Interview with Activist Theatre Group: Goblin Baby

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"Founded in 2013, the Goblin Baby Theatre Co. is a London-based activist theatre ensemble not afraid to address taboos and set out to challenge the confines of conventional theatre. We focus on creating theatre that gives a voice to people and stories which are unknown, forgotten, repressed or ignored. Goblin Baby has a particular interest in working with new writing and, thus far, several original scripts have been commissioned for our productions. Furthermore, we are also interested in working with undiscovered and neglected scripts. Our aim is to create thought-provoking productions that have the potential to raise social awareness as well as to expose and question the world and society we live in." (GoblinBaby.com)

Sophie Porter speaks to Tessa Hart - Producing Artistic Director.

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1) Goblin Baby is a largely female-led Theatre Company. Is that by choice or coincidence? How did you form the company?

It’s definitely by choice. Kind of for the same reason that femalearts.com exists. Women are simply not equally represented in the arts. Look at actresses, for instance; there are a lot more female actresses in London but way more male roles available in theatre projects. So we just want to create more opportunities for female artists to contribute a little bit towards achieving more of a balance in theatre in general. However, the idea is by no means to exclude men, men have been involved in all our projects as well. We don’t want to say that theatre in general should just focus on women, but there should be equality and an even balance and we have a situation where male artists and male voices are much more present, so we felt a need to get more female voices out there.

The company started in 2013 and is kind of partly still coming together as we’re in our very early stages right now. I started it for many reasons really, one being, to create more opportunities for female artists, but beyond that also because I believe in the power of theatre to break boundaries and rules as well as to address taboos, issues and topics that don’t get addressed often enough or sometimes not at all, or when they do they are only looked at through our existing prejudices. And theatre has the power to explore things differently and move beyond that.

2) You describe yourselves (Goblin Baby) as an 'emerging activist theatre group'; what makes you 'activists'?

I think what makes our projects activist is that with all we do we aim to expose and question our society with the intention of contributing towards changing attitudes. We don’t want to lecture anyone or impose our own opinions but we do aim to promote change and delve beyond the confines of theatre made purely for entertainment. Theatre is, and should be, entertaining, but we want to offer audiences more than that.

3) You're currently working on RETOLD - Fairytale Festival - for The Space and The Hen & Chickens Theatre; why, out of all forms of story-telling, did you decide to adapt and 'retell' fairytales?

I’ve had a personal fascination and obsession with fairytales since I was a child. As a teenager I read my way through dozens of fairytale books and that’s when I discovered that the ones we typically tend to know in the Western world, are just a tiny fragment of a whole universe of fairytales that exist in the world, not just in different cultures, but also many, many different versions of the fairytales we think we know.

The Brothers Grimm, for instance, did not originally create any of the fairytales they published; they merely collected them and wrote them down, and in that process, they also wrote down their very own, and very male oriented, versions of them. So you have these stories where women are mostly limited to either being evil or beautiful. The male characters, on the other hand, are usually good, heroic and powerful (and if ever they do something bad it’s probably the fault of some evil ugly woman) but at the same time there is this huge expectancy on them to deliver and save the poor helpless (and obviously stunningly beautiful) female . It’s a very strange and distorted representation of women and men actually.

Interestingly, I think it represents almost an extreme version of certain attitudes and ideas that exist in our world. So exposing this by using these stories we are so familiar with seemed a great opportunity for RETOLD to break conventions on several levels, theatrically as well as socially.

4) For RETOLD, you've chosen to adapt 'Snow White', 'Little Red Riding Hood' & 'Rapunzel'; why did those Fairytales, over so many in existence, stand out to you the most?

Well I just came up with the concept for the show. I wanted three traditional fairytales retold in a contemporary, darkly-comic and socio-critical approach, using no more than three actors (and no more than one male actor per play), and no longer than 25 minutes. I then left it up to the writers to pick which exact fairytales they wanted to work on, so I’ve got actually their answers for this one:

Claire Booker (Little Red Hoodie based on Little Red Riding Hood): I reread my childhood Grimm’s fairy tales and was interested by two or three possible tales, but wolves have always interested me (had terrible wolf nightmares as child!) and I suddenly thought - what must it have been like for Gran and Hoodie to be inside the wolf? Were they alone, or like that Nile crocodile found with about 11 women's bangles inside it? Once I knew my setting would be inside the wolf's belly, the rest followed.

Tilly Lunken (The Snow White Complex based on Snow White): I had trouble choosing a fairy tale I was both interested in re-telling and working within the brief of three actors. I spent a good while asking everyone I knew for ideas and Snow White kept coming up as a non-option as there were these seven little men! So, I guessed that became the challenge. Three girls; three core elements - mirrors; beauty and mothers and you have the makings of how our favourite fairytales shape who we are.

