Sunday, 28 May 2017

Gutted Dramaturgy: Liz Richardson and Tara Robinson


Pleasance Dome (Jack Dome), 1 Bristo Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9AL Wednesday 2nd – Sunday 13th August 2017, 14:40

Liz Richardson has an embarrassing problem and these yogurts aren’t helping! Here, she shares her real life experiences of living as a twenty-something with a chronic bowel condition called ulcerative colitis, similar to Crohn’s Disease. 

A shameless tale of love, laughter and lavatories, Gutted (co-produced by The Conker Group and HOME) is a pastiche of the many people Liz has met on her journey, from hospital staff to complete strangers, patients to friends.

With a contemporary aesthetic, visceral moments and a love story bubbling underneath, Gutted, co-created with theatre maker Tara Robinson, is an engaging investigation into how we think about illness and the boundaries that cause us to feel shame. Sitting on top of a subtle celebration of the healthcare system, it explores how we treat each other and form relationships, the nature of hidden disabilities and femininity in the face of an embarrassing physical condition. 

What was the inspiration for this performance?
Liz: Gutted is based on real life moments from my life since being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (an Inflammatory Bowel Disease). I didn’t start out thinking “I’m going to make a show about what’s happening to me” but I did spend a huge amount of time doing what I love best, people-watching! I love observing people’s eccentricities, the way they talk and move, and the way that others interact with them, and I started noting these down. 

I trialled some of these notes made from this period into a stand-up routine as soon as I was fit and in remission, and then this routine developed into a richer and more theatrical performance as soon as I had been introduced to director/writer Tara.

Is performance still a good space for the public
discussion of ideas?

Tara: Undoubtedly yes. We’re very proud of the way Gutted invites audience members to actively engage with each other about illness and shame and provokes them into quite immediate conversation with each other. We’ve observed this at work in the minutes after the show. But we’re also proud of the way that as a publicly shared artwork it is also part of a wider dialogue that asks questions about how we view ill health and how want to treat each other. 

I think the performed experience,  the act of sharing space with others, is hugely powerful as a tool for evoking empathy and bringing people together to reflect, engage and converse. We do feel however that how it reaches all of the potential audiences that it could benefit from is still a work-in-progress. 

With Gutted we’re testing a model that tours to
hospitals and patient groups, asking audiences to meet us there in what is often a socially neutral space rather than an arts venue which often isn’t. This is a step towards broadening the discussion amongst a wider public.

How did you become interested in making performance?

Liz: I trained at Acting School for 4 years and left, like most others, with this enthusiasm for my future career and raring to go and be ‘found’...and, like most others, well, it didn’t quite go that way and I was unfortunate enough to become poorly. 

Despite having the few acting jobs here and there, I never really felt I was getting anywhere, with this disease continually rearing its ugly head. It was at this point I decided to start making the work for myself when I could do nothing more than rest up. And once I had started creating and had started to learn how to play with my own material, I found myself introducing myself to others as a Theatre Maker before saying I was an actor. 

There was a whole new wave of freedom in creating a piece of theatre which reads exactly as I had imagined and which I could access when ready rather than fitting into everyone else’s schedule. It was a wonderful time for me creating
Gutted with Tara and it has spurred me on to continue creating my own work.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Tara: The show began with a process involving a detailed sharing of Liz’s autobiographical experiences and memories with me and the collation of these into themes and events. The real work began when we started to discuss the effect we wanted to have on an audience with these though. Liz felt strongly that she didn’t want to speak in the piece “as herself” because of how it might make an audience feel, so we devised a number of rules that meant she couldn’t. The first of these was that Liz would impersonate a dizzying array of characters, all those she met along the way, and the audience would be cast as “Liz”. Whenever we hit an obstacle within this form and the material wouldn’t work, we would try an alternative, resulting in a piece that mixes a whole range of ingredients: voiceover, audience participation, video, food and impersonation. If there was any one approach that could be used to describe our process it would be collaboration. The show wouldn’t exist without one or the other of us and the marriage of our artistic tastes.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Tara: I’m really drawn to making work about something I hear about or see in society that can be picked apart, that gives me space to challenge how we relate to each other. In that respect Gutted certainly fits with my other work. It’s about how we think about and deal with illness, and especially the kind of illness that is shit related.

But it’s also like my recent work because it’s aesthetic is playful, the narrative fragmented, and it plays around with form to interrogate the content. This said, when we started making it I had never worked with autobiographical material and never made a show about something I had no personal vested interest in. That process was definitely new and very exciting, and the piece is possibly more narratively driven than the work I am making this year.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

Liz: My hope in making this piece is for it to be received with total open-mindedness. That audiences will feel that they can relate with it whatever their background or experience. That they can converse with each other and with those who haven’t seen it, about matters of everyday illness and health; relationships and struggles. I want the audience to feel part of the experience, needed and included. I also hope that they will laugh!

What strategies did you consider towards
shaping this audience experience?

Tara: Liz’s characterisations are really wide-ranging and they offer a very broad spectrum of perspectives and responses to how the people around her dealt with her illness. It is these that offer comedy and empathy as part of the audience experience and because they are offered largely without comment, they offer space too for reflection. 

But in pursuit of making the experience welcoming and shared, we also wanted to ask our audience to interact more directly with the piece and so Liz invites them to read key messages from her mother and partner in exchange for cake or beer. We were nervous of this element to start with (we don’t always like audience participation ourselves!), but we feel very happy now that we have crafted a mode of interaction that involves a willing exchange and also reflects the story. 

Also important in the work is the fact that the body being discussed is in the space. It sounds obvious, but this is Liz’s story and this is her body that’s been through this illness. Rather than explaining the medical processes that it has undergone through a video or slideshow, Liz paints her guts onto her tummy, indicating where things were operated on and reminding us of the authenticity of her body and voice.

Gutted is a frank, funny and compelling autobiographical exploration of living with an inflammatory bowel disease.

Liz comments, Enough sh*t, let's talk frankly: I'm a woman who doesn't poo flowers out her bum. I'm exposing myself in hopes that more people will do the same. In an age of Instagram filters, this show attempts to give audiences the courage to find joy in the unedited journey of life, with its ups and downs and the relationships that guide you on it.

Liz underwent surgery to have her colon removed when she was 28 and lived for a period with an ileostomy bag (or stoma bag) before having a ‘reversal’ which involves the creation of an internal pouch. She lives without pain now, but needs to manage and regulate her physical wellbeing carefully. While Liz is able to control her illness to a certain degree, this hidden disability does have its limitations and the shorter Edinburgh run reflects her awareness of potential physical fatigue.

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