Artistic Director – The UnDisposables
Interviewed – June 2020
Welcome Esther, tell me a little bit about yourself
I grew up around the UK but found my home in London, a place filled with creative inspiration. I originally wanted to be an actor, but found I was too much of a control freak to simply wait for other people to cast me in things. I spent several years finding my feet and learning as much as I could about the industry, all the while working a plethora of day jobs to fund my passion. I never went to university or Drama School, but in 2016 I secured a place on the National Theatre’s introduction to playwriting course. It was around this time I stopped seeking validation from others and began to believe in myself as a professional artist. I now find great joy in sharing this feeling with other emerging artists around me.
What inspired you to start your art and theatre collective, the UnDisposables?
It was something I had been teetering on the edge of for a long time, but actually the thing that pushed me over the edge to finally make a start was in 2017 when Shakespeare’s Globe announced that Emma Rice would be stepping down as their Artistic Director after only being in charge for one Summer. I know that Emma Rice’s use of lights and amplified sound is a touchy debate, and I’m not saying she was entirely right in her choices, but what really shocked me was how fast she was shut down for experimenting, and what is theatre if we can’t take risks and try new things? Emma Rice made her ‘Summer of Love’ at the Globe one which set out to “rock the ground”, and I felt a sudden urge to follow in her footsteps and quit waiting for someone else to permit me to do so.
Why did you decide to call it the UnDisposables? It’s a great name!
Thank you! Coming up with a name was a real hard task, and I’d advise anyone who is also thinking of setting up a theatre company (or any company for that matter!) to not let this decision paralyse you. It’s a hard thing to get right but finding the name for me came after going back to the roots of why I was setting the company up: I wanted a company that made anyone involved feel valued. Too often as an emerging artist you feel lost in a crowd, fighting an uphill battle in an oversubscribed industry. It’s easy to feel discouraged when you’re going up for the role of ‘blonde girl 3’ in an unpaid student film which you don’t even really want, and you find there are another 50 women in your casting going for the same part. I often felt totally disposable which made me wonder why I was even trying, but I strongly believe that everyone in the industry has their own shining uniqueness which they can offer. I wanted the company’s name to reflect this, and I can happily say our UnDisposable community has only proved further to me the value of every single artist.
Did you always know that you wanted to be involved in the theatre?
Pretty much, or always in the arts in some way. As a small child I wanted to be a painter, then Jacqueline Wilson made me want to be a writer, then seeing Wicked on the West End as a young teen made me want to be an actor. I’ve always been far more captivated and drawn to theatre than film or TV, I think it’s probably the magic of it being live, and being in that room packed with strangers watching something unique unfold in front of you, just for that moment.
The UnDisposable’s Julius Caesar at The Space
Your most recent play – an adaption of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set against a background of environmental crisis – received fantastic reviews. How did you and the team go about adapting the play to this new context?
Well the first thing was I gave a strict brief to the director: this play can be set anywhere, anytime, any place, but you must not make it about Brexit or Trump. As much as the parallels are there, none of us need more of that in our lives. The environmental crisis idea came from the Director, Kate Bauer. We had a wonderful RnD back in November with our Producer, Conor Gray, and some fantastic members of the UnDisposable collective. We chatted through the concepts and drew parallels between Extinction Rebellion and the conspirators in Julius Caesar. Once we had the cast in place, it was then up to us to work collectively to piece together the concept even further, working out what role every character played in our fictional XR group. It drew out a lot of interesting debate on how far is too far to achieve something for the greater good, and is there really a good and evil side in this classic Shakespeare story.
What has been your most enjoyable production that you’ve done with the UnDisposables to date and why?
For me personally (and totally selfishly), nothing will compare to last summer’s production of my own play, The Jailer’s Daughter. This was a play so close to my heart and seeing it come to life in its full form for a one-week run was…well, it’s hard to actually put into words! Nothing will quite compare with that feeling of fizzing excitement and nervous dread as a packed room of strangers is about to see your work, especially when you get to see your work performed by an absolutely stellar cast. I was also lucky enough to work with an old childhood friend (and brilliant director) on this piece, Sarah Fox. It was incredibly enjoyable seeing what Foxy and the cast did with my script, their ideas gave it a whole new energy and I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity.
I see you also offer writing workshops for aspiring writers to showcase their work. What inspired you to start these?
