Quines Writes: Key Change, Woke, Artificial Things and more
- Quines Writes
- 19 June 2020
The fourth instalment in Stellar Quines' writing programme for young women in partnership with YWCA, Feminist Fringe and The List
Quines Writes is a writing programme for young womxn hosted by Stellar Quines, in partnership with YWCA, Feminist Fringe and The List, with the aim of tackling the gender imbalance in theatre criticism. Over six weeks, participants (Ella Pennycott, Louisa Doyle, Eve Simpson, Rebecca McIlroy, Carolyn Paterson, Katie Dibb and Ellen Leslie) will be given the opportunity to develop new skills from professional development with journalists and critics. As part of the programme, participants will write one full length review and interview, alongside five shorter reviews, to be released every week and published via The List. Find out more about the programme at stellarquines.com.
Interview: Apphia Campbell on Woke – 'The only way you grow is to get out of your comfort zone'
Louisa Doyle speaks to Campbell about her powerful solo show and how it resonates with audiences today
Apphia Campbell has been a powerful voice in the Edinburgh Black Lives Matter protest this week, delivering a beautiful and emotional reading of George Floyd's final words. Against the backdrop of such difficult times, it's incredibly impressive that she's been busy making new work, some for her webcam (which she jokes she is 'still dating, swiping left and right!') and minding her two-year-old 24/7 (stoically enduring 'Baby Shark' on repeat).
It's this tenacity and warmth that shines through Woke, a brilliantly down to earth yet rattling account of two African American women joining the fight against systemic racism in America. Campbell plays both Assata Shakur, the Black Panther activist unjustly arrested in 1977, and the fictional character Ambrosia who joins the 2014 BLM movement after Michael Brown's murder. Loveable but problematic, Ambrosia bounds into college life in St Louis where she is challenged for her internalised racist opinions by her peers and discovers Shakur's biography.
'It's really difficult, especially having a black girl on stage saying all lives matter and it doesn't matter if those people are thugs,' says Campbell. 'But I'm not afraid to say things that are important and make people feel uncomfortable. The only way you grow is to get out of your comfort zone.' It's a strategic decision for educating ignorant audiences about systemic racism, one which also takes generous pains to avoid isolating them.
Music is the lifeblood of the piece, as a capella songs of angst and hope coarse between each scene. 'I feel like when words run out, music fills that void really well.' Over Zoom, she riffs some of Ambrosia's lament 'I just wanna be free'. It's only intended to jog my memory, but I'm taken aback by the swell of her voice and transported once more to those powerful, intimate moments in the production.
We talk about the choice to make Woke a solo show, which it turns out, was not exactly a choice after all. 'It came down to economics! Can I hire another actress to do this? You know what – let me just do it my best. In the end I was really happy to have that experience of doing the two characters together.'
Thank goodness for theatre's brutal budget restrictions. There's palpable magic in the room as Campbell transforms from stoic revolutionary to ebullient freshman, not to mention the cast of police officers, students and others she effortlessly brings to life.
'I think there is more story for Assata to be told which seems really important.' This difficulty refining material is sometimes evident, since transitions between the two points in history can feel abrupt or the links between two events tenuous. But this is understandable for a show of such ambition.
Campbell singlehandedly carries this mighty production that unravels the question of how far history repeats itself with regard to police brutality and discrimination. Now available to watch online in 2020 (six years on from its debut), I ask how Ambrosia's experience mirrors those of audiences today. I wonder if posing that question as a white interviewer might be insensitive and suggest complete ignorance of current events.
So it comes as a surprise when Campbell raises it as something she has in fact grappled with. 'I was coming to a point where I was thinking – is this work necessary? Have we moved past this moment? We're growing, or are we growing, are we moving forward, and then – nope! Still here. Still fighting.
'I would hope, I guess, that Ambrosia's journey is one a lot of people have already taken and educated themselves more, or are taking at the moment. But then you go online and you see people say all lives matter or people siding with the racist comments of the President.
