Interview: Jon Tozzi, Section 2

Paper Creatures Theatre was founded by actors Nathan Coenen and Jon Tozzi on a mutual love of new writing, truthful storytelling and innovative theatre. Their mission is to tell simple, compelling and bold stories that hold up a mirror to the millennial generation.

“The media often portrays millennials as social media-fixated, self-involved and careless of the society in which we find ourselves,” explains Jon. “Paper Creatures is committed to making theatre that breaks away from that stereotype and digs deeper. Good theatre for us is about storytelling. We lead with the idea that the story should be the primary focus from which everything else springs. Our shows aim to provoke, engage and encourage discussion after having left the auditorium.”

And they’re hoping to do just that with their second show, Section 2, which explores the often sensitive subject of mental health, and in particular aims to shine a light on the topic of sectioning. “Mental health is thankfully an issue that is gaining a brighter spotlight and focus in recent years, especially with depression and anxiety,” says Jon. “However, not much is said about sectioning, a treatment that is increasingly required, particularly among those aged 18 – 35, not to mention those who work in the arts.

Section 2 is a part verbatim story about a young man named Cam, the golden-boy in high school, who is sectioned under the mental health act, but no one can figure out why. Taking place in real time on potentially the final day of his sectioning, we follow a glaringly insightful truth into the process, challenges and effects of sectioning, on the patient but also his key worker, girlfriend and best friend.

“Sectioning is a subject that is rarely talked about in theatre, and definitely not in such an honest and revealing way. When Peter Imms, the writer, approached us with the initial story, we felt it important to take the opportunity to shed some light on the subject and tackle its effects head on. The fact that this piece was inspired by a personal encounter of our playwright means the approach to the text is much more truthful and raw in comparison to many other mental health plays. Section 2 is told in real-time, allowing audience members to experience every joy, hope, silence and heartbreak right there along with the characters – as if they were in the room with them. The play oozes subtext and Pete’s writing style allows for lots of exploration for the director and actors to explore this in various ways through each performance.”

Photo credit: Monika Jastrzebska

The production began life in September 2017 as ten pages of script and a short verbatim piece from a personal experience Peter had with sectioning. “Since then, we’ve done what we do best: given Pete the time and creative support necessary to write the play Section 2 has become,” says Jon. “This included several read throughs with different actors and creatives listening in, an R&D week away in Wittering, and taking part in A Pleasance Scratch at the Pleasance Theatre to gain some useful feedback. We work extremely collaboratively and have given the piece the time and dedication it needs to be performance ready. The key for us was to approach this play and the subject matter with sensitivity and a clear understanding, so lots of research was undertaken and it has been invaluable; we hope that comes across after having watched the play.

“In today’s day and age, it’s important, particularly as millennials, that we continue to open our minds and expand our knowledge of a lot of key issues that affect many people in our society, such as mental health. What Section 2 will give you is a brave and truthful insight into the world of sectioning, at the same time as letting you come away with a hopeful outlook on how we as humans can help break the stigma attached to mental health and how we as a theatre community can help support this. What makes this piece so special is that we have had support from MIND, the mental health charity during the script development stages, so what we are bringing to The Bunker is a play that accurately depicts the inner workings of a mental health hospital and the emotional journey of those that are a part of it.

“We want our audiences to leave with a greater awareness and knowledge of sectioning and, with that, the ability and willingness to reach out to those in their lives who suffer from mental health conditions and become a part of their support network. Something as simple as an informed conversation can help sufferers immensely.

“Good theatre is about connection and we hope that there will be at least one moment in the piece which the audience is able to connect and empathise with. We also strongly encourage audiences to stick around after to discuss the play with us so we can begin the conversation regarding mental health.”

Following the success last year of their debut production, Flood, Paper Creatures are excited to be bringing their new project to The Bunker as part of the Breaking out season. “The Bunker has been attracting a young, vibrant and, most importantly, diverse crowd since their debut show which we saw back in 2016,” says Jon. “Just sitting in the space, there is a distinct buzz and community feel. Having the opportunity to share our stories with this kind of audience is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us. The performance space itself will lend itself perfectly to the production as the audience will be looking in on the action of the play, giving a fly on the wall type feel.