New writing has always been the heart of what the UnDisposables do. We produced our first scratch night to help us build our confidence not just as a theatre company, but as writers too. Hannah Whyman (one of our founding members) and I each wrote a 10-minute scene. Both scenes would be the first time we had our work performed to a live audience, and it was a really eye opening experience for the both of us. But more than that, it made us aware of the need for new writing opportunities in the wider industry. We had over 60 writers also apply to our inaugural scratch night, despite being a completely unknown company. Since then, we have produced a further four new writing theatre nights, and each time have had more and more writers apply to be a part of it. It feels important to give space for these writers to see their work in a professional, yet accessible setting which helps them improve their craft, giving more voices to our theatre industry.
How has the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic been affecting your work and theatre company?
It has been tough. The whole pandemic standstill really knocked us, especially at first. Lockdown began to creep up on us in the midst of our run of Julius Caesar at the Space theatre, a show which sadly had to be cut short. We also had to cancel our workshop on People & Power in Shakespeare as the fear of the virus limited our ticket sales. It hit us financially as most of our income comes from ticket sales, but more importantly, it definitely hit us creatively. It has been hard to keep momentum going in this artistic blackout, especially when we don’t know when things will be back to normal. I’m a person who works far more effectively when they’re busy, so being stuck at home with no shows to see or events to run has been a challenge. A big part of that challenge has been to not put too much pressure on myself to make something incredible out of this crappy situation, and to accept that it’s okay to take a step back in these strange times.
Have you been able to offer any online alternatives to your audience during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Yes actually! We ran an online scratch night in April on the date when we were meant to be producing a live theatre new writing night. It was very small scale and experimental, but it did spur us on to plan another one, titled ‘Scratching the Servers: Independence Day’ which will take place via Zoom Webinar on 4th July. We are aiming to make this online performance as close to a live theatre show as possible and are currently in the phase of reading through applications. The UnDisposables are also co-producing an online show with Scorner Theatre on the 16th July as part of the Space Theatre’s Locked Down, Looking Up season. More information on this show can be found here: https://space.org.uk/event/locked-down-double-bill/
Do you have any recommendations for online theatre-related opportunities and events or ways for people to still feel involved in the theatre community during this difficult time?
There are two sides to this advice, but I’ll first say do make sure you find the right balance. The first bit of advice I have is, please go easy on yourself and try not to feel too much FOMO. There may be a lot of people seemingly achieving a lot on social media, but social media is only one (often idealised) source of truth. If you find yourself getting blue over your twitter feed, switch it off, walk away and don’t feel bad for not jumping on every Zoom webinar out there. The second bit of advice is to find a couple of mediums which do encourage you. There are many theatre professionals doing online talks and masterclasses, many of them are free. Of course, I’m biased, but the Space Theatre is doing some great online meet ups with directors and writers, book clubs and screenings which are all free to join as and when you can. Set some time aside to nurture your artistic brain and engage with other creatives, reminding yourself that you’re not alone in this.
Do you think that theatre can offer something unique in these troubling times in comparison to television, film and other forms of media?
Absolutely. Theatre will always offer something different. I think the biggest thing it’s offering to me right now is hope. The way the theatre community has come together across the globe has been incredible to see. It makes me excited to see what work will be created when we finally come out the other side of all this.
There have been a lot of comments online about Covid-19 being likely to inspire artists to create work around themes such as isolation, stagnation and crisis. Have you been able to reflect on the pandemic and channel this into any sort of creative output?
I did write a short piece for the BBC writer’s room call out for short scripts about isolation early on, but since then I’ve personally tried to stay away from these themes as it feels a bit overwhelming to dwell on them while we’re still stuck. I suspect on reflection though that it will affect my writing and the stories I am drawn to produce.
Do you have a favourite theatre production of all time?
Whenever anyone asks me this question I blabber on about the same play: The Almeida’s The Oresteia. This was my first Robert Icke play and it blew me away. I loved everything, the clever use of multimedia, how seamlessly Icke adapted a classic story into a modern setting, the phenomenal Lia Williams as Clytemnestra, and the way the entire setting was flipped on its head at the end…utterly inspiring and unforgettable.
If you could meet any theatre legend, who would it be and why?
There are so many. If you asked 15-year-old me I’d have said David Tennant, no doubt. Then for a while it was definitely the Globe’s current Artistic Director, Michelle Terry. But currently I’m on a massive Robert Icke hype, especially as in the past few years my writing passion has become adaptations. I’d love to pick his brains one to one about his previous adaptations and chat about all the concepts I have buzzing around my brain.
Thank you, Esther
Interviewed by Flora Doble
Production Photography by Phil Brooks
Find out more about Esther and The UnDisposables from the links here:
Twitter – @joyfulthespian @undisposables
Instagram – @estherjoymackay @the_undisposables
Facebook – UnDisposables