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.”

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!’”

Interview: Nathan Ellis, No One Is Coming to Save You

Kicking off on 11th June, Breaking Out is a festival of world premiere shows by emerging theatre companies, chosen from over 45 different projects by the artistic team at The Bunker Theatre. One of those shows is No One Is Coming to Save You from This Noise, a new theatre company that try to find contemporary languages for political action. An experimental duologue about one night in the lives of two people in their early twenties, No One Is Coming to Save You explores youth loneliness, power and powerlessness, and the hope for something better.

“Pretty much every day a new article will come out online about how young people are really unhappy and disappointed with the world and their lives, and that didn’t seem to be being reflected in the work we were seeing onstage, which either ignores young people altogether or is extremely interested in their sex lives,” explains writer Nathan Ellis. “We wanted to be more reflective and talk about how it really feels to be young, and how that feeling that something better is coming is maybe masking a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t.

“We really want to accurately reflect what it feels like to be young right now in both the content and the form of the play. The form of the show has been ambitiously experimental from the beginning. The two performers tell the story of two people, but as the story progresses, the lines between themselves and their stories start to blur. It’s exploring the feeling of being not-quite-in-the-world that seems particularly salient to contemporary experience. If you like Caryl Churchill or Chris Thorpe – plays that demand you think and feel – then you’ll like this.”

Nathan started writing No One Is Coming to Save You in 2016 at a residency in Oxford. “It’s almost unrecognisable from that point, but it’s essentially got the same DNA as that play,” he says. “Since then the company have had a year’s worth of workshops and scratch performances and sharings to bring it to where it is now, and have been really generously supported by Arts Council England. A lot of the play has been collaborative, with lots of discussion with people within and outside the company about its themes – everyone in the company is under 25 – and experiences from their own lives.”

No One Is Coming to Save You is the first production from This Noise, who focus on making theatre by, with, and for young people: “We are made up of a group of interdisciplinary makers across writing, design, and performance and have been Arts Council East funded since 2018,” says Nathan. “We basically think theatre is a great space to talk about how complicated it is to be alive right now, without resorting to simple answers or platitudes. If you’re looking for a formally experimental show that explores how it really feels to be young today – about youth loneliness, mental health, and the terrors of a world not working, then give No One Is Coming to Save You a go.

“Although it deals with serious issues in a complex, challenging way, the play is actually very hopeful. Without spoiling the ending, it’s got a real belief behind it that communal experiences – like sharing space and sharing a story – can really make us feel more connected to each other. Hopefully it will challenge people with a new form and maybe make them smile a bit too. There are some funny bits – promise!”

With a little over two weeks until their first performance as part of Breaking Out, Nathan and the team are looking forward to bringing their work to The Bunker. “This Noise are unbelievably excited about Breaking Out. It’s so exciting to be part of such a vibrant season of other work by emerging companies. Particularly as a company exploring how it feels to be young, it will be so great to see where their work has taken them and to see the pieces in conversation with each other. We’ve been in love with the Bunker since it opened and always wanted to perform the show there. It already has such a history of supporting complicated, experimental work that would otherwise not get a platform in London. It’s such a versatile space and one that has a real atmosphere and engaged audience, who we think will really appreciate the challenge of a show like No One Is Coming to Save You.”

Interview: Peter Imms, Section 2

“People need to see something about this topic, and to talk about it – as long as you chat about it in the bar afterwards, that’s great.”

Section 2 is a new play by London-based playwright Peter Imms, which addresses the sensitive subject of mental health. It’s been developed in collaboration with Paper Creatures, an emerging theatre company founded last year by Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen, and will open in June as part of the Bunker Theatre’s Breaking Out season.

The play follows the story of Cam, who was sectioned 28 days ago, as he faces the review that will decide if he’s well enough to go home. “The play looks at the coping mechanisms that everybody has to find within themselves – not just Cam but everybody around him,” explains Peter. “It’s a really intimate and intense piece that clings on to the desperation that people feel when they’re thrown into a situation as drastic as this.

“It’s a subject that I didn’t really know about until half a year ago, and I think generally it’s something that people don’t know much about – there’s not many source materials for what sectioning is and the effects it has on people. I did a bit of research and found that it does happen to a lot of people, but there’s not really a conversation about it. So this play is a nice way to have that conversation, but also it’s just a good, gritty intense drama about four characters, all trapped in the same situation and trying to achieve the same thing from different angles.”

Peter was inspired to write the play by an unexpected personal experience: “Someone I knew was sectioned, and it shocked me because it’s one of those things that you think is never going to happen to you. So it came from visiting them and reading about other people’s stories – I guess I’m interested by things I don’t understand, so I did a lot of work into what it actually is and the technicalities of it. We also got in touch with Mind, the mental health charity, who have been amazing with information and feedback. They put us in touch with a lot of other people who’ve been sectioned, and then from that point the stories just began to form. So Section 2 has come from a place of interest, intrigue, lack of understanding and passion.”

