Tuesday, 15 March 2016

REaD about Dramaturgy: Allie Butler from Tidy Carnage

What was the inspiration for this performance?

REaD started with a conversation between myself and some of my collaborators when we noticed that we happened to all have red hair of one shade or another. We talked a lot about the experience of being a woman with red hair and whether some of the significant moments that have shaped their lives have been connected to being a redhead. 

There were quite notable correlations within the experiences they described to me – moments of being marked out as different, being mocked or bullied; early sexual experiences and how these were often connected to a discourse of the red haired woman and what we see that as culturally. 

I thought a lot about these anecdotes and began researching the cultural resonances of how red hair has been viewed and discussed historically and in the present day. I discovered that some of earliest references of the red haired female are very powerful – Adam’s first wife Lilith is described as having red hair for example. 

Redheads were commonly considered to be witches and vampires in Medieval Europe and yet not long after, Elizabeth I, given the choice of any kind of elaborate hair creation, decided to sport an enormous red wig. Red hair was a symbol of the power of her difference and otherness. 

There are endless examples of the redhead being a force of erotic fantasy – the paintings of Boticelli, Titian and then the famous pre-Raphelite artists show this time and again.  

I could go on about all the hundreds of cultural reference points I discovered, but suffice to say, it was clear to me that we consider redheads as dangerous, mysterious, vampiric, erotic: there is something odd and fascinating about our cultural response to the simple trait of having an unusual hair colour. 

The many stories my team told me, especially of growing up and being consistently mocked and bullied, or considered a sexual trophy, denoted both a celebration of difference but also a darker prejudice that I wanted to explore. 

REaD began life focussed on these personal anecdotes the performers told me and we created a short scratch performance for Arches Live in 2014. This was very bound in the self-referential and using our Scottish heritage as a starting point for much of the music and movement we explored in that piece. 

When we came to develop the show for Mayfesto at the Tron last year I realised that there was another journey I wanted to take with REaD – and that’s how we developed the idea of setting the show in a dystopian world where redheads have been forced underground, stigmatised and victimised by prejudice against their genetic fortunes. 

Our inspirations now range from the cabaret scene of 1930s Berlin to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and to RuPaul’s Drag Race…Setting the show in an alternative version of reality has meant that we can pick and choose where we find inspiration and are bound not by time and place, but by the hugely broad and divergent myths and legends of red hair.  

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
Obviously the main requirement is that the performers have red hair! I wanted them all to be natural redheads (a claim that sadly I cannot make for myself…). I also knew I wanted this to be an all-female team because of the powerful stories they had shared with me – I knew these were specifically female experiences and I wanted to tell the story through that lens. 

It was important that the performers were happy to sing, dance and possibly play instruments as the story is set within a cabaret – so that has informed the choice of the final team. 

I also knew that I wanted to use a poetic voice for the show so I
approached Kevin P. Gilday whose spoken word work I had seen and admired hugely. Kev wrote a series of beautiful and captivating poems for the show that form the backbone of the narrative – these were in response to the discussions and development we did in the early stages and they are one of the only elements of REaD that has remained in place throughout extensive revisions and development. 

We are working with Alice Wilson as our set and costume designer, whose quirky and creative designs I had come across and who absolutely gets the ambitious and unique version of reality we are trying to create. 

How did you become interested in making performance?
When I was wee I always insisted on making my cousins and sister be in ‘plays’ that I would ‘direct’ – we would perform them in the sitting room for our parents and I have very clear memories of storming upstairs in floods of tears because one of the songs had gone wrong, or a parent had laughed at an inappropriate point. 

So, I suppose it was deep in my bones for whatever reason and when I started directing plays at school aged 15 I absolutely knew that was what I needed to do with my life. 

I didn’t go to drama school but did a huge amount of directing at university (mainly instead of writing the essays I was supposed to be doing) and then when I left spent years getting experience in different theatres and directing new writing while I still lived in London. 

It was really when I moved back to Scotland in 2011 that I started ‘making performance’ in a less traditional way. I knew that I was interested in devising and physical work and through the support of the Arches I created some work for Arches Live and felt like there was a space I could experiment and create new work that I was really passionate about. 

Since then I’ve continued to create collaboratively devised performance which focuses on the fusion between new text and movement and music. In 2013 I founded my company tidy carnage and it’s through that collective that I make the work I’m really most passionate about.  

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yes – REaD feels to me a typical example of the way I create work. I start with an idea, often stimulated by some text (in this case Kev’s poems) and that becomes the heart of the project. I then devise around this – I work out a physical language that I want to use in the piece and work collaboratively with performers to improvise scenes and sequences. 

We try a lot and throw a lot away – no idea is too bonkers, as long as nobody is too precious about things not making the final cut. 

We have spent a lot of time storyboarding on REaD – it’s quite a complicated show, largely since we’ve set it in an entirely fictional version of reality, so we needed to be 100% clear on what the boundaries of that are. Sometimes when absolutely anything is a possibility, it can be harder to make yourself decide on a set of rules and establish a clear tone for a show. 

What is perhaps slightly newer ground on REaD is that the brilliant Sarah McCardie is musical directing our various musical numbers, and we have live singing and ukelele playing which isn’t something I’ve done much of previously. 

As we’ve developed the show it has tipped more towards becoming a cabaret which is fantastic and exciting, and definitely a territory I am delighted to be exploring. 

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
As I said above, REaD is set in a dystopian world in which redheads have been ghettoised – our story looks at a cabaret club called the Scarlet Church where redheads eke out a living performing for red-sympathisers and voyeurs. 

Obviously that’s quite a significant leap to ask our audience to believe all that from the get-go, so for me that’s one of the biggest factors. I just really hope our audience will let us take them by the hand and go with us into our topsy-turvy, strange and beautiful redhead world. 

The show is lots of fun with musical numbers, a mini game-show for the audience, performance poetry and even some voguing… I just really want audiences to jump in and enjoy the world we’ve created. 

There also is a darker side to the story, which I don’t want to give away too much, but we are exploring very current ideas of displacement, belonging and sovereignty. 

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
I’m not sure we have strategised as such – I think that the only thing you can do is be as clear as possible about what you want to make, then make it to the best of your ability. I don’t feel that you can dictate what an audience are going to feel about your work, and actually I love that REaD has already commanded some really diverse opinions and reactions. 

After the development last year, I had one person who described the show to me as a ‘feminist masterpiece’, which was obviously incredibly flattering. I then had another who asked me ‘why on earth did you do that revolting thing at the end?!’ I won’t give away what the ‘revolting thing’ is…. 

But to try and answer your actual question: it’s really important to me that we remember how much fun we’ve had creating REaD and allow it to be a joyful and fun experience for the audience. The narrative does have a darker and more political side though and we’re interested in exploring that story of oppression and hope that’s something that will be engaging for an audience. 

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
Honestly, no. Again, because I didn’t train in an ‘official’ way and I arrived in Scotland not already part of a particular group or clique I feel like I don’t really identify with a singular tradition. 

I also have two ‘hats’ – I direct new writing, work with writers and direct for venues like Oran Mor, but then my work with tidy carnage is much closer to contemporary performance and innovative devised work. I suppose, the essence of my work really lies somewhere in the middle of those two. 

The companies I most admire are ones like Vanishing Point, Vox Motus, Gecko and Frantic Assembly, and I suppose I aim to one day make work comparable to their quality and unique sense of theatricality. 

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