“To be in repertory theatre for a month with five other emerging new-writing theatre companies is also an absolute privilege for us here at Paper Creatures Theatre. The chance to meet and work alongside these different creatives, each with their unique approach to their craft, has taught us a lot and given us the opportunity to expand our audience. We hugely appreciate and champion The Bunker Theatre’s efforts to make this happen – more needs to be done to support new companies and this is one hell of a start.”

Get your tickets now for Section 2 at The Bunker Theatre, on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Interview: Leoe Mercer, GUY

Leoe & Hyde are a musical theatre duo from Manchester, whose previous collaborations include immersive pop-musical Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical and genre-bending mashup The Marriage of Kim K, which toured the UK last summer to widespread critical acclaim. Now they’re preparing for the world premiere of their latest show GUY, a new gay rom-com about the hook-ups and downs of 21st-century dating, at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season.

Writer and producer Leoe Mercer explains, “GUY is about modern dating. Our whole generation has a shared experience of using apps like Tinder and, in the gay community, Grindr. The show is a diverse, body-positive rom-com about love in the gay community, but at the same time Guy, the protagonist, swings back and forth between the highs and lows of these apps in such a way that resonates, regardless of sexuality.”

Leoe & Hyde was set up in late 2016, but the creative partnership between Leoe and composer Stephen Hyde actually began a couple of years earlier. “We met in 2014, and decided to start writing musicals, with Stephen writing and producing the music and me writing the story and lyrics. Soon after, we decided to produce our own shows too – mainly because we were impatient to see them performed! With an eye for real life characters, an ear for fresh pop sounds, and a taste for the sexier side of the zeitgeist, we want to create a sophisticated language for 21st century musical theatre.

“We grow up hearing stories from previous generations about how musicals like Hair in the 60s and Rent in the 90s captured the music and attitude of a generation. We have a hunch that millennials want something similar for ourselves, a musical which honestly captures the unique post-internet variant of life and love using the electronic/pop soundworld we listen to normally.”

Following the success of The Marriage of Kim K, a 72-minute musical/opera about Kim Kardashian’s infamous 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, Leoe & Hyde were keen to try something different – and GUY was the result. “GUY came out of nowhere for us,” says Leoe. “In October 2017 we sat down to write some pop songs for the fun of it. A few weeks later, we realised that they actually formed the skeleton of a story, which over the next six months we developed into GUY. We’ve actually grown a lot from this process: the music style is very fresh because we were trying to write pop music instead of musicals, and the show is more unique because of it.”

Leoe believes there are three key things that make GUY unique: “First, the music. Musicals tend to sound quite like musicals, but the soundworld for GUY is more like you may hear if you switch on the radio in 2018. Second, the story. It’s a feel-good gay rom-com, but at the same time it challenges stereotypes and undermines clichés from start to end. I recently saw Love, Simon, which has the perfect tagline: ‘Everyone deserves a great love story.’ I’d hope that comes across strongly too: telling a gay love story isn’t enough, it’s important that the gay world you’re representing is full of variety and honesty.”

“And last but not least, the cast. We have a cast of four, with remarkable voices, including X Factor finalist Seann Miley Moore, who was a favourite to win the show in 2015 and has since notched up millions of views on YouTube.”

The show opens next week as part of the Bunker Theatre’s Breaking Out season, a festival of world premiere shows from six emerging theatre companies over four weeks. “Having people who get behind your work is a huge confidence boost, so being selected for a festival is great,” says Leoe. “It’s also exciting because this musical draws from so much of our actual experience – beginning writing only six months ago, it’s great to see that it can be on so soon.

“When you normally watch a musical, the stage and the singers are miles away. Doing a musical at The Bunker with four incredibly powerful singers and a huge electronic score will create a level of intimacy and immersion that will be quite overwhelming. Come along so you can say ‘I saw it first!’”

Book now for GUY at The Bunker Theatre on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Interview: Hannah Samuels, Kiss Chase

Formed in 2017, Second Circle Theatre is an emerging theatre company of three core members and five associate artists, including street performers, musicians, visual artists and devisors. Last year they were finalists of the Pleasance Charlie Hartill Special Reserve, alongside emerging companies Unpolished Theatre and ThisEgg, and their debut show Meeting at 33 premiered to five-star reviews and a sell-out run. This month they’re bringing their second show, Kiss Chase, to The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season.