The play began life as an idea and ten pages submitted in response to a call-out by Paper Creatures, who were looking for a new project following the success of their critically acclaimed debut production, Flood. “Paper Creatures are so good as a company because they’re not like anybody else – they’re all about collaboration and creativity,” says Peter. “When I went to them with the idea for Section 2, they liked what it had to offer in terms of potential, and from there we developed it together. We got the director Georgie Staight on board really early, and it’s been a constant soundboard with everybody involved. We’ve had R&Ds – we went away to Wittering together, which was romantic and lovely – just to explore it and play with it. It’s my favourite way of working; it’s been so nice to be in the room with people at the top of their creative game, to develop the play and test things out.”

That development process has seen the play go through some significant changes from its initial draft. “Between the first and second draft, the play basically completely changed,” Peter explains. “The first draft had this huge twist, but when we had a reading of it we all agreed that although it was great and very tense, it didn’t give us anything other than ‘it’s a twist’. So I went away and essentially re-wrote the whole play, still in keeping with exactly the same themes but I changed the structure of it a lot. It’s been hugely fun and explorative; they’re all so giving and so, so good, and for me it was a treat just to see them rip it all apart and put it back together again.”

As for Paper Creatures, Peter has no doubt they’re the perfect company to tell Cam’s story. “They’re advocates for new writing – I’ve never met anyone else who genuinely cares so much about new writers,” he says. “They go and see new work, they’re growing new artists all the time – and not just writing, they’re constantly looking to connect with new set designers, new lighting designers, whatever. They’re just so passionate about ‘new’, and they want to be pioneers of new work – so for me that’s fantastic because that’s what I am.

“But also the sensitivity that they bring to a subject like sectioning and mental health in general is absolutely priceless; they have a perfect balance of creative desire and the will to push everyone in the company to be the best, but also to honour the story that we’re trying to tell, and I think they marry the two really well.”

Section 2 will be performed as part of the Bunker’s Breaking Out season, which sees six companies perform in rep over four weeks. “The Breaking Out season is a great way for emerging companies to get on stage,” says Peter. “I hope it’s going to have a familial feel, especially for us as we’re always sharing the same night with the same company (This Noise), so I’d like to think we’re going to get to know them and it’ll be quite a community.

“Before I even knew it was a possibility I felt the Bunker would be perfect for Section 2; it’s got this gritty, intimate, almost – in a good way – dirty feel. The audience are encroaching on the show, and it’s like a fly on the wall situation. When I found out that we’d got it, I was delighted and now I can’t see it anywhere else. And the Bunker have been great in terms of help with marketing and outreach. For example we’re having some post-show talks involving the creative team, Mind, and people who’ve been affected by sectioning, so the theatre have offered us the time for that and helped us set it up.”

Originally from the Midlands, Peter moved to London when he was 18 to go to drama school. “I think a lot of playwrights either get into it from acting or from writing in some other form,” he says. “I was the acting route – I went to East 15 for a year, which was absolutely invaluable in terms of knowledge of the business and how stuff works. With that move to London I really discovered theatre, it was like a blast of everything that was new, so going to drama school for that reason alone was so integral.

“From that I realised I liked the production side a little bit more, so I started to work with screen, writing and directing short films, and that led into just writing those films, and that led into theatre, because I found I was more suited to the dialogue base of theatre than the visual base of screen. So it was just a slow transition until I found what I was right for and more comfortable with. Now it’s been three years that I’ve been solely writing plays and honing my craft – everything’s slow with writing, but I feel like I’m getting there.”

His top tip to other aspiring playwrights is to see as much theatre as possible: “See stuff you love, see stuff you hate, see stuff you’re indifferent about, see stuff you hate and find stuff in it that you like. I try and go to the theatre a lot; I just think it’s really important creatively. In terms of new writing, I love the Royal Court, and the Bush is a favourite for me at the minute, I saw Misty there a couple of weeks ago and it was incredible. In terms of smaller venues, I’ve seen some great things at Theatre 503, and I’m really close to the Orange Tree and haven’t seen anything I’ve not loved there, so that’s one that stands out.

“If I’ve got a bit of a block and something I’m working on isn’t really flowing, sometimes I’ll see something at the theatre and it’ll just change something in me – even if you just see something you love, it’ll inspire your writing. I think that’s the most important thing. And in London there’s so much here, especially in fringe theatre. That’s all I spend my money on, to be honest – that and beer! – but I wouldn’t change it.”