Interview: Lydia Rynne and Caley Powell, Hear Me Howl

Hear Me Howl is the first project for new theatre company Lights Down Productions. The one woman show by Lydia Rynne addresses the taboo issues of abortion and a woman’s choice to remain childless, exploring the central character’s journey through her discovery of punk music.

“It’s a late coming-of-age tale following the story of Jess – played by Alice Pitt-Carter – who’s just hitting the big three oh,” explains Lydia, a member of the Soho Theatre Writers Group. “She has a job, a long term, loving boyfriend and a rented flat that’s bigger than your average garden shed. Oh, and of course she also has that pesky body clock that everyone keeps banging on about. As she approaches her milestone birthday, Jess begins to question the life she’s plummeting towards and decides to join a punk band, cos why not? Jess tells her story from behind and with the aid of a drum kit before her first gig.”

Lydia was inspired to write the play after noticing a lack of shows about women who choose not to have children: “There have been plenty of plays and books about women or couples trying desperately to conceive. And of course there is a place for these works – wanting, and then struggling, to conceive is a heartbreaking ordeal. But for every woman who is pining for a child of her own, there is a woman considering a life without children. This is, crazily, still a taboo subject. I’m also a huge advocate of women – of any age – picking up an instrument and making NOISE.

“From a young age girls are given plastic babies, prams, tiny kitchenettes with rubber sausages to fry up like a good girl. Meanwhile our male human counterparts who just happen to have a dangly bit between their legs are handed toy racing cars, railway sets, a rocket: an open highway to go any place they like, as fast as they bloody well can. Society tells us from birth that we are born with a maternal instinct that, if not acted on within our allotted time, will leave us empty and bereft of our true life purpose. The weight of this expectation is not only offensive – how many childless male actors or politicians are probed about their lack of sprogs?! – but also a huge mental drain on a gender who are already busy enough trying to achieve equality in the workplace and combat sexism on a daily basis.”

Producer Caley Powell adds, “This will be my first play with my new theatre company Lights Down Productions, and I chose it because I saw myself in the lead character of Jess. I’ve recently turned 30 and have known for a long time that I don’t want children, so seeing a play that dealt with this topic in such an open, fun way is so rare and so necessary that I immediately wanted to come on board to produce this play.

“For me Jess is so relatable, when you’re about to turn 30 you do end up having a crisis about where your life is and what it is you want from it, and have an urge to do something drastic, like join a punk band to break out of the monotony of your life. This play shows it’s never too late to make a change in your life and that through regaining control and also through the power of music you can find your voice and your power.”

Lydia met the play’s director, Kay Michael of Empty Deck Theatre, when they were in a production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker together at Warwick University. “I had yet to ‘come out’ as a writer and still fancied myself as a physical theatre performer. As much as I loved playing varieties of goat-like creatures, making sense of the world through the written word quickly became my raison d’être. So I finally allowed Kay, one of my best mates – and conveniently a wonderful director – to take a peek. The rest is history. Or herstory…”

Caley’s involvement with the show came about more recently. “I met Kay whilst producing my previous play A Great Fear Of Shallow Living with In Tandem Theatre Company, and she got in touch in November 2017 to let me know about this play. I was in the process of setting up Lights Down Productions to produce new writing, particularly female writers, and I was looking for new projects so it seemed perfect timing!”

In developing the show, the team have spoken to women with varying opinions on having children, and have also thrown themselves into the world of punk ideology and music. “One particular book that inspired us is Viv Albertine (of punk band The Slits)’s autobiography, documenting her growing obsession with punk music in the 70s and 80s as she grows from girl to woman,” Lydia explains. “As Hear Me Howl is very much structured as a coming of age story, we have also, as a team of female creatives, interrogated our own lives as a series of lightbulb moments – questioning the people, experiences and music that we now know impacted our life choices. We then got into a garage full of instruments we’d never played before and bashed about for hours, and got some great audience feedback when we tested an extract, with accompanying drums, in a scratch night back in 2016.

“We hope Hear Me Howl will inspire discussion about the expectations we place on women to have kids. But we also want our audiences to have fun, to maybe take up drums, and to definitely dance around their kitchen like no-one’s watching.”

The play will be performed as a work in progress at The Landor Space in March, and the team aim to develop it with a major London venue for a full production run in the autumn of 2018. They’ll also be making a web series in the summer to explore the character of Jess further.

