We’re Itching To Talk About… is a series of blog posts in which we feature some of the brilliant work our theatre-making friends are creating within the region and further afield.

Image: Maison Foo’s Memoirs Of A Biscuit Tin

Maison Foo is a madhouse of mischievous theatre-making, led by co-Artistic Directors Bethany Sheldon and Kathryn Lowe, who draw on puppetry, clowning and physical theatre to create work which is surreal, soulful, satirical and sentimental.

We caught up with Bethany to find out more about the Derby theatre scene, balancing parenting with producing, and a heads-up on A Thing Mislaid which they’ll be touring in Autumn 2018.

You can find out more about Maison Foo here:

Website: www.maisonfoo.co.uk
Twitter: www.twitter.com/maisonfoo
Facebook: www.facebook.com/maisonfoo/

Phil: How would you describe your work for somebody experiencing it for the first time?

Bethany: Visual Theatre… a bit clowny, a bit puppety/objecty… often absurd with a social conscience… usually mischievous with a penchant for tickling audiences’ imaginations.

Phil: You spoke on our Organisational Development panel at the East Meets West Symposium last year, and a phrase you used really stuck with us: “Theatre can be the break that makes a difference”. Can you tell us a bit about this idea and how important it is to you as both a maker and audience member?

Bethany: That is a quote from a nurse at Derby Hospital, who stopped for a theatrical brew outside the hospital entrance at Tea Bar, our street theatre pop up cafe. She said the unexpected encounter “was the break that made a difference and she would go back to work now refreshed”. It is this kind of reaction that drives a lot of our participatory and street theatre work.

Through this work, we often look at how we can make people feel more valued, feel like they matter, gift them a moment of comic surreal escapism. It’s such rewarding work when you, as an artist, can actually help someone’s wellbeing – refresh someone, lift their spirits and make their day through a totally unexpected creative encounter.

Through our work, we often look at how we can make people feel more valued, feel like they matter, gift them a moment of comic surreal escapism.

I think this ‘making people feel they matter’ is a thread throughout all our work on some level. Even when audiences engage with us in more traditional settings like studio theatre spaces, we hope they are able to escape with us into another world, to take a break to disconnect from day-to-day life, and reconnect with what it is to be human. We hope that from that break, people leave refreshed or with a slightly different perspective on the world.

Phil: Tell us about three pieces of theatre – or theatre makers – that have had the biggest impact on you, and tell us why they made such an impact.

Bethany: Hmmm… lots of things have an impact on me as a theatre maker, and more often than not it’s not theatre! It could be a documentary, or music, or a piece of art, or the philosophy behind an artist’s work that inspires me. For example, Dali and Surrealism — not necessarily the paintings, but the creative movement and thinking behind Surrealism. The absurdity of placing objects in a totally different place to where you would normally see them and what that does to the audience has definitely had an impact on me.

I’d say us Foos are like magpies; we take a pinch of this from one influence and blend it with a scoop of that from another. If I had to pick one major moment in my life, it would be seeing DV8’s Strange Fish as an A-Level Dance student way back when. That has to go down as a moment when my thinking about what theatre could be really opened up. Such a major impact and I only ever saw it on DVD (well probably video tape actually! Shhhh!)

There was one particular moment in that piece that caught the attention of my inner magpie: the character ‘Nigel’ was weaving in and out of the two female performers. He was trying to talk to them whilst they tried to ignore him and get away. His dialogue was mumbled, jumbled and nonsensical, but the emotional feeling and clarity of the unsaid was so clear and resonant. BOOM! At that moment, my world changed and I’ve been obsessed with creating physical moments that speak beyond words ever since.

I think if I had to pick a third thing, I’d probably say Charleroi Danse’s Kiss and Cry which has been a recent influence. It’s a piece of object puppetry that manipulates miniature worlds that are filmed using a live camera. That sparked such excitement in me and has led to our own live camera language that we’re developing for the new show, A Thing Mislaid.

Phil: You both have children (affectionately known as The Foolets). Has becoming parents had any unexpected influences on your work, both in terms of its creative content and the logistics of running a company and touring?

Bethany: The Foolets have highly influenced how we make work and how we run a creative process. We now work in a different rhythm. We tend to rehearse three days a week over a longer period, and some days we have to finish at 5! #shockhorror! We used to rehearse and work six days a week and stay until silly o’clock if anyone would let us.

It’s interesting thinking about the discussions happening at the moment around mental health in the sector. Again and again, you hear how people are always pushing themselves beyond their limits for not a lot of money, scared of slowing down, missing out, needing to make work a priority every second of every day.

