‘Reckless abandon in the room’- interview with Rash Dash

Here is the interview with Rash Dash that I did for Exeunt. With a few additions in italics! Keen Play Nerders will spot that know what work you want to do and how you want to do it is becoming a bit of a theme.

If you have seen Rash Dash in performance – say in their most recent piece Oh I Can’t Be Bothered – you will know Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalan as big, bold, fierce and fantastical performers. Their work is characterised by physicality that is skilful but not slick. They press their bodies against each other, throw themselves into a frenzy of dance, hold, pull, push and tumble through their performances. They sprang into many people’s consciousness with ‘The Ugly Sisters’ – the ‘punk princesses of late night theatre’ according to Maddy Costa in The Guardian.  Somewhere on the continuum between Frantic’s elegant choreography and Kneehigh’s have a go anarchy, they have a physical language that is wholly their own, raucous, sexy, aggressive and strong.

When I meet them on a chilly early Thursday morning in West Yorkshire Playhouse foyer, along with Rash Dash producer Charlotte Bennett, they look nothing like the feral creatures of the stage, but smaller, colder, pale and tired. This is the result of an overnight trip up from London where they are in the middle of their Soho run, coming up to Leeds to honour long standing commitment to perform the show as part of Furnace Festival, run a workshop next day and back down. A bit of a nuts schedule but indicative of their lives at the moment when it seems just about everyone wants a piece of Rash Dash. However exhausting, they were determined to bring the show back to the Playhouse where they are Associate Company and to the city which, despite now living in London, they still call home.

Abbi: ‘We met at the University of Hull but when everyone graduated we knew we were going to start this company together but we didn’t want to stay in the city when all of our friends had left because all you feel is bereft! So we decided to move across to Leeds and this is where we began. Before we were based at the Playhouse we spent a lot of time at the Hub, we were really inspired by Slung Low and the really amazing community they’ve built around themselves.’

Leeds really needs another space and more support for development and production of new and small scale work. I’m planning to do something about this…

We share the common Leeds gripe about lack of spaces in the city for small scale work, with the noble exception of the Hub. Oh I Can’t Be Bothered is the first show that Rash Dash have made with just Abbi and Helen since leaving University, no director, no live music, just them in a room making stuff up.

Helen: ‘With this show we had no idea what it was going to be about until we started in a rehearsal room together, writing streams of consciousness and finding themes that were connecting.’

What it became about was two best friends, Bea and Dee, who are trying to work out what they want to do with their lives in terms of their relationships.

Helen again: ‘One of them has a boyfriend and thinks she’s going to get married and the other is single, and very happy being single, and she suggests that maybe they should be together, not in a sexual way, but as best friends living together. So it’s questioning monogamy and why we choose that as the only route.’

Abbi: ‘It’s been something we’ve been talking about on and off over a few years because we did live together for while and that was really lovely and now we don’t live together and that’s also fine… we are both 27 and everyone starts to pair off and talk about getting married and about when they’re going to have kids…and it kind of took me by surprise when all of these conversations started happening…I haven’t grown up thinking that [you get married and have kids] but I’ve started asking more questions about monogamy since.’

Really?! Is this a thing currently? I can’t remember me or my contemporaries really worrying about who we were going to settle down with at 27 – that didn’t kick in for a good 5 – 10 years later. Not sure whether that’s because the culture has moved on or we were particularly unthinking/irresponsible. Having said that there is a load of us now exhausted with small children in our early 40s so maybe current 27 year olds have the right idea?? 

‘All our shows are quite personal in that way. They start off with us wondering about something in our own lives and it feels like that’s the real kick starter for how we care enough to do all of the hard, difficult work it takes to make a show.’

Though in no way should Abbi and Helen be confused with their stage counterparts of Bea and Dee, yet in some way talking to them is a bit like talking to a long term couple. In our encounter Abbi does most of the talking but they constantly look to each other, nodding and laughing, as if the answers come shared between them. It would be simplistic to identify them with their work, yet their work is entwined with them. Up to this point, their shows such as the Fringe First winning ‘Another Someone’ and the aptly named ‘Scary Gorgeous’ centre on themselves, their passions, fears and confusions as 20-something women.  As they say, their work has to come from a very personal and deeply felt place.

