TRCH The Merry Widow

Absurd Theatre Makers Maison Foo Talk Refugees, Puppetry, and A Thing Mislaid

12 October 18 words: Bea Udeh

In one of Derby Theatre’s rehearsal spaces,we find two female Artistic Directors creating A Thing Mislaid, a play that will tour to Nottingham this October.

The Maison Foo performance duo are back at it again; all grown up in the director’s chair, with young toddlers under their belt, and still wanting to produce theatre that shouts “play, play, really play”.  And this time, their production has got the backing of the local refugee community...

“As one half of the team, I bring silliness always. I love absurd [theatre] and I like to play”, reveals Kate Lowe, joint artistic director of Maison Foo, a Derby-based theatre company who love all things puppetry, physical theatre and clowning around. “As a grown up we should be allowed to play. So when we are making work, you tap into that lost bit of your brain that allows you to imagine, and we get lost in that.”

“We’re really enjoying directing at the moment” co-artistic director, Beth Sheldon chips in. Beth and Kate have known each other and worked together since university, and have grown Maison Foo over the past ten years, writing and performing in their own productions. “I think it’s new and fresh, and it’s nice learning about this co-directing relationship; it’s a really nice journey, looking at how we two direct in a room and how we make that work in a devising process.”

Kate continues, “A lot of people have said, ‘if you’re not going to be in it, then it’s not going to be a Maison Foo show.’ So it was about working out what Maison Foo’s language is, and how we can transcend that onto other artists and support them. I can’t tell you how, but it is working; find the right people and find the people willing to play, and I’m hoping that people will agree that it’s got our stamp on it.”

The journey to this new production began during a visit to Ireland three years ago, which led them to a series of landmark activities with this production. “We both had grandads on our mother's side that migrated to England in the 1940’s,” says Beth, “We’re not related, but it’s always been the thing that connects us, that we’re three-quarters Derbyshire and one-quarter Irish.”

They returned from Dublin and Galway having traced their mysterious Irish roots and collected plenty of material. “We thought we were going to write an autobiographical show about our grandads,” explains Beth, “But we came back and thought, ‘That’s interesting, but it’s not Maison Foo’. Some more soul-searching soon led to them to realising that they were the real storytellers.

“What is home when you don’t belong, and how do you find belonging again in a new place? This thought made us research into the journeys and migration stories of other people. We started to work with Derby Refugee Advice Centre.”

But wait. How do you jump from exploring the mysterious past of their Irish grandads to working with refugees living in Derby? “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” says Beth. “That saying really resonated with us, in the sense that we felt this whole thing was about not necessarily being welcome. We found letters from Kate’s Grandad about how he didn’t feel welcome in certain places.

“There was a lot going on in the news and in politics about migration and refugees. We wanted to start getting to know the people who had moved here. We got to meet with them through the Refugee Advice Centre and ran a couple of sessions, had brews with them and got to be friends with them.

“We invited them to come on board with the project and we’ve now got a Refugee Steering Group, who have been sitting in rehearsal rooms and advising and chatting with us about what they’re seeing on stage and how it reminds them of certain moments in their story. They’re helping us to look at the truth of what happens to refugees.”

A Thing Mislaid is quite an absurd story. It’s an absurdist piece,” Beth reinforces, “It’s not verbatim.  It’s not realistic. It’s like a fairy tale in that sense, so it’s kinda quite abstracted. It’s not as if we’re putting their lives on stage, but we’ve been inspired by people’s notion of journey and the different terrains that people would have walked on. There’s a door in the play, which some can and some cannot go through, and that’s a story of the obstacles they face. So the set and props provide the abstract realism for audiences to tap into from any perspective of their lived experience.”

Kate takes me on a tour of the compact, roughly 10-foot x 8-foot stage area, which has stations where props and miniature sets have been deliberately placed. To my eye, it’s a child’s play area with different zones to mess about in, and some very technical bits of kit. The set allows for an interactive show which will include puppetry, shadow work, film projections and acting to happen as the show builds up the layers of the two characters, played by Teele Uustani & Raquel Pereira, who are both making journeys. Kate grabs a video camera and we visit a part of the set that looks like a Derbyshire landscape. She zooms in close as Beth walks her middle finger and forefinger, ‘dressed up’ as clothed legs, traversing the terrain. On the video screen, it looks like a person taking a walk. Very realistic.