The Foolets have taught us to let go of that fear — that it is totally okay to find your own rhythm and go at your own pace. It may take us a lot longer to make work now, but we are healthier for it, and the creative process seems a lot richer too. Working three days a week on a show allows us to maintain a work/life balance. It gives us space to breathe and gain a greater sense of clarity from one week to the next. And guess what? Nobody in the industry has shut the door on us for doing so. Partners and venues are still just as supportive.

So theatre-makers without children: if you need to give yourself permission to slow down a bit and go at your own pace, maybe it’s time to get a Flour Baby!

Image: Maison Foo’s A Thing Mislaid

Phil: Your website sections are very neatly divided up into the different rooms of a house. Would you ever consider making theatre that was performed inside your audience members’ homes? Or would you ever welcome audiences into your own homes?

Bethany: I already have when training with the London School of Puppetry! I hosted an evening of living room theatre with three other puppeteers. It was great! Us Foos love performing in different spaces. One of my favourite alternative space performances we’ve created was time travel clubbing in QUAD’s lifts!

It’s interesting thinking about the discussions happening at the moment around mental health in the sector. Again and again, you hear how people are always pushing themselves beyond their limits for not a lot of money, scared of slowing down, missing out, needing to make work a priority every second of every day.

Phil: A few years ago, you became one of the very first Associate Companies with In Good Company, the East Midlands artist development scheme. In what ways did that support benefit you most?

Bethany: Wow! I don’t know where to start…

I could talk about all the amazing support we got like cash, rehearsal space, and mentoring, but that’s all outlined on their website. I could talk about how wonderful Ruby Glaskin and Emily Coleman (IGC Producers) are. Or how grateful I am to Sarah Brigham for having the vision of IGC as an Artist support scheme and making it happen, with bells on, in our region! Or Natalie Ibu for charging in with creative gusto when setting the whole scheme up…

But I think I’m going to focus on the long-term relationships it has helped us build with other artists. Before In Good Company, artists in the East Midlands were a lot more disconnected. IGC has brought us together. And the artists that were in our ‘year group’ (LaPelle’s Factory, Spiltmilk Dance, Nonsuch Theatre and Zealous Theatre) are all now genuine theatre-making friends. The type of friends that really support each other, the type you can pick up the phone and ask silly questions to, the type that are always really excited to bump into each other.

IGC led to Maison Foo being an Associate Company at Derby Theatre, who ultimately supported us getting back on the theatre horse post-maternity leave. This helped us to learn how to juggle our real babies with our theatre baby!

Phil: What more do you think can be done to support independent artists across the Midlands?

Bethany: There is so much brilliant stuff already going on to support independent artists in the region, especially early career artists, which is blooming amazing. The difference in the region from when we began is phenomenal. It’s still tough out there though, whatever stage you are at.

So as a company in its tenth year of survival (we are now apparently ‘mid-career’ #yowsers!), it feels right to think about what companies like us are currently up against…

There is so much brilliant stuff already going on to support independent artists in the region, especially early career artists, which is blooming amazing. The difference in the region from when we began is phenomenal.

So they are probably in their 30’s, maybe have a family or are wanting to start one, or maybe looking for a bit more stability. They are at a point where they can’t ask people to work for free and can no longer work for free themselves either, as they no longer live with their parents.

They have perhaps achieved a lot of their initial early career goals, and are maybe having or have recently had the “who are we/where are we heading” wobble!

They probably find maintaining the stamina and drive to keep the creative fire ignited very hard when they’re exhausted from the long-term struggle of making it work financially.

It’s at this point that walking away to find a ‘proper job’ (as parents call them) is often the way people go.

So my ponder is… What more can be done to support these Midlands mid-career artists so they can continue for another ten, twenty, thirty years? As a sector we are in danger of losing their experience and their knowledge.

If it’s financial stability they need and that’s something venues can’t offer, what could our regional venues to do help and support these artists move towards a more sustainable future? If match funding is needed, for example: rather than a ‘sorry we haven’t got any money to commission with’ from venues as a conversation ender, how can this be turned into a conversation starter? Could venues and companies work together to find a way of leveraging the match fund from another source through the venue, that then becomes the match for the company? Or are there ways in which venues and companies can work together to achieve collective goals like developing and delivering an outreach programme together?

I think if it weren’t for Derby Theatre, we would have been one of those companies to hang up their boots at the ‘mid-career’ door. Don’t get me wrong: we are still having our wobbles and we are currently in the midst of a massive organisational restructure post-maternity, but we don’t feel alone. We feel we have a friend to wobble with and a friend saying ‘it’s okay to wobble, we are here, our door is open and we are working it through with you’. Because of that, we actually feel excited about the future. I think the more that venues can be that friend and have a more bespoke and honest relationship with artists, then the better we will all be.

