There is an incredible list of female led plays at VAULT this year, and we got to talk to Abi and Rafaella from Joyous Gard about their show I Have A Mouth And I Will Scream, which they describe as 'a play, but not a play, about being a woman today'. We loved this interview, and the thoughts about why theatre is a great place for feminist discussion, as 'it is, possibly, a bit easier to occupy space as women in theatre'. Read on for more moments of brilliance...
What drove you to make I Have A Mouth And I Will Scream?
AZ: It started life as a short play last year, commissioned by Damsel Productions and Pint-Sized for one night at the Bunker Theatre. I was given a general prompt to write something 'about being a woman today' and a more specific prompt that inspired the play – the play is presented as a sort of prolonged attempt at protest, a scream really, by six women who are trying to be heard, to work out what they want to say and finding ways to say whatever that is, or can be. It is deliberately raw and ragged at the edges; I wanted to create something that mirrored that utter frustration at being unheard, unarticulated, confused and scared of getting things wrong. There's a lot going on in it! And after doing the Bunker night Raf (Rafaella Marcus, the director) approached me with the possibility of doing it as a full length version and I absolutely jumped at the chance to do so because it was such a brilliant experience working with Raf and I really wanted to expand the script and cover a lot more ground but in the same, experimental, anarchic vein.
RM: I actually requested to direct the first version of I Have A Mouth back at the Bunker in May last year. I was keen to do something that challenged what you could do with a short play night, and rehearsing a cast of six with a ton of difficult technical requirements felt like exactly the kind of ridiculous challenge I wanted. I remember reading the script and feeling like there was no safety net for this work, which, as soon as we got our actors in the room, turned into something very exhilarating. It was a no-brainer to ask if we could do it again after the Bunker night - the feeling in the room at the end of the performance was incredible. The more we worked on it, the more I realised Abi had written something that expressed this multitude of passion and fury and humour about the state of being female - or being read as female - that is inside so many women, myself included. It allows women to be big, authoritative presences onstage, and have tremendous fun doing it. It’s a rush.
Who is I Have a Mouth… for?
AZ: Anyone. Everyone. I know it will reach many women who are interested in feminist work, who are attuned to this kind of stuff but I'd especially like it if they all brought a brother, a dad, a boyfriend, husband, partner, friend, any blokes at all really as it's not just for women and you sort of want this stuff seen by as many people as possible.
RM: Agreed. I love the play because it asks questions, really properly shakes the audience by the lapels and demands that they think about stuff - and it doesn’t necessarily propose that we the company have all the answers, or that feminism has all the answers up its sleeve. It asks genuine questions, and it wants answers from everyone.
Why is theatre a great platform for feminist discussion?
AZ: I think because it can be the most immediate way of getting work on and seen – it is, possibly, a bit easier to occupy space as women in theatre; I don't mean the establishment or the traditional spaces – they will forever be harder for woman to get into until there are more female AD's and producers than male ones – more like the fringe spaces, or anywhere women choose to show work, and so you can get together and own and occupy the space and be freer to collaborate, discuss, plan and make. And because theatre is immediate you can respond to it without the barrier of other entertainment forms like tv or film; you see a show, you can engage with the makers and creators then and there.
RM: I think the great thing about theatre for shows like I Have A Mouth… is that it lets you express a visceral feeling of discontent. If we’re really trying to convince people who don’t think patriarchy exists, who don’t think women face systematic problems, we realistically won’t do it through well-argued opinion pieces. There’s some brilliant journalism and political writing out there that we’re heavily drawing on for this play, but you can read a thousand well articulated arguments and never feel the thud of empathy, of actually imagining a different lives reality to your own. I hope that’s what we’re harnessing for this play.
If you had to make a new show, what CURRENT news story would you like to make a show about?
