Friday, 26 May 2017

Cow Dramaturgy: Jessica Barker-Wren and Lucy Wray @ Edfringe 2017

Making Room presents:
A rural tragicomedy about a girl, a cow, and learning to ask for help 
Written and performed by Jessica Barker-Wren | Directed by Lucy Wray
Underbelly, 3 – 27 Aug 2017 (not 16), 12.10 (13.10)

Set in writer and performer Jessica Barker-Wren’s home county of Devon, COW explores the wide range of experiences and issues that make up rural life, from chickens to the EU, from climate change to personal loss. 

What was the inspiration for this performance?

JBW: There’s a good dose of me in this one, I sort of sicked it up over a week! Having grown up in the countryside, living in a city, it can sometimes feel like you’re heart’s wrenched out of you,
missing green spaces and quiet, snatching days back home. 

Without wanting to go into too much detail, there was a bit of turbulence in my upbringing, and I’ve found when going back to home turf, the most familiar, comforting thing, is often a landscape the shape of the valley or hills, the rock and soil, as opposed to a mantel piece. So that’s comforting but not necessarily cosy.

LW: I was keen to work with Jess again and basically asked her to write a play we could take to the fringe. It’s been really inspiring to see people like Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge having success writing decent, complex roles for themselves.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

JBW: Goodness, yes of course. I think they’ve taken that to its logical extreme in the USA. In terms of theatre specifically, even if we’re talking about casting-- representing everyone on stage, just for starters, is a powerful act. 

And then the content: sitting with an idea for an hour or two allows for that idea to be heard more calmly. Theatre gives you time to mull something over. Better than a kneejerk 140 characters, right?

LW: Engaging with people and stories is such a powerful way of disseminating and discussing topics that affect us all. Theatre is both an incredibly private and very public space, which brings a really exciting, unique energy. 

I worked with Director Zoe Svendsen on World Factory at the Young Vic and on tour, which was a meticulously researched look at global capitalism through the lens of the clothing industry, and it set a new benchmark for me in how much a piece of theatre can interact with an audience and start a dialogue with them. 

Whenever we perform it, people who may have only met that night stay for ages after the show talking and examining their own behaviour and the systems and invisible structures we live within. Having said that, most theatre is (by its nature) tiny in terms of reach, so I also love television, film and radio as spaces for public discussion.

How did you become interested in making performance?

JBW: as a kid in the South West I was lucky to have wonderful touring companies and a lively rural arts scene (long may it continue). Adults (actors) that seemed collusive, naughty, made me laugh and made me really want to do what they were doing. 

My Godmother was an opera singer and photos my mum took of her backstage in massive dresses were compelling from a very young age. It took a while for me to figure out how to go about making performance of my own, and that making it was most fun, rather than waiting for it to come to me. 

There was a leap I think where I realised that I didn’t need permission to start making something, to start packaging myself as someone who does that, there are lots of us about after all!

LW: I didn’t go to the theatre growing up but I loved acting and performing, and playing team sports – theatre is a community and is a bit like training as a team, culminating in high stakes live appearances. 

Jess and I met at the Oxford School of Drama, where we both really enjoyed applied movement, clowning and devising. That influenced the way we went on to make movement-based political work together after drama school. I came to directing through making my own work and see the role as highly collaborative.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
LW: We’re very comfortable working on our feet, messing around with text, comedy, music. For COW, Jess wrote the script and we spent a couple of productive R&D weeks at The Bike Shed in Exeter getting it up and testing out what worked and what didn’t.  

Our process, especially with something this personal, always involves a lot of talking. We like pushing the boundaries, being as honest as we can in all the gory, all the glory.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

LW: Yes, as a director and dramaturg I’ve worked on a lot of new writing, often with writers who are also performing. The play is full of music, the performer never leaves the stage and all the effort is visible, which tends to happen in a lot of my productions.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

LW: Oh you know, the usual tragicomic spectrum: live, laugh, love. Cry. Call their mums.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

LW: Individual audience members have such a personal response to subjects like grief as it always depends where you are at in your own life. 

When I see theatre I like to be taken care of and respected but also entertained and taken on an emotional journey so I hope that my own work reflects that. I dislike being inadvertently trapped or deceived as an audience member so I watch out for devices that can do that.

Directed by Lucy Wray (They Built It. No One Came and Goodstock), and accompanied by folk songs on guitar by Jessica, the play follows Bethan, still grappling with the loss of her mother, as she returns from her life in London to help her father on the family farm. 

But now it’s Bethan that needs help, and Devon isn’t the same place it was when she left it. As she waits with a cow called Friendly for someone to lend her a tractor, her story unfolds.
Bethan has come down to Yeoford with a cow. There wasn’t another option. This is a casual rural situation – she’s a farmer’s daughter looking to acquire a tractor.   

Devon is flooded (the entire West Country is awash) and she has been trying to take charge. The farm is in disarray: there are pigs for one thing. Pigs? In cream country? And her need for a tractor is actually quite urgent…  

Jessica said, “COW is about returning home to discover the people and support networks you take for granted have changed or disappeared entirely. It’s relevant to anyone struggling with grief, how it changes over time. Fundamentally, COW is about dealing with change – in some ways I reckon that’s what the grieving process is: whether that’s grieving for a way of life of community, a landscape, a loved one, a nation or identity. We’re on the cusp of big changes as a nation, some of those changes will be felt particularly keenly by rural communities. I grew up in Devon and I think rural characters are underrepresented in theatre.”
Jessica and Lucy have collaborated on work for West Yorkshire Playhouse, Lyric Hammersmith, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Hackney Empire, Bush, and Marine Theatre Lyme Regis. They were shortlisted for the Underbelly IdeasTap Award 2015 for avant-garde theatrical concert HENGE.

Lucy Wray is a director of new writing whose work has been seen recently at the Young Vic, Greenwich Theatre, New Diorama, Vault Festival and Edinburgh Fringe. Her latest production, RUN (The Bunker), is nominated for Best Production at the Off West End Awards. She directed They Built It. No One Came by Callum Cameron at Pleasance in 2016 and Goodstock by Olivia Hirst in 2015, both of which toured the UK following successful runs at Pleasance Edinburgh Fringe. She works with Director Zoe Svendsen on projects including World Factory as Associate Director/game co-writer. She contributes to developing new scripts at the National Theatre and for Mammoth Screen.  

Jessica Barker-Wren is an actor and musician originally from Devon, where COW is set. She has devised work with Theatre Alibi, Camilla Whitehill, and Matthew Floyd Jones, and sings and writes songs for her bands Cylleni and Beach Violence.

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