At a time where audiences crave the thrill of live theatre, the creators of Good Grief present stage enthusiasts with something truly unique. The production celebrates the convergence of theatre and film, whilst preserving the intimacy of a delicate two-hander.
Nikoletta Soumelidis sits down with Lorien Haynes and Natalie Abrahami, the writer and director of the innovative filmed theatre production, to talk about the future of theatre and the representation of female voices in the industry.
The current climate can feel disheartening for artists, yet, a piece that would not have been staged in a pre-Covid world is flourishing within the chaos. How did this play come to be?
Lorien: I just finished doing the ‘Everything I Want To Tell My Daughter About Men’ film which was 23 shots directed by 21 women. One of them was a producer called Amy Gardner. Amy shot one of the stories with me and Jonathan Firth. She started reading my other work and said “Have you got any short plays?” Good grief is a three-act play, but started as a one-act play. I was told it would never get made because it was too short and I had to develop it into a full-length play. I never dreamt that the one-act version would have a life. The fact that [Amy] approached me and took it to Platform [Presents], I never expected that to happen. So that was just lovely.
Natalie, having such a unique resume directing theatre, opera and film, how does Good Grief differ from ‘regular’ stage or film productions?
Natalie: Rehearsing on zoom was quite delightful in some way. I was amazed by how much rapport, symbiosis and synergy we found, but it’s very hard to replicate the sort of infra-red interactions that we have. The tea break is so much part of your rehearsal process.
Focusing on a screen is not the same experience as being in a rehearsal room, so I loved that we had this collegiate sense of me, Lori, Sian and Nikesh, who were just a delight. [Lorien and I] would be on audio and Sian would switch off herself, so Nikesh would only see her, she would only see Nikesh.
We set up a GoPro camera so you could see us running around like headless chickens. I think everyone has consumed the whole of Netflix, so I was really keen that we weren’t making something that was trying to be like that. We’re trying to show you a show that would have been on at a theatre. We really wanted to make the audience part of it, which is why there is such a theatrical aesthetic, it’s all cardboard boxes. It was a love letter to theatre and we needed to keep reminding people that we will go back to this.
This play was not only progressive in terms of production, but also in terms of representation in the arts. How did it feel being part of a predominantly female team and what has your experience been working in a male-dominated industry?
Natalie: I have always felt championed by both men and women in this industry and I have had some amazing mentors of all genders, but I don’t think there is gender parity. I felt very concerned about having a career to come back to after having children. The work that is being done in terms of representation has been a long time coming and is really overdue. I hope that the pandemic has forced people to say, “Look, this has to change in terms of equality.” When Carrie [Cracknell] and I were at the Gate we tried to promote female playwrights and designers and encouraged female-led teams to try and redress the balance, but of course, there is always more to be done.
It was a love letter to theatre and we needed to keep reminding people that we will go back to this.
Lorien: I’ve just spent the last two years doing the project with all-female directors. One of the remits of our production was that we had at least half-and-half crew, which was actually harder than one would imagine, because there are less women doing it. I don’t want to make gender generalisations either, but what I did find working on an all-female set was a marked lack of conflict. I found that female directors worked with their female DP’s in a very collaborative way. Platform [Presents] went out of their way to find strong women to work on the team, like Fin Oates and Isobel Waller-Bridge, but I didn’t feel like it was in spite of men. It’s not just gender, it’s a matter of character as well, but what was beautiful to see when I was doing the ‘Everything [I Want To Tell My Daughter About Men]’ film, was that every person that made their first film, immediately wanted to make another one. I found stepping into a space where women actively support women in work very fruitful and collaborative. Natalie, for example, had the option not to have me in rehearsals as a writer, but she asked me to be in every single rehearsal all day. It was such a luxury to rework the scripts and to speak to the actors, so I was blown away by her generosity.
Good Grief is such a wonderful example of innovation and collaboration during a difficult time for our industry. How do you see theatre changing?
Natalie: I have always loved live stream. I felt very grateful for it as a first-time mother. I hope that it means that not just larger theatres can do it now, but smaller theatres will too. It was amazing to see ‘Crave’ on the main stage of the Chichester Festival Theatre from home while wearing slippers, or the RSC’s ‘Dream’ online. The motion capture, all these innovations – it’s an opportunity and I’m so interested to see where people will go in the future.
Lorien: I think the challenge at the moment is that we can’t do theatre. How do we move forward, even with the vaccine? I think outdoor theatre is the way to go. We’ve had to be more mindful about money, about travel. We’re basically in a wartime scenario and it should be treated as such. We have a choice, we learn from this, we try and make a difference, and we try and fight for the right causes.
Is there something that you are still hoping to try on stage in the future?
Lorien: A friend of mine in L.A. runs a big theatre called Wallis Annenberg. They’re building an outdoor theatre, a 100 seater with social distance. He is interested in doing the longer version of Good Grief. In the one-act version, Adam is the partner and representative of the relationship. Cat is the friend and the representative of the friendships in her life. In the longer version, there’s her much younger sister, who represents family throughout that grieving process. I wanted to create this triangle of how there’s a grief hierarchy, how family, friend, partner relate to loss in very, very different ways and how that navigation becomes this strange dance between the three of them.
Natalie: I love that feeling of not knowing whether something can be done. I’m so risk-averse in my private life, but there’s an adrenaline rush that I really seek in my work. I often find myself saying to people “I’ve told you the sum total of what I know about the project. The next bit is for us to discover together.” It’s a genuine adventure. If you’re really trying to make something new, there are going to be things about it that don’t work. And that’s just the nature of innovating.
Good grief will be available to stream via ATG until April 15th.
Nikoletta Soumelidis is a quadrilingual actor and writer. Her work before and after graduating from Drama Centre London includes ‘Richard Thomas’ Wrong Songs for Christmas’ (National Theatre), ‘Always Again’ (Old Red Lion Theatre) and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (Bush Theatre). As a writer, she’s worked closely with Maktub Theatre and her first full-length play ‘Spent’ is currently in development with Magnetic Island Theatre.