With Lights Down Productions Caley’s also currently producing a new play, Shards by Catherine O’Shea. “Shards is a play about memory, architecture, relationships, dating, particle physics and swing dancing… and what happens when you throw those things at each other. We just had a reading of the play at The Playwriting Suite at Canal Cafe Theatre, and have a four-week run at a major London venue later this year.”

Hear Me Howl will be at The Landor Space from 7th-9th March.

To keep updated on Lights Down Productions – including future performances of Shards – follow @LightsDownProd or find them on Facebook

Interview: Lou Stein, Chickenshed

When Lou Stein became Artistic Director of Chickenshed in 2016, it was the latest move in an already long and distinguished career. As founder of Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre and former Artistic Director of Watford Palace Theatre, he brings to the role a wealth of professional experience – but also a unique personal appreciation for the value of Chickenshed’s work.

My son Ethan, who is now eleven, has been a member of Chickenshed’s Children’s Theatre since he was seven, and it was he who brought me to Chickenshed,” explains Lou. “He has Down Syndrome and I began to see the organisation through his eyes – the eyes of a young person with ambition who doesn’t want to be labelled as having a disability, and who loves theatre. When I saw the job advertised, I saw it as an opportunity to re-focus the direction of the company to re-energise its purpose.”

That purpose is to pioneer inclusive theatre practice, something Chickenshed has been doing for over 40 years, since the company was established in 1974 by its founder – and Lou’s predecessor – Mary Ward. In addition to its professional theatre programme, Chickenshed also has a Children’s Theatre membership programme, a Youth Theatre, an Outreach Programme, a Performances for Children division, and runs an expansive Education programme ranging from BTEC to BA courses.

The uniqueness of Chickenshed is that all our various parts work together to embed notions of inclusion and diversion across everything we do,” says Lou. “In short, inclusive theatre is the language which propels all of our activities. The most exciting thing about Chickenshed for me is that when you walk through our doors, all labels are dropped. When I talk about it, I always love the fact that we have the most diverse performers and audiences in the UK. My biggest challenge as Artistic Director has been to harness the amazing core ethos of the company, which has been in development now for 44 years, and work with the company to make our current work relevant to the future and to our societal goals.”

Originally from New York, Lou arrived in London in 1978 with a life-long interest in European theatre and politics. That passion found an outlet the following year in a room above Notting Hill’s Prince Albert pub, which would become the Gate Theatre. The Gate reflected the then bohemian community in Notting Hill and the work there was devoted to international drama, particularly work that hadn’t received an outing in the UK,” says Lou. “At that time, the chance to see innovative international work was limited and the Gate filled a very important gap. When I left to become the Artistic Director of Watford Palace, I ensured that the core of the Gate’s future work was always to centre on daring, political, and innovative premieres of international drama. And that has been the bedrock of the Gate’s success throughout the years. I am so proud that it has spawned so many brilliant directors, actors, designers and playwrights.”

After ten years as Artistic Director at Watford Palace, where he worked with some of the best talent in the UK – including Helen Mirren, who turned down a stint at the RSC to appear in a new version of Madame Bovary – Lou formed his own production company to begin creating new work which explored collaboration between art forms, particularly contemporary music and theatre.

I have always been proudest of work that I’ve done which has somehow broken ground or pointed to new directions in how things can be done,” he says. Highlights come in many shapes and forms, and the projects that stand out have somehow either changed me or people around me. Certainly the raw creativity and freedom of those early years at the Gate was a huge highlight. The Gate story is a bit of a Cinderella story. With no funding in what was a very down at the heel pub, a group of outsiders came together to create work which was highly recognised very quickly.”

Another highlight for Lou is his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was the first production at what was then called the Gate at the Latchmere (now Theatre 503), before transferring to the Fortune Theatre in the West End. “I’ll never forget Hunter Thompson – a notoriously reclusive writer – saying that he was flying in from his home in Aspen, Colorado to see the show, and if he didn’t like it, he was going to tear the theatre apart,” he recalls. “Luckily, he loved it.”

Before coming to Chickenshed, Lou wrote, produced and directed regularly for BBC Radio 3 and 4.After my son Ethan was born, I was commissioned to write and curate a five part programme for The Essay about how children affect the creations of their artist-fathers – The Father Instinct,” he explains. “In the first episode I wrote about how Ethan positively changed my work as a director and writer, and how I approach my work. His birth was the biggest highlight of my career in that what I choose to do, and how I do it, changed dramatically. Without Ethan, I wouldn’t be at Chickenshed.”

