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:
Hi, please tell us a bit about yourself. What attracted you to the theatre, and what keeps you coming back?
It’s such a cliché, but I was a really shy kid brought out my shell by supportive teachers, drama at school and then amateur dramatic groups. I was dead set on being just a professional actor, then ended up writing short bits and bobs for drama classes. I wrote my first full length play at 19, fell into directing my own shorts, then got a job in theatre management/production, and gradually learned to balance a mixture of all four. I call myself a jack of all trades, but theatre-maker sounds more official.
Theatre has always been the most accessible storytelling medium to me. With film and video there’s so much equipment, training, pre and post production etc. needed to tell your story properly—you don’t have that with theatre, it’s a great leveller creatively. I love the immediacy and intimacy of a live audience, the adrenaline of a buzzing house and the irreplaceable nature of nightly performances. It’s sharing a moment with a room that may never be repeated or replicated. Now more than ever, it’s the communality of the theatrical experience that I miss.
You trained at the East 15 Acting School. What was special or unique about your training there? Any teachers who were particularly inspirational?
I applied for the Acting BA but was auditioned by the head of the World Performance BA and offered a place, which I jumped at. Best decision I could have made! It was a fusion course, so we had traditional western training, as well as masterclasses in International theatre styles (Beijing Opera, Balinese Temple Dance, Shadow Puppetry for example) and modules in other disciplines like Political Theatre, Script-Writing and Stand-up. Having so many different influences helped broaden my skill set and set me up as a theatre-maker. It also taught me some fun party tricks.
We made a lot of devised work and there was independent study time for our own practice. There was also a focus on the academic study of theatre, which has really helped to inform my craft and contextual skills. East 15 has a great track record for producing well-rounded, self-starting theatre-makers and companies. I think that’s where the future of the industry is. For teachers, there were many greats, but I have to give a shout out to Dr. MJ ‘Jiggs’ Coldiron, who gives constant encouragement, besides being the smartest person I’ve met. I’m happy to say that she’s still a frequent collaborator.
You founded a company called The Heretical Historians in 2014. It’s an intriguing name for a company. Please tell us how you chose the name, and how it reflects the work you’ve created for it. Who else is involved?
I wrote my first script based on a true story for Edinburgh 2014 with the Hour Lot Theatre. Dear Mister Kaiser is the true story of Captain Robert Campbell, a British P.O.W. in the First World War. He wrote a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II asking for compassionate leave to visit his dying mother. He was granted leave on the sole condition that he promised to return after two weeks. It was such a joy to research the historical context of the show and to make all the pieces and characters fit together realistically. From that point, I knew that I wanted to tell true stories above all else. It seems redundant to try and create a new fiction when there are so many great untold stories out there.
The mission of the Heretical Historians is to tell ridiculous, untold, TRUE stories from history. This mission hasn’t changed and our style has stayed pretty similar too. Because of my devotion to Brecht, we were always going to be an Epic Theatre company. The word ‘Heretical’ came from our friend Niall, the smartest person in the room at the meeting where we got started, and it’s been a great fit. It’s a mature enough word to distinguish us from the silliness of Horrible Histories (which I love, by the way) and lets audiences know that we’re going to be challenging the expectations and conventions of history. We also like a nice bit of alliteration.
We have a pool of recurring actors, techs, designers and producers, but the core of the Historians team are co-director/company ‘do-er’ Lloyd McDonagh, and I. Lloyd and I are best mates from East 15. He joined us for our first show at Edinburgh 2015 (The Greatest Stories Never Told), and since then we’ve developed a symbiotic directing relationship. I’ll focus on text, sound and tech stuff, while Lloyd does our set, visuals and blocking. I tend to restrict myself to cameos on stage these days, but Lloyd is too great a character actor to lose, so we give him a good weighty part together with all his other roles.
What’s your process in creating work for The Heretical Historians? Do you create the script as an ensemble, or is there one person in charge of creating the script?
Before each project begins, Lloyd and I will sit down and chat about all the stories, ideas or fragments that we are considering. We’ll ask ourselves “are they relevant, is there enough material, can we do it?” When we pick one, I’ll dive into research mode for a few months and write a first draft for a reading and a workshop. By the time we’ve cast the show, I’m another few drafts in and we’ll work it in the room as an ensemble. It’s important for us to work with a team that is honest and willing to have conversations about making everything right. We do a lot of text work with the actors before we fully block a piece and we always save our bigger set pieces/sequences to be devised as an ensemble. We’re usually tinkering with the show until the run is over. We encourage ad-libbing (within reason), so we never have a show that is ‘set’—it’s always organic and changing, which helps keep it fresh and exciting.
