Interview: Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe and Edward De Gaetano, Vessel

In the wake of the recent vote in Ireland to repeal the 8th Amendment, Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe’s play Vessel explores female empowerment at a very particular moment in history, and asks what happens once that freedom to choose has been won. Following successful preview performances at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London, the two-hander moves to Edinburgh’s Underbelly from 2nd August.

Vessel by Laura Wyatt O'Keeffe
Photo credit: Emma Micallef

Vessel is a show about women’s bodies, choice and love. Maia, a receptionist, and David, a journalist, embark on this journey that sees them navigating through a lot of their own personal difficulties to serve a greater purpose,” explains Edward De Gaetano, who plays David. “It’s set in pre-referendum Ireland when abortion is still illegal, and tells the story of Maia, a woman whose tweet about her unwanted pregnancy goes viral and she becomes the focus of public attention during the Repeal the 8th campaign. We see these characters awkwardly trying to get to know each other in the process, which at times can be quite endearing and/or funny!

It’s a topical story that focuses on the individuals having to make important choices; the aftermath of the referendum that begins to explore a new meaning of choice for women. It celebrates women in many ways as it’s a female writer/performer creating theatre about women for women.”

Laura – a Brighton Fringe Award nominated performer, writer, facilitator, researcher, collaborator and activist – was inspired to write the play by recent events and by the evolving perception of women, not only in Ireland but across the world. “Prior to the recent referendum and until legislation is passed, each day nine Irish women will have boarded a plane to the UK, spent up to €1000 and been considered a criminal in the pursuit of a safe abortion,” she says. “I grew up in an Ireland where we did not talk about abortion, we did not talk about choice. Abortion was something that was talked about in hushed tones behind closed doors and it was always something that the person would regret.

“But something started to change around 2010 – people started talking, marching, campaigning. With the recent referendum there is no better time to tell these stories. Whether it’s the #metoo campaign or #Repealthe8th, we are finally having open and honest conversations about how society views women and the consequences. I wanted to tell this story for all these women and to continue to create platforms for having more of these conversations.

“So much of the theatre I see about women acknowledges and details female struggle and that’s it. Vessel is about exploring what happens after that struggle, what happens to the female character when she has freedom, when she has choice, when she is empowered? As a theatre maker I’m excited by the possibility of female focused narratives, not the retelling of female suffering. For women to keep moving forward socially and artistically we’ve got to start telling and listening to stories of female empowerment.”

Both Laura and Edward are now looking forward to taking the show to Edinburgh and sharing it with new audiences: “Being one of the biggest theatre festivals in the world, we’re excited to perform to such a diverse and international audience,” says Edward. “It’s a place where some of the best artists come to perform, challenge ideas and take a chance at new ideas. The energy and the work is immense and to be a part of that with such a topical play it’s extremely exciting. The Underbelly have been incredible to work with and we simply cannot wait to perform in such a great space being part of such a varied and brilliant programme! 

“As with all festivals you really never know who you are going to meet or bump into; actors and performers have had their careers changed to the better after Edinburgh, so it’s really a place where opportunity meets chance.”

It’s also an opportunity to check out and be inspired by other work – and they already have plenty lined up: “Oh yes, there are loads! To start off with the specific shows we cannot wait to see are Fishamble’s Maz and Bricks by Eva O’Connor; Bottom by Will Hudson; Hightide’s Busking It by Danusia Samal; Frieda Loves Ya at Underbelly; everything at Paines Plough Roundabout; anything by Big in Belgium and Canada Hub; Woman of the Year by Anna Nicholson and In Their Footsteps by Ashley Adelman and Kelly Teaford. We both love comedy, well who doesn’t, so we will definitely be checking out some stand-up comedy gigs and whatever else comes our way – we can’t wait to be inspired by what we see!”

Vessel is at Underbelly Bristo Square from 2nd-27th August at 1.05pm.

Interview: Miriam Gould, Empty Room

Miriam Gould is a theatre-maker, performer, musician and writer. In August her first solo show, Empty Room, comes to the Camden Fringe, drawing on Miriam’s own experience and family history, and exploring the many ways in which music can help us survive.

Empty Room is about a family unit – a mother, father and daughter, who each, in their way, are struggling with life and using music to cope,” she explains. “In a wider sense, it’s about parenthood,  childhood, and music. The parents are jazz musicians and the daughter is obsessed with the Soviet neo-classical composer Shostakovich. All three are using music in different ways in order to survive. In their own ways, they’re all trying to find coping mechanisms for the absurdity of existence.”

Empty Room is a very personal project for Miriam, and was inspired by her parents, who were both jazz musicians: “The music in the show, some live, some recorded, is either written or played by my parents or Shostakovich – with whom I am genuinely obsessed,” she says. “My mother wrote some incredible songs which describe what was going on, with a poetry that gets to the heart of things in a way simple text could never do. I have always been struck by the power of music to communicate a depth of experience and emotion that we otherwise struggle to convey.

