Big Telly Theatre's Zoe Seaton on 'hijacking the familiar'

Jane Hardy speaks to Zoe Seaton, artistic director of Big Telly Theatre Company, about current production, Frankenstein's Monster Is Drunk And The Sheep Have All Jumped The Fences, and the company's experimental ethos...

Zoe Seaton, artistic director of Big Telly Theatre Company
Jane Hardy

IT IS useful for an artistic director to have a low boredom threshold. Zoe Seaton, founder of the Big Telly Theatre Company, certainly qualifies.

Over a latte in a city centre café, she recalls being asked to direct one of our best loved dramas of the 1980s about female empowerment, and refusing. She was then asked to simply read the script and decide: "I couldn't get beyond page one, I was bored."

But when Seaton discovered Owen Booth's short story, Frankenstein's Monster Is Drunk And The Sheep Have All Jumped The Fences, she knew she was onto a winner. It was, to use one of her own terms of approval, 'fizzy'.

"I saw it on Twitter. I thought it was so fresh, unlike anything I'd heard before. Some people may be looking for something about what's happening now, I'm probably not. I kept thinking 'Oh, I didn't see that coming'."

Her acclaimed adaptation has been on quite a tour after opening during the Belfast International Arts Festival last year. It played in London before Christmas, is currently off-Broadway and arrives at The Lyric Theatre on February 1.

The process of moving Booth's tale of outsiders, namely the monster released from a glacier after a century or so and his wife, wasn't easy.

"It was about finding the right tense, working out how to make it in the present rather than telling a story in the past."

Apparently, some people wanted her to set it in Northern Ireland.

"They said, 'Why put the glacier in the Alps, why not in the Sperrins or the Mournes?'. But that would have narrowed its world."

The piece tackles prejudice too. The bigotry at an excruciating dinner party given by the initially friendly neighbours of the monster is well done and resonates, as Seaton explains.

"It's like, 'I don't think I'm racist', but it's not that simple. It's OK until the paedophile moves in next door."

Although immediacy is vital to this theatre maker, Seaton and Big Telly don't shy away from the classics, including Shakespeare. Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity to look again at two of the Bard's greatest hits, The Tempest and Macbeth. This meant going digital, something they're pretty expert at.

"Everything can be the way ahead. I've seen live theatre that has been dead. I remember The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time that seemed terribly well rehearsed but very safe. And I've seen digital theatre that's been very alive."

As Seaton explains, various motivations fed into the fresh take on these familiar 16th century plays.

"We'd played with apps and tech but The Tempest was the first digital play we did. It was just into lockdown, we had 20 artists on our books and I was determined to keep paying them, which we did."

Their Macbeth was extra sinister, partly thanks to Covid, had male witches, a sexy Lady Macbeth, and seemed new.

"Theatres were the only places closed, so that's where the witches would be. You got Covid from contact with someone infected, it felt very easy to make it about now."

With the help of Martin Collett from Channel 4 and a new piece of tech, distanced audience members could join Banquo's feast with the explosive appearance of the ghost.

Questioned about the Big Telly brand, its artistic director refers to the handy statement on the company's website which says their philosophy is 'Hijacking the familiar'.

The company name came about after Seaton encountered a young deaf girl. "She called theatre 'big telly' which it is. It also suggests populism."

But not realism. Seaton says that naturalism doesn't do it for her, theatrically: "What I don't like about it is the fact the most exciting thing is the kettle might boil."

You could call the company experimental. They've put on dramas centred on hostage situations in restaurants, asking audiences to interact with the protagonists. Computer game models feature in this company's output and projects like Brick Moon that link contributors round the globe to a shared streamed space.

They trialled the idea with Christmas markets feeding in from different locations, including Belfast.

"The bigger the world gets, the happier I am," Seaton says.

"I feel people are not being asked to be as imaginative as they could be. I was asked about linking up Belfast's two sides and thought, 'please': I can connect somebody in Palestine with somebody here and somebody in Nigeria."

Not only does Big Telly quite often dispense with the proscenium arch, they often do away with the whole theatre. Department Story, for example, took place in an old department store in Royal Avenue, resonant with the stories and ghosts of old shoppers and their aspirations.

A promenade show, the audience moved from space to space, wondering what the actors playing shop assistants and shoppers might do next. There was some audience participation, a Big Telly characteristic.

"We borrowed that behaviour – you browse, pay for something, move round – to create a cultural experience," comments Seaton.

In The Worst Café in the World, the greasy spoon setting lets punters sample something different, as the Big Telly founder explains: "If you can order things off the menu, why not stories? In those environments, an audience feels relaxed. It was easy to participate, there was no block."

As someone who enjoys horror as a genre, Seaton is a cultural magpie with a particular take on life. "I'm interested in disturbing the everyday. When the pandemic came, I thought, 'What's going to happen now?'."

Seaton attended Dominican College in Portstewart, where she still lives part-time. Her drama teacher was Rosaleen Corrigan and she recalls enjoying a "rich cultural diet".

"The Riverside Theatre was funded and we saw Welfare State and The People Show, which were inspirational."

She also remembers a production of Measure for Measure that lit her up.

Seaton studied drama at the University of Kent and was considering acting as a career. "I got a job with [noted left-wing playwright] John Godber's Hull Truck Theatre company," she recalls.

After Seaton realised that directing was her bag, Godber offered her the chance to direct him and his partner Jane Thornton in April in Paris. It seems that opening night was eventful: "He hadn't acted for nine years, overdid it, went off on an adrenaline trip and Jane said he wasn't serving the play."

The next night was different. "He went onstage and did nothing for 10 minutes. Then a woodlouse appeared. He squashed it – standing ovation."

Coincidentally, another Godber play, Bouncers, gave Seaton and Big Telly a hit at The MAC in Belfast in 2019. Originally set in the north of England, it was transposed to Belfast and affectionately filleted our nightlife and the ups and downs of its punters.

The male actors played women too and Conor Grimes was outstanding. Seaton directed and says she had to, as she puts it humorously, sit on Mr Grimes: "He'd acquired a bag of tricks, as actors do, so you had to keep at him."

Seaton's hinterland involves family life. Her husband runs an ice cream business, their daughter Annie (24) works with him in a marketing role.

"She does ice cream sculptures as well and my younger daughter Tessa (21) also works in the business."

For now, Seaton and Big Telly are extending our theatrical horizons. Her guilty TV pleasure may be Coronation Street, but her ambition is unlimited. We should be grateful for her curiosity.

:: Frankenstein's Monster Is Drunk And The Sheep Have All Jumped The Fences runs at the Lyric Theatre from February 1 to 5. Tickets via