“There’s moment in the show when there’s this marshy terrain, and these little feet go through that terrain. One of our group said that the first footstep that she saw projected onto the large screen was her footstep in her journey. It’s going to relate to people who have gone on a gap year somewhere or wanted to journey, but never done so” Beth shares with pride.

Despite the visual nature of the piece, some of the language will be spoken, and to increase the accessibility of the show further, Maison Foo will be piloting a captioning system called the Difference Engine. Normally used by the d/Deaf and hard of hearing communities, this device, using an app, will translate the script into Arabic; as the actors speak the words in English on stage, it will appear in Arabic at the right time on the tablets in their laps.

There is an excitement in bringing different types of people into one space to experience an event, especially on their own terms. “That’s what theatre should do,” says Kate.

“I think that it’s very accessible,” explains Beth. “The language is not overly poetic. It’s quite boiled down, so we can say:
‘Where are you going?’
‘Over there.’
‘Where have you come from?’
‘Back there.’
and it’s quite abstracted. We’re not saying, ‘Over there to Derby,’ or ‘Back there from Delhi’ or something. So lots of people can relate to being ‘here’ or ‘there’ at some point.

Nottingham-based composer, Matt Marks, has worked with Maison Foo on five of their productions, including A Thing Mislaid. Matt is influenced by the music that he absorbs, and is always inspired by sounds from cultures around the world.  “I wanted to give the main theme a taste of the Baltic and Eastern Europe to reflect the performer Teele’s Estonian background as well as my own Jewish heritage.”

“Music is a universal language and as such does not need translation; I like to think that it the emotion and mood it conveys together with all the other dramatic elements - the performers, the design, the lighting - would speak to audiences of any cultural background or experience.”

How has this style of devising, intertwined with community development, made a difference to the outlook of Matt’s work? “A Thing Mislaid was not a change of direction for my work; I always look to the wider world for influences and inspiration, but it certainly felt a more personal and emotional journey as we were all working so closely together and with refugee groups in Derby. It was a real pleasure to be working with Maison Foo again and to see them at the top of their game!”

Both directors want for the arc of the play to end with a sense of hope, but is this utopian theme too false to feed their audience who experience everyday socio-political aggressions? Well, hope does not get misplaced when the tour of the play comes to an end. The epic journey continues, as Maison Foo has built a Refugee Friends Scheme over the past year with plans to extend. Similar to City of Sanctuary, the scheme is a way of working with their touring partner venues to make their work more welcoming and accessible to refugees and their venues. Maison Foo are currently in the process of working towards becoming a Company of Sanctuary.

They have also set up a Meet Your Neighbour scheme, which was kick-started when after a Maison Foo visit, one of the refugee’s commented that they had not spoken to anyone in Derby outside of their small community for over two years. It was the first time that they’d had a proper conversation with anyone.  Activities are being designed with each touring venue to expand on their relationship journey with their refugee audiences.

Kate and Beth feel a responsibility to work with business and building owners in the communities they are performing to, and change their ethos. With this is mind, the long term vision is to build the community, develop a training package for venues, develop audiences and then in 2020, tour an extended version of A Thing Mislaid. Plans for the new version include a second half of the show featuring a refugee artist-in-residence who tours with Maison Foo.

Touring in Nottingham is going to be a familial affair for Maison Foo. The first day of writing A Thing Mislaid after becoming mums happened at Lakeside Arts Centre. “We did our granddad project when we had babies, then we spoke to Shona at Lakeside and said we want to start making plays again, but we’ve got twelve month-olds, and we don’t sleep and all of that. So we were invited to spend a couple of weeks there to do our R&D.

“We used to run their Youth Theatre there. They are like our family in the region, so it is so nice to be going back there as part of the East and West-Midlands tour.”

Maison Foo’s ‘A Thing Mislaid’ will play at Lakeside Arts Centre on Sat 20th October.

Maison Foo website

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