Preview: Trade, playing at Omnibus Theatre

Trade is one of the productions which required a new home following the cancellation of the Vault Festival. I asked the playwright, Ella Dorman-Gajic, and director, Maddy Corner, to tell me a bit more about the show.

Really pleased for you that the Omnibus Theatre has stepped in to stage Trade after the Vault Festival cancellation. Has the change of venue forced a rethink in how the production will be presented?

Ella: Maddy (director) and our designers have been doing an absolutely stellar job of reconfiguring the set and lighting design for our new venue.

Maddy: It has been incredible working with our designer Natasha Gatward adapting our set to the different venues. Our venue at Vault Festival, with its exposed brick walls, came with bags of atmosphere. We planned to enhance and embrace the architecture of the space through lighting and projected captions.

Our move to Omnibus has brought a completely different vibe as their black box theatre is a much more neutral, adaptive space. We had lots of conversations about how to bring some of that underground atmosphere over with us to Omnibus. A big change for us has been bringing in the cardboard box backdrop, which echoes the brick of before.

We are changing the seating configuration at Omnibus into a wide thrust, which creates an interesting widescreen cinematic feel to the stage. Working closely with our lighting and video designer, Timothy Kelly, we have completely rethought how we are presenting Trade, leaning into this cinematic feel the Omnibus has given us and incorporating more projection into our production. As well as creatively mapping our captions on this backdrop in both English and Serbian. 

What should audiences expect from the play? It is quite a dark topic but a necessary one. What do you hope audience members should take away from it?

Ella: At the forefront, I hope that audiences will sympathise with Jana as a complex, three-dimensional person, and not someone who is solely defined by the play’s subject matter of sex trafficking. I hope this production will humanise an issue that is too often reduced down to stale statistics in the media. There are people like Jana living and enslaved in cities in the UK right now, who many of us may have passed in the street, so in reality, it is not a million miles away from our everyday life. But also, the play is a fast-paced drama that is full of light and shade, so ultimately I hope audiences will be entertained and provoked in equal measure.

Maddy: What excites me about Ella’s writing is her ability to bring a dark humour and humanity to this story. Her writing balances poetry with realism, as we are taken inside the memories of someone who is at a moral crossroads. We speak to the larger issue of sex-trafficking, but this story takes us away from stereotype and statistics and into something personal. Ella’s characterisation is not clear cut, it is full of complex, layered characters.

In both the rehearsal room and on stage, it is important to me to create safe environments for the actors and the audience to explore these issues. We have been careful with our portrayals on stage and are working closely with intimacy coordinator, Tigger Blaize. Our relationship with the charity, Unseen, is an essential part of this production. 10% donation of all ticket sales will be donated directly to help survivors of trafficking. I hope that audiences use Unseen’s resources to further their knowledge on the subject.

Poster for Trade, at the Omnibus Theatre

Has it made a difference losing the camaraderie of a creative community in one place at the Vaults?

Ella: The cancellation of Vault was gutting, however we’ve loved working with Omnibus and connecting with the other companies from Vault who have also been re-programmed at this wonderful venue. On some level, I do feel like the cancellation has brought us closer together, as we are all in the same boat, trying to make theatre happen, and supporting each other in doing so. But I do love the community feel at Vault and I really hope to take a show there when the time is right!

Maddy: Definitely, it has had an impact on us. I think we’ve lost the spontaneous festival spirit of audiences dropping into this show and then that show, as well as the chance for us to meet other creatives, and see their work. However, Marie [McCarthy, Omnibus artistic director] is creating a beautiful taste of this at Omnibus, and I can’t wait to watch and support the other transferred Vault shows. We are very grateful to the team at Omnibus for giving us a new home and inviting us to join their creative community. 

Ella, you’re previously written for the audio format, for last year’s Living Record Festival. Is this something you are interested in exploring further?

Ella: Absolutely, I love writing for audio – I find it such a free and visceral medium. I often find some script ideas fit more naturally for audio, and some for the stage; I also found that during lockdown, audio drama was such an accessible way to continue making and producing work. I’m actually currently acting in a radio drama, Song of the Reed on BBC Radio 4 – which I have learnt so much from, which I will definitely be taking into my own writing.

What are your hopes for theatre going forward? Do you think the sector is safe yet, post-pandemic?

Ella: The drive and passion of the creatives I have worked with recently, and especially on this project, has really restored my faith that the theatre industry will bounce back. We were one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, and it will take a while for theatre as a whole to get back to where it was before, but as the world (fingers crossed) heads towards more normality, I am optimistic for the future. At the moment, I know our team are being super cautious, so as not to risk further cancellations. As an avid theatre-goer myself, nothing beats a watching live performance, and I know so many can’t wait to get back to the theatre.

Maddy: We are doing everything we can to keep things safe yet moving forward. It is standard practice for us to lateral flow every morning before we meet, to ensure we are reducing any risks within our company. Theatre has taken a hard hit, and as an emerging freelance-creative it’s a scary time, particularly in regards to financial viability. I feel so lucky to be in a room making theatre again, and I hope that we can continue with the necessary precautions to keep creating work safely.  

Trade runs 15-19 February for 6 performances at Omnibus Theatre. All performances will be captioned in both English and Serbian, for d/Deaf or hard of hearing audiences and native Serbian speakers. Trade was previously described as a “gripping and complex morality play” by Steve Waters.

You can donate to Unseen, the anti-slavery charity here.