Chickenshed’s spring season recently opened with monolog, featuring a timely revival of Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance, the world premiere of Diane Samuels’ This Is Me, and six new monologues commissioned by Chickenshed from within the creative community. This will be followed in March by a new musical piece about climate change, called Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, which features nearly 150 performers drawn from young members and professional creatives who are part of Chickenshed.

Finally, in April the company presents One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, using a physical theatre approach and working with actors drawn from its professional staff, and a number of Chickenshed actors who will bring a special understanding of the play by drawing on their cognitive disability. “I don’t know of any theatre in the country who have the courage to do a play like this with a cast as diverse, in all ways, as ours will be,” says Lou.

The professional theatre programme is the spearhead for all our activities, and by producing high quality inclusive work, all of our various strands are pulled together. My vision for Chickenshed is that it will be a confident and highly skilled professional inclusive theatre company, which clearly places itself at the centre of London theatre’s consciousness, producing unmissable work – regularly partnering with similarly minded companies and institutions. It would be good if the Arts Council recognises this new direction and helps us to sustain this goal in the future.”

To find out more about Chickenshed, visit chickenshed.org.uk

Interview: Roman Berry and Natali Servat, Little Did I Know

Written by Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Little Did I Know is the story of a young girl, Aaneseh, who escapes from war-torn Syria by pretending to be a boy, and sets out for England. From Yarl’s Wood Detention and Removal Centre, she recounts her journey and the people she met along the way. The play, voted one of the top 3 in The Bread and Roses Theatre Playwriting Award 2016/2017, opens this week and runs until Saturday.

Little did I Know is a beautifully written piece, full of compassion and humour,” says director Roman Berry. “The Syrian Civil War started eight years ago and it has created this ongoing humanitarian disaster and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it. I hope that by telling Aaneseh’s narrative, it sheds a light on the current issue of the refugee crisis. Little Did I Know‘s themes of innocence, identity, humanity and survival reflect the refugees’ plight, and it needs to be shared and talked about. Theatre, after all, acts as a cultural space where society examines itself in a mirror and all of us certainly need to reflect and further act on this humanitarian disaster.”

Photo credit: Izzy Romilly

For Natali Servat, who plays Aaneseh in the one-woman show, her story also resonates on a personal level. “I am the child of refugees, so it’s a subject matter that has always affected me and meant a great deal to me,” she says. “It’s such an important story to tell for obvious reasons. People are dying every day as a result of a war that is incredibly hard to fully understand, and that has spiraled out of control. It’s important to remind people that Aaneseh’s story and the journey she is on is not by any means a rarity, it’s one which thousands of people go through each day, not only from Syria.

“I hope people will come out of Little Did I Know having a better understanding of the situation and recognising themselves in Aaneseh. It feels like such a stupid thing to say because it’s so obvious in a way, but these people are not any different to us and if we were faced with the same decisions to make, our choices wouldn’t be much different. We would all want to be met by support and love on the other side, especially after having lost everything and endured trauma that will follow you forever.”

The play charts Aanaseh’s journey as she sets out in search of safety, freedom and independence, growing along the way into a courageous young woman. “I love playing Aaneseh because she is such a complex and varied character to play,” says Natali. “We follow her during different stages of her early life, at first when she’s still a teenage girl living in Syria with a lot of her childlike innocence still intact. Later on, as she’s pretending to be a boy, something that she has to try and completely immerse herself into due to the fear of what might happen if the young men in the lorry she’s traveling in ever find out that she’s a girl. And ultimately, as the strong young woman she becomes, who has endured far more than she could have ever imagined. I love her strength, her determination, her ability to adapt, her generosity, and humanity. And the fact that she never gives up on her dreams. She fights till the very end and she never takes the easy way out, even though ‘easier’ paths present themselves during the journey. She is someone I would aspire to be.

“It’s a very interesting and emotionally complex journey to go on as an actor, not to mention physically as well. It’s also interesting to see the dichotomy between how she interacts with her family and later on in a collective of boys. It’s during this transition that she starts to understand that there are differences, some unfair ones, between boys and girls that she hadn’t fully realised before.”