AZ: At the moment it feels like there's going to be a sudden rush of stuff that focuses on Trump or Brexit or sexual harassment and abuses so I don't want to do something that's on the nose particularly. But I've been thinking increasingly about the idea of polarisation and absolutes. We seem to be becoming more and more attached to extremes. It's either one way or another, there is no room for nuance or cross-over and debate, the idea of discussion is fading. I'm both horrified and fascinated by this and am just figuring out a way in to make something about it.
RM: I don’t tend to make ripped-from-the-headlines work, partly because by the time it’s on the conversation has often moved somewhere else. But the fundamental questions I’m interested in asking feel very much part and parcel of #MeToo and Time’s Up and even Brexit and Trump too: what would a way of living look like where we didn’t value ourselves by the metrics of wealth, thinness, whiteness, western-ness, straightness that have been our lodestars for so long? I think one of the most potentially exciting things that all of these movements are producing is the idea that we don’t have to accept “that’s just the way it is” as truth. We can be better, we can hold each other to account. I’m not sure how you make a narrative out of that, to be fair. Maybe that’s Abi’s job.
What theatre ‘turn offs’ do you have?
AZ: Stunt casting. Nepotism. Poverty porn. Posh actors playing working class characters. Snobbery towards musicals; I love musicals.
RM: Oh, loads. I’m done with writers and directors making uninteresting choices because no-one is forcing them to think about the politics of what they’re doing. This ranges from everything from directors staging visceral uninterrogated misogyny and sexual assault to writing massively white male-dominated historical dramas that don’t even stop to consider that women and POC were, in fact, present at these events. I’m sick of the idea that progress has a hierarchy - “First we’ll programme women’s work - but it’ll all be by white, middle-class women. We’ll programme LBGT work - but it’ll all be about gay men.” I’m especially irate about younger male writers I see being given commissions ahead of talented female writers who are equally talented and often more radical.
What was the last show that moved you to action?
AZ: Thinking in terms of creative action: last year I saw three productions that I found exhilarating and transforming, all in different ways. Caroline or Change at Chichester Theatre was revelatory in it's marrying of narrative drive, intent and political action – I'm working on two musicals and this piece gave me huge resolve to keep going with a narrative that might not immediately lend itself to a musical format. An Octoroon at Orange Tree Theatre just blew me away; it proved that you can, and should, do anything, anything at all, in theatre; that anything is possible and that words are magnificent powerful things. And I was profoundly altered by Pina Bausch's Masurca Fogo at Sadlers Wells. I have never been more inspired by a piece; Bauschs work is not just dance, it is text, song, shared experience and I was dazzled by it – it radically changed the way I work and how I write and the kind of work I am making; there is a lot of influence on I Have A Mouth... because of her work.
RM: It’s funny because I don’t think a lot of theatre really moves anyone to political action in a direct, immediate way. Maybe that’s a controversial thing to say, but I do think that most of the time it sets you off down a path of thought and empathy, which leads to research and revelation, and that leads to action. I feel like theatre is always reminding me of good lessons for my work - Life of Galileo at the Young Vic was such an affirming communal experience, and it could do that through its staging. I went to see Tristan and Yseult at the Globe twice because of its loveliness and compassion for its characters, and I hope I can put some of that exuberance into my own work. Anatomy of a Suicide, which I think was the best thing I saw last year, was a lesson in being bold and intricate at the same time. It was shattering.
What shows at VAULT are you looking forward to?
AZ: Oh my gosh there is so much to see! I can't wait to see The People's Rock musical, NeverLand, Follow Suit, Tiger, White, Borderline, Testosterone, Timothy and about a billion other things. I may need to clone myself to see them all.
RM: There’s a lot! I’m also very curious about The People’s Rock. There’s a ton of female-led I want to see: Mary’s Babies, A Hundred Words for Snow, Double Infemnity, For A Black Girl, F*** You Pay Me. On the comedy front, I’m looking forward to seeing The Story Beast: This is Bardcore and Split. My festival pass is going to be working very hard.
I Have A Mouth And I Will Scream is on from 14-18 Feb at VAULT Festival at 21.00!