Interview: Francesca Mepham, FEMM Theatre

FEMM Theatre is a new company producing fresh and exciting theatre by female artists, whose debut production comes to the Bread and Roses Theatre next month. No One Wants A Pretty Girl is a collection of six contemporary female monologues, written by FEMM Theatre’s founder Francesca Mepham.

“It was such a spontaneous decision; I knew I wanted to produce my new play and thought it was time I created my own theatre company,” explains Fran. “The initials of my full name happen to be FEMM, so it was fate that I wanted the theatre company to be one that supports and promotes female creatives. This isn’t to say we are not supporting male creatives, quite the opposite; we want to promote equality and diversity in the arts. I want to support other females, as in this industry that is so important – females showing solidarity to fellow females. You can never have too much kindness!”

Although she’s new to running a theatre company, the multitalented Fran is certainly no stranger to working in the arts: “Well my career’s definitely been varied, which I absolutely love. It’s involved performing, writing, reviewing and PRing! Performing began when I was very young; I was a member of Beck Youth Theatre, who were so supportive of what I wanted to do, which was to simply be creative. I graduated with a BMus Hons degree and I’ve been very fortunate and performed as an events/session vocalist ever since.

“I’ve always written, but it wasn’t until I started reviewing theatre productions a couple of years ago, that I realised I wanted to explore theatre writing and acting again. You could say I just dived straight in and went for it, producing my own plays and now I have my own theatre company! Also, I have a blog called Frantastic View, that aims to inspire other creatives and give an honest look at life in the arts. And I’m Press Manager for Orzu Arts, Britain’s first Central Asian Theatre Company, so I’m always immersing myself in the arts industry somehow!”

Unsurprisingly in such a long and varied career, there have been a lot of highlights. “I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful creatives want to work with me as a writer and a performer,” says Fran. “Performing at Edinburgh is a real highlight, and I’ve recently been chosen for a night of female playwrights produced by Instinct Theatre at The Bread and Roses Theatre. The support for FEMM Theatre has been a huge highlight of 2017. I’ve also recently written for NewsRevue which has been a lot of fun. In the last few weeks I’ve signed to Helen McWilliams Management Agency which has been wonderful, to have that faith in me as an artist.”

No One Wants A Pretty Girl – written by Fran and directed by Laura Clifford – will be performed in its entirety for the first time at the Bread and Roses in Clapham on 16th October. “It’s a collection of six monologues – Should, Jade Jacket and Trousers, Side B*tch, My Daddy Is Mexican, No Shame and Saturday Night – each performed by one of the six-strong female cast,” says Fran. “Each monologue explores the theme of having a secret behind the smile, an inner sadness which we can all identify. There are themes of heartbreak, loneliness, prejudice, to name just a few; there is no sugar coating, just a rawness from each character. This is life and even in sadness there is beauty.

IMG_20170612_201508

“I wrote Should for Theatrefullstop in late 2015 at 2am for their Monologue Monday, which they were filming for their blog, and I continued writing monologues for the collection – initially three, those being Jade Jacket and Trousers and Side B*tch which they recorded for their podcast late last year, with actress Charlotte Hunt. It was actually Charlotte who said how much her friends she worked with at a call centre, who were also actresses, had enjoyed reading the monologues, as there aren’t that many contemporary monologues for women in their 20s-30s that are relatable out there.

“Then in March of this year, Should was performed at Instinct Theatre’s Scratch The Surface at The Hen and Chickens Theatre, directed by Laura Clifford and performed by Tayo Elesin. I realised that from its warm reaction, I had to write more and make the monologue collection into a full length show, with Laura’s amazing direction. Big thanks to Theatrefullstop and Instinct Theatre, two female-led theatre tour de forces, who have been so supportive of No One Wants A Pretty Girl.”

One of Fran’s primary goals with FEMM Theatre is to promote diversity of all kinds in theatre and the arts. “It’s so important as diversity equals equality; theatre needs to give all creatives equal opportunities,” she says. “Glass ceilings need to be shattered and the industry needs to be aware of theatre makers that need that extra encouragement and support. We all need to support each other in theatre. With FEMM, we put our ethos in to action and cast BAME actors as a priority. That’s what needs to be done – a little less conversation and more positive action in the arts. We also want to address the problem of ageism, especially towards actresses in theatre.”

And finally, to anyone – particularly women – thinking about getting into playwriting, Fran has a few words of advice: “Do it! Literally go for it, be bold, be brave and just be yourself.”