Describe one or two productions for The Heretical Historians. Do you have any future projects in the works?
We do a lot of work with genre parody, which makes the worlds of the show immediately accessible to audiences. It gives the stories a focus, a style and a set of tropes to play with, plus it saves us having to fork out for accurate period costumes. As an example, in The Trial of Le Singe (2017), we told the true story of The Hartlepool Monkey. In the Napoleonic Wars, a shipwrecked monkey washed ashore in North-East England, was mistaken for a Frenchman, put on trial of espionage, found guilty and hung. Because of the recurring themes of nationalism, class warfare and mob justice, we set it as a ‘Young Ones’ style punk farce, which gave us license for a lot of anarchic humour and chaos. To balance out all the low humour, and to reinforce the national identity theme, the monkey (Le Singe) delivered his own defence in faux Shakespearian iambic pentameter, which naturally fell on deaf ears.
In We Own Everything (2018), we really hit our Epic Theatre stride. It was a financial thriller based on the rise of the Rothschild banking dynasty and the discrimination they faced as Jews in Regency England. It was also partly a 1920s ‘coming to America’ story with the second half channelling 80s Wall Street. We had a cast of 9, including Napoleon and a scaled down battle of Waterloo; a stock market crash; Mad King George III and the Prince Regent; pigeons ziplining over the audience; and we gave out fizz to the audience on entry. Holy sh*t we went to town on that one! It went up two weeks before The Lehman Trilogy began at The National, so our legacy was a bit swamped by the competition.
We’re currently working on the true story of history’s worst actor, Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates, and the catastrophic production of Romeo and Juliet that he put on in the West End. An aristocratic amateur, he starred as Romeo (in his 40s!), directed, produced and re-wrote the script creating a perfect disaster. But it sold out nightly and went on to tour the country. We’re giving it the Tommy Wiseau/Disaster Artist treatment. It’s an underdog story and a lot of fun. But it also says a lot about privilege and the abuse of status within the arts, as well as theatre’s capacity to unite the nation (albeit for the wrong reasons). We are due to perform it in June 2020, although that seems increasingly unlikely. Watch this space.
You’ve brought work by The Heretical Historians to The Space, in London’s Isle of Dogs. What makes The Space such a great venue for companies like yours?
The hardest thing for a new company is getting your foot in the door without having stacks of cash to spend on hiring a venue. For a venue to offer you a split on box office and help share your risk was unimaginable when we started. The fact The Space still programmes like this is testament to the work they support. We swiftly became part of the furniture at the Space with all the marketing and production support we received, as well as being welcomed into the fold by everyone. As the Historians, we loved the performance space because it has so much character. It’s such an epic, unique building, with plenty of entrances, exits and levels that we can play with, to make immersive 360° productions. It’s a world away from the black boxes that struggle to get two actors on stage at once.
The Space is the real deal in terms of having an ethos of giving, supporting and nurturing their artists and the local community. Everyone they attract has a generous, passionate and ambitious vision. I was very grateful for the support that they gave me, so I started volunteering for them. When you’ve worked at The Space once, you never really leave, you just fall into orbit.
You’re currently Deputy Director at The Space. Tell us about your role there. What did a typical working day look like before all the theatres had to shut down?
The Space is a team of three, with a huge amount of support from volunteers and interns. With such a small staff, my job has quite a broad remit and there’s a lot of different strands required to run the venue, so there’s a lot of variety! The main constant is drinking lots of coffee.
I live fairly nearby so I’m usually the first one in. I’ll start off by opening up the building, by checking emails/voicemails and sorting our social media for the day. Depending what’s happening that day, I may have to reset from the previous night’s show, set up for rehearsals/auditions or assist a get-in. There’s usually programming work or fundraising applications to crack on with, and I have meetings with all incoming companies to help with their marketing. If we’re working on an in-house production, I may have to source props/costume or make/decorate the set. If we have new volunteers or interns, I’ll show them the ropes and induct them, and if we’re quiet, I’ll try and do some DIY around the venue or do some rearranging and Marie Kondo-ing of our offices. Because I arrive early, I don’t usually work box office in the evening, but I’ll always do a shift to make sure I see each show we have at least once. I also get invited to see shows and companies at other theatres, which is a nice cap to a day at the office.
