Stephanie Ridings is a writer and performer based in the West Midlands. Her new show, The Fear of Fear, explores personal and universal fears to see if we have every reason to be constantly shit scared.
Ahead of the show opening at Warwick Arts Centre, we chatted to Stephanie about her own fears, the importance of good producers, and Dusty Springfield.
The Fear of Fear opens at Warwick Arts Centre on Wednesday 3rd and Thursday 4th October 2018. Click here to book your tickets.
Gareth: To kick things off: A few years ago you made a show called Me, Mum & Dusty Springfield. What is your favourite Dusty song, and why?
Stephanie: You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me will always be special as I sang it at the end of the show but whenever I hear the intro it still makes me feel a bit sick. All I See Is You is a beautiful song. I love the drama in this sort of music, it’s life and death stuff.
Gareth: How would you describe your work for somebody experiencing it for the first time?
Stephanie: Accessible, sometimes visual, sometimes funny but usually trying to make sense of difficult subjects.
Gareth: 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.
Stephanie: Robert Lepage’s The Far Side of the Moon – this piece is the first thing I saw of his work and I was just totally blown away with how beautiful it was. I can still really clearly see the final image of the show. All the elements that made up the show were phenomenal.
Forced Entertainment – I can’t remember the first piece of work I saw live but like most people I discovered these guys at uni. Their work was a massive turning point for me in how I looked at what theatre was and what it could be and of course they featured heavily in my dissertation. I loved that they didn’t always give you an easy ride.
Mouthpiece Theatre – I think these are a South African company who I saw by chance at the Royal Exchange Studio. It was a two hander and quite a physical piece and so inventive with the objects they used in the space. I remember walking away and not being able to chat as I was still so mesmerised by them.
I think the one thing all these companies had is they showed me there were other ways of telling stories which felt really exciting.
Gareth: What inspired you to make your current project, The Fear of Fear, and what can audiences expect from it?
Stephanie: I guess it started with watching too much Most Haunted whilst doing the Edinburgh Fringe. I watched that many episodes that I got angry that they thought the audience were buying it. I did keep watching though! And then I started to think about people playing on our fears for their own gain. That set me off reading and researching and wanting to know as much as possible.
Hopefully the audience will have some laughs balanced with some heavier emotional bits. I would like it to get people to reflect on their relationship with fear and if it is a positive or negative one and how that affects their day-to-day life.
I guess it started with watching too much Most Haunted whilst doing the Edinburgh Fringe. I watched that many episodes that I got angry that they thought the audience were buying it.
Gareth: As part of your work on the show, you launched a research campaign inviting members of the public to tell you about their fears. What do people seem to be most afraid of at the moment? And are those fears very specific to the world we’re living in now, or are they more timeless universal fears?
Stephanie: I think fundamentally we all fear the same things, unless you’re a psychopath. There were recurring themes definitely which were timeless and specific to now. Also of course there were some ‘interesting’ ones. I feel a responsibility to those who answered so I don’t really want to give too much detail.
Gareth: As part of the development for the show, you faced some of your own fears head-on. What were the worst and best parts of that experience?
Stephanie: The best parts were usually when it was all over, and I was going home, particularly where the caving was concerned. The best thing I did was to go on the world’s fastest zip line. The scariest part of that was watching other people do it and stepping up for my go, but actually from that point forward, it was more about adrenalin. There were some real lows in the cave for me, tied up with shame, which is a big feature of fear. If anything, the experience has made me a little more adventurous and adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Image: Stephanie Ridings in The Fear of Fear (photo: Rachel Bunce)
Gareth: What do you do to switch off or decompress after a long day of working on a show about fear?
Stephanie: I’d love to say yoga or exercise of some description, but actually its usually a good TV drama or binging on a box set – something which provides escapism for a bit.
Gareth: When I’ve seen you perform, you always seem like you’re really enjoying yourself, but have you ever suffered from stage fright?
Stephanie: I’ve never thought, ‘I can’t go on’ or anything dramatic at the last minute (to date anyhow) but perhaps on the way to a venue or as the day gets closer, I’ve thought of lots of different ways I could get out of it, some fairly extreme. It passes though, mainly as you know you’ve made a commitment and it’s happening. I did some work on this with the brilliant Lou Platt for The Road to Huntsville and find performing much more comfortable as a result.