'As long as people aren't going out and being involved and talking to people and empathising and understanding, Ambrosia's journey can never be in the past.' Whether it affirms or incites your drive to support the BLM movement, Woke will ignite its audiences with anger and empathy, making it necessary viewing now and for the future.
Birdies Dilemma by Apphia Cambpell is out soon on the BBC.
Interview: Open Clasp's Catrina McHugh MBE – 'Looking for the injustice, finding it and putting it on stage'
Eve Simpson talks to McHugh about the process behind making both politically urgent theatre, the systemic bias in our prison systems that Key Change uniquely highlights, and how theatre can contribute to wider conversations of change
CW: domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, violence
Newcastle-based theatre company Open Clasp is an agent of social change, aiming to transform the lives of disadvantaged women and girls through drama and theatre. Commissioned in 2014 by North-East based Dilly Arts, their production Key Change was a New York Times' Critics Pick, reaching over 35 countries when streamed in 2017. Now freely available to stream online, the relevancy of Key Change, and successor productions Rattle Snake (2016) and Sugar (2020), are testament to the contribution theatre can make in highlighting the necessity for structural change, everything Artistic Director Catrina McHugh MBE advocates for.
Following the story of five incarcerated, working-class women, Key Change began from working with women in HMP Low Newton: 'Our brief was to work with the women in prison to support them to create and perform a piece of theatre and then for that theatre to tour to men's prisons,' says McHugh, 'We don't lead with an issue, we use drama techniques to create a safe space for discussion and debate, then women work creatively up on their feet and the process is democratic. Our methodology has a shape; it values the women as experts, they know their world, the turning points and moments of resilience.'
This relationship between process and production lends itself to the authenticity of main characters Angie, Jessica Johnson, and Lucy, Cheryl Dixon, both performed with striking sincerity. Detailing the lives of the women aside from crime, we learn of their experiences of domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse and assault, giving voice to what are universal experiences for many in their piercingly powerful statement: 'I am a survivor.'
'Open Clasp doesn't 'other' women,' says McHugh, 'we know their worlds, maybe not the journey of prison, but the reality of domestic violence and abuse, class and racism. As Key Change went on a journey to Edinburgh and New York, we continued to visit the women in HMP Low Newton and told them about what we had seen, what other women in prison said about the show, how they stood up and said "this shit is global".'
The trauma in Key Change is uniquely understood as relatable, re-visiting our initial impressions of the opening scene as the piece concludes, exposing the systemic bias within the prison system. 'If you're black, working class or have been in care, you are more likely to end up in prison,' says McHugh, '…we have a duty to support women who have experienced things because of the society in which we live. I can now see after six years of working in the prison that my view can change with each project. With Key Change it was simple; offer alternatives to prison for women who have experienced domestic abuse and trauma, that they are victims first before they are offenders, and that is still my position, especially now with the pandemic.'
And as the pandemic continues to expose the fragility of our institutions which fail society's most vulnerable, Key Change is an example of resilience and hope; theatre can contribute to a conversation of change: 'Making Key Change available online meant that we could keep their voices heard, nationally and globally,' says McHugh. 'Rage is good, I said that to the police during training (Rattle Snake has been used to train 1500+ frontline police officers so far), we should all feel our jaws drop when we see the injustice of domestic violence and racism.'
Open Clasp's latest production, Sugar, continues this showcase of resilience. Written by McHugh and directed by Key Change's Laura Lindow, Sugar is a piece of intimate theatre made specifically for film, devised with the Direct Access Homelessness Service in Manchester, West End Women and Girls Centre in Newcastle and HMP Low Newton. 'With Sugar, prison was a lifeline, like rehab,' says McHugh, 'a place they could stop, pause, rewind and rebuild. But what happens when they are released back into their communities or new cities? How do they stay strong when community centres and services are on their knees or closing down completely? We are waiting to release Sugar, to find the right moment, as you can see the need for those voices to be heard, and we will, because it's important and urgent.'