Book now for No One Wants A Pretty Girl at the Bread and Roses on 16th October.

Interview: Ross McGregor, Frankenstein

Arrows & Traps were last seen at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre in February with their acclaimed production of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Now they’ve turned their attention to another classic novel: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“It’s the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s original novel, so it seemed a great time to tackle the piece,” says director and writer Ross McGregor. “Frankenstein is so iconic as well, it’s ingrained in our literary and cinematic history, and there’s been over 100 different adaptations both on stage and screen. It’s such a flexible and deep piece of literature – I found the ideas that Shelley talks about in the novel to be fascinating and worthy of dramatic exploration. Plus, it’s just so much fun to do. There’s literally a scene when a monster made of dead people comes to life. You don’t get that in Alan Ayckbourn.”

Frankenstein is the eleventh show from Arrows & Traps, known for their innovative adaptations of literary classics – and it could be their most ambitious project yet. “In many ways, it has all the hallmarks of an Arrows show: the tight ensemble work, the physical pieces, the fluid staging and the excitement of seeing a classic story told in a new, and hopefully interesting, way,” says Ross. “What makes Frankenstein different from anything we’ve done before is that we’re telling three stories at once. Victor’s, The Creature’s, but also Mary Shelley’s. It’s a triple narrative all being told simultaneously, which makes for some exciting viewing.

“Also, this is the first production that I’ve actually written myself, as well as directing it, so rehearsals have been a voyage of discovery in terms of staging the piece, finding what works, what needs clarifying, and how best to tell the stories we want to tell. It’s been a fascinating and gruelling process of vision and revision. I’m slowly learning the importance of being able to kill your darlings.

“There are moments when it is as though the ghosts in my head are literally manifesting in front of me, which is very moving and humbling, and there is always a great relief when a particular bit or a specific scene is rehearsed and it ‘works’. So often what might look acceptable on paper doesn’t then work in performance, so it’s always lovely to see something that translates and makes the leap. The cast is bringing an awful lot to the roles though, and I’m constantly surprised by all the new layers they’re discovering. It’s been a joy to be involved in.”

Ross explains that in his research for the show, he became fascinated by the story of Mary Shelley: “Her world was filled with characters such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, her father William Godwin, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her sisters Jane and Fanny, Shelley’s wife Harriet – all of these people would have made a great play in their own right – but what principally struck me was the notion of all the strange parallels in her own life to Frankenstein. Now Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen, and although there were definitely things in her childhood that inspired her to write the book, her subsequent life after the novel’s publication shared many strange links to the book, almost as though she cursed herself by writing it. The more I delved into the real story around Frankenstein, the more I wanted to include it in the play.

“So yes, Mary is a main character in the show. And not just as a narrator, she has a part to play in it. She’s older now, suffering from a terminal brain tumour in fact, and is tormented by something that happened in her youth. Something that ties directly into Frankenstein. And so as we see the story of Victor and his Creature unfold, we also see Mary relive her past, with the cast playing roles in both worlds, leaping from one timeline to the other. It’s something of a rollercoaster to watch. I’m very excited about it.”

In adapting the novel, Ross encountered various challenges – one of which was sidestepping the traditional Hollywood image of Frankenstein’s monster. “Initially, I was very faithful,” he explains. “I had always seen the Creature as this lumbering, bolts in the neck, flat-headed lummox that groaned at people, but in the novel, he’s very graceful and agile. The Creature in the novel is very eloquent and possibly as smart as his creator. I wanted to try and mimic that, because I hadn’t found a version where that had ever been attempted.

“In the novel also, there’s no motivation for Victor’s need to create this monster – he just does it because he can. So I knew I wanted to humanise Victor and make him more sympathetic, more flawed, more human, more understandably motivated. So it’s been about balancing those two things. Also, the novel itself isn’t very dramatic and doesn’t lend itself easily to being dramatised. The iconic bits that you probably think of when you think of ‘Frankenstein’ are not from the novel. There’s no ‘IT’S ALIVE!’, there’s no character called Igor, there’s not even any mention of the Creature being scarred or covered in stitches or bolts. All of that is from the films.

“The novel concerns itself with ideas of nature versus nurture, of the perils of parenthood and the isolation caused by abandonment. The hubris of genius. So in adapting it, I have tried to stay true to Mary Shelley’s vision, whilst constructing something that stands on its own two feet as a piece of theatre. And from being in rehearsal, I can certainly tell you we’re making something inherently theatrical.”