Amy Bethan Evans (As if by a Stair based on Rapunzel): When asked to write a politically satirical fairy tale, I immediately said " what about Rapunzel, who can't afford to move out of her parents' house?" At the time I had just finished an 8-year job at the Disney Store, during which I dressed up as Rapunzel and read the story. I was also 26 and living with my parents. Having thoroughly enjoyed Mike Barlett's Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court, I began to think about other people of my generation in the same situation. Some research of the Grimm version of Rapunzel suggested that it reflects young women's desires to leave their mothers so this kind of validated my choice. I am grateful to my parents for keeping me (I am now 27!) But the political climate is rubbish for my generation and it's about time we got angry about it.

5) Fairytales, as we know them now, generally put forth an unrealistic portrayal of beauty, body image and - not forgetting - gender equality (or inequality); how do you subvert and/or use these tropes to your advantage?

The plays presented at RETOLD are inspired by or based on traditionally known fairytales, but they are all very, very, very different from what you’ll remember from your Grimm’s Fairytales... or Disney movies. The Snow White Complex, for instance, deals exactly with that unrealistic portrayal of beauty by showing how those ideas of beauty and body images we are given as young girls have lasting consequences still for us as grown up women. Little Red Hoodie looks not just at gender inequality but gender violence and our attitudes to it. As if by a Stair, deals with the anger of the current young generation when trying to secure jobs and a future just that there is no handsome heroic Prince eagerly waiting to rescue you, so you’ve got to try and save yourself somehow. Basically, we use the fairytale stereotypes but show how harmful and destructive some of these ideas actually can be.

6) Do you think there is equality in the workplace? If not, why?

No equality, no. I already mentioned the example of more male roles in theatre, but it goes far beyond that. I think we haven’t got equality in the workplace because we haven’t got equality in society. I can mostly speak about theatre, because that’s where I work.

When I first set out to be an actress, for instance, another woman said to me that it was a stupid idea because I was a woman, short and mixed race and that life was going to be tough enough for me as it was, so why did I need to pick such a tricky profession as well. Sadly this person meant well, but it is just an example of how accepting we’ve become of inequality that instead of questioning it, people just try to adapt themselves to it and avoid areas where they might experience inequality. But as long as we do that rather than challenging these situations in every way we can, there won’t be any change.

7) Who inspires you?

A lot of people inspire me, in a lot of very different situations and contexts. I don’t really want to start naming people, because I’ll either go on forever and ever and ever or I’ll miss out someone really essential, or probably both! A couple of days ago, for instance, I attended an event at the Southbank Centre, The State of Female Justice in the UK, in the lead up to One Billion Rising for Justice on 14th February and there were definitely a lot of inspiring women there. I’ve also worked with a lot of inspiring people on theatre projects and I keep meeting or hearing about more and more inspiring people through projects all the time... I should probably put together a list some time.

8) What was the biggest challenge, bringing RETOLD to the stage? How did you overcome this?

There were a lot of challenges; I guess the biggest was, initially getting the project off the ground, so basically turning it from a pure concept into an actual show with a venue and creative team attached to it. But then, once our RETOLD team came together things started to flow and grow... and we even got invited to transfer to a second venue now, which is really amazing. Then again, right now feels like a massive challenge as well, because it’s days before opening night and crazy busy and stressful, although really, really exciting at the same time.

The attitude I have to overcoming challenges is no matter how impossible it may seem, I just start doing it and then just keep going no matter what. And that make things possible and doable! And RETOLD also has a great team of creative and supportive people who are all very pro-active and invested in the show, which is fantastic.

9) Finally... What's next for a Goblin Baby?

Quite a few things throughout the year! We’re continuing to work loads at The Space on the Isle of Dogs. They’re an awesome venue and we performed our first project ever there last year (UNHEARD Festival) and are opening RETOLD over there next week. So on 16th March we’re going back again with a one-off benefit performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. In June we’ll stage our first full length there The Devil & Stepashka, by Claire Booker, which is inspired by a Tolstoy short story and, amongst other things, raises the question if there can be true justice in an unjust society.

Then we’re currently in the middle of confirming a venue for FORESEEN for the Camden Fringe, which will feature the same three writers as RETOLD, but this time will take a look at future and post-apocalyptic scenarios, imagining the possible aftermaths of our world's current societies and attitudes.

And finally in November we really hope to achieve to stage a second instalment of UNHEARD, which is a festival exploring new writing on themes around sexual abuse and violence. We did it over two nights last year at The Space and hope that in 2014 we can expand it and present a one week festival, starting on the 25th November because that is also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. We haven’t got a venue for this one yet though... just mentioning it here, feel free to get in touch with us!

(C) Goblin Baby 2013

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RETOLD - A Fairytale Festival... without the 'happily ever after'
14th January to 1st February at The Space as well as The Hen & Chickens Theatre
More details: www.goblinbaby.com/retold

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Web: http://GoblinBaby.com

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