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Interview with Madelaine Moore: Artistic Director of theatre company The Thelmas

Director Madelaine Moore is co-founder and Artistic Director of The Thelmas, a theatre company designed to promote and support work by and about women. Alongside Chief Executive, Guleraana Mir, the Thelmas are keen to showcase unique and unusual pieces of art which may not have found a home in mainstream theatre. Two such productions will be premiering at London's upcoming Vault Festival. Santi & Naz tells the story of two friends living in a small village in 1940s India and dealing with the tumultous effects of partition while Notch contemplates the links between xenophobia, homelessness and mental health in modern day Dublin. Topical subjects for an increasingly divided world. Run Riot caught up with Madelaine to learn more about the Thelmas and her analysis of theatre today.
Kerenza: How did the Thelmas come into being? 

Madelaine: I got into directing through doing participatory work, but found that I wasn’t really seeing the kind of work that I was interested in programmed in traditional theatre spaces. I definitely wasn’t seeing female writers commissioned, and the kind of female-led work that I was seeing didn’t really interest me. 

I started to feel so frustrated that I eventually decided to do something about it. I came up with the idea of Ladylogue!, an evening of one-woman shorts which ran as part of Camden Fringe. I approached six female writers whose work I liked and gave them carte blanche to write about anything they wanted, but first I asked them to tell me about the things they weren’t writing because they thought they might be too weird, too scary to tackle, or just not interesting to anyone. Out of that came lots of great things, but most notably the beginnings of Guleraana’s play, Coconut in 2014, and a 15 minute version of Ladykiller in 2015. Once I realised that there was demand for the kind of work I was producing, I decided to start to build the company more seriously and Guleraana joined The Thelmas formally as my partner.

Kerenza: Your two upcoming plays Santi & Naz and Notch deal with pre-partition India and xenophobia in modern-day Dublin respectively. Do you specifically set out to showcase plays about other cultures? 

Madelaine: I am white British and Guleraana is British Asian, so it is natural to us that the company’s work should reflect this. Further to that, both of us come from a participatory background, which means that our interest in hearing different stories are pretty finely tuned. We both recognise a dire need for unheard voices to be represented. For us it’s about a bit more than culture though, it is also about people with different lived experiences, from different socio-economic backgrounds, and probably most importantly to us, diversity of thought and ideas. Something I have learned through my experiences, is that there is no such thing as a single-issue story. A story of violence for example, might also be a story of addiction, which is in turn masking a story of an untreated mental health diagnosis brought on by abuse, poverty or neglect. It is our responsibility as makers wanting to help tell these stories to tackle the messiness of someone’s existence and get under the skin of how it feels, as well as what it might look like on the surface.

Kerenza: What defines the protagonists in your upcoming plays? 

Madelaine: One of the things that we are interested in when telling female-led stories is addressing the question of agency; who is at the centre of the story and do they drive their own story forward? With both Santi & Naz and Notch, the characters are locked in a struggle to find agency in a world which affords them no power. No matter how flawed their handling of their situations might be, or poorly judged the actions they take, they are determined to try to carve their own paths. This is also something that came up in Ladykiller and Coconut – what we see on stage is essentially the consequences of this struggle. It is frequent to see theatre that places marginalised characters in the role of victim to which circumstance happen, particularly when they are also female identifying, so we are really hot on making sure we push back against that.

Kerenza: You deal with serious topics but prefer to tackle these issues with humour. Do you find this to be a more effective medium than pure drama? Is it challenging to find the comedy in the darkest of situations? 

Madelaine: This probably says more about me and how I handle dark situations, but some of my own less positive life experiences have brought out the very darkest of my already pretty murky gallows humour, so I find that I am drawn to find the humour in these moments on stage too. That’s not to say that I only want to explore humour – we need to be able to explore emotionally hefty situations on stage, but for me it is about the complexity of the emotional response human beings have to adversity. There is something fascinating about the way that human beings make upsetting or challenging things ‘safe’ for themselves through rationalisation, deflection or humour. Maybe it’s a British thing. Personally, I would much rather come out of a heavy show having felt as though I had been able to enjoy the experiences, as well as be challenged by it.

Kerenza: Theatre can have a reputation for being cliquey and exclusive. How do you encourage new and emerging talents who may have no previous experience or contacts in the industry? 

Madelaine: It IS cliquey and exclusive! Sorry, I can’t help myself… in all seriousness, there are some absolutely brilliant grassroots organisations doing fantastic work making the arts accessible to those least likely to have any way of taking part, but I honestly don’t think they get anywhere near enough credit. Often what happens is you have these small charities working quietly away for years on weekend and after school provisions, or in prisons, or day centres, or youth clubs, and then a larger theatre organisation with more funding, clout and infrastructure will do a very visible, big one-off project and that is the thing that gets written about in The Stage or The Guardian. It really frustrates me!

So much of it is about access. I was talking to Afshan who co-wrote Santi & Naz and she said that when she was a child she had not seen a play in the theatre until she was actually in a play herself, and so often this is the case. With the dwindling budgets for schools to do theatre trips, or provide drama classes or clubs, it is a real concern. When I used to run a programme for a youth arts charity in Westminster and the (Tory) council cut the youth provision budget, suddenly all the youth centres shut and loads of youth workers got made redundant. This sends a very clear message to those young people… so one thing we can do is not vote Tory!