The show’s cast includes a mix of Arrows veterans and new recruits: “The brilliant Christopher Tester plays Victor Frankenstein; Arrows fans may recall his recent performance as Raskolnikov in our last production Crime and Punishment, for which he was nominated for an Off West End Award for Best Male. We have the incredibly talented Cornelia Baumann returning to play Mary Shelley, after her recent turn as Olivia and Emilia in our repertory Shakespeare season of Twelfth Night and Othello last year, and we are honoured to have our resident movement director genius Will Pinchin playing the Creature, which I’m so excited about as I’ve wanted to get Will on stage in one of our shows for years. 

“We have Philip Ridout, of this year’s festival circuit hit Dogged fame, playing William Godwin, and recent Oxford School of Drama graduate Victoria Llewellyn playing Elizabeth Lavenza. I recently had the honour of directing for Fourth Monkey Theatre Company as part of their One Year Actor Training program so we’ve got three of their very talented graduates involved: Zoe Dales playing Agatha, Beatrice Vincent playing Fanny Imlay and Oliver Brassell playing Henry Clerval. It is an honour to have all these guys involved and the benefit of knowing who the cast were when the script was still under construction was that I could write it with them in mind and tailor it to them.”

With Halloween just around the corner, theatregoers in search of something a bit scary are likely to have plenty of options – so why should we book to see Frankenstein? Over to the writer: “It’s a gothic steampunk horror set in two different timelines, playing just before Halloween, in one of London’s most iconic and welcoming fringe venues, by a company that cares greatly for the source material and has spent the last three years working to hone their skills and push fringe theatre to the limit of what it can do in terms of ensemble, spectacle and excitement. Frankenstein is quite scary, quite funny, quite sad, and very very exciting. I’d definitely go, and I’m rubbish with scary things.”

Frankenstein opens at the Brockley Jack on 26th September, continuing until 21st October, followed by a brief run at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford from 2nd-4th November.

Interview: Frankie Meredith, Turkey

Frankie Meredith makes her writing debut this month with Turkey, which opens at The Hope Theatre on 26th September. Directed by Lonesome Schoolboy Productions’ Niall Phillips, it’s a story about one woman’s overwhelming desire to have a baby with her girlfriend – and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to get what she wants.

Turkey explores whether this innate need stems from her own biological clock, a grief she experienced as a teen or the expectation to be seen as ‘normal’,” explains Frankie. “It looks at her ability to risk and ruin everything in her life to get the child she so strongly yearns for.”

Though the characters are fictional, Frankie’s inspiration for Turkey was a true story: “It was written when I was on the Soho Theatre Young Writers Lab and started out as a six page exercise in scene structure. They told us to write a story based on an old family tale or something that happened within our family. It then became the play that I developed while I was on the course.

“I told the person the story is based on very recently, and they’re thrilled – luckily.”

Frankie feels this is a particularly important story to tell because it confronts issues people otherwise may not think about: “Gay couples having babies is talked about, but what about the morals or dilemmas they face on where they get the sperm from? If you don’t have the money to go to a posh west London clinic who on earth are you going to ask to give you their sperm? Grief is also a big part of this play. It is an issue all the characters are facing and has a huge impact on many of their decisions and actions.”

The play’s central character, Madeline, is far from perfect, and Frankie’s hoping audiences will be able to see past that and understand why she behaves the way she does. “I’ve placed a really strong, manipulative, flawed female at the helm of this play and I want people to empathise with her,” she says. “So often we are quick to label women ‘mental’ or ‘crazy’ when they are just doing what needs to be done to get what they want. Madeline doesn’t commit any crimes, she isn’t evil, she’s just human. I would like audiences to not judge her for what she does.

“The play’s also funny – I hope – and relatable. There’s a lot of food and Netflix references to keep it all relevant. And though we don’t all identify with turkey basting, love, grief and desire are all emotions we experience and connect with – so there will be some part of this play that is relatable and relevant to you.”

Having been very involved in the casting process, Frankie is looking forward to seeing the three actors – Pevyand Sadeghian, Cameron Robertson and Harriet Green – bring her words to life on stage. “The cast are phenomenal! I’m so excited to see what they do with the text. Pevyand (Madeline) we found through an open casting; she was actually the first one through the door and we fell in love with her. Cameron Robertson has worked with Niall before, and Niall kept telling me what a wonderful Michael he would make – he was not wrong. He came in to read and was just perfect.