Abbi: ‘Making work really costs you…it should be difficult and you should have to think a lot and very deeply about your own life. If you’re making something that is really going to affect the people in the audience then it is going to affect you too’

Helen: ‘It’s such a hard process to make a piece of theatre you have to be really invested in the ideas’

Abbi: ‘When you watch a Rash Dash show you are watching the people who are performing and the people who are making so there is a huge amount of responsibility and accountability for the things we are saying. The words are coming out of our mouths and we have made them and we mean them.’

Listening to them, it strikes me how clear they are about their practice; however visceral and immediate the work, it is based on thorough and reflective understanding of their process. With the larger projects they are embarking on, both co-authored with Alice Birch, they talk about the specific skills and attitudes they need from fellow performers and collaborators. They don’t choreograph but set up improvisations to find material that is then refined and refined. The material is made with and for the specific body and voice of that performer. For both of these larger scale works, one on women and war, the other on pornography, they will be working with directors, as yet unconfirmed. They talk about the need for someone to ‘hold the room’, the need to scale up the cast and images they work with in order to match the size of the ideas.

Their current popularity with audiences, critics and producers comes with its own pressures and pitfalls, temptations to compromise their work and their process in order to fit other agendas. Reflecting on their current position as ‘being on the edge of where it’s happening’ Abbi quotes Bill Drummond’s advice to artists: Don’t stand on the outside looking in, stand on the outside looking out because that’s your job.

Abbi: [We want to] really make sure we are imagining everything we are capable of imagining and not just make a show on big stages…We don’t want to constrain our imaginations to what’s already possible, the models that already exist, but actually try to imagine new ways of making work and let them evolve out of the process.’

Helen: ‘Although Alice is writing the words, Rash Dash as much a part of the authorship as she is…that feels like an important thing that we keep pushing at that, not just settle into the traditional model of commissioning a playwright because that’s the way everyone else does it.’ (YES!)

Absolutely endorse this! I am very much NOT against writers, or writers’ rights. Quite the opposite. I think it is only to the advantage of writers and all artists if many different models of working are available. And those are properly reflected in commissioning agreements and development processes. 

Along with this admirable clarity about who they are and sticking to their metaphorical guns there is a palpable passion and hunger for the work, even at 10.30am on a wet Thursday morning when they’ve been up all night. Oh I Can’t Be Bothered came about because they saw that the two large projects they were working on were not going to happen this year, mired as large projects often are in tedious logistics of money, venues and scheduling. As Abbi pithily put it ‘I was desperate to make something and I’m going to go mad if I don’t’.

And this show seems to have come as a welcome relief from some of the constraints of being a sensible, grown up company; made fast in small pockets of time snatched between other work, with licence to be as spontaneous as they want. If it’s not working, they say, we just go off and write a song.

Abbi: ‘We did a lot of talking about what our process is. Once we found the groove for making this show, I had a really good time making it, going back it being like we were in Uni’

Helen: ‘I think the honesty has been really good. It’s not useful to be really honest when you’re in a room with lots of people because you’ve just got to get on with it.’

Abbi ‘I can’t think of things I am uncomfortable doing in front of you…it doesn’t feel like taking a risk any more… there is a kind of reckless abandon in the room with just the two of us…It’s felt really wild this process and I feel I can just throw myself at stuff and people might think that was weird but they wouldn’t judge me for it. It’s an unjudgmental beautiful process.

Reckless abandon feels like the right Rash Dash phrase. Reckless but not unthinking. Formidable in their conviction but still vulnerable in their openness and honesty. Having the power that comes from knowing the ideas they’re aiming for, their own way of saying them and the guts to stick at it.

In addition we had a great discussion about taking Oh I Can’t Be Bothered to a festival in Finland; how open and accepting the Finns were (by our British standards) and swapped stories about conducting meetings, Finnish style, in a sauna. Sadly not enough room for those stories here. 

