London Horror Festival 2021
At the centre of a forest, in a bitingly cold winter, three young people make a horror film. As the temperature drops and the light starts to die, old hates and fears are laid bare – and ignited. The show examines the conventions of psychological horror – and draws them out to their most nightmarish conclusions.
Hi Justin thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
Not too bad, thanks! Or at least, as good as anyone has been…
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
Oh, definitely! A lot of the core skills of producing are obviously very transferable (marketing, budgeting etc), and I’ve been lucky enough to get some opportunities in some other art-forms – film, audio, etc. Of course, I’ve also been lucky enough to have a secure position throughout that’s allowed me to pursue them, and that hasn’t been true for a lot of people – but I hope that’s easing off, at least a little.
Birdwatching is going to debut at London Horror Festival, are there any nerves ahead of your run?
None, really! I’m working with an absolutely brilliant team, who are bringing so much insight and talent to the show – anything I’m worried about, I know I can trust them to handle. I’m just very excited for everyone to see it!
What was it about Miranda Barrett's play that interested you so much as a producer?
It’s an unconventional approach to horror – it’s a very viscerally uncomfortable play. Rather than jump-scares or monsters or things like that, it’s a masterclass in creating slow, interpersonal tension, where the real fear comes from the constant misogyny and degradation between the characters – the external supernatural events are just pressures that tip that all over. I won’t say too much, to make sure I don’t spoil anything, but it’s a play where the greatest fear is internal, not external, and that’s fascinating.
Can you tell me a little bit about Birdwatching, how did this play come about?
Narratively, the script’s an engagement with gendered violence – especially the kind of constant, sometimes just passive denigration, denial and so on – which is tied into this horror narrative that also questions the genre it’s working in. We’ve been developing it for a while, editing and reshaping (looking at my inbox, I read it for the first time May last year). We then submitted to the London Horror Festival, were lucky enough to be accepted, and now it’s all happening!
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced bringing Birdwatching to the stage?
We’ve been making sure we’re working safely, of course, both COVID-wise and mentally, especially dealing with some fairly intense topics. But, a little less heavy, there’s also been some interesting logistical challenges – it’s always a fun problem to solve how you present the supernatural in an artform where things must happen physically there, in the building, and be repeatable. But you’ll have to come to the show to see how we do it…
When producing a play like Birdwatching how important is the collaborative working relationship between writer, producer, and director?
Oh, very important – although I’d also expand that, it’s the collaborative process between everyone involved! But in terms of those three roles specifically – we’ve had a lot of discussions about the crux of what we want to achieve with the production. That’s both practically and artistically, of course, but it influences everything – what we take into shaping the performances and the staging, the marketing, the image design or so on. And we both build off and challenge each other, because of course each of us reads it slightly differently – but through that collaboration we’ve really discovered something deeper than any of us would have brought to it on our own.
What has been the experience like working with your director Lydia Harper on this project?
Fantastic! Lydia really got the play immediately, on a thematic level as well as a practical one, and she brings incredible insight and creative energy to it. Plus, this is (unsurprisingly) quite an emotionally intense and draining piece to perform, and she’s been brilliant at making sure we pace ourselves in the rehearsal room – keeping things open and communicative, making sure we take breaks etc so we can engage with it properly and nobody burns themselves out. Which is hugely important, of course!
Where did your passion for theatre come from?
I grew up with a short train ride to central London, so I’ve been going since I was young. I think for me it’s always about the essentially live nature of performance – that its real people doing it, right in front of you. That, and the essential physicality of it, makes that emotional connection just a little bit more visceral.
"...obviously there’s logistical/practical stuff that’s easy to repeat, but artistically I think it’s incredibly important to be open to both the ideas and approaches of your collaborators."
Since setting up Anarchy Division how much has your approach to your plays changed since you started out?
There’s definitely plenty I’ve learned, both artistically and practically – but the biggest thing that changes my approach is the people I work with. I try not to approach projects with too much of a fixed mentality – obviously there’s logistical/practical stuff that’s easy to repeat, but artistically I think it’s incredibly important to be open to both the ideas and approaches of your collaborators. So I try to do that as much as possible!
What's the best piece of advice you would offer fellow theatre-makers?
The key, governing rule of any work should be ‘are we actually enjoying doing this’? Because it can be a slow, inconsistent, and financially insecure business sometimes, and we owe it to ourselves and each other to make sure we’re at least having fun while we do it. And that’s not to say everything has to be a laugh – there will always be early morning rehearsals and last-minute breakages – but when those blocks do come up, we support each other through them, because we know we’ll enjoy it in the end. Besides, it always makes for better work in my experience, because when people like working with you they’ll open up creatively, build brilliant collaborations and so on.
And, finally, what do you hope your audiences will take away from Birdwatching?
I hope people will come away asking why in particular they were scared – what drove that fear? Because it’s not necessarily just the supernatural at play, there’s a lot of menace that comes from the male characters’ misogyny attitudes, personalities, drives and so on. Again, I’ll try to avoid spoiling anything, but that’s what I hope stands out in the end.