THEATRE / January in the park with Mac: Sarah Hemming accompanies a playwright in his hunt for the perfect space

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The Independent Culture
IT'S A frosty afternoon in January and Mac Wellman and Jim Simpson are standing by the Serpentine, trying to envisage Hyde Park on a summer's day. This is a challenge. Bleak, bare twigs and a few pink-nosed walkers don't encourage visions of crowds and heatwave. Even the ducks look pinched with cold.

But Wellman and Simpson, two hearty Americans, are becoming experts at transforming wintry parks in their minds' eye. In London on a reconnaissance trip from New York, they've spent the last few days tramping round chilly parks with their producer, Portia Kamons, searching for a venue for Wellman's play Bad Penny, due to run at the London International Festival of Theatre during July.

Wellman's piece (directed by Jim Simpson) was written for Central Park, New York, and portrays a day in the park for the city's dispossessed. 'It's difficult to tour because you need the same geographical configurations,' says Wellman. 'And Central Park is a big public park full of angry, disturbed people.' He glances around at Hyde Park's subdued dog-walkers. 'The parks do feel very different here . . . In the summer I suspect they might be more like it.'

Wellman has written several 'site-specific' pieces and finds the great outdoors offers possibilities denied in a velvet auditorium: 'You can say things in public places that you can't in theatres - you can get away with big ideas and big emotions. With Bad Penny I wanted to play around with the idea of people shouting over big distances: 'Why am I so unhappy? Why is my life such a mess?' We tend to think that people who talk like that are crazy, but they're not. I'm very interested in bad language - I don't mean dirty language, I mean non- standard, incorrect speech. I'm interested in the logic of bad language: people skew it around for a reason.'

Central Park provided more than the venue and inspiration for Bad Penny. 'The shape of the terrain shaped the play,' says Wellman. 'I didn't want to just plop down a piece of art in a picturesque place. I wanted it to really come out of the place.'

The fact that the park and its regulars are so embedded in the text has drawbacks on tour. Not only does one park differ from another, but the nature of urban decay varies from country to country. 'Initially, I thought it was impossible,' admits Wellman. 'I thought you'd need another, English writer to write a similar piece for a London park. But then Rose (Neal, co-director of Lift) said this is what Lift is all about.'

At least there is no hefty set to be shifted. In principle, Wellman explains, all that Bad Penny requires physically is 'a bridge and a body of water'. In practice, it's more complicated. After one round of auditioning, the field has been narrowed down to three parks - Battersea, Hyde or Regent's, each of which has flaws. 'Battersea Park has the most urban angst in terms of background,' says Jim Simpson, the director. 'The power station there is good. But we saw Regent's Park first, so all the rest are having to live up to it.'

This is their second viewing of Hyde Park and it's beginning to look like their last. Simpson is not happy. 'It's just too big here,' he says, gesturing towards the other side of the lake. 'Even if someone was yelling at the top of their lungs over there, you wouldn't hear them. The audience would need binoculars.

'What's good about it here is that you get a lot of traffic, a lot of passers-by. But there's not a lot of give to this park. The distances are too great and it's too open. It needs a bridge, water I can put a boat into and places to hide characters. There aren't many places where you can hide the chorus or the boatman.'

Wellman says: 'He's supposed to row slowly into sight. He'd need a powerboat here to make it in time]'

There is a brief debate about concealing the boatman in a distinctly slimy nook - some actors, it seems, will put up with extraordinary discomfort to work with Wellman - then we abandon Hyde Park to go to Regent's Park. On the way in we meet a tiny Jack Russell terrier carrying an enormous bundle of sticks. Simpson spots star potential. 'Would you like to be in a show?' he asks.

It's even quieter here than Hyde Park. But Simpson becomes enthusiastic about the possibilities. 'Look at all the places it's got for hiding people once it's leafy,' he says, striding round the boating lake and indicating small clumps of barren shrubbery.

'I'm very worried about goose-shit,' says Portia Kamons, who anticipates complaints from the cast on this subject. 'If there is a wildlife difficulty, I have to deal with it. Wildlife can get very excited.'

Local fauna can cause severe disruptions. 'One of the actors was chased waist-deep into the water by rats in Central Park,' Simpson recalls. 'He actually preferred it there, he was only worried about the hypodermic needles that might be at the bottom. I blocked him on this little piece of rock and it turned out to be the top of the rats' nest.

'We rehearse in a garage to begin with, to get the shape of the play, regardless of space. Then we start outdoors. It was a difficult one to stage - you have to work inside the space, you can't overpower it. You can't put everyone on microphones; you have to be gentle . . . But I like the fact that even rehearsals become performances when you're outside.'

Rehearsing al fresco has disadvantages, however. In New York, the cast were threatened not only by rats and geese, but by an irate jogger in search of peace and quiet. 'People have said that English spectators tend to be polite,' Simpson says wistfully.

(Photograph omitted)