Tala Pattinson talks to the members of this young, political company about their work and the state of British theatre
Formed in the (comparatively to current events) serene early summer of 2019, Teastain Theatre comprises University of York alumni Jessy Roberts, Ashleigh Nicole, Rebecca McGreevy and Lucia Rimini. As a company, they are interested in fluid, rhythmic and genre-defying art with a political heart, work which they more readily describe as "performance collage" than theatre. Above all else, Teastain Theatre is an unapologetically feminist company run by women who care deeply about issues which, in their words, "make our blood boil and the hairs on our necks stand up," making them perfect subjects for an interview in The Teller's inaugural issue. Speaking to them over the thoroughly socially-distanced internet, I ask them about their past and future projects, the British theatre industry and impact of COVID-19.
To begin our conversation, I ask the ladies to set the scene of how their company first got started. "We were sat in a theatre workshop at uni last year," they tell me, "when one of us wrote a note to the others that read: 'let's just make a show!'" From these simple beginnings their love of their craft and relentless work ethic carried them quickly through to their first show together. Their production of Elinor Cook's Out of Love was performed at their degree's final showcase and the Great Yorkshire Fringe 2019. Telling me about the show, they recount how their experimentations with various storytelling techniques left them feeling empowered and creatively challenged. "We felt the show gave us a strong sense of our style," they explain, adding that they further developed this style in their first original piece, Wild Thyme (and Heather). "It was a chance to really find our voice as a company," they say.
Known to its friends simply as Wild Thyme, Teastain's second show was performed at York Theatre Royal's TakeOver Festival in November 2019 to critical acclaim. As the play's inspiration, Teastain took the lives of Yorkshire natives the Brontë sisters and translated them into a twenty-first century context by working ideas of toxic friendships, social media and revenge porn around the sisters' original works. Having seen the show when it was first performed and loved it, I am interested as to why the company felt it was important to bring the story of the Brontë sisters to the present day.
"We were fans of the Brontë's work already," they explain, "and we fell in love all over again with their abilities to articulate so beautifully love, loss and femininity. Their writing inspired us thematically and stylistically, and we felt it was right to create a new show in a twenty-first century space for a twenty-first century audience." By bringing the Brontë's ever-relatable themes to the present, they hoped to emphasise how much (or little) has changed in the intervening two-hundred years. "We found that a surprising number of people think that women don't have much to fight for," they explain, "but their experience of oppression and repression is unfortunately still a common one for women today." In portraying this, they hope that "it will make people consider how much further we actually have left to go."
At this point I realise that during our conversation I have been referring to Wild Thyme as a 'play', when in reality it defies genre. Staying true to Teastain's self-defined brand of performance collage, the piece weaves song, dance and poetry around its central narrative thrust. Far from proving gimmicky—as some might consider more experimental theatre to be—Teastain's techniques in Wild Thyme thoroughly served their purpose to produce a piece bursting with bold descriptive imagery and thought-provoking forms which did the boundary-pushing Brontës justice. Given the success of Wild Thyme, I wonder whether the company will continue to include experimental forms in their future projects. "It's something we love," they assure me. "We all have backgrounds in movement and physical theatre. We've gained a lot from workshopping with RashDash Theatre, and Ashleigh has also worked with Gecko Theatre — the way that they use movement to tell a story is mesmerising! We will definitely be continuing to develop this in our practice in future projects, so watch this space!"
"Privileged people have to stand up for others, use their power, call things out, step aside, and dig deep into any resources available to them"
Around the time of my interview with Teastain, British arts industries have been thrown under the spotlight of the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, revealing an institutional failure to address the woeful lack of proper representation which has been swept under the rug for decades. Systemic racism in the sector has finally risen to prominence in the media over the last few months, from Black creatives seeking systemic changes in the UK's entertainment industry, to exposés on what it's like to be Black in British publishing, and action plans offered by actors to fight racism at drama school. It is now clear for all to see that British arts, including British theatre, are still hegemonic institutions which privilege largely white, male, middle-class and London-centric creatives. In light of this, I ask the company what changes they would like to see in the theatre industry in the years to come, and what they as privileged creatives can do to enable this change.
"Privileged people have to stand up for others, use their power, call things out, step aside, and dig deep into any resources available to them," they assert, before elaborating on how they feel the industry needs to make changes. "Active measures should be taken to lower theatre ticket prices, create more inclusive entry-level schemes for artists of all ages, diversify executive boards, increase funding for outreach and community work, increase accessibility for different bodies and different communities. Substantial opportunities need to be created for new voices to be heard, listened to and be able to operate as a core part of remodelled industry practice."
"However," they continue, clearly keen to have an extended conversation on the subject, "we must address that many British theatre industry leaders themselves have characteristics of privilege, and we should interrogate whether these people are equipped to reshape the structures that they've benefited from." Though, Teastain also express a concern about how achievable a structural overhaul is during a time of mass redundancies and recession. "We hope that it's possible," they say, "and that theatres and companies continue to dig deeper into any resources they may have to support people to do this work and really practice what they've started to preach."
As we talk more and more about those things which are currently having huge repercussions for the British theatre industry, the pandemic-shaped elephant in the room becomes unavoidable. COVID-19 has affected every area of life for almost everyone on the planet, with the arts industries being no exception. Considering just the British theatre industry, during the months of full lockdown all venues were closed to the public and huge numbers of performances cancelled. For Teastain themselves, they have unfortunately had a number of upcoming projects cancelled or postponed. "We were supposed to be launching the first set of school workshops for Wild Thyme the week we went into lockdown," they tell me. "We had been looking forward to going into secondary schools to work with students on the themes of the play—revenge porn and teenage feminism—as well as techniques for devising theatre." Their new show, When You Look Straight Up, which was due to be debuting at Bath's Rondo Theatre in June was also postponed. After these disappointments, I want to ask the company how they've adapted.
"We've found many silver linings to lockdown"
"Despite the challenges of having work cancelled or postponed, we've found many silver linings to lockdown," they tell me refreshingly. "We'd thought of an idea for a devised piece about cat-calling and street harassment a while ago but in lockdown we made the decision to rethink and launch WOOF as a digital project, making an online call-out and beginning to imagine the possibilities of what this show and wider online project could be."
"Working digitally has been a fantastic way to connect with theatre makers from all over," they continue, buoyed by the amount of workshops and discussions they have been attending over Zoom. "We've also recently done a remote read-through of When You Look Straight Up, and are planning to keep working on it digitally for now. We're in a period of reassessing what's next for us as a company and we're feeling optimistic."
There is no denying this is a hugely challenging time for British theatre, and the company themselves admit that there have been many tears, rejections and unproductive days for them all, but Teastain continue to convey their optimism when they tell me how they've "seen an amazing community spirit and support emerging during lockdown. Every day we see the generosity of people giving their time, art and money to help each other. We can only hope that people will continue to be more conscientious and aware of their privileges and of each other."
"It will take so much more than community spirit to achieve a much-needed restructuring of the industry, though," the company tells me, returning to the subject of radical industry change which seems to have been on their minds more than any other topic of late. "Our capitalist society and uneven wealth distribution means we are dependent on those with the most to be generous, but being reliant on people's donations to the arts industry post-COVID is not sustainable. We shouldn't have to rely on charity to survive because theatre shouldn't be considered a luxury and we shouldn't have to prove time and time again the benefit of it to the community. Government intervention and country-wide redistribution of the wealth and resources in theatre would go some way towards solving it, but the effort needs to be sustained. Support has to be continuous, whole-hearted and unwavering for the industry to survive and flourish."