Photo credit: Izzy Romilly

“I admire Aaneseh’s wit, defiance and survival instinct,” adds Roman. “Don’t mess with Aaneseh, I say.”

As difficult as the subject matter undoubtedly is, Roman has found working on the play a rewarding and eye-opening experience. “A lot of our primary research is in the writing itself,” he explains. “Doc Andersen-Bloomfield’s play has specified links to media footage and news articles, so it was a good place to start. Doc’s writing also allowed us to try out different forms. There are elements in the piece to try out music, movement and mix media to challenge our creative minds. Also collaborating with wonderful designers, like original music composed solely for Little Did I Know by Elliot Clay and other wonderful creatives. And with Natali’s ‘no fuss, focused, head down, let’s just do it’ approach to negotiating scenes, I definitely learnt a lot about the current refugee crisis and had so much fun throughout developing this challenging play on its feet.”

He’s honoured, too, to be directing one of the top 3 plays in last year’s Bread and Roses Theatre Playwriting Award: “The Award is such a great vehicle for any writers who wants to have their stories developed and shown as a professional production. Directing a piece from the Top 3 play has been a wonderful experience. Kudos to The Bread and Roses Theatre for this opportunity.”

Little Did I Know is at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 10th February.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Emma Bentley, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors

Emma Bentley is co-artistic director of Joue le Genre, an emerging theatre company based in London and Lille. Her last show, one-woman play To She Or Not To She, addressed gender equality within the theatre; her latest project, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, addresses a different but equally weighty topic: homelessness. Following a successful run in Edinburgh last summer, in February the show embarks on a spring tour that will take it to venues including Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s Mill Studio and the King’s Head in Islington.

Closed Doors is about Molly Brentwood, a young woman who is feisty and argumentative and gets on better with boys than girls,” explains Emma, who plays Molly. “We meet her in her bedroom in a homeless hostel, and she tells us about all the moments that she thinks might have led her to that point. That’s what she’s trying to figure out, anyway.”

 

The play, written by Calum Finlay, began life as a small scratch piece for Pleasance in June 2016. “Calum and I wanted to tell the story of how homelessness can happen to anyone – although I’m very cautious about using the word ‘homeless’ when talking about the show, because I think people get a very specific vision of the type of scenes it’s going to explore,” says Emma. “So that’s why it was important to show it from the perspective of a young woman. To break that expectation. Plus because that makes me happy as an artist and a feminist to make work about women. And women in situations that we don’t get to see very often on stage – not being glamorous, not in a relationship, from a working class background.

“Since I moved to London, homelessness has been on the forefront of my brain and I would always try to learn more about people’s stories. Then in 2016 I started volunteering at St Mungo’s. The amazing work they do to give people a home inspires me a lot. People that come and see the play will probably have an interest in the homelessness sector, but if they’ve been dragged along and they don’t, I hope that it allows them to empathise more with people living on the streets. The way that people who beg or sleep rough are treated is horrendous and people don’t realise you don’t have to give money every time – just say ‘Sorry I don’t have anything,’ instead of just ignoring them or getting angry. People complain that they’ll just spend it on drugs when they don’t know the first thing about being an addict; it makes me really angry. Although I think part of it is fear as well.”

Emma wrote a first draft of the script, which was staged at Pleasance in February 2017. “Then after that Calum said, ‘I’ve got this idea for the script,’ and he sent me the first couple of pages in this new style – a lot more lyrical, weird and mysterious and I said ‘I love it, do it to the whole thing please.’ So he did and it’s a beautiful, haunting script.

“We’ve worked with Anna Beecher on the dramaturgy of the piece, and for Edinburgh Anna Souter did our set design. For this spring tour of the show I’m working with Katharina Reinthaller, who directed me in To She Or Not To She for the Lyric Hammersmith, and a designer she works with called Rasa Selemonavičiūtė. It’s fantastic to work with Katharina again because we have a shared language, and I think Calum and I both knew that we needed someone’s fresh perspective on the script. Plus Calum is in Mary Stuart at the mo so he’s a bit busy!”

Closed Doors has been significantly re-worked since Emma last performed it in Edinburgh in 2017 – though she admits it can be difficult to make big changes to material she’s personally invested in: “When you change things you think, ‘Hold on wait, was there anything wrong with it in the first place? I can’t even remember now’, and that’s why it’s useful to work with a bigger team.

