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Acts of Magic

Published on 6th July 2015

The journey starts in a wind-stunted woodland on the coast of Cornwall. As the sun dapples through the summer foliage, glimpses of the unexpected flicker in the trees. Dozens of mirrors dangling from branches. A tree adorned with thousands of white ribbons. A scattering of framed sepia photographs.... There is the distant sound of music, drawing the audience along a path. An acrobat leaps out of the undergrowth; a woman dangles in a hoop suspended from a high bough; a mermaid croons a haunting lament... And this is just the beginning.

Rogue Theatre specializes in fabulous journeys. The wild and rebellious brainchild of Angelina Boscarelli and Ollie Oakenshield, the company is deeply rooted in the society and landscape of West Cornwall. Their shows that thread their way through Tehidy woods have become an institution and a perennial excursion for locals and visitors alike – attracting as many as 30,000 people to their woodland shows throughout a summer run. Combining a fairy-tale vibe with a very modern ethos and a load of pyro-acrobatics and bonkers costumes (think Mrs Dalloway meets Prince on the back of a dragon), the shows are both family friendly and subtly challenging. Few people can leave without feeling that they have been slightly transported – mentally, emotionally and visually – into another world.

Divided up into small groups, the audience walks through Tehidy woods, enticed by unexpected vignettes in the trees, sometimes directed onwards by the performers and sometimes pausing to watch a scene or to listen to a story. The interactive experience is rarely affected by bad weather – even in a gale or rain, the tough little trees provide both shelter and atmosphere. The end-point is a clearing with rows of hay bales, a stage, a cauldron bubbling with an aromatic stew, hunks of freshly baked bread, a bar tent, face painting and captivating acoustic music. The disparate groups of the audience gather – for the locals, the crowd is filled with familiar faces; for visitors, the vibe is friendly and warm. Children clamber over the bales and play among the adults. Then, the Woodland King’s deep mellifluous voice intones a welcome, the crowd settles, spreading blankets, sipping drinks and munching on snacks – and the play begins.

The tale draws together the scenes in the woods, fleshing out the hints and mysteries, incorporating the songs and dances that had been tantalizingly shown along the woodland walk. There are jokes and asides, dark themes of death and confusion and crazy twists and turns that keep the children enraptured and the adults bubbling with laughter. This summer, the matinée performance is a pirate spectacular calledBlackbeard’s Heart – presented by Ollie’s Woodland King and Angelina’s Moon – which they are also taking to the family area at the Port Eliot Festival.

In the evening, there’s a change of scene for a more grown-up show: King Arthur. “It’s all about fire and magic and passion,” says Ollie. “It’s an epic night- time tale of local legends and the mythology of King Arthur, but with a modern flavour. We’re asking, who are our knights of today; who are our heroes?”

Like the journeymen actors of times gone by, Angelina and Ollie and their talented, motley gang of performers are on an ever-evolving journey. Angelina’s path really began when she left home and school at the age of 15. After watching her friends heading off to higher education, she decided to follow her passion to work in media, and enrolled on a journalism course. While at college, her life took an unexpected twist when she auditioned for a theatre course. It is clear that Angelina doesn’t fear the unknown, and that risk-taking is innate in her half- Italian soul. “I’d never done performing,” she says. “I’d never done shows. I’d done gymnastics. And shotput.” Despite fierce competition, her talent was spotted and she was offered a scholarship. “All fees paid,” she smiles. “That was the start of it all.”

As part of the course, she studied comedia dell’arte in Italy, a style of roving theatre that takes local narratives and turns them into satirical performances – a style that infects Rogue Theatre performances today. “Our stories come from things we want to reflect back about the place where we live, or the people we’re talking to,” Ollie explains. Angelina’s taste for adventure led her to work around the world – from Japan to Greece, then to touring the globe with the high-octane acrobatic troupe Turbozone. Angelina’s experience as a circus acrobat, roadie, tour chef and actor filters into her work as director of Rogue Theatre – from the performers leaping, somersaulting and spinning through the trees and across the stage in wildly eccentric costumes, to the gigantic stew that’s served up from a cauldron, and the hands-on participation of all the actors in every aspect of the production.

