SHEFFIELD, England — Visitors to Tudor Square in the center of this northern English city this week can see some unusual figures there: a woman sprinting through it in neon overalls, or a tutu, or a man running with scissors . And if they look like they’re in a hurry to get somewhere, it’s because they are. These are actors and they have to make an entrance – on a different stage than the one they just left.
Running through July 2, Rock/Paper/Scissors is a triptych of plays designed to be performed simultaneously by one cast in three different theaters. Programmed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, the trilogy unfolds on the 980-seat main stage of that playhouse, a smaller studio below and across the square in the Victorian-era Lyceum.
The logistics of the project are mind boggling. The 14 cast members appear as the same characters in all three shows, and most of them are usually on one of the stages – hence those hurried trips between theaters. Each play has its own director and technical team, while nine stage managers ensure a smooth run backstage.
Offering different perspectives on a family saga, the three plays are designed to work as standalone stories, but watching all three in sequence reveals closely intertwined storylines and character arcs. “Rock”, “Paper” and “Scissors” all take place at the same time, on the same day, in almost the same place: in three different rooms in a dilapidated scissors factory in Sheffield. The crumbling site has resonance with a city that once had a rich industrial tradition of producing steel and manufacturing world-class flatware, including scissors.
The plays open after the death of the factory owner, whose will is missing. Each story revolves around characters with competing claims to the building and conflicting visions of the future.
Chris Bush, who wrote the three plays to celebrate the anniversary of the Crucible Theater, said it was about offering a “shift in perspective” between the three generations. “The same world is shared by three different stories, where heroes become villains and villains become heroes,” she said.
To make sure the scripts worked for simultaneous execution, Bush planned them with a series of spreadsheets, timed the inputs and outputs based on the word count of each scene, she said.
Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theaters and director of “Paper”, said: “The precision tuning is more intricate than anything I’ve ever done.” Even scheduling rehearsals proved to be a headache, he added, requiring careful planning with fellow directors Anthony Lau and Elin Schofield to allocate the time among the 14 actors.
Backstage during a recent preview performance, there was an atmosphere of quiet concentration. If a game started running fast or slow, or stopped for whatever reason, all three would be out of sync. The team of stage managers were all focused on highlighted scripts and color-coded spreadsheets detailing the more than 80 entrances and exits.
A large screen in each of the theater’s backstage areas shows all three stages and a giant synchronized clock so that any deviations from the plan can be quickly spotted. The stage managers communicate via radios and WhatsApp and are on hand to stop all three shows in the worst case scenario if necessary. (So far this has only happened once in previews, due to a technical error rather than a timing issue.)
Nevertheless, the fast entrances and exits – and the knowledge that the cast has to run across a crowded public square to get between the theaters – provide a frisson for both the audience and the actors.
One of the cast members, Samantha Power, said she had some entrances “where I absolutely sprint across Tudor Square.” She added that this was more of a challenge on a Saturday night, “negotiating with all the drunk people.”
Andrew Macbean, another actor on the show, said that during the same trip, “Someone asked me if I had change.” But mostly, he added, the cast was unfazed. “It’s just one game for us,” he said. “Three different locations is really no different than on three different sets.”
The response to “Rock/Paper/Scissors” has been positive so far, with standing ovations and strong reviews for the shows. Watching all three plays back to back on Wednesday’s press day made the performances a cumulative experience: each new part deepened the audience’s understanding of the characters.
The triptych also offers three different answers to a question that is topical again after two years of the corona pandemic: what do we do with our empty inner city spaces?
Presented on stage at the Crucible, ‘Rock’ features Susie’s character – an aging rocker and the sister of the late scissor factory owner – presenting idealistic plans to turn the rugged space into a vibrant new music venue. In ‘Paper’ op het Lyceum, owner’s daughter Faye and her wife argue for the most financially lucrative option: selling the building to a developer to turn it into apartments. ‘Scissors’ in the Studio is set in a workshop where four young apprentices advocate for the building’s preservation as a scissor-making workshop, while preserving a local tradition.
These arguments will sound familiar to the people of Sheffield. Like many British city centres, Sheffield contains many shuttered buildings, including a prominent former department store which city authorities are currently discussing a new use for. (Options include a football museum, bars and restaurants and residences). The decline of Sheffield’s steel industry since the 1970s has meant that many buildings once used in manufacturing have also fallen into disuse, although several have been repurposed as street food markets, nightclubs, vintage shops and housing projects.
Fifty years ago there were dozens of scissor factories in Sheffield; now there are only two. One of the survivors, Ernest Wright, lent working machines to the production so actors could sharpen real knives during “Scissors.”
Hastie said it was “impossible to overestimate how central cutlery is to Sheffield’s sense of self and his sense of pride.” Exploring this legacy and thinking about the future of former industrial spaces seemed an appropriate subject for a 50th anniversary show at a theater in the heart of the city, he said.
“We were very much looking for an idea for our 50th anniversary with a spirit of adventure and audacity,” he said, adding that using the three theater spaces simultaneously fit that bill. “We wanted to see if we had bitten off more than we could chew.”
And have they? “We’re still chewing really hard,” Hastie said.
Rock Paper Scissors
Until 2nd July at the Crucible, Studio and Lyceum theaters in Sheffield, England; sheffieldtheaters.co.uk.