In terms of adult emerging artists, I do feel as though some of the gap has been bridged in that there are so many more entry-level schemes around than there were ten years ago. However, I also feel as though we have reached the point where many (including me) are in this weird holding pattern having exhausted or bypassed that circuit, and are now without anywhere to move up to out of the ‘emerging’ group, so it is a very crowded market!

Kerenza: Where do you think the proverbial 'gap in the market' is for theatre today? What stories aren't being told?

Madelaine: I think the more pertinent question here is not what stories aren’t being told, because actually lots of different stories are being told all the time if you know where to find them. The question is more, where are they being told, who gets to tell them and which stories get funded/programmed/written about/awards given to etc..? Because that is the thing that needs addressing, not the stories!

Kerenza: While theatre and the arts are widely thought of as a left-wing domain, the reality is that it is often seen as a hobby of the rich, particularly in London where the cost can be prohibitive. How would you suggest we can alter these perceptions? 

Madelaine: Quite how we as an industry tackle this is THE big question – genuinely. Do we actually have anything to say to those communities who feel as though they have been ignored? How can we convince people typically unrepresented on and behind our stages that theatre might have something of value to them? You are correct that theatre generally, on balance, is a hobby of the rich and well connected, so why should the average minimum wage earner or person on benefits give us their money?  I would say, start to bring work outside of traditional theatre spaces. Develop meaningful, consistent, long-term engagement with unrepresented communities (engagement that actually listens and responds to that community’s needs). Start telling stories that feel valuable to those communities. And perhaps if we also give credit, money, and airtime to theatres in the rest of the country, and stop pandering to the London theatre scene we might get somewhere!

Kerenza: Can you tell us about your experience working in prisons? 

Madelaine: I started this when I was doing my MA at Central and I did a project at HMPYOI Feltham. Since then I have worked for a few different companies delivering rehabilitative drama projects, mostly with adult male inmates or ex-offenders in the community. For me it is the thing that keeps me honest in a sense, in terms of practice. When you see how powerful story can be, it reminds you where to keep your focus when things get foggy. For a lot of the men I work with, seeing elements of their own stories reflected back at them through drama really does help them to develop empathic response, and consequential thinking. Sometimes people who have struggled to engage with more formal learning environments, find it much more accessible to show how something feels than talk about it – theatre is the perfect medium for this. Of course, you have to be realistic that this is not some miracle ‘cure’ to offending behaviour where some of the contributing factors are systemic as well as personal, but often it can plant a seed you hope will start to blossom new ways of thinking and doing.

For me as a feminist director working in such a hyper masculine environment, sometimes with men who have committed acts of violence against women can be very challenging, but it is incredibly energising too. In a society that allows men a very narrow means of emotional expression, I hope that I can play my small part in opening that out for some. It also informs my professional practice in terms of the kind of subjects I want to talk about, and as way of studying the complexity of human psychology to be honest – I don’t think I could have directed Ladykiller in the same way if I hadn’t encountered some of the men that I have through prison work.

Kerenza: How do you think theatre will evolve in the next 10 years? 

Madelaine: Hard to say, but I think we have a real fight on our hands to be honest looking at the political and economic climate. I personally hope that we do some very deep cleaning and start with a fresh slate! I would love to see under-represented emerging, and mid-career artists and companies given a bigger slice of the pie in terms of funding, spaces and opportunity. There is absolutely no way that The Thelmas could have developed in the way that it has in the last two years without the support of somewhere like Ovalhouse. They saw us and recognised our need for space and time to work ourselves out, and to just get the creative work done. This is what is needed; targeted, artist-centred professional mentorship.

I would also love to see the strangle-hold of the biggest names loosened and the reins given to mid-career artists so they can reimagine how the theatre industry could be. We are very close to a tipping point right now, and I think that we need to dismantle the power structures which continue to put barriers up. And we need to be really honest with ourselves about what real change actually looks like – is it changing the power at the top of existing broken structures? Or is it completely getting rid of it all and starting afresh?

Kerenza: What has been the biggest challenge you've encountered in your role as a director? 

Madelaine: For me it is definitely about gatekeeping. As someone who was an actor, left the country and then returned older, wiser, and more focused only to find that I couldn’t get arrested as a director, let alone a place on a scheme or god-forbid a paid job. I had to just go out and do it myself. While I am really proud of what I have achieved, it is a constant struggle to keep all the plates spinning: emotionally, creatively, financially and spiritually. If you are someone who hasn’t come up the traditional route of training, and getting a placement or an internship in a building, you can be viewed with suspicion by some, or indifference by others. I have had feedback from prospective employers that they can’t separate my identity as a director from that of my company, but how am I able to develop that profile outside of The Thelmas work without someone giving me a job? It’s frustrating. Sometimes it is tempting to jack it all in and get a proper job, but honestly I can’t imagine now going back to only working for other people, although it would be great to get into a building as a freelance director at some point soon! 

Ultimately I have to remind myself when it starts to get overwhelming that I can do whatever I want, that I am free to make the work I want to see, even if that comes at a personal cost. At the moment the pros far outweigh the cons. 


To book tickets for Santi and Naz, please click here

To book tickets for Notch, please click here

To find out more about the Thelmas, please click here

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