Three Theaters, Three Plays, One Cast, All at Once

Published in The New York Times on June 24, 2022

SHEFFIELD, England — Visitors to Tudor Square in the center of this northern English city might spot some unusual figures there this week: a woman sprinting through in a neon boilersuit, or a tutu, or a man running with a box of scissors. And if they look like they’re in a hurry to get somewhere, that’s because they are. These are actors, and they have an entrance to make — on a different stage from the one they just left.

“Rock/Paper/Scissors,” running through July 2, is a triptych of plays designed to be performed by one cast, at the same time, in three different theaters. Programmed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sheffield’s Crucible Theater, the trilogy unfolds on that playhouse’s 980-seater main stage, a smaller studio below and across the square at the Victorian-era Lyceum.

The project’s logistics are mind-boggling. The 14 cast members appear as the same characters across all three shows, and most of them are on one of the stages, most of time — hence those hurried journeys between theaters. Each play has its own director and technical team, while nine stage managers ensure smooth running backstage.

The three plays, which offer varying perspectives on a family saga, are designed to work as stand-alone stories, but watching all three in succession reveals densely interwoven plotlines and character arcs. “Rock,” “Paper” and “Scissors” are all set at the same time, on the same day, in almost the same place: across three different spaces in a run-down Sheffield scissor factory. The crumbling location has resonance in a city that once had a rich industrial tradition of producing steel and manufacturing world-class cutlery, including scissors.

The plays open after the death of the factory owner, whose will is missing. Each narrative centers on characters with competing claims on the building, and conflicting visions for its future.

Chris Bush, who wrote the three plays to celebrate the Crucible Theater’s anniversary, said they were about offering a “perspective shift” across the three generations. “The same world is shared by three different stories, where heroes become villains and villains become heroes,” she said.

To make sure the scripts worked for simultaneous performance, Bush planned them out with a series of spreadsheets, timing the entrances and exits by the word count of each scene, she said.

Robert Hastie, Sheffield Theaters’ artistic leader and the director for “Paper,” said, “The precision tuning is more complicated than anything I’ve ever done.” Even scheduling rehearsals proved a headache, he added, requiring careful planning with his fellow directors Anthony Lau and Elin Schofield to divide the 14 actors’ time.

Backstage during a recent preview performance, an atmosphere of quiet concentration prevailed. If any play were to start running fast, or slow, or to stop for any reason, it would throw all three out of sync. The team of stage managers were all focused on marked-up scripts and color-coded spreadsheets detailing the more than 80 entrances and exits.

A large screen in each of the theater’s backstage areas shows all three stages as well as a giant synchronized clock, so any deviations from the plan can be quickly spotted. The stage managers communicate via radios and WhatsApp, and are ready, in the worst-case scenario, to stop all three shows if they have to. (So far, this only happened once in previews, because of a technical fault rather than a timing issue.)

Nonetheless, the swift entrances and exits — and the knowledge that the cast are having to run across a busy public square to get between the theaters — adds a frisson for both audiences and the actors.

One of the cast members, Samantha Power, said she had some entrances “where I am absolutely sprinting across Tudor Square.” She added that this was more of a challenge on a Saturday night, “negotiating all the inebriated people.”

Andrew Macbean, another actor in the show, said that during the same journey, “Somebody asked me if I had any spare change.” But mostly, he added, the cast was unfazed. “For us, it’s just one play,” he said. “Three different venues is no different, really, to doing it on three different sets.”

Responses to “Rock/Paper/Scissors” have been positive so far, with the shows earning standing ovations and strong reviews. Watching all three plays back-to-back on press day on Wednesday, the performances became a cumulative experience: each new part deepened the audience’s understanding of the characters.

The triptych also offers three different answers to a question that is freshly topical after two years of the coronavirus pandemic: What do we do with our empty city center spaces?

In “Rock,” presented on the Crucible’s thrust stage, the character of Susie — an aging rocker and the sister of the scissor factory’s deceased owner — puts forward idealistic plans to turn the gritty space into a vibrant new music venue. In “Paper,” at the Lyceum, the owner’s daughter Faye and her wife argue for the most financially lucrative option: selling the building to a developer to turn it into apartments. “Scissors,” in the Studio, is set in a workshop where four young apprentices put the case for maintaining the building as a workshop for hand-making scissors, preserving a local tradition.

These arguments will sound familiar to Sheffield residents. Like many British town centers, Sheffield contains many shuttered buildings, including a prominent former department store that city authorities are currently debating how to repurpose. (Options include a soccer museum, bars and restaurants, and housing). The decline of Sheffield’s steel industry since the 1970s has meant that many buildings once used in manufacturing also fell into disuse, although several have been repurposed as street food markets, nightclubs, vintage stores and housing developments.

Fifty years ago there were dozens of scissor factories in Sheffield; now, there are just two. One of those that remains, Ernest Wright, lent working machinery to the production, so actors could sharpen real blades during “Scissors.”

Hastie said it was “impossible to overestimate how central cutlery is to Sheffield’s sense of self and its sense of pride.” Examining this legacy, as well as considering the future of former industrial spaces, seemed an appropriate subject for a 50th anniversary show at a theater at the city’s heart, he said.

“We were very much looking for an idea for our 50th anniversary that had a spirit of adventure and daring,” he said, adding that using the three theater spaces simultaneously fit that bill. “We wanted to see if we’d bitten off more than we could chew.”

And have they? “We’re still chewing very hard,” Hastie said.

Where next?