“Our company aims to challenge what a night at the theatre looks like and how it is experienced, and put real people and stories at the heart of our work,” says artistic director Hannah Samuels, who founded Second Circle along with Topher Collins and Zoe Gibbons. “We want to encourage communities to feel connected to each other and individuals to feel less alone, and to create honest, visceral theatre in unique and intimate spaces. We aim to make work that can be and should be experienced by everyone. As a company, by revealing our hopes, fears, obsessions, anxieties and secrets, we strive to make work about the people we care about and the issues we want to scream about.”

Kiss Chase is a part-interactive, part-verbatim speed dating event, which explores the barriers we face when forming relationships, both in and out of love. “Audiences will be taken through a series of interactive tasks/games to develop their intimacy skills – as participants – as well as watching the narrative,” explains Hannah. “We’re inviting them into a world where they are immediately congratulated for taking the leap and entering the unknown. In keeping with our company style, minimal tech requirements and a reduced audience capacity will create an intimate experience for individuals as well as the collective group.

“During the event, the audience will go on dates, talk to characters and listen to songs, as we invite them to look up from their phones and to find commonality in shared experience. The original inspiration for the show sprung from the question: what is it about the pursuit of love that allows us to sometimes be treated badly in order to find it? As the show progressed we came across research calling London the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’ and we wanted to explore why this was and how/if this could be changed. With the rise of online dating, self-help books and the emergence of the Instagram filter, now feels an important time to look one another in the face.

“We’d like our audiences to feel changed in some way by the performance and connected to those they’ve only just met, having been through the experience together, and also to leave questioning what of Kiss Chase was performance and which parts were real. We want to celebrate a world where interactions happen face-to-face, drawing similarities between the ‘live-ness’ of seeing a theatrical event rather than something filmed. We hope to champion the forming of friendships as much as romantic relationships and to challenge who our significant other might be, and to create a shared audience experience celebrating similarities not differences.”

Kiss Chase has been in development since the beginning of 2018, and was still at a very early stage when it was selected for the Breaking Out season. “As with our first show, we always start developing a seed of an idea by doing lots of research,” explains Hannah. “The company have been out and about interviewing people across the country who have shared their stories of love, loss and friendship with us. We have also been going speed dating… a lot. Our associate artists have been involved in the development phase of the process, which is a really collaborative and fulfilling way of working. We’ve been building character through the verbatim interviews and experimenting with the game format of the show, and we’ve worked with Rich Maskey at Potential Difference, looking at ways to integrate technology into the show or to form part of our marketing campaign.

“The Breaking Out programme has quite literally helped us to ‘break out’ and launch ourselves into the industry with our second show, granting us the professional support to secure further funding and exposure as we strive to make life-changing theatre. Having worked alongside other emerging companies through the Pleasance Charlie Hartill tryouts 2017, we were delighted to be offered this opportunity to continue to learn from and support our peers. We are incredibly excited to develop our work with support from such an incredible and intimate venue, and we have already learned so much from the mentorship that’s been offered to us as part of the program. We love how The Bunker encourages shows and companies they work with to take risks and push the boundaries of conventional theatre. It has an incredible reputation for producing a hugely diverse programme and we share a passion for engaging the local community to tackle pressing personal/collective issues, with a unique approach.

“The Bunker is a perfect venue for Kiss Chase, local to us in East London, with a uniqueness and site-specific edge. The intimacy the space invites is amazing – it’s like watching a show in your lounge! Our first show was site-specific in a non-traditional theatre space, so we want to use the environment of The Bunker and all its various nooks and crannies when creating the work specifically for this venue. The mentorship we have already received from David and Josh has been invaluable at this early stage of the company’s growth, and we are really excited about continuing this relationship long after Breaking Out season is complete.”

Book now for Kiss Chase at The Bunker Theatre, on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7pm from 11th June to 7th July.

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.”

Tickets are on sale now for Nine Foot Nine at The Bunker Theatre on Mondays and Thursdays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Interview: Amy Bethan Evans, Libby’s Eyes

Created by a visually impaired writer, and starring two visually impaired actors, Libby’s Eyes is a play about disability, the benefits system and sight loss. It’s also one of the shows selected for next month’s Breaking Out season at The Bunker Theatre, alongside five other projects from emerging theatre companies. The play tells the story of Libby, a young visually impaired woman who’s given a government-issued assistance robot to describe her surroundings to her. The only problem is, the robot has opinions of its own – opinions that are very telling of the government’s attitude towards disabled people.

