Motionhouse founder Kevin Finnan talks about the challenges of a large-scale production, bringing hundreds of people together safely during a pandemic and Birmingham’s history of storytelling.
You might not think you know Motionhouse but if you witnessed Wondrous Stories in Centenary Square you’ve got Midlands-based Motionhouse to thank for the goosebump-inducing spectacle that kicked off the Birmingham 2022 cultural festival.
We put it to founder Kevin Finnan that on paper or spoken out loud, some of the show’s inventive concepts would have sounded bonkers. He agrees with a chuckle. Such is Motionhouse’s reputation and experience, a pitch situation never arose and they were approached to do the job – that’s not to say a proposal wasn’t required and budgets grappled with.
Founded in 1988, Motionhouse’s past events include the Olympics among other high profile shows across the globe, so I imagine they felt like a safe pair of hands at a time of uncertainty. Kevin says: “Very few people just give you a large amount of money whoever you are, however, what experience does is get you into the room more often.”
Motionhouse tour all over Europe which, with increased barriers has become more problematic. Kevin explains: “Brexit has made things unbelievably difficult. We’ve had to increase costs, so we’re more expensive for people. Because we are known, our work is still there as people are prepared to pay. For smaller companies starting out it’s impossible.”
EVERYTHING TO EVERYBODY
With Wondrous Stories, the process started a year-and-a-half ago with the organisers making one big stipulation that the event would take place in Centenary Square. Kevin spent hours sitting in the square with a notebook looking at the space, watching how people use it and contemplating how to make the most of it.
He says: “On the content side of things I wanted an everything to everybody ethos. Everybody should have access to culture and the arts. Fundamentally Centenary Square is a square of stories – the Library, REP, Symphony Hall. The Shakespeare collection is owned by the people of Birmingham. So, I had a basic idea, but had to make it appeal to everyone.” Kevin adds: “I wanted to bring in threads from great stories written in this region. A mixture of personal stories plus a bit of Shakespeare as well as fresh young poets. At that point I thought ‘I know how to deliver this show’.”
With a mass cast made up of groups, volunteers, dancers and performers, the quandary was how to show them at their best. Most mass castings are in stadia – the audience high up looking down, but not so in Centenary Square. It was important to build high and bring the whole square to life which brought its own challenges. Kevin says: “Originally, we wanted mass dancers in the fountain, but realised we had people in electric wheelchairs so that wasn’t an option.
“We created aerial stuff, fly-ins, zip lines, innovative lighting. We commissioned a globe structure to come up out of the library well and used the whole square including the library balcony.” Kevin also used live camera which he’d used successfully before. “With the Olympics for example you’re making two shows in one – one for the live audience and one for TV. We did that with Wondrous Stories and I’m very pleased with the result.” Through the artistic process as the show was evolving, like all shows, Kevin says cracks began to appear and that’s when you work at turning problems into opportunities. An established team including producers, OPUS helps.
While the event was outdoors, rehearsal were indoors, so Covid restrictions provided an extra challenge. There were lots of health concerns to consider with some vulnerable cast members. Kevin says: “The country was isolating and we were trying to bring hundreds of people together to rehearse. Once allowed we brought smaller groups together in large studios with the doors open and closer to the time used a vast hall at the NEC to mark out the entire space and bring everyone together.”
Kevin says the cast was amazing and just so thrilled to be taking part. “For two years it’s been a dark time in everybody’s life. Bring people together was amazing. The choir for example were nervous and worked so hard and at the end of the last show they just wanted to stay for a while.”
Reflecting on the pandemic Kevin says: “I think the pandemic has forced us to think about priorities. The first thing anybody wanted to do when restrictions were lifted was to hug friends and family. You can aspire to more – like a nice house, etc. but it’s how you live your life – your relationships that’s the point. You could die leaving a gigantic mansion but nobody cares.”