Modern tech meets morality play in a deliciously dark outdoor show, arriving  in Coventry just in time for Halloween...

Trick or treating might be off the cards this autumn, but that needn’t mean that Halloween is cancelled. This October, the Belgrade Theatre is offering you the chance to get your fright fix with an innovative outdoor production from imitating the dog and Leeds Playhouse.

Drawing on a mix of classic horror movies, travelling carnival and medicine shows and medieval morality plays, Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show will be the first piece of live theatre hosted by the Belgrade since venues went into lockdown back in March. 

“We’ve just been taking everything as it comes, really,” explains imitating the dog’s Co-Artistic Director, Andrew Quick, in talking about the process of creating new work in extraordinary times. “We always knew that having to deal with changing guidelines would make this a bit of a risk, but if we had a chance of being able to create theatre that audiences can enjoy in a Covid-safe way, we felt like it was one we had to take. 

“In rehearsals we’re all wearing masks, sometimes visors too, and everyone has to be six feet apart at all times. We can’t really socialise between rehearsals, so it’s a huge change for us, but we’re absorbing and accommodating the restrictions into the piece itself.

“It’s been a challenge, but in some ways, I think having to think outside the box has actually resulted in us making some changes for the better. As a company, we’re pretty good at being pragmatic and adapting to different conditions in that way.”

It’s true that imitating the dog have an impressive track record for theatrical innovation, typically fusing live performance with cutting-edge digital technology. It’s this appetite for invention that has helped them to continue working throughout lockdown, producing three ‘live graphic novels’ as part of the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine programme, as well as working with the University of Utrecht on an online game incorporating film and performance. Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show follows in a similar vein, combining some of the very oldest forms of theatre with something much more up-to-date. 

“In a lot of ways, this show was developed in direct response to the situation, but even before lockdown, we had wanted to develop a more widely tourable show that was less reliant on middle-scale venues. Originally we’d had the idea of doing something where the whole show could fit inside a car, but obviously at the moment you couldn’t do that because you wouldn’t be able to get enough people into a car in a Covid-safe way. 

“So we started thinking about something that was more like an outdoor version of what we normally do, which is to create these very technologically complex pieces. Without giving too much away, it all starts when this battered old Luton van shows up, and out of that van emerges a sort of stage with screens. 

“We have two projectors in front of the screens, and a rear projector in the back of the van, so we create this quite magical, technological world, using actors and puppets and figurines to unfurl the narrative. It’s kind of like a cross between a Punch & Judy show, a vampire grand guignol and classic street theatre, updated for the 21st century.”

While this might be ‘theatre for our times’, it stops short of explicitly referencing the events of this year. Instead, the show will ground itself in reality using local references specific to each venue.

“The premise is that we have a group of travellers who show up and tell a story which exposes the corruption in whatever town they find themselves in. We have three authority figures - the mayor, the chief constable and the headteacher - and they are the local town officials. Then we have Dr Blood and two other strangers with supernatural powers who are seeking retribution for the evil deeds the officials have committed. In that sense it’s really drawing on the medieval morality play tradition, where travelling players would turn up with all their props and costumes and pieces of set bundled into a cart.”

Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show is imitating the dog’s second recent co-production with Leeds Playhouse, following the acclaimed Night Of The Living Dead REMIX - a reimagining of George A Romero’s 1968 zombie movie. 

“I suppose we are horror fans, now I think about it! We’ve always been interested in science-fiction, time travel, the supernatural and the gothic. I think a lot of our connection to culture is through mainstream cinema, which often deals with those things. We also have a relationship to similar forms of popular literature - crime thrillers, vampire stories, that kind of thing. So it’s definitely in our mix, although I’d like to think we’ll get away from it at some point!”

Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show stops off at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, on Friday 23 & Saturday 24 October.  For further information and tickets, visit belgrade.co.uk