Fun Palaces – the power of ‘Yes’

So on Wednesday this week I am opening a new play, Conscientious by Adam Z Robinson, at Workshop Theatre in Leeds, before it heads out on tour to Oxford, Hull, Exeter, Bracknell and Bradford. Which you should all see, because…well it’s great really, Rachel – the one woman of the one woman show – is phenomenal and it’s pleasantly spooky, a bit thriller, a bit horror. And a good night out.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here. On Saturday this week, because I just don’t have enough to do, I’m involved in Fun Palaces at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Fun Palaces in one of those rare projects that crosses over the disparate parts of my life – the bits being mummy to three small children, standing in church halls with screaming toddlers, digging play doh out of their nostrils, and the bits in other draughty halls with (not so screaming) artists putting plays together. Not really that different from each other.

Fun Palaces is a national festival of arts and science happening 3rd – 5th October. There are over 130 Fun Palaces happening all around UK and the world, on line and in real life. I’ve found I’ve described it differently to people in different parts of my life, to mums on the school run or at toddler group it is a family fun day with lots of activities for all ages to get involved, to arty folk it is the celebration of the vision of Joan Littlewood and Cedic Price with opportunity to catch work with and by companies like Slung Low, Hackspace York and Manic Chord.

As I’m talking about it I realise I’m describing things that have and do happen – so what makes Fun Palaces different? Is it fun day activities for all in arts venues and spaces that don’t usually have them? Is it a range of artists, people, companies and communities coming together to share and show at the same time? Is it a chance for people to try to do something new (I’m doing a science workshop for first time in my life!)? For my daughter it is face painting, robots, tap dancing and cake.

It is ALL of these things and some others we won’t even know until we get there. Two things make me very happy about this Fun Palace at WYP. One: Slung Low will be bringing Emporium of Knowledge (their gorgeous Airstream caravan) and performing outside the Playhouse most of the day. This idea was first talked about when I was pregnant with my (twin) boys. They are now 3 and a half… It has taken Fun Palaces to show how easy it is to make it happen.

And the other…in 1995 when I was a mere 23 I managed a Forum for Theatre Directors where Joan Littlewood was the guest and given a lifetime achievement award. She turned up, got quite drunk and ended her speech throwing her hat off and shouting at the assembled (ego?) of directors to ‘Go out and do it’. There may have been a ‘fucking’ in there too.

Fun Palaces is what happens when you say Yes. Yes I can do this. Yes we will. Yes I don’t know how. Yes it’s insane. Yes it might not work. Yes let’s do it anyway.

See you on Saturday.

The White Whale Review

Originally for the excellent Exeunt.

Rumours of The White Whale of Leeds abounded before the show itself hove into view (sorry for the nautical style…it’s infectious). Hints of the idea in development appeared on social media, then photos and videos, showing people diving balletically, or at least energetically, into the water. Billboards and posters began to appear around town, featuring two oil dark hands gripped a straining rope. More like an action movie than indie play. Hmmm…in-ter-est-ing.

Even if you’re a not a social media type, Slung Low in their beautiful silver Airstream caravan appeared in supermarket car parks and free summer festivals around Leeds to tell people about the show and give away tickets for free. Yes for free, as were all tickets for all performances.

Then opening night comes and immediately social media is awash (sorry) with reactions (mostly summarised by ‘OMG OMG this is the best, best, best thing I ever seen. Go see it NOW) and indistinct photos of tiny little glowing figures, against a mass of dark water. One friend of mine uploaded 40 photos of the show. Considering the whole thing is only 80 minutes long that was impressive.

All of which means by the time it is my turn to find my way down to Leeds Dock, for the very last performance of the run, I already have a relationship with it. I have a mass of images and impressions in my head. None of which tell me what the show is but all of which draws me into pleasurable anticipation of finding out how they all fit together.

Leeds Dock is a strange little sleeve of the Leeds – Liverpool canal running beside the Royal Armouries and surrounded by what the developers undoubtedly called ‘desirable waterside living’ but the rest of Leeds calls ‘that empty bit next to the casino’. It is, however, a natural thrust stage made of water. As we arrive, friendly and confident (and all rather beautiful) people in Slung Low t-shirts and fluorescent jackets hand out the headphones and receivers and explain how to use them. Ah yes, it is a ‘headphone’ show, where the live voices of the actors are mixed with recorded soundtrack and fed direct in to your ears as you watch the action. Smiling and welcoming volunteers show you were to stand and where you can sit if you need to and at the given moment indicate silently it is time to don the headphones and start the show.