So artists: let’s not be afraid to talk about it! We have a responsibility to ask for what we need. And venues: let’s continue the conversation beyond ‘sorry we want to, but we can’t’ and think creatively around our relationships and how we can work together to sustain the future of theatre making in the region.

Phil: You first came to national attention with your highly acclaimed sell-out show Memoirs Of A Biscuit Tin at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. How important do you think it is for artists to take their work to Edinburgh?

Bethany: Oh Edinburgh! Edinburgh, you insane, cruel, sexy, addictive thing!

I think it’s not the be-all and end-all but it’s not called the best showcase in the world for nothing. We’ve been twice and both times, we have benefited. The second time nearly killed us though and we will think hard before returning!

If anyone ever asks me advice about Edinburgh, my first question back is always ‘why?’ followed by a load of other questions like…

‘why do you want to go?’
‘why do think this is the right time for you to go?’
‘why is this show the right show to take?’
‘what do you want to achieve by going?’

There are hundreds and hundreds of shows at the festival, so the clearer you can be about what you want to get out of it, the more likely it is you will get something out of it, and not be lost in that epic sea of shows.

We didn’t rush into going. The year before we took Biscuit Tin to Edinburgh, we went up for a few days to research. We went and met with Edinburgh venue programmers, watched companies similar to us and then we made sure that the show was one we felt was good and was ready to put out there for critics and industry to come and see. It also gave us a year to raise the thousands of pounds we needed to invest (no, it’s not cheap!) and ask advice from those who had been there and done that.

Our advice would be — get a brilliant team behind you — invest in a good press officer (worth their weight in gold) — and a brilliant technician who can work quickly to make your show still look great under Edinburgh restrictions and with a five-minute get in!

Phil: Tell us a bit about A Thing Mislaid, the brand new show you are developing.

Bethany: A Thing Mislaid is a show about two lost clowns, who meet somewhere on the way to nowhere; and a thing mislaid, a thing without a flock, a thing on a journey to find home.

Oh Edinburgh! Edinburgh, you insane, cruel, sexy, addictive thing!

The show blends puppetry, objects and live camera with clowning and humour to tell its tale, travelling through miniature worlds and surreal realities.

The piece started life back in 2015 under the title The Granddad Project, when Kate and I looked further into a curious commonality we both shared — our migratory heritage. This set the seed for a new piece of work that built on our exploration of migration, journey and home, asking the question: where do we belong?

Excitingly, A Thing Mislaid has been commissioned by China Plate, Warwick Arts Centre, mac birmingham and In Good Company, and we shared work-in-progress performances last year at the First Bite and Bite Size festivals. We plan to tour the show throughout the Midlands in Autumn 2018.

You can see some pics and our teaser trailer here.

Alongside the show we are also developing a Refugee Friend Scheme, working with Derby Theatre, Derby Refugee Advice Centre, Attenborough Arts Centre, Journeys Festival and Talking Birds. The scheme will help break down barriers that refugees and those currently seeking asylum face through a program of creative participatory events.

Phil: What was the last thing you mislaid, and did it ever turn up again?

Bethany: A travel cot! Seriously, I can’t find it anywhere and it’s not exactly a small item either!

Image: Maison Foo’s A Thing Mislaid

Phil: As a theatre-maker myself, I’m always fascinated to learn about other people’s creative processes. What main ideas characterise the way you go about creating a new show?

Bethany: Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration!

We spend time finding the right people to be lost with! You can’t devise without jumping into the unknown — a lot! You need people around you willing to jump off that cliff with you daily. People that are playful, generous, big-hearted and willing to give, try lots of ideas, and not get precious about discarding the ones that don’t work. And we are not just talking performers! We work that way with our designer, musician/composer, producer… Everyone.

Phil: Many of our blog subscribers are theatre students who plan to go on and make their own work professionally. If you had to give one piece of advice to them, what would it be?

Bethany: Enjoy failing! It’s one of our mottos that we magpied from Improbable! To us, it means being open and honest and saying I don’t know what I’m doing but that’s okay. I may fail, but if I enjoy the process and let go of the fear of failure, then that is when the exciting stuff happens — when you put yourself out there, when you take risks. You can’t make things without trying things. I’d say about only 20% of ideas actually make it into a show.

Enjoy failing! It’s one of our mottos that we magpied from Improbable!

And don’t just enjoy failing at the theatre making bit. Enjoy failing at all the other stuff too — the marketing, the producing, the general management, the accounts, the van driving… When you do something for the first time, you don’t really know how to do it until you’ve done it. Learn from doing.

So try to let go of the fear and jump in! Don’t be afraid to ask people lots of questions as they were blagging it just like you only a few years previously. I suspect they still are, they are just a bit further down the road of blag!