Interview: Helena Jackson, Nine Foot Nine

What would happen if almost every self-identifying woman in the world grew to nine foot tall? Sleepless Theatre Company explore this intriguing concept in Alex Wood’s Nine Foot Nine, which opens at The Bunker Theatre in June as part of the Breaking Out season.

Nine Foot Nine follows a family over 16 years in a dystopic world where suddenly, painfully, self-identifying women start to grow and grow and grow and grow until the gender politics of the world start to break down,” explains director Helena Jackson. “We’re very interested in the concept of atypical bodies, and how bodies can shape and skew society’s view of an individual. We thought Nine Foot Nine would be a hugely interesting concept with which to interrogate the ‘monstrous’ – the atypical – and how it can affect gendered power dynamics. If self-identifying women had the ability to overpower every single cis male they came across without too much effort, how would the power structures of the world change?

“The concept is so broad there is no way that we’re ever going to be able to explore every single angle. We want the audience to walk out entertained, intrigued and for them to sit down for a pint afterwards saying ‘Gosh, yeh, what would happen if men were physically weaker than women?’ This is a show to hopefully make people talk and think way after they’ve left the venue, both in terms of gendered interaction and preconceptions attached to performers that identify as D/deaf, disabled or neurodiverse.”

In line with that commitment, Nine Foot Nine will be fully captioned and will involve performers and creatives who identify as D/deaf, disabled or neurodiverse. “We’ll be working as hard as we possibly can to make sure that the play is accessible to all audiences,” says Helena, “and we’re looking to create a culture where we interact with D/deaf, disabled or neurodiverse audiences and creatives no matter what the themes of the particular play we’re creating.”

Nine Foot Nine is the result of almost two years’ work – or, as Helena puts it, “The show has been in development forever, it seems. At first we had included way too many storylines – six characters instead of three – and it was more of a snapshot of society rather than something with a narrative focus. We completely redrafted around ten months ago, whittled our characters down to form this core family unit, and did a couple of other projects which boosted our confidence in terms of creating a piece of work that thinks about accessibility while not necessarily being about disability, as such.

“We showcased a section of it at the Royal Court in March and were part of the LET Award finalists in March as well, but this is the first time it’s been shown in its entirety. We’ve had tantrums, makeups, sleepless nights – it’s been a rock-and-roll ride but it’s now actually about to become a real physical thing, and we are so excited and terrified for it to actually become a proper play instead of this world existing on the computer screen. Sharing it with an audience will be one of the scariest and most thrilling moments – it’ll be so interesting to hear what people make of it, whether the way we portray the growth works and if it starts the kind of conversations we want it to. The Bunker is such a wonderful space for this kind of show, we have a huge amount of stage space and tech possibilities, so it should be pretty damn thrilling.”

It’s not just the venue that has Sleepless excited; they’re also looking forward to joining the other five theatre companies selected to be part of The Bunker’s Breaking Out season. “Breaking Out is fantastic because it allows us as an emerging company time to create, re-create and re-draft without the sort of financial pressure that is present in so many other spaces. It just means we can have fun with the piece and play around, developing our accessibility measures and audience pool in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a full run. It’s also so lovely to meet other companies that are in the same position we are – it creates a proper community of theatremakers that all critique and inspire each other – and then go to the pub together after. Of course.”

London-based Sleepless began around seven years ago at sixth form college. “We got fed up of the lack of opportunities there were in the performing arts and so decided to start making our own,” says Helena, who’s the company’s artistic director. “Over the years it’s massively developed, but there’s something wonderful about the naive, fearless attitude we had when it started, the sort of jump-first-and-figure-out-how-you’re-going-to-land-later type vibe that only 16-year-olds can really possess. We love that sense of community, of people getting their hands dirty, of sort of stumbling along and mucking up along the way but then knowing you’re going to do it better next time. Our aims are very much to keep accessibility at the core of what we do and to prove that emerging companies can engage in the access debate – and then just to produce exciting, magical, and anarchic theatre.”

Nine Foot Nine certainly sounds like it lives up to that ethos: “It’s going to be a thumping, ferocious, dystopic rollercoaster. If you’re into sci-fi, feminism or visually beautiful work you should definitely check us out – we’re going to have vast amounts of LEDs, some ridiculous soundscapes and will basically be portraying a world in uproar. It’s going to be chaotic, it’s going to be anarchic, it’s going to be banging, so check us out.”

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