The White Whale is a free interpretation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, which was based on Melville’s own experience on a whaler. The story of Captain Ahab and his relentless pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white sperm whale, is known of by a great deal more people than have ever read the doorstep sized novel with its extended descriptions of different species of whales and slightly homoerotic accounts of blubber squeezing. James Philips’ text updates the story to a near future when whale oil is a vital source of power, electronic and explosive harpoons are no longer used and men hunt whales the old fashioned way with small boats, sharp blades and brute strength. Having set this up, the script then leaves it there, which is a relief. Nothing is worse in alternative reality pieces than endless exposition about how we got here and why things are different. They are, now move on.

A lone figure in a boat weaves his way from the far distance, an explosive spout of water marks a whale and the Pequod, the whaling ship herself, surges from below the dark water, breaking through the surface like a half remembered dream come fully back to mind (an impressive feat of engineering, I assume from Pete Gunson). What is excellent about Alan Lane’s production, in the simple but beautifully effective design by David Farley, is that none of these things are pretending to be the actual things. We are not pretending that Leeds Dock is the wide ocean, that these water spouts are whales, that a smallish metal box is a whaling ship. But each of these things gives a sense and emotion of the thing it stands for. It seems an obvious point but one that is missed by quite a lot of theatre. The water, fire, smoke and explosions of White Whale are thrilling both for the things that they are, and for the things that they are being in the story.

We are introduced to the crew members, their voices speak intimately into our ears as our eyes take in the epic spectacle. Philips holds back on the introduction of Melville’s central character, and the most famous line ‘Call me Ishmael’. In a clever twist on the original, Ishmael has become a young radicalised man of British Pakistani origin, played with engaging and charismatic intensity by Nima Taleghani. Melville was intensely interested by the symbiotic relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, notably in ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ and ‘Benito Cereno’. In White Whale it is the drinking, whoring Anglo Saxon crew, particularly the ‘painted savage’ Q (played with swagger and touching humanity by Christopher Brand) that is the ‘other’ to an abstemious Ishmael. I did miss something in re-imagining the originally black cabin boy, Pip, as European: The original Pequod was a multiracial microcosm of the world at the time and Pip’s fate, cast adrift in the ocean until he is sent mad, recalls the many thousands lost on the sea voyage from Africa to Europe. Angus Imrie’s performance as Pip, though, was not to be faulted; a heartbreaking figure of young energy and vulnerability.

Good concept is nothing without great execution, and The White Whale is truly a team effort. For me what held the whole thing together was Heather Fenoughty’s sobbing, soaring music, which underscored the action with emotion. Studded through the play were gorgeously sung shanties and hymns which pulled us into the play just as they pulled the characters together. The sound was, as ever in a Slung Low show, subtly and ingeniously designed by Matt Angove. Ric Mountjoy’s lighting captures both mood and action and managed to blend seamlessly with the civic lit surroundings. Phillips’ script fillets Melville’s baggy narrative for the bare bones of an action adventure with metaphorical edge. And unlike Melville, it wears its poetry and allusion quite lightly: the water filled with whale blood is ‘incarnadine’, they sail on a Homeric ‘wine-dark’ sea. And mention also has to be made of Oliver Senton’s powerfully understated Ahab. If ever there was part made to chew the scenery it was that and he wisely kept it mostly low key, with moments of sudden, explosive violence. Like the others mentioned, Senton is a Slung Low regular. This is a team that has worked together a lot and it shows. Each part works together, responding and adding to the director’s vision. Kudos as well for the enlightened and engaged people and policies at Leeds City Council, which made this production possible through a Leeds Inspired Commission.

The White Whale is a story of obsession:  the mad obsession of one man to take revenge on a whale, obsession with money, with power, with religious grace. It is also the story of one theatre company’s obsession with making the extraordinary happen for everyone in an unloved corner of Leeds.