Peckham 2020. Laquaya (15 - loves hip-hop, feminism, Peperami) has broken into Elyot’s house. Elyot (32) is reclusive, eccentric and probably quite lonely. He’s making a model boat and listening to Beethoven whilst checking off his life week by week on a chart on the wall.
Essence explores what it’s like to be lonely, how much it takes to let people in, and how the messy bits of life are ultimately where the gold lies.
Hi Sarah & Tori, thanks for talking to TNC, how are things going?
Hi! Thanks for having us - things are going well I think! It's always a bit up in the air at this stage of the production, but no big red flags have happened yet!
Are you looking forward to be bringing Essence to VAULT Festival 2020?
Yea - we can't wait. We purposely set out to make a show that was universal, hopeful, funny, moving and enjoyable to work on. We've got a lush team and we love the Vault Festival so all in all, we're really excited. Obviously there's an insane amount to do, and they've given us a very big space to fill (which makes promotion very important!) but we think that people who do come down will have a lovely hour.
Essence is supported by The Cultivate Bursary, how important are funds like this for theatre makers?
These sorts of funds are essential to help prevent theatre being solely the stomping ground of people with trust funds. It's expensive to make a show, not to mention the time writing it, and funds like this make it possible for less wealthy artists to enter the arena and hopefully still pay the rent. It's not only the funds though, COMMON have supported us with advice and helped us by using their network and influence to get the right people down - this has been invaluable.
You're no stranger to VAULT Festival, what is it about the festival that you like so much?
So many things! For audiences (which is us for lots of other shows!) it's such a great night out - it's not expensive comparatively, it's vibrant, the atmosphere is brilliant and there's loads of daring new work to take in. As artists, we love how balanced the programming is in terms of female led work and 33% LGBTQIA+ work - it shows that it can be done and audiences do want to see work that represents them. They also have a very fair deal for artists which means you don't have to front a lot of money - it makes things feel possible without too much risk. Also it's a great showcase for new ideas - Sarah's show that was on in 2017 which she wrote with Shamia Chalabi (Burkas and Bacon Butties) was published by Nick Hern Books, went on to be workshopped by the RSC and now has a run at the Park Theatre in May/June. It's a mini version of the Edinburgh festival with less risk.
"We've got a lovely rhythm with work which is born out of knowing each other as family really for over 20 years."
You have been friends for a long time, how important is the creative collaboration for you both?
It's so important - it runs through everything we do. We work with as little ego as possible, and know that both of us, and everyone else in the room is there to lift the piece up with their own brilliant and unique contributions. By the time a show we've worked on is up, no one person can take credit - none of us is as smart as all of us. We also have huge respect for each other's strengths and defer to them - Tor is incredible at sound and bigger ideas and emotion, Sarah is more structured and good at cutting any fluff to get to the core of what's being said. We've got a lovely rhythm with work which is born out of knowing each other as family really for over 20 years.
Will there be any nerves ahead of your shows run?
Yes. Sarah is currently terrified. Tor is more confident, probably by virtue of Sarah having written this one with Tor directing which is a new dynamic. Sarah has often directed Tor's work and their joint work, so this is a nice change. Once we've got a couple of runs under our belt and we know what we have, the fear will lessen!
What are the biggest challenges you face when you create a new show?
Money and time are huge challenges. We both have to work other jobs to keep afloat which means we have to be really efficient with any down time and not having a lot of budget means that you need to compensate with time - time spent finding cheap/free props, rehearsal space, printing etc. Sarah has a 2 year old who makes efficiency quite tricky so there's a lot of late night working! After that I'd say casting is challenging - we worked really hard to find the perfect Laquaya (Nina Barker-Francis) - you want talent and team-fit so you have a nice experience, we're happy to say Nina and Tim have both in droves. After that it's overcoming self-doubt - believing your work will be enjoyed by others. There are loads more, but it's all worth it!
Can you tell me a little bit about Essence, what can we expect?
Sure. Essence is a very sweet and moving coming together story of two wildly different people who are forced together by circumstance. It's funny too, and you can expect a lot of music. Ally Poole, our wonderful sound designer (who is also a performer too) has put in over 60 cues already - Elyot, a reclusive and somewhat strange character loves classical music, whilst Laquaya is very much into Hip Hop. We hope people will leave wanting to call up that friend/relative who's been a bit tricky to connect with - the show is about finding common ground through what makes us human - something society probably needs more than ever at the moment.
In writing Essence did you draw from your own experiences?
Yes - we don't want to give away too much, but the entire creative team and cast have experienced the theme of finding it difficult to connect to someone who should, by default, be easy. Sarah lives in Peckham and has worked with a lot of young people to develop the character of Laquaya (including her neighbours in her block), and Elyot is definitely the combination of a few key people in her life!
Have you always had a passion for theatre?
Yes! Tor and I met at the wonderful Epsom Youth Theatre over 20 years ago. We've both taken our own different paths into the world of writing/making work, but started out performing. Tori still performs and is wonderful (with some great TV and theatre gigs last year and more to come) and Sarah has (for the good of audiences and her own mental health) found her special place behind her laptop! With theatre the collaboration of many different skills to make something greater than the sum of its parts, and the sheer thrill of a live experience that's different every night is just magic. There are of course areas of the industry that need a MAJOR shake up, but theatre definitely runs in our blood.
"It's too easy to compare your journey in theatre (and life) to other peoples' but that really does ruin things."
Has your approach to your shows changed much since your debut show?
I think a bit. The type of work we want to make hasn't changed, but (sadly probably) the scale of what we attempt has become more realistic! Theatre is expensive and I think our work is considered risky by a lot of programmers. We made a hugely collaborative show called 'Streets' which was at the Cockpit, the Vaults and Hackney Empire about five years ago - it was a huge mashup of spoken word/rap by James Kenward, brilliant acting, beat-boxing a separate band who sung a filmic score by the wonderful Finn Andesron, street-dance and a cast of about 17. We couldn't have been more proud of it, the audience reviews and press were incredible but we couldn't find a 'paid' home for it, despite being nothing like it out there at the time. Producing your own work is exhausting and I don't think we'd attempt anything on that scale again without having theatres/funding /support etc. in place ahead of time, which can be challenging to secure when you're 'emerging' (don't get us started...!). However, having said that you might just have caught us at a slightly cautious moment, after the TREE drama last year we lost our mojo a bit...we may well build ourselves up to something ridiculously ambitious again...never say never.
In any case, the way we make a show is the same - everyone in the room is given respect for their talent and invited to contribute ideas and build on the frame that we've come in with using their unique gifts and stories.
Do you have a favourite theatre quote?
"Theatre is a weapon. For that reason, it must be fought for." Augusto Boal
We like that one for a lot of reasons.
What has been the best advice you have been given?
I think it comes from a wonderful woman we both admire - Brene Brown. There's a lot in her work, but in particular one thing she says is that 'comparison is the thief of happiness'. It's too easy to compare your journey in theatre (and life) to other peoples' but that really does ruin things. Better to just do your best, and take as many people with you as you can if you're on the way up. Oh, and leave the bloody door open once you get there!
And finally, what do you hope your audiences will take away from Essence?
Hope, ultimately. And understanding. And a desire to connect with people who think differently. And joy. We need more joy! It's a lovely hour with great talent on stage that warms the heart. Please come if you can!