There were some real lows in the cave for me, tied up with shame, which is a big feature of fear. If anything, the experience has made me a little more adventurous and adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Gareth: You write and perform your solo work, and also write work for other ensembles which you don’t perform in. How does writing for yourself and writing for other performers differ? And what do you think a writer brings to a performance of work they’ve written themselves which would be different if another actor performed it instead?
Stephanie: I tend to write characters for others and a version of myself when I’m performing, which is tied up in the sort of degree I did. We were trained to be performers rather than actors. With The Road to Huntsville and this latest show, I have been and experienced things specific to the work which makes it personal and real, which feels integral to the solo work I create.
Gareth: Many people would describe your solo work as autobiographical in some way, but it always succeeds in looking beyond your own personal experiences to explore more universal themes. When developing an idea, do you work from yourself outwards, or do you begin more widely and then reflect on things personally?
Stephanie: I usually start with the idea and how that sits within the world. I suppose I include personal elements to show how it affects an individual and hopefully then people can identify with that, and it resonates universally.
Gareth: You’re not a Westie by birth but you’ve been an adopted Westie for many years now. What drew you to make work in the Midlands in the first place, and how would you like to see the regional sector develop over the next few years?
Stephanie: I moved here with my partner when he changed jobs. I always knew I would continue to make work but actually it was genuinely one of the best things we ever did. Because I didn’t really know anyone, it forced me to go and connect with people. I knew Amanda Roberts from Manchester and she told me everyone was really friendly, but I didn’t really expect that to be the case. She was completely right, and those early friendships really helped me get going.
The things which are happening in the region are very exciting with Coventry as City of Culture and Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games, plus Birmingham being on the shortlist to be Channel 4’s new home. I think it shows regionally we are talking ourselves seriously and are being taken seriously. It confirms how much we have to offer, and I would hope the confidence in being recognised to host these events creates investment in the region and generates a brilliant legacy of art and culture.
Image: Stephanie Ridings in The Fear of Fear (photo: Rachel Bunce)
Gareth: You work with Pippa Frith as your Producer. Tell us about how you work together and how important you feel it is to have a good Producer by your side.
Stephanie: As long as I stay away from anything financial, we work really well together. This is our third project and so we almost have a shorthand for who does what. We’re also able to work remotely, which saves a lot of time. For me it’s absolutely essential to work with a good producer and someone you trust. I have done some self-producing in the past, but having someone like Pippa brings specialist expertise to a project which is invaluable. Also, I know if I try and do everything I probably will end up doing most things badly. Pip does go above and beyond and it’s very reassuring to know I can call her if I’m having a wobble about something and she just seems to know the right thing to say, which is priceless.
For me it’s absolutely essential to work with a good producer and someone you trust.
Gareth: Beyond The Fear of Fear, what are you planning or working on for 2019 and beyond?
Stephanie: On Thursday 11th October (the week after The Fear of Fear) I will be performing a short I have written for Theatre Absolute as part of their Are We Where We Are commissions. It’s a double bill with Cristina Catalina at the Shop Front Theatre in Coventry. Find out more here.
Next year is going to be more focused on writing scripts for others. I am currently developing something with the Birmingham REP and I‘m interested in doing a community project looking at isolation and loneliness, which involves tap dancing!
Gareth: 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 piece of work?
Stephanie: I love research and I love knowing more about a subject than I need to so I can write from a position of authority, which feels really important to me. I always start with the story I want to tell, and everything grows out of that. So, what is the best way to tell this story and who are the best characters to tell it. A lot of marker pens and big sheets of paper later, I’ll have a better idea of what it is I want to say.
I really like the safety of having a script to go into rehearsal with. Having said that I love the cull and the changes found in the room and I’m not precious about things unless I feel really strongly and have a good argument for it staying. You can usually feel when something isn’t right though, and things which aren’t right for one show may be right for another so things are never entirely gone.
I’m the first person to want to hide in the corner of a room with a coffee when ‘networking’ is mentioned but I can chat to people no problem and that’s all your doing: chatting.
Gareth: 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?
Stephanie: This was hard to narrow down to one piece of advice, but I’ll go with ‘networking is just chatting.’ That word can cause a lot of dread and I found it really challenging and maybe a little dirty for a long time because people put such an emphasis on it, but no one I asked seemed to be able to define what it involved. I’m the first person to want to hide in the corner of a room with a coffee when ‘networking’ is mentioned but I can chat to people no problem and that’s all your doing: chatting.