“As a visually impaired writer, I wanted to write the kind of visually impaired character I want to see – if you’ll excuse the pun,” explains writer Amy Bethan Evans. “Blindness is often used as a metaphor with a character who doesn’t see but knows ‘inner truth’, or visual impairment can be used as a slapstick comedy device. Failing that, along with other impairments, it’s seen as something to be ‘overcome’. I wanted to create a character who was visually impaired for no reason. Her impairment is a big part of her life, but her obstacles come from society.

“Also, while her impairment isn’t the butt of any jokes, there is comedy in the play as it is possible to be funny without that. The story has been through several development stages and the one I seemed keenest to tell was my PIP experience. I find it fascinating how governments and other organisations can tell disabled people what they do and don’t need, and that that can change and we’re all just expected to go along with it. I want to fly the flag for stories about being disabled in 2018, as told by disabled people. This is still quite rare and I hope others will be encouraged to do it by this piece.”

 

The show is narrated by an acting audio describer: “This is a sent-up version of the actor playing the part,” says Amy. “The character is very pretentious and wants to prove their acting ability but at the same time, needs to provide a reliable AD. There have been other shows working with creative audio description in the past, but I wanted to do it in a way that is reflective of the non-disabled gaze while making people laugh.

“I want sighted and visually impaired people to be inspired by the possibilities of audio description, of access for everyone and of the power of disabled protagonists played by disabled actors. I’d like people to feel for the injustices being heaped on the disabled community and even if they’re not spurred into action, appreciate the human stories behind all the numbers. I also want them to feel they’ve enjoyed a good piece of theatre!”

Amy was one of the top 100 entries for the Verity Bargate Award, and was shortlisted for Bristol Old Vic Open Sessions, Pint-Sized and 503 Five at Theatre503. She was also part of the Soho Theatre Writer Group, which is where Libby’s Eyes first came to life. “I’ve had an idea to explore the theme of defectiveness through disabled people and robots for some time, but Soho Writers’ Lab gave me the excuse to write it,” she says. “It was written for the programme, which involved writing three drafts with a dramaturg. The one in production will be the fourth. I had so many ideas in my first draft and didn’t want to leave any out because I could always cut them later, but as time went on I was still none the wiser about what to focus on, because I had so much to say and I’ve not really read anything like this before for a framework. I knew that it was lacking plot even by the third draft and that’s what a lot of the feedback said, so I’ve tried to make this the focus of my fourth draft. It’s difficult because there is no solution to the reality of what I present, so I want to respect the people currently going through it.”

As a writer at the start of her career, Amy’s thrilled to be part of the Bunker’s Breaking Out season. “It’s amazing. I had my first professionally commissioned short at Theatre 503 earlier this year and this is my first professional longer play. The other companies in Breaking Out are really exciting. I only moved to London last year and it’s great to see such talented people all around me and think I could be part of them. I’m also excited by the possibilities of the Bunker as a wheelchair-accessible fringe venue as it can be really difficult for disabled artists to access the fringe scene.”

The play’s being produced by Poke in the Eye Productions, a company founded by visually impaired actor Georgie Morrell, who also appears in the show. “The company aims to platform disabled-led work by up-and-coming artists,” says Amy. “Georgie and I met on a Soho Young Company Social; she was on Comedy Lab and I was on Writers’ Lab. I bumped into her, apologised, explained I was visually impaired and she said, ‘Me too!’ From that, a beautiful friendship was born. I sent her the play and she really liked it and wanted to bring Libby to the stage. I got in touch with my friend Adam, a brilliant visually impaired actor, and we took the first ten minutes to Yolanda Mercy’s Anything Goes scratch at Vaults, with two other actors. The event was a lovely atmosphere of exciting and diverse new work and was lovely to be part of.

“I’m now looking forward to seeing what the creative team do with the play and getting visually impaired people who don’t normally go to the theatre to come. The play is really important to me in subject matter and in what it could contribute to theatre and I think it will be important to other disabled people, artists or not. It has a witty and dynamic creative team behind it and I hope it will entertain and raise awareness. I’m equally excited and scared about watching it myself. I’ll be nervously hanging around the bar listening to what people say about it and gauging in what tone I should say ‘I’m the writer!’”

Book now for Libby’s Eyes at The Bunker Theatre, on Mondays and Thursdays at 7pm from 11th June-7th July.