Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Elephantine Dramaturgy: Rebecca Monks and Madison Maylin @ Edfringe 2016

Tyke - a gripping new play by Rebecca Monks that imagines the events leading up to the true story of an abused circus elephant’s tragic break for freedom. We're taking the show to this summer's Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a full (month-long) run, with three previews at Above The Arts Theatre in Leicester Square. 10% of all our takings at the Fringe will go to a (soon to be chosen) animal welfare charity.

So, what's it about?
Proudlove’s world-famous circus is crumbling. Faced with a financial crisis, his enterprise could fold within a year. The ringmaster knows he needs to bring in the crowds to save it, and for this, he’s relying on his prize attraction: Tyke the elephant.

Stefan – Proudlove’s protégé – is tasked with teaching Tyke new and more demanding tricks. He hires a skilled and passionate apprentice, Veronica, to assist him. The two fall in love, but their relationship is tested when she rebukes the circus’ brutal training methods.

This touching new play is grounded in the true story of Tyke – who killed her trainer in front of thousands of circus spectators, escaped, and died in a hail of gunfire. The play uses puppetry to explore love, power, morality, and animal nature.

Tyke Q&A, with writer Rebecca Monks and director Madison Maylin

What was the inspiration for this performance?

Rebecca Monks: Tyke is based on a true story. In 1994, a circus elephant (named Tyke, naturally), killed her trainer on stage during a performance in Honolulu. She then went on to rampage through the area, and was eventually killed in a hail of gunfire. The incident really stayed with me because it was tragic on so many levels: the death of the animal, the death of the trainer, the fear instilled in the audience members. I wanted to write this piece to examine who was to blame, and the idea of conflict within human and animal nature.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?

RM: Initially, Tyke was going to be produced by my own production company (Peacetime Productions), but due to scheduling conflicts, our Artistic Director had to pull out. As a playwright, I was left with a new play I was excited about, a good Fringe venue and a time-slot in the programme, but no creative team to bring it to life. I thought I was going to have to cancel it, and I was absolutely heartbroken.

I went for a bit of a Hail Mary pass before I gave up, and contacted everyone I knew in the theatre industry asking them to pass on a message to everyone they knew in the theatre industry. It explained the basis of the play, what I needed (a director, cast and crew), and what I could offer (a full script and some feet on the ground since I'm based in Edinburgh).

Madison got in touch with me about a week later, and it felt like fate (though I don't believe in fate, nor do I believe in being this cheesy. I apologise profusely). She said she was an actor / director, has worked closely with PETA, and had campaigned against the use of animals in circuses. She even had a pet named Tyke. 

We chatted about the project, I watched her show-reel, I sent her the script and after that, she assembled a crack team that have been doing a fantastic job pulling the piece together in London. I couldn't be happier with the team taking it on, and I'm excited to watch it come to life under her vision, and the vision of those involved - Madelaine Cunningham as co-director, and James Lawrence as producer to name another two.

Madison Maylin: I on the other hand, do believe in fate. I was meant to work on this play. It's an important message, one I feel very strongly about as a storyteller and as an animal rights champion. I am very lucky to have worked with some incredible people who know even more incredible people, so it was almost easy to bring the right team together - and who wouldn't want to work on something that could help shape how we view our world?

How did you become interested in making performance?

RM: I have been involved in various theatre projects from a young age, mostly amateur acting and a very brief stint studying at the Moscow Arts Theatre. But my main love is creative writing, and so writing plays felt inevitable. I wrote my first play, Scour, last year and it got some great feedback.

MM: I come from a very gregarious family. On my mum's side there are jazz club owners, artists, and market-stall sellers. On my dad's side there are session musicians and 80s pop stars. My brother (who helped co-found Black Sheep Productions with me) works in the TV and film industry. It makes sense that I'm a writer, actor, director, and all-round show off. It was either that or be a shrinking violet. And purple doesn't suit me.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?

MM: I don't know about typical, but everything I've done before this very moment has shaped how I approach theatre-making. I've worked in Advertising for six years so I also value preparation, strategy, organisation, delegation and structure. That's my first step when making theatre. I'm also a writer, with a BA in English and an MA in Creative Writing, so table work and focus on the words is paramount. Setting up parameters ensures there's overall vision and cohesion. But at my core, I am a performer, so I value creativity, beauty, collaboration, freedom and playfulness above all else.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

RM: The main thing is empathy for Tyke. The incident should never have happened, and Tyke's death (and the death of those involved) could have been avoided. But this play isn't a black-and-white, blame-the-baddy story. It is complicated, and asks you to consider the various pressures put on each character, and what motivated them to behave badly in the first place. I hope the audience will think about the challenges we all face within relationships, work environments and society. More than anything, I hope it will trigger a conversation about the way we treat animals and each other.

MM: I want people to leave our show having experienced something truthful - no matter what that might be. Anger towards humanity. Empathy for animals. No matter what it might be, truth transforms into action: An urge to donate, a pledge to never visit a zoo again, a demand on our government ban wild animals in UK circuses.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

MM: I'm not sure you can shape an audience's experience. Our job is to tell the story. There is no right or wrong experience of that story. As theatre-makers and performers, we put our everything into a show - but once it's out there, in front of an audience, it's completely out of our hands. That's what makes theatre so thrilling.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

MM: Every show that Black Sheep Productions brings to life is bold and dynamic. We put on 'Full Circle' at The Arts Theatre in Leicester Square last year - a play based on ancient Greek women - but the modern aesthetics (drum and bass / 1950s mixes alongside electrifying lighting) were essential to the story-telling. Expect the same adventurous style with Tyke.


  1. While this place gets a little crowded and you might have to push through occasionally, it's hard not to mention that a definite plus in these lofty spaces is that you'll rarely have to wait on line in their large bathrooms.