them advice, and establish links for future projects.
Contact Light was a handsomely-mounted validation of our joint ethos to go ‘beyond’. To ensure that our students who commit to the arts are not abandoned on results day, but given an inspirational experience, one which harnesses their latent kineticism and artistic hunger.