“Finally Harriet Green and I trained at drama school together, she has read numerous drafts of Turkey and was someone I’d go to for help when developing. We asked her to do a self tape and she met Niall for a coffee and a read through. I can’t wait to see what she does with Toni, she has a real magnetism and truth to her performances.”

Frankie herself became involved with Lonesome Schoolboy earlier this year. “I sent this script to Niall and he asked to meet me for a coffee,” she explains. “We met a couple of days later and almost immediately got the ball rolling on staging Turkey. He has a great relationship with Matthew Parker at The Hope and soon we were chatting to him about when Turkey could be on.

“We did a few R&Ds together to develop the script as well as use it as a way to meet new actors. Niall’s energy in a rehearsal or workshop space is pretty special. I’m sure this is the start of a long and happy working relationship.”

Besides Turkey, Frankie has several other projects on the go: “I’ve just finished the first drafts of a couple of scripts. The next step is to get some actors in a room to play around with them and develop the texts further. I’m also currently editing a web series I wrote and directed with my production company MapleRoad Productions. It’s called Becoming Danish and should hit screens early 2018!

“And my first children’s show Saving Peter, about Wendy going back to Neverland to rescue Peter, is on at Theatre N16 in Balham in the last week of October, so we’re gearing up to get started on that.”

Book now for Turkey at The Hope Theatre from 26th September-14th October.

Interview: Elliot Clay, The State of Things

The State of Things is a new British musical, written by The AC Group’s artistic directors Elliot Clay and Thomas Attwood. Inspired by their own schooldays nostalgia and the current political situation, it’s the story of a high school band who find out the school is being forced to cut its music course. The show follows the young people’s fight to save their course, as they learn to live and love in austerity Britain.

“Myself and Thomas – the show’s book writer and director – grew up together, so The State of Things is semi-autobiographical, based on our own experiences and encounters with austerity both at school and at home,” explains Elliot. “Arts funding, both in schools and in general, seems to be falling every day the current government is in power. I’ve had people contacting me on Twitter, some of them music teachers, expressing their dismay at the effects of austerity on funding in schools, particularly in creative subjects.

“It’s also a musical about young people in the north, written by young people from the north – it’s these stories that need to be voiced. I hope that the story we tell will, at the very least, open up a discussion with members of our audience, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum. Theatre alone can’t change the world, but it can affect the way people think, talk and vote.”

As composer and lyricist, Elliot’s been enjoying the chance to work with different musical styles: “In terms of musical inspiration, it was a chance to write in styles that you usually wouldn’t find work in a musical. Because all the songs in the show are the songs that the ‘band’ have written, it allowed me to draw on inspiration from The Rolling Stones, Adele, The Beatles, Coldplay, and of course put in some crazy guitar solos!”

Following The AC Group’s acclaimed productions of Macbeth and Side By Side By Sondheim, the company are looking forward – with a little trepidation – to returning to the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, this time with an original piece: “In the words of Stephen Sondheim – ‘excited and scared’!” admits Elliot. “It’s a real privilege to shape every artistic detail of the production, but we couldn’t do it without the brilliance of our creative team and cast.

“I’m incredibly lucky to be working with a supremely talented cast of young actors, all of whom play multiple instruments live on stage every night. It’s such a joy telling this story and sharing the stage with them.”

Surprisingly, the show has only been in development for three months. “Kate Bannister, the artistic director of the Jack Studio let us know in May that there was potentially a free slot for a production in September, and we instantly knew we wanted to write and stage The State of Things,” says Elliot. “Since then the ensuing three months have been a wonderful, crazy and thrilling blur.”

The AC Group was founded by Elliot and Thomas in 2014, when they staged a sell-out musical theatre concert in Covent Garden, with a cast and orchestra of over 50. “Since then we’ve been lucky enough to stage revivals such as the 40th anniversary production of Side By Side By Sondheim at the Jack Studio and Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Macbeth, which was nominated for 2 off-West End awards – alongside developing our new writing. It’s been an exciting journey so far and we’d love to see you at the premiere of The State of Things.”

Book now for The State of Things at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 7th-23rd September.

Interview: Douglas Baker, Dante’s Divine Comedy

So It Goes Theatre return to Barons Court next month with their 21st century interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Adapted from the 700-year-old narrative poem, it’s the story of Dante’s quest to rediscover the reasons for living by reuniting with his lost childhood love Beatrice; to do this he’s taken on a tour of hell, purgatory and heaven by mysterious stranger Virgil. “Naturally there’s loads to explore: faith, morality, friendship, redemption. You name it, there’s a whole world inside this show,” says director Douglas Baker.

Funnily enough, Douglas didn’t originally set out to adapt Dante’s classic poem. “I’m embarrassed to say it was basically a complete accident,” he admits. “I had in my head an entirely different piece of source material – which I won’t go into now because it may surface in the near future. However, when I arrived at the Barons Court, I knew instantly it wouldn’t work there, so I had a mad weekend reading lots of different texts to try and find something else to do.

“I wanted something that was seriously old, out of copyright, brimming with theatrical potential. There was one particularly desperate moment where I was considering stringing all Shakespeare’s sonnets together into a narrative; thank God I found the Divine Comedy. As I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It drew me in with every passage. The pace of the thing – despite its hefty length – is incredible.”

Despite its appeal, turning Dante’s original poem into a 90-minute play for a 21st century audience came with some pretty big challenges. “I don’t want to give too much away but I think there were three big problems,” says Douglas. “Firstly, trying to create a dramatic arc in a poem that is essentially a series of meetings where the main character simply accepts what he sees as truth; structurally this is so boring and doesn’t make so much sense as a coherent story. So we’ve flipped, rearranged and cut down lots in order to – fingers crossed – make an emotionally believable journey.

“Secondly, we wanted a culture in the rehearsal room where we worked openly with only dialogue on the page. So it was a challenge to try not premeditating what I thought it would look like on stage. Even though scenes were brimming with potential, I didn’t want to lock us into something that we couldn’t achieve. So finding that balance between honouring both the text and the devising process was tricky, but hopefully we’ve made it work.

“The other main problem was trying to present medieval morality sympathetically. I quickly saw that it was impossible, so as a result we’ve had to take some liberties. Our Dante is younger and more rebellious. I thought that youthful mindset could work because we the audience are basically seeing this stuffy old fashioned world through Dante’s eyes, so we can hopefully justify the difference between the Dante in the poem and the Dante we present on stage. The story is the same, but Dante’s feelings towards it have been modernised.”

Douglas is looking forward to introducing new audiences to Dante’s work, and says prior knowledge of the Divine Comedy isn’t a must: “I would say not. Part of the attraction to the poem was the feeling that many people knew of it, but not in any real detail. There’s something incredibly exciting about introducing people to a dusty old book for the first time; perhaps our interpretation will encourage people to read it for themselves and come to their own understanding about morality or the afterlife. I hope people will see our piece as a series of questions rather than assertions. The hope is we can ignite curiosities that will push people to reach their own conclusions.”

The show returns to Barons Court for a second time following a well-received run in April. “Being back is strangely unnerving,” says Douglas. “We always forget how small the stage is, so it requires seriously precise coordination to keep things visually interesting. Luckily our movement director Matthew is a genius at utilising space in interesting ways, so your eye is always drawn correctly. Other than that it’s just been a case of balancing creating with re-creating, we don’t want to just redo the original production but rather build on it and improve.”

This latest run, which opens on 5th September, sees almost all of the seven-strong cast reprise their roles. “They are the most generous people you could ever hope to meet,” says Douglas. “The bond between performer and director can be so fragile if egos are at play. If a cast don’t trust the director they will seize up and work only for themselves. But these cast members work for each other, they are beautifully spirited people.

“As a director I often get my actors to do very weird weird things to create the spectacle for the audience, so if it’s to translate into a coherent performance where they can commit completely it’s utterly reliant upon their trust in me. I think we have that trust, so the rehearsal room is a joyful space where we can really play and find the truth in what we’re doing.”

Douglas co-founded So It Goes Theatre with producer Charles Golding. “Charlie and I created the company way back in 2011, its been on hiatus for a while because Charlie now has a family but we always knew it would be back some day,” he explains. “We wanted to do a combination of reimagining classic stories and telling brand new ones. We want to showcase new performance talents in a largely ensemble context. We were also aware that the majority of actors auditioning for us were female, so we decided very quickly to produce work that in general favoured largely female casts. Maybe it was pragmatic rather than righteous, but it’s worked for us so far.”

Book now for Dante’s Divine Comedy at Barons Court Theatre from 5th-30th September.