Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Amy Gwilliam: Mummy

By | Published on Thursday 18 May 2017

I didn’t mean mid-May to have a parental bereavement theme, but somehow it happened, what with this and the other new Q&A we published this week. What both featured shows also have in common is the deft, light and often hilarious treatment the subject is given by their talented creators.
‘Mummy’ is the brainchild of Amy Gwilliam, who draws on her own experience of losing her mother at a young age in her depiction of Elizabeth, a celebrated Egyptologist who is confronted by the ghosts of her past. I spoke to Ms Gwilliam, to find out more about the show, and about Amy herself.

CM: Can you tell us what happens in the play? Where does the story take us?
AG: We follow the unraveling of the esteemed Professor Elizabeth Niccoll, who has been invited as Guest of Honour to her secondary school’s annual Alumni event. She has chosen to use the platform to promote her new book: ‘MUMMY or the Art of Saying Goodbye’. She knows everything about death. (She thinks.) But confronted by ghosts of her past, memories stir and a Mummy returns.

‘MUMMY’ is an extraordinary synthesis of laugh-out-loud humour and raw confession. A celebration of human quirkiness whilst confronting – and sharing – the pain of losing someone you love.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
AG: Death, life, puberty and ‘Dirty Dancing’. In a nutshell. And it takes a playful and painful look at typically British behaviour when it comes to – well – feelings. You know, the stiff upper lip stuff. I make it into jelly. Messy, liberating.

CM: You were apparently inspired by the death of your own mother to create this show. To what extent are your experiences reflected here? Is it in any sense autobiographical?
AG: I think we say “inspired by the death of her mother” in the blurb, don’t we? It sounds better that way. Grand. I like to sound grand. In reality, it wasn’t like that. In fact, as in previous experiences, I am drawn to particular subjects and characters that I think are far from me and then Slap! I realize, of course, there’s so much of me in there. We write, we make, we weave stories from the fabric of our being and anyone working in theatre is taking a risk – to be vulnerable, to reveal themselves, to share something really special. And spark something in the audience.

I can’t begin to sift what is me and what is my character, Elizabeth. And I love that. I can tell you that my Mum did walk around the house naked even when she knew the neighbours were watching, but she didn’t keep my umbilical cord in her bedside table (that was my friend’s Mum). For me, art takes place at an intersection between the real and the pleasure to make believe. Even the harder stuff. When my character talks about the funeral – well, that is real. Raw, real, and I’m still sad that those men in black with the hooked noses came to take Mum away like that. Which is probably why I had to make this show. To get us talking about how we say goodbye. Because I think we’re still caught in really outdated traditions. Which we need to question. Make our own rituals.

CM: What made you want to tackle this subject? Was it painful for you, or did you find it cathartic?
AG: I think it’s best said that this subject wanted to tackle me. The stories that we need to tell, even when we don’t realize, make themselves known. I was looking at preservation practices in Ancient Egypt (!) as a way of representing fear of change – you know, holding onto the past. And I was doing a scratch performance, wrapped as a Mummy, and a dear friend in the audience said after – “you do realize Mummy = Mummy”. That was the Slap moment. I owe it to her.

But then, of course, I had to think what this was all about. Why now? What is it that I want to say in making and telling this story?

My wonderful director, Sophie Larsmon, also a childhood friend and very close to my Mum, was very protective of me during the process. But I kept assuring her that in every rehearsal process, I am prepared to take risks. And this will be, at times, difficult. Above all, we were driven to making an authentic, entertaining and challenging piece of theatre. I do feel closer to my Mum as a result. So maybe I have made friends with some ghosts in the process, asked some difficult questions that needed to be asked. I’m a lot more open as a performer and human being, for sure. Watch out!

CM: This isn’t the show’s first outing, of course. Have you made any changes to it since you first performed it?
AG: Yes, many. In every outing it keeps evolving, and that’s how I like it. It grows as I do. In the initial first outing, I was in my Dad’s attic surrounded by boxes. The audience were firmly behind the fourth wall. I didn’t like that at all. My pleasure onstage (when alone, at any rate) lies in my playing with the audience. I was a born trickster, flirt, chameleon. And so we knocked that wall down and I found much more freedom. And now I’m heading to the cabaret! What a dream. And I will play with that particular setting for all it’s worth. Can’t wait. Going to climb on the piano and sing Madonna. Like my Mum would have done.

CM: Did you always want a career in the arts, and how did you get into it?
AG: Aged two and three quarters, I met my heavily jaundiced baby brother for the first time dressed as a clown. I’d been at a party and my facepaint was all smudged. And I was so happy.

Then I wanted to be a lawyer and told my Mum this. She said “You do realise it’s not like in ‘Ally McBeal’?” and that was when I knew that I just wanted to pretend. To be many things. To tell many stories in all kinds of ways.

I was always involved in theatre at school, but shy of it too. I wasn’t a main part kind of gal, and often cast as the ridiculous sidekicks or vulnerable women. I cut my teeth in university productions and then went to Paris to train with the now somewhat infamous Philippe Gaulier. That felt like a calling and I’ve been falling ever since. He is amazing. He untaught me everything I never needed to know. It’s his fault I can’t get off stage just now.

CM: You wrote and perform this show yourself but you seem to do lots of work in other ways – as an actor, director, dramaturg, etc. What job title would you give yourself? Is there any one thing you enjoy more?
AG: It’s funny, in the UK there’s still quite a bit of mistrust around the multiple role thing. And theatre maker sounds a bit pretentious. But that’s how I describe myself. I usually say it in a bad French accent. Oui Oui. I make theatre. With my bare hands. And I am passionate about it, and using it as a tool to articulate our innermost eccentricities, find voices we didn’t know we had, strengthen voices that need to be heard. Which is why I love teaching, coaching and directing too. Always dreaming, listening, making. I couldn’t do one without the other. Not for now, anyway.

CM: What’s next for this show?
AG: After a great tour in Northern Spain (where I began my professional career) I’d really like to take this touring around the UK. To community spaces, festivals, more cabaret spaces maybe?! The show always leaves audiences so open. Laughter and tears do that. I often spend a long time chatting to people about their own experiences and I want to continue to do this. I’d like to take it into schools too, because I think bereavement is still not at all talked about. I suggested it to a PSHE tutor recently and she said that she thought it was a great idea, but that “bereavement isn’t very fashionable on the school curriculum right now”. When will it ever be fashionable?

CM: Do you have anything else coming up? Any new shows in development?
AG: Yes, I do! I’ve recently set up all female political cabaret ExperTeaZe, giving a platform for women in the arts to respond to current affairs; their tongues in cheeks, hearts on their sleeves. We went down a storm in the Council Chamber at the London Clown Festival last weekend and have big plans for Autumn.

And I’m stuck into developing my next show ‘The Profit’, which sees property developer and aspiring politician Frankie Foxstone unveil her vision for the future. It’s a seething, hysterical satire on how the world has got to where it has. I’m developing it with the formidable Lucy Hopkins and will be hitting the streets of Edinburgh in Frankie’s suit this summer.

In the meantime, I will be going to Malawi with Theatre for a Change, and Turkey with Clowns Without Borders, where a small team of us will be performing at a children’s centre for refugees. I was in Greece this January and my heart changed shape forever.

‘Mummy’ is on at The Crazy Coqs from 23-25 May, see the venue website here for info.

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