Now that we’re all working from home, describe your working day at the moment. Do you stay in regular touch with your colleagues at The Space? What’s your favourite way of doing that?
Sadly, as I’ve been furloughed, I’m doing a lot less for The Space than I’d like to. I’m still contributing artistically, sitting on committees, and helping with script reading/development, but as part of the conditions of furlough, I’m not allowed to carry out my usual day to day duties. I’ve been told to use this time for ‘personal development’, so I’m taking online courses, reading a lot, and writing passion projects out of my system. I’m trying to act as an ambassador for anyone who wants to know more about The Space and what we do. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be in this position, so I’m offering my skills as a script reader/editor and producer gratis for anyone who is looking for feedback or advice until the lockdown is lifted. Gimme a shout if you need it!
We still speak a lot as friends at The Space. We’ll have a weekly Zoom catch up and there’s been some cracking memes on the group Whatsapp. We all show up to support any digital events The Space runs as well. I’m really glad to be part of such a supportive team.
Are you working on new projects for The Space? Care to share?
Now that we have dealt with the immediate issues of closing, such as re-programming shows, contacting bookers etc. we’ve been focusing on making sure that we are still staying active and engaged throughout the lockdown. I’m really proud of the solutions we’ve found, such as taking our script development readings and community theatre group onto Zoom, for example. We’re also hosting a weekly theatre club, where we watch a streamed production then discuss it together. We are also hosting frequent playwright and director meet-ups.
Of course we’re also looking to the future. We’re excited to bring back Two Fest, our duologue festival, after a successful first year. There may also be a blockbuster Christmas production in the works that I can’t say too much about yet.
Other than theatre, what’s your favourite way to deal with boredom while staying at home? Any advice you can give the rest of us?
There’s been a LOT of comfort TV to shake off the existential dread. Wallace and Gromit; classic Simpsons; This Country; Tiger King (of course). I’m also trying to spruce up the gaff with some DIY/gardening; pick up the guitar again, and be a better father to my cats.
My top tips are:
— Try and find a way to create a routine/variety to your week, such as Tuesdays for deep cleaning; a special meal on Fridays; take Sundays off. — If you’re at a loss for something to do, Twitter has got some amazing digital opportunities. I’d highly recommend looking into Drunk Plays and Coronavirus Theatre Club for a start. — Have things to look forward to, such as make a list of 10 people, places or things you’re going to see when lockdown lifts. Alternatively, get drunk and order something online. It’ll take a while to arrive and give you a pleasant surprise! — Don’t feel bad if you’re not as productive as you want to be. You haven’t been handed a holiday or a sabbatical—you’re living through Doomsday, so give yourself a break. —There’s also no shame in only consuming during this period. There are so many great free courses, resources, apps, podcasts, programmes and theatre streams out there to learn from. — If you really aren’t feeling good, please reach out! Friends, family, neighbours, professionals, whoever it may be. You don’t need to suffer alone. This crisis has shown just how much compassion and care we as a species have for each other.
And finally, Theatre post COVID-19. Will we go back to creating theatre the way we did before? If not, what do you think might change?
I don’t think we can go back from this, as an industry or as a society. The pandemic has highlighted how broken many of our systems and practices are. I especially fear for fringe theatre. So many venues and emerging/mid-career companies were hanging on by a thread already, and they are going to be decimated by the economic impact of the pandemic. It’s gutting. So if you are able, consider donating to your favourite local theatres, or booking for future performances or joining membership schemes. These are the easiest and most effective ways to help venues at the moment.
However, we are in for a new wave of punk across the arts. Not safety pins and mohawks, but of people creating and engaging with the arts outside traditional structures, and with raw, unfiltered voices (especially underrepresented voices!). I want to see people doing theatre in unconventional venues, with low/no budget or homemade production values; with fierce satire, and passion, passion, passion. I’m hoping that this energy could also be the creative and constructive outlet for the build-up of anger that has been stewing in many people for a while now, as well as being a catalyst for change.
Whatever happens, the desire to create and share stories is immutable. Theatre folk are incredibly resilient and they are used to tough times. They’re just going to be even tougher for a while. But we’ll find a way to carry on developing work, making magic and holding up a mirror where we need to. Theatre always finds a way.
Thank you for speaking to us and keep safe.
Interviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography courtesy of Matthew Jameson
Find out more about Matthew, The Space and The Heretical Historians from the links here: