Q&A | Angus Vail on recreating Shakespeare’s Globe, with shipping containers

Angus Vail is shaking up the theatre community by developing a mobile version of Shakespeare’s Globe built using repurposed shipping containers. A rock ‘n’ roll guy from way back, the New Jersey-based Kiwi started out in the music industry as business manager for INXS in the band’s heyday, later taking on the same role for KISS. Almost 20 years later, he remains in what he thought would be a 5-year role. Despite his music biz background, Angus considers Shakespeare the ultimate punk rock hero, and was inspired to build a replica of the playwright’s famous Globe out of shipping containers off the back of a previous project that saw him employ the units as temporary venues.

The Container Globe team are currently working on plans to launch a prototype and educational programme in Detroit, thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign and the support of some of the brightest minds in architecture, production, and engineering. Sarah found out more.

What motivated you to build a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, and why use shipping containers?
The first reason was having the experience of going to the Globe in London, standing there in the yard and seeing how the plays are so different in that setting, and how much they involve the audience. The audience almost becomes another actor, or another participant in the play. It makes the plays a lot more alive, and interactive, and immersive, and changes their outcomes a lot – according to what the audience is like. It’s a really different experience, and I really liked it.

I loved Shakespeare before, and I still love seeing Shakespeare in normal theatres – you sit back and watch something happen up on a stage. At the Globe the actors will be running around past you, and they do processions through the yard. That whole space is very different.

“The audience almost becomes another actor, or another participant in the play.”

Because I did the ArtBloc, I’d already had experience with cutting and fabricating and building a performance space using containers. I looked around the Globe, and if you look at the bays the Globe is actually a polygon. The dimensions and the width of the galleries were not that different from a tall container. I bought some model containers and it turns out that if you put 9 20-foot containers in a ring [they fit perfectly]. Then I found out that the stage at the Globe is 43 feet wide. The bigger containers are 40-feet wide.

So, it turns out that if you do the ring of 9 and use a 40-foot container as the stage, it’s 95% the size of the London Globe. It’s amazing. I started playing with the idea, and building the computer model, and then took it to some architects and engineers – and actually to our KISS crew. And they all [agreed it would work].

View from upper gallery (render)

Having the experience with KISS, and moving shit around the world for touring, we thought: could we create a Globe that we could both build cheaply out of containers, and also have it that you could actually break it up and move it somewhere?

Did you actually work with the KISS crew to develop the idea?
It was more that we took the idea to them and turned it into a computer model. I built a plastic model, then turned that into the computer model. Then refined it and refined it over about two or three years – going back and forth – and talking to our production manager. Actually having it built in the computer meant that we could really model it and change things, all the components of it to make it work. Where do we put a stairway, passageways, how do we do it?

Then I met an architect here who’s a principal at Perkins Eastman, they’re the biggest architecture firm in New York. He’s a Brit, and he loves punk rock. We went and had beers, and he was like, I love this idea, I have to tell you I worked on the London Globe when I was in my 20s, so I totally understand what you’re doing. Then we got a really major engineering firm involved. People have been donating a lot of their time to make this happen. Now we have a proper model with all the structural engineering done. It’s a weird building.

“Actually having it built in the computer meant that we could really model it and change the components of it to make it work.”

I feel that I’m in the right place to do this, having the KISS experience, having access to those guys. I’ve just met the right people too, who have been involved and enthusiastic.

As you say, it’s an idea that’s taken shape over quite a long period of time. What are some of the milestones you’ve ticked off along the way?
When we actually had a functional model. We could walk around the computer model. Taking what was a rough idea to building a proper model, that we could all work from. It really made things efficient, because I then took the model to our acoustic engineers. They took the model and dropped it into their acoustic testing programme.

Sound analysis render

We were going, this is going to sound like shit, and they were like, actually it’s not, because the containers have a corrugated surface – so when the sound hits it, it doesn’t ping it straight back, the corrugations diffuse it a little bit. Not only does it work in terms of the containers all fitting properly, but in terms of an acoustic surface the containers aren’t too bad.

Another milestone was connecting with a firm called Arup. They have acoustic engineers, lighting engineers, fire engineers, structural engineers, everybody all in the same firm. They could all sit in these meetings with the model and make sure everything was going to work. They’ve been really, really great.

The next step was going to Detroit and – two years ago – seeing the renaissance of Detroit happening. The very start of Detroit going up. Then finding a partner in Detroit that we could work with to put up the prototype. Figuring out Detroit and where we could put it, and meeting the right people.

The Container Globe in the carpark of the Whitney, Detroit (render)

Another milestone was actually getting the blessing of the Shakespeare community. I went to London and met one of the guys who’s been the longest at the London Globe – Patrick Spottiswoode. He said, next time you’re in London come and meet our CEO, come and meet the people. I thought they’d be [blasé] about the idea but they’re not at all, they’re really enthusiastic.

The problem they have is the Globe is such a unique environment – they’re massively successful, but when they do their touring they have to play normal stages, or outdoors, and it’s not the same. They don’t have Globes where they can really flex their muscles and do what they’re supposed to do.

So they were immediately really supportive. I’ve got videos of the CEO, the Director of Education, their production manager, everybody, standing outside their Globe, doing endorsement videos for mine. They were really into it, and they’ve continued to be so. I did an exhibition in NYC, and they sent me a little piece of the London Globe, one of the banisters. They FedExed it to me and said, we just wanted you to have a little piece of our Globe in your exhibition.

Is there scope for their actors to perform in your Globe?
Yep. Not only that – I saw Neil, the CEO about four months ago and he said, one of the other reasons I want you to get this done is because in England the actors come up through the normal English system. Some from overseas, but he said, if you get people in Detroit learning how to use a Globe, then I want them to come and perform in my Globe.

They’ll have a different life experience, a different accent, a different world view. That will really, really mix things up for us. I really want you to get it done, so we can have another source of talent.

That’s pretty exciting.
It is, it’s a bit terrifying but it’s good. The other thing is, I don’t have a background in theatre. I’m a rock ’n’ roll person. In the same way that I don’t know how to plug a guitar in, I don’t know anything about running a theatre. But Neil said, look, there are plenty of people who do. I don’t know how to do half the stuff in the Globe, you just get people that are good to do it.

Why did you choose Detroit?
I was originally going to Detroit because the guy who’s our intellectual property lawyer is there. I’ve worked with him for years and years with KISS. Their firm does all the KISS trademarks, and intellectual property stuff. He said, we need to get your logo done, we need to get a trademark, we need to get a patent. So I was going to Detroit, and the one thing Detroit has is a lot of land. There’s a whole lot of potential.

It was almost like, New York was really shit in the 70s but they had an amazing art scene. Brooklyn used to be shit in the 90s, but now… obviously, Detroit is cheaper too. It’s much more punk rock, it’s got this great history. And people are very supportive of our idea. If you do try and do something in Brooklyn or around Jersey, it’s super-expensive, there are already so many theatres – people aren’t really into it. There’s too much competition. They’re a bit jaded.

In Detroit, they’re not. And you’ve got all those stories – MC5 and Iggy Pop coming from there, punk rock. Motown. It’s just a really interesting city. They need this more than New York does as well.

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Also, I like the place. It’s especially interesting being there now, and the way that things turned around so fast after the bankruptcy. They declared the biggest bankruptcy in history, and everybody thought it was going to – in the typical American way – drag out for 10 years, and the whole city would fall apart. But it’s bounced back so quickly. Now there’s a snowball going on. Being part of that is cool.

When are you planning to have the first show?
We’re going to do it organically. We’ve ordered containers, we’re getting them fabricated now. Building departments don’t really understand containers, and a lot of times they can really throw a wrench into the works, so I’m not going to commit to a show date. We’ll build a prototype layer by layer. We’ll do a first ring, do the stage, and start putting on some shows – do bands, and build around it as we go.

Playing host to live bands (render)

We’re not doing a standard theatre model, where you go and borrow $50 million and have this huge debt, and then you have to service that debt, and you have this albatross around your neck from day one. We’re going to do some more crowdfunding, get some grants, develop the education side of it as well, and learn as we go.

The great thing about containers is we can actually build the walls and say, if you give us $5k, that’ll be your container. Instead of doing bricks or notices on seats, we can say to companies: invest in Shakespeare. Invest in Shakespeare in Detroit. We’re already starting to get that happen.