“From the age of 6, it was just me and my Mum, and the fact that she managed to be a parent as well as a jazz singer still baffles me. But mostly it inspired me to make my own way. My father died – spoiler alert! – and the amount of love and respect for him in the jazz community makes me proud even though I had nothing to do with it. So I guess, to give a really boring answer, my parents have inspired me. Perhaps, more specifically, it’s my mother’s compassion and forgiveness that infuse the show.

“Oh, and Shostakovich. He was amazing. He lived in a place and time where writing a symphony was a life or death scenario. And still he made the music he needed to make. Even though he was censored in every other possible way, and at times showed real cowardice in order to survive, he spoke the truth in his music. So, yeah. Did I mention I love him?”

Empty Room by Miriam Gould at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

Miriam started work on Empty Room all the way back in December 2014, and the following August performed a few works-in-progress in London and Canterbury. “It was just me, working in a room on my own. I’d never made my own work before. Then I got busy with other projects until November last year. I’d been wise enough to film the performances in 2015 and was able to show this to Alex Scott, the Artistic Director of Little Bulb Theatre, whom I very much wanted to be my dramaturg. I needed to not be on my own in a room for all the rest of the process.

“I’m currently in my last few days of tweaking the show based on feedback and how it felt to perform it in June when I had a couple of showings at Battersea Arts Centre. I really believe that sharing your work when it’s not finished, but you’re ready to share it, is so incredibly valuable. Especially with the right audience. BAC’s audiences are primed for scratch performances, so it’s such a great place to work and not be afraid of failing.

“When I first started working on the show, it was a revelation to me to perform as my mother and my father. I learnt so much about them by trying to get into their skin. It changed my life in a big way at the time. Now, I’m able to be more detached from the very close material. It’s obviously still important to be aware of how I’m doing emotionally throughout the performances, but the processing of the material happened in the rehearsal room.

“I love telling this story, more and more because of what it’s really about, and not because it’s autobiographical. I love sharing the idealism in it, the love and compassion, the passion and humour. I want to start a conversation with the audience. I always make a point to talk to as many people as possible after the shows, not to hear more about the performance, but much more to hear what it sparked in people’s minds or bodies.”

Although Empty Room is a very personal story, Miriam believes it will resonate with a lot of people: “I hope it allows people to rethink their relationship with their parents or children, especially if that relationship is strained. The younger version of myself in the show is very passionate and pretty awkward, so I think this will be familiar to how a lot of people feel even if they don’t show that side of themselves on a daily basis. I suppose I want it to be cathartic for the audience, that a space is created where they can have all the feelings and maybe connect with a younger, more naive part of themselves.

“On a less emotional level, I also hope that people will love the music, not just the jazz but also the Shostakovich. After the sharing in June someone said how rare it is for them to see someone play classical music. I have a massive bee in my bonnet about the (perceived?) elitism in classical music and I hope that by sharing some of the music I’m passionate about, some members of the audience might be tempted to seek it out for themselves.”

Empty Room at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

A unique feature of the show is The Survival Playlist. “Basically, each audience member is given a slip on which to write a song that has helped them get through a difficult time at some point in their life,” says Miriam. “If they want to share more about this, they are welcome to do so. There is also a Twitter handle – #SurvivalPlaylist – through which I have gathered some gorgeous submissions already. To begin with, it will be published and continually added to on my website with links to the songs. Eventually I would like to make this playlist available on other platforms as well, through Spotify and hopefully a podcast.

“I think the most interesting thing about the Survival Playlist is not the actual playlist itself, but the conversations and memories that it sparks, as well as the simple fact that music means so much to us, especially when we’re hitting rock bottom, and the playlist is a celebration of music as a survival tool.”

As well as making work on her own, Miriam is also an Associate Artist with Little Bulb Theatre and the co-founder of female theatre duo Double Trouble Theatre, whose work focuses on real-life events through soundscapes, poetic imagery and story-telling.

“In a lot of ways, the idealism of Empty Room echoes my own belief in the arts,” she says. “I am convinced that we have evolved to make art for a reason, it’s not just some frivolous thing to keep us busy in between the important stuff like shopping. At the same time, I wish we as a culture would view artists more like craftspeople, less like it’s some martyr’s calling, and more like an occupation. Which it is.

“I want the work I make to draw people in, so it must be entertaining, but I don’t just want to tell people what they know already, or even worse, not tell them anything at all. Finding the balance between communicating something deeper and meaningful and making work that doesn’t empty theatres, I guess that’s something most artists are trying to achieve.

“I see art as socially cohesive, which surely must be even more important now that we’re all constantly being divided and pitted against one another. I don’t want my audience to agree with me. I want them to engage in the work and respond, in whatever way is best for them.”