“We started with the script. We didn’t have a video of the show post Edinburgh so we couldn’t look back on it. I’d like to say we went on gut feelings. We met up and talked a lot about the main framing device, which now we’ve completely changed. As it’s such a tech heavy show this framing device needed to be simplified so that the complexity could lie in the language and images on stage.”

With this new tour, Emma’s looking forward to meeting more audiences, hopefully sharing the play with some young people who have or are experiencing homelessness themselves, and hearing what they think about it. “In Edinburgh, quite a lot of people who I spoke to after the show thought it was about me, which I guess is a massive compliment – it was also sad though as they looked worried about saying goodbye at the end. The best response though was that some teenagers were heard on a bus in Edinburgh talking about the show and about what they could do individually to help people who are homeless.

“The dream would be if someone came after seeing the show on tour and said something like, ‘I never really thought about how it actually could happen to someone – I thought they were just lazy, and now I realise they’ve just taken a few wrong turns.’

“Maybe the show will even help people from ever getting into a situation like Molly’s themselves. Through making the show, I’ve learnt what to do if I were to ever be in that position; if I didn’t have a supportive group of family and friends to help me, then I would know where to look for help. It’s useful information. We’re all only a few steps away from homelessness, especially in the theatre industry. Who knows if it might help someone spot the signs, before they or a friend become close to sleeping rough.”

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors opens at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 9th February. For full tour dates and venues, visit the Joue le Genre website.

Interview: Catherine Lamb, Bunny

“I first saw Bunny when I was 18 and I found it hugely inspiring; it’s a very funny and thought provoking show. I would urge anyone to come and see it, but especially young people who perhaps don’t normally feel that theatre is really for them.”

Catherine Lamb is the founder of Fabricate Theatre, a new theatre company dedicated to creating exciting and relevant work that speaks to young people. Later this month she’ll be reprising her role as teenager Katie in Jack Thorne’s one-woman play Bunny, which transfers to the Tristan Bates Theatre for a limited run from 15th-27th January.

Photo credit: Brandon Bishop

Bunny is the story of one young girl growing up in Luton struggling to find her place in a world lacking intimacy and connection,” says Catherine. “It examines what happens when cultures collide and you find yourself in unknown territory. It is a fast, funny and ruthless look into what it is to be growing up today.

“Jack Thorne has recently been named one of theatre’s most influential people, so this is a fantastic opportunity to see one of his early pieces. The writing is outstanding. It’s just over an hour in length and is a brave and bold piece of work which doesn’t shy away from anything. The show explores many heavy topics such as racism, sexual awakening, clashing cultures and the class and education system. The audience sees all these things through the eyes of an 18-year-old girl growing up in Luton.”

The coming-of-age drama was first performed in Edinburgh in 2010, where it won a Fringe First award. “I was drawn to the play because of how much it related to me,” says Catherine. “I recognised myself and my friends in Katie as well as all the other characters. It was a piece of theatre made for and about my generation, and I found that to be not only very exciting but also quite rare.”

Catherine believes it’s her character’s imperfections that make her interesting: “I like how flawed she is. There’s a lot of ugliness in her character, but you can still empathise with her. Her confusion is something that really resonated with me. There are massive contradictions in her character, she is painfully self aware and yet utterly oblivious at the same time.

“I love playing someone who I know other young women and girls will see themselves in; I find that very exciting. Katie is witty, bold and outrageous yet extremely vulnerable. This makes her wonderfully complex and a real challenge to play.”

Catherine founded Fabricate Theatre in January 2017, motivated by a desire to make and produce her own work. “I wanted to become part of the conversation,” she explains. “I asked a good friend, Sophia Nicholson, to come on board to help with the producing and communications, and the two of us now run the company together. Our aim is to get Fabricate known for creating work that speaks to young people. We’re dedicated to creating and producing fast-paced, exciting productions that reflect and examine our young people.”

Bunny is the company’s first production, which enjoyed a successful first run last year at the White Bear Theatre. “It’s fantastic to get another go at staging the show,” says Catherine. “We had such a short rehearsal process first time around so it is lovely to be able to go back and perfect things. It’s also interesting to re-stage it to suit a new space. We are so proud of this production, so it’s lovely to have all that hard work recognised.”

Book now for Bunny at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 15th-27th January.