Watch Key Change online now.
Artificial Things is a short contemporary dance film that reimagines the renowned performance of the same name by Stopgap Dance Company. Stopgap is a collective that integrates disabled and non-disabled dancers to create collaboratively produced work.
Set in a desolate shopping mall, pastel hued but falling down, a series of paired dance routines lead up to a riotous group finale. Chris Pavia, dressed in a peach tie and a grey managerial suit is joined by David Toole (OBE). Together they portray a tightly-choreographed dynamic with impressive physicality
Throughout the work there is an exploration of repurposed functionality. Dancers use each other to explore their interpersonal relationships but also as practical objects, backs are used as places to sit, limbs are holds to grip onto, climb over and roll back down. The wheelchair is introduced to us with its wheels disassembled causing it to fall back on itself overturned and tenderly cradled by Laura Jones. It joins the dancers in a homogenous mass in the fourth scene lifted by them as though the wheelchair is a character in itself.
The still faces are broken by wide smiling performers shooting gun fingers and high kicked stupidness. Jiving and the Charleston are whipped out at the end in a French New Wave style celebration. Before Pavia, with his arms flapping like a bird chases them off stage for us to be left once again in the empty building. (Katie Dibb)
Five Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist
Maybe I'm a prude, but words that come to mind when Craigslist is mentioned range from dodgy to dangerous. Yet Sam Ward's show Five Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist with YESYESNONO theatre is anything but heavy handed. It's a reflective, strangely innocent meditation and semi-re-enactment of five hook-ups with men he met on the site.
With gentleness and step by step precision, Sam narrates each journey from inbox to bedroom and exit with the help of volunteers playing each of his partners. The simplicity and matter of fact description of each event sent me reeling. One volunteer dutifully peels a carrot and drips water into a bowl by a microphone as Sam narrates an amiable experience giving fellatio to a middle aged man. Another pops balloons at his feet as he recalls enduring the uncomfortable, eventually painful weight of a lover on top of him.
Is this a commentary on the hollowness and detachment of hook-up culture? Or is this what fear, arousal, ecstasy look like from the outside, bottled up? 'I can't remember the last time I cried in front of people,' Sam says, unmoved, stark naked on stage as he meets the gaze of his audience. He is at once an open and closed book, baring all for the audience yet telling us little of himself at all. It's a brave and beautifully quiet insight into casual intimacy and the oddness of being at once so close and so far from someone else. (Louisa Doyle)
Watch Five Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist online now.
Girls Like That
Unicorn Theatre and Synergy Theatre Productions collaboration Girls Like That is a vibrant and necessary piece of theatre. The cast of six schoolgirls are brought to life by the actresses that carry this story (Leona Allen, April Hughes, Shazia Nicholls, Dominique Olowu, Carrie Rock and Danielle Vitalis) and director Esther Baker. They are supposedly a sisterhood. Yet this doesn't extend outside their circle.
When a nude photo of their schoolmate is shared around they immediately pick her apart, razing her reputation.The digital world they occupy is created through a rapid succession of projections and dinging notifications. It's a vicious but uncomfortably familiar topic playwright Evan Placey is talking about. Tearing her down to quell their own insecurities is especially effective as the victim gets no physical representation.
There is a skilful use of non-linear storytelling that shows moments throughout their childhoods where they start to learn these behaviours, even from their own mothers. This is broken up by flashes of women in the past fighting for their voices to be heard. Only towards the end does its formula stunt the emotional momentum when they finally see consequence to their actions.
Girls Like That stretches beyond the basic bullying is bad message and dips its toes into the more complex ideas of modern day feminism. I just wanted it to have a final pinch of unity, a stronger sense of a lesson learned. However, it is an excellent stepping stone for audiences interested in exploring feminist thinking further. (Rebecca McIlroy)
Watch Girls Like That online now.