In 2002, she landed back in Cornwall where she joined a 12-strong experimental performance company at the nascent Eden Project. It was during this optimistic and exciting time that she met and worked with Ollie. In the geodesic crucible of Eden, both actors connected with inspiring people from the world of theatre – and fell in love. Ollie’s journey had begun in Camborne in Cornwall: “I grew up in a very low-income family, but luckily my mum was into theatre, and we spent our whole time as children on the beach or in the woods, in castles and ancient sites...” Drawn to the performing arts, by the age of 16 he was dabbling in film while living and surfing at the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. “I found it hugely dissatisfying,” he says, “and realized that being an actor wasn’t about pursuing a path of fame. For me, it was all about live performance.” Returning to Cornwall, Ollie joined outdoor performance company Miracle Theatre, stretching his wings as an actor in Shakespearean plays against the backdrop of village greens, before being recruited for Eden Project. After 18 months of thrilling performances, the funding dried up and it was time to move on. With a large black book of exceptional contacts, the duo decided to set up their own company. “With Angelina’s appetite for risk-taking and wild forms of entertainment, and my passion for theatre and story- telling,” enthuses Ollie, “we started Rogue Theatre.”

Their creative impulses led Angelina and Ollie to tour the country with critically acclaimed performances of their ‘fairy-tale meets Kill Bill’ play,Beauty vs Beast, followed by an 80-night tour of the cutting-edge Burlesque show, Madame Lucinda’s Wonder Show. On the side, they put on cabaret shows for commercial clients, and devised and performed the woodland shows – not to mention running the Hullabaloo family area at Port Eliot Festival, Cornwall’s exceptionally popular literary event. Behind all the graft, the spectacle and drama, Ollie and Angelina have a deeply embedded social conscience. Their focus is on bringing the arts to the masses. “We wanted to support emerging talent and aspiration in Cornwall,” says Ollie, so in 2005 they launched the Twenty Five project at Port Eliot to create a platform and development opportunities for young artists. The wild cabaret tent presented different acts throughout the day and was not only popular with the audiences, but helped provide confidence and advice to the under 25s who were performing – sometimes for the first time.

Inclusiveness is a key part of Rogue Theatre – keeping the ticket prices low for the woodland events, giving people the opportunity to buy a ticket for those who could not afford one, and using crowd- funding to improve the audience environment. In the last year, the team has developed Rogue Kitchen, a magical woodland experience where the audience participates in building fires, chopping vegetables, foraging and making bread, stew and volcano cakes on the fire before watching a Rogue performance while eating the fruits of their labours, the aromatic woodsmoke turning sunbeams an unearthly blue in the background. But, Ollie says, there is a serious social message: “There are people who use food banks but will only choose products, rather than produce, because they don’t know what to do with
a potato, or how to cook rice. We want to develop a model that entices and engages people in the community in a creative way.”

As a couple, Ollie and Angelina manage to combine passion for their art with passion for equality and conveying meaning to their audience: “Our whole thing,” says Ollie, “is making theatre accessible to people who don’t normally take part in the arts... it’s theatre for the people.” Their attitude towards the talented Rogue Theatre team is commendably egalitarian. Clearly demarcating their roles – Ollie is the writer, Angelina is the director – helps them to avoid conflict: “You have to be professional; you can’t be having an argument in front of a room-full of people.” And they expect and incorporate feedback from the performers every step of the way. Everyone mucks in, too: after storms, the actors help to re-erect destroyed marquees, or put on wellies and dig trenches at the side of flooded roads to enable
the audience to reach Tehidy, or scrub pots for hours after a Rogue Kitchen event. Even the portaloos are cleaned by members of the company...

The stories – wild and magical as they are – are all imbued with this sense of equality. “From our point of view, everyone is equal,” says Ollie. “We recognize the complexity of people with understanding and tolerance.” The family shows in Tehidy woods and at Hullabaloo at Port Eliot are not specifically written with children in mind. “The journeys that an adult might go on can be quite profound, because the metaphors within the story can be interpreted at a deeper level from what is actually going on at face value for the children,” Ollie explains, warming to the theme of Rogue Theatre’s philosophy. He explains that his stories lend themselves well to a pagan interpretation. “For me, the idea of many gods serves the complex human condition far better then the idea of one god, and of good and bad and right and wrong.” Lest all this sounds a little worthy, the whole ethos of magic and wonder is always tempered with spadefuls of humour. Wild, mad, hilarious, and an art form all of its own – Rogue Theatre delves into the past, squirts in social commentary and invites the audience to participate in stirring the experience.