Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Magnificent Bearded Dramaturgy: Tim Bell @ Edfringe 2016

Dame Nature – The Magnificent Bearded Lady

Moisturise. Oil. Comb. Repeat. Dame Nature is a bearded lady who has been looking after her facial furniture for as long as she can remember. Once the star of the show, now she spends her days in the depths of her dressing room contemplating the fading roar of the crowd, lost love and the merits of Phil Collins' solo work. A poignant, off-kilter show for people who don't like to judge a woman by her beard. Supported by Bristol Old Vic Ferment.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The treatment of bearded ladies in the Victorian era is fascinating subject, but surprisingly little of it has found its way onstage. I was first attracted to the idea of what it might feel like to be judged solely by one aspect of your appearance, and, taking that further, what that might feel like to a performer who has been doing it for as long as she can remember. 

I love the idea of examining modern gender stereotypes through the world of Victorian music hall. And I love the stories of the inspiring women that often strode onstage in the face of great adversity. Combining them, fingers crossed, weaves a very rich backdrop to the show. 

How did you go about gathering the team for it?

I'm tremendously lucky to be a Bristol Ferment artist; it's a network of theatre makers supported by Bristol Old Vic. They're a really inspiring bunch and it's through that network that I met Hannah Kew (my director). Because of the nature of the piece I felt it was important to have a women-led production team; designer Verity Quinn and lighting designer Penny Griffin are regular collaborators.

It is also essential to me that everyone is empowered to have a voice in the creative process that reaches beyond their specialism. Dramaturg Laurence Cook was recommended by a friend and having worked with him so closely on this project I can definitely see why. 

How did you become interested in making performance?

I've always been interested in making performance. After training as an actor, and taking a more 'traditional' path through the industry (appearing in some half-decent theatre, some passable television and some terrible films along the way), this became a reality when I met my long-time collaborator Harry Long. 

Together we formed Shanty Theatre Company. Harry and I both grew up in the countryside, and through Shanty we are interested in giving a louder voice to rural communities. We hope to tell the stories that make up the fabric of a place, spring from its history and are bound up in its myths. Since 2008 we’ve created 9 original pieces of theatre, performing in pubs, woods, schools, custom-made-whiskey-crate-nightclubs, theatres, residential homes and world heritage sites. 

Shanty is still going strong (we've got a busy 2017 with our friends over at Eastern Angles), but alongside this, a healthy creative partnership means developing your own voice as well.

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

I suffer from a particularly high pretentiousness-radar when talking about this stuff, which I think, in turn, informs the way we make our work, but here goes! 

We hope to demystify the creation process. Anything goes, and anyone can contribute; there is no ego attached to anyone's ideas. So collaboration and liberation of the performers are at the heart of what we nervously call our process. Because each time we create, we're looking to make a new process where our style matches the content. So I hope it's difficult to say we have one way of doing things. 

However, there are some constants. A lot of our content comes from play; improvisations, games, and the feeling of freedom in the rehearsal room. We aim to create a lot more material than we need. After that, it's a process of ruthless editing.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

This is a question that is constantly on our minds when making our work. Right from the get-go, there is a lot for the audience to get their teeth into. 

When they walk-in, they find a man, wearing a dress, with a hairy chest, and a beard, not to mention breasts. Playing a woman. It's a complicated picture. I hope that the audience will be drawn in by a character they warm to - even find funny - before discovering the darkness that is at the heart of coercive and manipulative relationships. 

Hopefully they'll question how they've felt about the character (and her situation) up to that point. And form some ideas as to what they'd like her to do in the future.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

I think the arc of the show moves from broad, entertaining and accessible comedy, which celebrates vaudeville, variety, and the traditions of Victorian carnival, to something darker and a lot more sinister. When we were making the show we often spoke about the audience realising two thirds of the way through that they are watching a very different play from the start. We use dance too. Mostly to 80s power ballads. But I don't want to give the game away.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition 

I think my practice has been influenced by the companies that I grew up watching: Complicite, Told by An Idiot, The Right Size. And Chaka Khan.

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