Catch Empty Room at the Cockpit Theatre from 7th-9th August.

Interview: The Lampoons, House on Haunted Hill

If you think that four “professional idiots” (their words, not mine), a haunted house, lots of ping pong balls and a jar of pickles sounds like a recipe for chaos… well, you’d be right, actually.

Meet The Lampoons – also known as Tina Baston, Adam Elliott, Josh Harvey and Oliver Malam – who’ve spent the last two years sharing their own unique brand of B-movie mayhem with London audiences. Now they’re preparing to unleash the madness on Edinburgh for the very first time with House on Haunted Hill, a hilarious and utterly bonkers remake of the 1959 horror starring Vincent Price.

“We’ve only gone and brought you a debut!” says Josh. “We have lots of friends in London from our Halloween shows each year, but this will be a newborn baby idiot for us to all deliver. It could well be the most ridiculously bizarre late-night show on the fringe – a thumpingly hilarious non-stop comedy-horror the likes of which have never been seen.

Everything you see in that very sweaty hour is completely devised from Rob White and William Castle’s original black and white 1959 screenplay. Then imagine we threw that classic screenplay into a large blender with some Mighty Boosh, Monty Python, Garth Marenghi and a heavy seasoning of surreal clowning!

House on Haunted Hill is The Lampoons’ second full-length show, following the success in 2016 of their debut – another B-movie remake, Attack of the Giant Leeches, at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre. Adam explains, “We’d been friends for a long time, and big admirers of each other’s work, but had been looking for the right project to come along. At the outset of The Lampoons we really didn’t know what we were going to end up with, but we knew we wanted to explore something beyond the more commonplace comedy styles. Turns out we like the irreverent and the ridiculous!

“As for the horror spoofs: well for one, you have to love the titles! Attack of the Giant Leeches, House on Haunted Hill, who doesn’t want to see those! But also, the simple plots of that genre really allow us to pull the stories and characters every which ridiculous way whilst still maintaining some semblance of story structure. Really, we make the most faithful unfaithful adaptations you’ll ever see.”

Faithful they may be, but The Lampoons’ shows could never be accused of being predictable – a lot can, and does, happen in those 60 minutes, from dodgy fake moustaches to the weirdest ballet recital you’ll ever see. “It’s always most fun to be at the start,” says Ollie. “Coming up with the ridiculous ideas list then going through the process of learning how to implement them. One day maybe we will see Josh as a grandfather clock.”

Now they’re looking forward to bringing the show to Edinburgh, where it’ll run from 1st to 26th August at the Pleasance Dome. “I think I’m most excited about being at the centre of a wonderful casserole of creativity,” says Tina. “I think seeing other shows and meeting other creatives every day will give us so much inspiration and motivation to make people chuckle every night. Also, I’ve heard Edinburgh has great beer…”

They’re also hoping to check out a few other shows while they’re in town: “3 Years, 1 Week and a Lemon Drizzle, Will Seaward’s Ghost Stories and Stevenson Experience – they’re twins AND comedians!”

And with plenty of classics still out there waiting to be reimagined, what does the future hold for The Lampoons? “After this debut fringe festival we will likely want to reach more regional areas with our clowns,” says Josh. “And also to continue re-imagining a wonderfully awful B-movie every Halloween in London.”

Catch the final London preview of House on Haunted Hill at Tara Theatre on 26th July. The show then runs in Edinburgh from 1st-26th August (11pm) at the Pleasance Dome.

Interview: Milly Thomas, Dust

Milly Thomas is a London-based actor and writer, whose solo show Dust is about to transfer to the West End, following critically acclaimed runs at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and London’s Soho Theatre. The solo show, directed by Sara Joyce, tackles the difficult topic of mental health from a unique viewpoint – that of a young woman who’s just committed suicide.

“This is Alice’s story,” explains Milly. “Alice has depression and decides to take her own life. However, what she isn’t counting on is remaining there, stuck. And in this stuck place she can see the effects of her decision on her family and friends and, ultimately, on her.

“It’s something I feel very passionately about, having had depression and anxiety myself for a while. I think it’s so easy to lose sight of what it means to be high functioning and the real impact of depression on our lives. I hope that it will get people not just to open up about their issues with mental health but also to do more and realise that suicide isn’t the answer. Mental health is spectrum. Suicide is binary: once you’ve died, you are no longer in that conversation and there is no room for hope. This play takes that concept and turns it on its head.”

Dust by Milly Thomas
Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Dust has been greeted with widespread acclaim since its debut at last year’s Fringe, for which Milly won an Edinburgh Stage Award. “It’s been incredible,” she says. “I think the biggest surprise is it actually happening at all! And the fact that people have responded to it quite the way they have. I’m very overwhelmed by it and thrilled that it’s helping dent the stigma a bit. With the West End transfer, I think I’m most looking forward to the new audiences. Each time the show has been on the audience has evolved, and I’m so excited to meet the people I’ll be playing with.”