You’re a punk rock guy, always have been. Some people might see Shakespeare as a bit of a leap. But am I correct in thinking you’d say he’s the ultimate punk rock hero?
Absolutely. The backstory of the Globe – the original 1599 one – is amazing. There were these two brothers, the Burbages, that were in Shakespeare’s company. They were just performing in little theatres – not even theatres, big pubs basically. Their father built this thing called The Theatre in Shoreditch. It was a prototype Globe really. It was in a round, with seats, all around a central stage. It went off. It was super, super popular, crazily popular.

He built that in 1570, but they only signed a 30-year lease. When the lease ended in 1598, they went to the landlord and went, we’re going gangbusters, can you renew the lease? And he was like, yeah, yeah, I’ll renew the lease. But in those days, if the lease ran out you got to keep whatever buildings were on that land. The landlord kept on taking off to the country, and Shakespeare and his guys realised that he was running the clock out. So in 1598 they lined up down the street with horses and carts, they all turned up with weapons.

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In those days only the aristocracy and the military were allowed big swords. The normal citizens could have a little rapier, but Shakespeare and his guys were really good swordfighters, because they fought with swords all the time, and they had swords onstage. They turned up and started pulling the theatre apart. In those days there were no nails. The walls were all fitted together, so they got all these guys together and started putting the theatre apart.

The landlord’s guys turned up to go, hey, what are you doing? And they were like, fuck off. And nobody fucked with them because they knew that they were really good swordfighters. They pulled the theatre apart over two days and hid the timber. In those days labour was cheap and timber was really expensive. They hid the timber in warehouses around London, and then the landlord tried to sue them and they were like, go fuck yourself. You were dicking us ‘round. He was actually a powerful guy.

Then they built the original Globe outside the City of London, on Bankside, with the timber from the original theatre. They took the bones of the original theatre and built the Globe. Just in the same way that I can break down the Container Globe and move it somewhere else.

The Globe was a huge success as well. People used to jam themselves in, everybody was drinking. It wasn’t refined Shakespeare like it is now, it was completely crazy. They built it to fit 1500 people, and apparently half the time 3000 people would be jammed into it. They’d all be drinking, and passing beers to each other during the plays and they’d be trying to get up on the stage, and joining in the swordfighting. The actors would push them back into the audience. It was mayhem.

“[Shakespeare] was mindblowing – just like the Pistols and the Clash and the Stranglers and the Ramones. All those bands came along and just blew everything up.”

I love that idea of Shakespeare in his time. He changed all the rules of theatre. They hadn’t had flashbacks before – he made up words. He invented people like Falstaff. He invented characters with an internal dialogue, which had never happened before. In his time he was really punk rock, I do maintain that. He was mindblowing – just like the Pistols and the Clash and the Stranglers and the Ramones. All those bands came along and just blew everything up.

What are some of your favourites of Shakespeare’s works? What would you most like to see performed in your Globe?
I love Henry IV, I think Falstaff is an amazing character. When that play came out, it was like The Sopranos. People were like, oh my god have you seen this play? People were talking about Falstaff, he was this icon. He was really irreverent, brilliant, funny, tragic, amazing.

Falstaff is so amazing that you can play him 9000 different ways and they all work. You can play him mean, you can play him a buffoon, you can play him calculating, you can do combinations of those. And the scenes in that play are so good. Brilliant.

I love The Tempest too, and Hamlet of course. The Tempest has Ariel and Caliban, and it blew people’s minds because it was all about how you examine humanity through unhuman characters. Ariel’s a spirit, and Caliban’s a monster, but it’s almost like an examination of humanity.

You’re making want to go back and review my school Shakespeare knowledge.
Don’t do that! Just go and see it. Shakespeare’s not meant to be read. Nobody reads Shakespeare – Shakespeare didn’t read Shakespeare. Don’t read it, it kills it. Go and see it. That’s what I think anyway.

Angus Vail is Founder at the Container Globe, and business manager for KISS. For more on the Container Globe visit www.thecontainerglobe.com.

Sarah Illingworth is Editor at Impolitikal, and Communications Officer for the Open University’s Learning and Teaching Innovation department (Translation lead). She has an MSc in Poverty and Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.