An interview with Imogen Barnfather (Wayfarers Theatre)
Wayfarers Theatre are a theatre company based on the edge of the Lake District. The company, founded by Imogen Barnfather, creates wonderful and whimsical outdoor productions with a heavy focus on sustainable practices.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Imogen about what motivated her to create environmentally friendly outdoor theatre, the challenges she has had to overcome and what she envisages for the future of the company.
– What inspired you to create a sustainable outdoor theatre company?
Imogen: Wayfarers Theatre is set within five acres of wonderfully wild land, it’s been left largely untouched for the last ten years. Nature has reclaimed this land and I believe with careful management it has the potential to be of great ecological value.
To me, it was essential to find a way in which the land could be largely preserved as a wild space while still benefitting the local community. I’ve always been obsessed with creating theatre so when I stood looking at the curve of the trees and the big open space, naturally, I thought it could be an incredible immersive venue.
The land itself and the challenges it presents very much inspired the kind of theatre which it would host. The site is off-grid so our shows have to be timed to the rise and fall of the sun. With limited funds there was only so much we could provide, we had no seating, no café or bar. What this created was a need for simplicity, a group of actors and musicians, with grass as their stage and trees as their backdrop. Our audiences bring picnics and their own seating and leave only footprints when they go.
– Why is sustainability so important to you?
Imogen: I’ve grown up under the shadow of the climate crisis, and it’s something I worry about every single day. When my son was born in 2018, that fear only increased. I’ve always been very conscious of the environment around me, I think that mostly comes from the way I was raised. I grew up surrounded by the Lake District and spent most of my childhood running wild in the woods near my home.
I think it’s important that everyone can access wild places and it’s very easy if you can’t, to forget what we so desperately need to preserve.
For me Wayfarers Theatre being a sustainable theatre company wasn’t even a question, if I was going to make something happen, it had to be done with every step considering how we could be as sustainable as possible. The only impact I want us to have is a positive one.
– Do you think more theatre companies should consider their carbon footprint when creating productions? / Do you think the arts industry needs to try to be more environmentally friendly?
Imogen: Every company, and every industry of every kind, needs to consider their carbon footprint. I think in the arts it’s not always a priority as there are already so many challenges to overcome, mostly financial. Arts funding is so hard to access, and it doesn’t go far. When you’re asked to consider your carbon footprint it can make things more expensive and time-consuming. So, I think the key is to begin with an idea that a production needs to be sustainable and allow that to shape what you create. I don’t see being sustainable as a restriction, but more as an inspiration.
– What challenges have you faced in creating your company?
Imogen: I can’t list them all as everything about this project is a challenge but gradually the list of things we’ve overcome grows!
The land itself brings its challenges. The grasses grow over your head and the brambles will regrow over a pathway in about two weeks, so it requires constant maintenance, we use mostly hand tools and the grass is mown using a scythe which requires a fair bit of manpower and considerably more time than if we went at it with a petrol mower. Reaching a stage where we can provide disabled access is unfortunately some way in the future, currently, you can only reach the theatre space by walking 180 yards up a grassy pathway. All our future productions will visit an accessible venue until we are in a position to tackle this.
It’s certainly interesting trying to convince people that a field, on the edge of a town is an outdoor theatre. Finding actors and creatives willing to spend their summer sitting in a field with only trees for cover when it inevitably rains is not all that easy. It’s so different to a traditional rehearsal environment and it isn’t for everyone. Thankfully I have stumbled upon a wonderful group of people, and our cast and crew are steadily growing.
– Have you got any advice for people wanting to set up their own theatre company?
Imogen: If you have enough love and drive you can make something happen, even if that means taking very small steps. The most important thing is just to have a go and see what you can achieve, after all, that is how everything begins. I still don’t know if I can make my full vision for Wayfarers Theatre come to life, it’s early days but I think it’s great to just have a go at things. Plans change, and new ideas are born. Just throw yourself into it and see what happens, it’s an adventure.
– What projects are you currently working on?
Imogen: Wayfarers Theatre is essentially one giant ongoing project. We’ve just planted approximately 120 native trees and shrubs to expand our woodland areas. I’m slowly working on cataloguing what native species currently reside at the site to discover what might be missing, that could be introduced. Essentially this year will be about working out how we’re going to go forward with the project and how we can engage the local community as we go.
This year’s production will be announced very soon, you’ll have to keep an eye on our social media for the big reveal as everything is still under wraps, but I can confirm it will be more wonderfully wild family-friendly theatre. We’ll be returning to our woodland rehearsal room as soon as the weather allows, and we can’t wait to welcome our audiences at the end of July for another summer of magical outdoor picnic theatre!