The 75-minute solo show sees Milly playing not only the central character of Alice, but all the people in her life as well. It’s a challenging task, but one she relishes: “Ooh, I love it. I love doing it. I miss it when I’m not doing it! It’s like being on the treadmill in a good way. What I love is that you can’t end game it. When it starts, Alice is in a place of complete denial and almost amusement. Almost giggly. You can’t think about where it’s going or what’s going to happen. It’s only halfway through that you suddenly realise how hard it is and by the end you’re totally out of breath.”

Milly began her career as an actor, and started writing when she graduated from drama school in 2014. Her first full-length play, A First World Problem, opened at Theatre503 in July of that year, followed in 2015 by Piggies and in 2016 by Clickbait, which played to sold-out audiences and an extended run. Last year, she took two shows to Edinburgh – Brutal Cessation and Dust. Her top tip to other aspiring writers is to write as much as possible: “As much and as often as you can. Throw nothing away. Absolutely nothing. Might be gold in five years. Be patient. This is a long game and your age and experience are only going to make your work richer.

“Talk to people. Talk to strangers. Writing is a relationship. Try to make it a loving and fair one where you are kind to each other. Talk to other writers. Talk to directors. Actors, producers, designers, stage managers – talk to people. Find out how it works outside your sphere. Keep interested and open and never be precious. There are different hills to die on and choose them carefully. You’ve only got limited hills! You can’t die on all of them!”

Book now for Dust at Trafalgar Studios 2 from 4th September to 13th October.

Interview: Charlotte Fox, Ouroboros

Ever felt like you’re not quite good enough? You’re not alone. In her debut solo show Ouroboros (named after an ancient symbol that depicts a snake eating its own tail, in an eternal cycle of renewal), writer and performer Charlotte Fox tackles society’s obsession with ego, superficiality, social media, narcissism and body image, and explores their effects on Charlotte, an actress in the entertainment industry.

“I was inspired to write Ouroboros by frustration with the lack of acting work,” explains Charlotte. “I was writing in response to what was happening around me, in my life and career experience. I struggled to reconcile with other people’s conflicting viewpoints. It felt like a constant battle, struggling against myself and having to obey an industry and society’s vision of ‘beauty’ and ‘perfection’ in order to fit in and seek acceptance.”

Charlotte Fox, Ouroboros

Following a run earlier this year at the Rosemary Branch, Charlotte is preparing to take the show to Edinburgh next month, where she hopes audiences will embrace its message and get involved. “It’s an explosive display on stage,” she says. “Ouroboros is like fireworks – a show that doesn’t come down, with highly physical and absurdist comedy elements, that discusses relevant and timely issues without being didactic. It has the ability to mix observational scenarios and parody them in a way that makes you laugh and cry before sending you away. It also combines music, dance, clowning, physical theatre, bouffon and a bit of mime!! One genre!? Naahh – chose ’em all!

“I’m looking forward to performing to a different audience everyday in Edinburgh. They all bring something different. You can sense it as soon as you step out. What one person might find disturbing can have another howling with laughter. It’s brilliant! I like sensing that, there’s interaction in this show and it’s fun as an actor discovering how you can play to the audience. Or how they are playing for you. I hope they’ll feel excited and moved by the whole experience, and have a willingness to re-examine their own lifestyle experiences, recall moments of similarity and most importantly laugh and perhaps squirm on the edge of their seats!”

The show, which is written, performed and directed by Charlotte, has been in development for the past year. “It’s been an incredible journey,” she says. “I wasn’t really too sure what to expect at the start – it was difficult, but I knew I was tapping into something important, I had an urge to keep exploring. I always knew the style of work I liked and had a vision of what I wanted to create. So collaborations with other like-minded theatre makers were made and Ouroboros started to flourish. I had a revelation when I realised not everyone will share your artistic vision. You have to be so strong and protect yourself against people who can try and contaminate your work… It was a big lesson for me.”

Performing the 60-minute solo show, in which Charlotte portrays “a conveyer belt of hyper-functional characters”, brings with it a number of physical and emotional challenges. “It’s a huge physical demand as a performer,” she says. “It’s also very close to the bone, which brings both a challenge and reward. I know that this show has left an impact on people in a similar situation. It’s sparked discussion. It’s also allowed me to find self-acceptance as an actor, allowing my own creativity and artistry to flourish regardless of what anyone says. You can decide to say yes to yourself.”

Catch the final London preview of Ouroboros at Camden People’s Theatre on 25th July, or at Edinburgh’s Cowgate, 2nd-14th August at 1.10pm.