A love letter to Albert Square, Scottish poet and performer Ross Sutherland takes us on a walk down memory lane to October 1997 in his audio visual poem Missing Episode as part of BBC's Performance Live series, in partnership with Arts Council England and Battersea Arts Centre. An episode of Eastenders triggers a regretful memory from Sutherland's youth, causing a rift lasting over two decades between himself and his childhood friend. Dialogue markers in the episode cleverly reconstruct the timeline of the fateful evening whilst 'questioning the meaning of everything'.
The piece is undoubtedly quirky; analysing your past through the semiotics of Eastenders all to the tune of electro pop beats is an exercise you may expect from an alternative therapy psych ward. The kooky 30 minute monologue is original and intelligent; it seems far fetched that Dot Cotton could conjure up emotions we forget we had buried within, but there is truth that deep memories have unusual ways of creeping up on us. We are all living in our own soap operas, our own storylines with the power to edit out scenes we don't wish to rerun. Sutherland raises a valid point: \Are we just meant to raise up a glass and toast to every opportunity missed?\ Our pubs may be closed but the show must go on, new characters will come and perhaps old will return, let's drink to that for now. (Lucy Philip)
Missing Episode is available to watch on the iPlayer.
Made in India
Produced by Tamasha and The Belgrade Theatre in association with Pilot Theatre, Made in India is a captivating and unflinching performance that explores the true cost of surrogacy in contemporary India.
The play focuses on three female characters: Eva, a British woman desperate to have a baby; Aditi, a young woman who needs surrogacy to feed her own family; and Dr Gupta, the clinic owner who has brought both women together. Set during a time of political upheaval, Made in India follows Eva and Aditi's attempt to build a friendship amidst the business-like environment of Dr Gupta's clinic and the new surrogacy ban which could have life-changing consequences for them all. Multi-coloured projections, red fabric and powerful dance sequences are used to explore fertility, motherhood and the shocking discord between politics and people. Lydia Denno's set design is simple yet striking. Thread screens let the turbulent emotions of the characters fill the stage. Apart from a recurring heartbeat sound, an aural reminder of the human impact of Dr Gupta's clinic, our attention focuses on the women's lives, motivations and words. Satinder Chohan's script is both investigative and metaphorical. The ban is described as an annoying 'rash' and choosing a surrogate is a 'blind date'. Her writing packs a thought-provoking punch, probing and questioning social stigmas around gender, race and reproductive science.
Made in India is a perfect example of Tamasha's desire to tell 'stories of under-represented communities', and it does so in an eye-opening way. (Carolyn Paterson)
Watch Made in India online now.
What Once Was Ours
In their co-production What Once Was Ours, Half Moon and Zest Theatre draw on young people's experiences to explore identity and belonging. Set shortly after the Brexit referendum, the play follows half siblings Callum, played by Jaz Hutchins, and Katie, played by Pippa Beckwith. Katie's parents are on holiday, and Callum has turned up desperately needing help from his dad. At first, the pair don't see eye to eye: both feel invisible but cannot understand the other's struggles. Over the course of the play, they slowly begin to bond over childhood memories, Jammie Dodgers and games of Twister.
Between scenes, the play uses recordings from four focus groups conducted with young people in both Leave and Remain constituencies. These are incredibly sincere and powerful, and in one particularly poignant clip, a young woman sobs while explaining her own experiences of discrimination.
The play covers many issues addressed by the young people during these focus groups, but the themes of racism and xenophobia really stand out. Katie frequently uses racist stereotypes and expresses prejudiced views. On the other hand Callum has experienced discrimination, and he is angry about how people from different cultures and races are stereotyped.
We don't find out if Callum ever meets his dad, but this doesn't ruin the play. Instead, we hear more recordings from the focus groups. It's a great ending that summarises the key themes of the play but most importantly, gives young people a voice. (Ellen Leslie)
Watch What Once Was Ours online now.