Performing street theatre
Jacqui Papay is a senior performer with the internationally-renowned Natural Theatre Company in Bath. She performs visually engaging comic scenarios in a wide range of outdoor venues, UK and abroad.
At times surreal, always humorous, Jacqui has performed her diverse roles in town centres, beaches, festivals, roof-tops, railway stations, Chinese marketplaces, the Hay Festival and the Egyptian Pyramids. Clients range from local councils to large companies running corporate events.
"I just love what I do here at the Natural Theatre Company. It is my job to brighten peoples’ days and to cause silliness in this otherwise sombre world.”
4 tips for working in street theatre
Street theatre presents a special challenge for the actor. The work is very different to a performance in an indoor theatre.
1. Know how to interact
“Street theatre is all about inviting the general public, as audience, to play and enjoy a silly moment. Interaction with the audience is particularly important in our work, which is mostly improvised.
"One of my main challenges is knowing who to approach to participate. I look out for people who are laughing and can recognise a silly situation. Some people prefer to observe and I respect that."
2. Keep your focus
"Another challenge is timing. We employ various techniques, including ‘freezes’, where all the actors stop moving at the same time. The leader will direct this, which could then lead into something else. There might be a loud scream or another event that causes mayhem. It is important not to block or interrupt the other actors.
"As actors we could be disturbed by a bus passing or by other traffic. And of course we work in all weathers – winter is just as busy as summer for us and we never let the rain stop what we do.
3. Grab the attention
"Street theatre has to be highly visual and uncomplicated. If you are performing in a city centre people are usually busy shopping and going about their daily business.
"I describe this as ‘making a postcard image’, which can be seen easily from afar. Passers-by may just see a moment of surprise or an unusual image."
4. Look the part
"Because the work is so visual, costumes are a very important part of what we do. Being smart from top to toe is vital!
"Although we sometimes employ a costume-maker, I also help with costumes and scour charity shops for suitable items."
Finding a path into theatre
Jacqui was born into a theatrical family. She regularly accompanied her comedienne mother on tours of the West Country, who performed comic monologues. Jacqui was sent to dancing lessons and she loved to sing and perform in school plays. Her childhood dancing teacher was trained by Busby Berkeley, the famous Hollywood movie director and musical choreographer.
"I just love what I do. It is my job to brighten peoples’ days"
Jacqui is a self-taught actor. At boarding school she was persuaded by her well-meaning teachers that a traditional secretarial route would be much more suitable for her, and she should decline the place at drama school offered by RADA.
Jacqui accepted their advice, but her creativity and love for all things theatrical soon started to emerge. Singing telegrams, tap-dancing in a cage, modelling, working as a singer and running adventure playgrounds are just some of the roles that she embraced early in her career.
“My background as a secretary helped me to find work with ‘Bath Arts Workshop’, a small alternative arts organisation. But I was not destined to stay as a secretary for long and my role soon developed into something quite different.
Getting into street theatre
"Bath Arts were running theatre workshops which gradually evolved into street theatre. I started contributing ideas and we ran street theatre shows for people in the town centre. The Natural Theatre Company was formed in the late 1970s, along with Ralph Oswick, now the company’s artistic director.”
The Natural Theatre Company gradually established a reputation as one of the country’s leading street theatre groups, helped by Arts Council funding.
“At the time the public had not been exposed to this type of humour through the medium of television and what we were doing was really new.
"We were pushing the boundaries and introducing the public to something different. Nowadays actors like Catherine Tate and TV programmes such as Little Britain have also done this.”
Travelling with street theatre
Jacqui travels overseas several times a year as part of her work.
"Keeping the client happy is paramount, whether in the UK or overseas."
“The Natural Theatre Company has taken me all over the world, including to Spain, Portugal, Japan and China. This year we performed at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in Australia, which was great fun.
"When we not working we were able to attend other comedy events at the festival. But there is not usually much time for additional travel, and some trips might just involve an overnight stay. Others could be up to a month.
“There are usually three to four of us in a team when we go abroad, and we need to be exceptionally well-organised. One person is designated team-leader, who liaises with the client, but we all plan the work together. Keeping the client happy is paramount, whether in the UK or overseas.
"A visit to Portugal involved working with 30 drama students as part of a theatrical festival. After training the students, we took about 400 people from the festival on a ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. Everyone joined in the adventure, which involved several pretend events – travelling by boat and attending a wedding. I even persuaded three local musicians to perform at the wedding.”
Running community and educational workshops
Another aspect of Jacqui’s work is running street theatre workshops for schools and other groups.
“Our premises here in Bath include a mezzanine floor area, which is ideal for running workshops and courses. I run a range of courses, including those for children and teenagers. This year I am running another junior summer school. It is so rewarding to see the children grow in confidence over the space of one week.
"Our Arts Council funding has just been cut which will mean that these workshops will be vital to our survival as a company. My experience gained running adventure playgrounds and working with children proved a good background for this work.”
Advice for a career in street theatre
The best way to gain inspiration is by watching other people and studying their mannerisms
Watch and observe the actors you are working with. Always be critical of your work to determine what is working well
Once you have an original idea, go out and try it on the public
Having a quirky or unusual appearance can be an advantage
Whether or not you go to drama school, working in theatre is highly competitive and long periods without work are not unusual.