Making FRANK: from forest to screen21 Jan 2022
Created by The Jones Collective and National Theatre Wales, Frank is the story of one man’s journey through nature and grief, based on the experiences of real-life poet and snake anti-venom factory worker, Frank Thomas.
The original plan was to stage the show inside a giant plastic bubble (created by Plastique Fantastique) set deep in the varied woods of Wales. But the pandemic had other ideas. Now it’s been reimagined as a short film for audiences to experience online.
For creators and collaborators Jesse Briton, Buddug Jones, Sam Jones, Frank Thomas and actor Eifion Ap Cadno, it’s been quite the ride. During filming in Chepstow Woods, we gathered them together to look back at the show’s unlikely journey.
‘He works at a snake anti-venom factory in West Wales, but he’s also a poet’
Jesse (Director / Writer): The first time I heard Frank’s name mentioned was outside a venue in Edinburgh in 2014. We’d just opened Hiraeth (a chaotic but charming show about Bud’s life) and were revelling in the glory of finding a pie shop. I can’t remember how his name came up, but I remember it was followed by the phrase ‘yeah and he works in a snake-antivenom factory’. Wait, hold my pie. A what?
Frank (Performer / Writer): I remember having a chat with The Jones Collective and them telling me they wanted to make shows about real people’s lives. As I had an interesting job making snake anti-venom, and a link to performing through spoken word, they wanted to make a show about me! I think it was only when we started researching ideas that they actually got to know me as a real person. That’s when we realised we couldn’t make a paint-by-numbers ‘Man who spends his days doing one thing, and his nights doing another’ type of show. The show had to become less about my job and my poetry, and more about my relationship with them.
‘To me, my job was just a job. Poetry is a way of sharing my thoughts with a crowd.’
Bud (Director / Designer): Our journey started in an old derelict squash court in the Elan Valley. We wanted the location to feel wild and unpredictable, like Frank himself. It was a week of throwing out ideas about wilderness, danger, snakes and their venom, animal facts, and human desires.
Eifion (Actor): I had just joined the team when Frank’s dad died. I thought, “Well that’s that then”, but was amazed when Frank wanted to continue. The first morning he floored us with his dad’s eulogy, a poem called Mountain, which features in the film. Then we talked about Frank, his dad and their relationship, hearing all these stories inspired our next idea. I remember Bud saying something about a bubble. Inflatables, rewilding, obscure 90s TV references and terrible accents. …It’s been a very weird and wonderful journey.
‘It felt contradictory to create a show about our engagement with nature inside a blank canvas of a theatre space.’
Bud: I always struggled to imagine how the show could work or look inside a theatre. But then, during a session of heavy procrastination on Instagram a few years ago, I came across the work of Plastique Fantastique. It was a real eureka moment. I finally felt we’d found the home for the show, and the rest of the team felt the same. It felt exciting to be able to invite audiences inside a bizarre structure and open their eyes to the nature outside of the bubble.
‘The process of making Frank has been like no other.’
Sam (Composer): Just as we were about to finally put these years of hard work in front of an audience, Covid-19 came in like a poorly timed sliding tackle. The production was put on hold which was a hard pill to swallow. A lot of time went into seeing if, and how, we could still make it happen. What came out of that process was this film. The decision to make a film rather than realise the full production at first felt like a loss, but I was wrong. What has come out the other end of all the if and how is the truest distillation of all our blood, sweat, tears and time, right from day one until now. The perfect sum of its parts. I am sickeningly proud of what we have created. I think you’re going to love it.
Jesse: Given our lack of experience, I think it’s fair to say that none of us expected the process of making a film to be easy. However, the logistical and creative challenges were beyond what we expected. The free-wheeling, everybody-muck-in approach of collaborative theatre was replaced by negotiations on departmental responsibility. Not to mention the difficulty of recruiting a crew during possibly the busiest ever period for TV and Film production in South Wales.
“Transitioning between performing live and performance for film was a big change for me”.
Frank: Transitioning between performing live and performance for film was a big change for me. On stage, I try to live in the moment and respond to an audience. Performing on film, your only audience are the people hard at work trying to capture your performance and to make it feel like they’re not there. There is so little between you and an actual audience... I often felt very lost until finally, someone would yell cut and all the team behind the camera would finally react — to my relief!
Bud: I’m excited to show what we’ve created. It’s been a big learning curve for me to work in a different medium and I’ve learned so much. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support and patience of the incredible team we built around us. We’ve met many incredible people along the way, and I especially enjoyed working with the Natural Resources Wales foresters across Wales who have been so generous with their time and taught us so much.
Despite all the challenges we’ve faced to make this project happen, the memories from the past few years working on it will stay with me forever. And as always, it’s the people you meet and the shared experience of creating something huge together that makes me love this job.
Frank will premiere online on 22 February and will be available to watch on-demand for free for a limited time. Head to nationaltheatrewales.org/frank to explore this production further.
Frank is a production by Jones Collective and National Theatre Wales in collaboration with Plastique Fantastique.