Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Clara Janssen and Kat Stidston: Read The Room 

By | Published on Friday 24 May 2024

I was really intrigued when I heard about ‘Read The Room’, a new production by One.Five Collective set to complete a short run at the Golden Goose Theatre this month. And for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a show that promises to explore humanity from a neurodivergent perspective, and – while this is of interest to me because of personal circumstances – I feel that said exploration should be an interesting and important thing for any audience member. 

Secondly, it’s a really interesting sounding production in terms of its performance and style, as it’s a show largely performed by masked, mute characters, whose names are decided on by the audience. Oh, and it’s also funny, which is always a draw for me. 

I wanted to find out more about the show and the creatives behind it, so I spoke to Clara Janssen, co-writer, co-producer and director, and Kat Stidston, co-writer and co-producer. 

CM: Can you start by telling us how you would describe the style of this performance?
CJ: Boiled down, it’s a collection of separate scenarios, connected under the theme of “I’m feeling weird in this space… why?” It’s a day in the lives of people that are a little silly and a lot awkward.

The on-stage characters are masked and don’t physically speak, and all words and thoughts are narrated by oscillating actors.

The characters are nameless and genderless – whenever a new scene starts, we ask audience members for their names, and we use their names to refer to the characters. In that way, they’re blank templates for audiences to project themselves onto.

We like to think it’s an offbeat, wholesome comedy, using masks and puppets, and a live band, because why not have it all?

CM: In your promotional material, you say that the show explores humanity through a neurodivergent lens. What do you understand by the term neurodivergent? Why was it important to you to focus on this? 
CJ: We take the definition of neurodivergent as anyone whose brain processes things differently from most people – so neurotypical people – and, specific to our cast, could be due to conditions like ADHD, dyslexia, autism, etc.

The show zooms in on our reactions and interactions with the world around us, and how we see things in a particular way because of our neurodiversity.

In our particular fringe-y, experimental theatre circles, a large majority of us are neurodivergent – why not draw that to the forefront, and make a show that is painfully and hilariously real for us, and take everyone on a journey through our brains?

CM: Does it tell a story?
CJ: In a traditional sense, there is no ‘story’. It’s a bit ‘Truman Show’-esque in that you watch the characters go about their daily lives, but you can also see them jumping to conclusions, concocting up wild scenarios, struggling in social situations and, ultimately, trying their very best.

As you travel through the show with us, a message eventually emerges – the world is not built to our advantage, but we’re not alone, and we’re trying to be understood. 

CM: What themes did you set out to explore?
CJ: A whole collection: discomfort; obsessiveness; being perceived; embarrassment; social norms and interactions; overthinking; relationships – platonic and romantic; queerness; the freedom of being alone; struggling to do the right thing – what is the right thing?; bodies are pretty horrific; and birthdays are always a weird time. 

CM: What was the inspiration for the piece? Where did the idea come from? How did you develop your approach to it?
CJ: This one is a long story.

2019 – At drama school, we were pitching ideas for short shows that fell under the theme of ‘normality’. I sat on a bench for a long time and thought, “isn’t it weird that we use toilet cubicles for lots of things other than what toilet cubicles are meant to be used for?”

We cry in there, do drugs in there, use our phones in there, even eat lunch in there if you’re bullied in an American high school movie. And the way we act in a private space – the toilet cubicle – in a public area – the public bathroom – became the initial inspiration.

2022 – At drama school number two, we had performance dissertations. I cheated and took my 2019 idea and made ‘Read The Room’, a mask show about being strange in public and private. It was directed by me, and devised and performed by me and three other students that I roped in.

It went through a lot of changes, initially being a video game kind of aesthetic, and we tried out 20 different puppet styles, and I cried for a week, and made an animated short film, and ended up with a great show that looks very similar to what it is now. 

2023 – I turned my 20 minute dissertation piece into a one hour show by writing new scenes with Kat Stidston, following the original tone and themes. The emphasis on neurodivergence came from a personal development, and I realised oh, this entire show is about being this way. Didn’t know that before.

I brought in new collaborators, and Emily Pacey, our Music Director, wrote original music. We did a scratch night for the new scenes at The Pleasance, and we received incredible feedback that gave us the confidence to put on the entire show, which led us to…

2024 – The Golden Goose Theatre, five day run! 

I’ve technically been thinking about and developing this show for five years. For the 20 minute version, I had roughly two weeks and a dream to make it happen, so the approach was very much throwing things at a wall and hoping they stuck.

For the current version, I knew what worked and what didn’t, I solidified the themes, I knew the visual imagery I was going for, I knew the comedic tone, and I knew how I was going to piece it all together, so ultimately, a much smoother process.

CM: Who is it aimed at? Who will enjoy it? How would you sell this show in a few sentences?
KS: The aim of ‘Read The Room’ is to shed light on neurodivergent/queer experiences, whilst allowing everyone to find relatability and enjoyment in the imperfections of the characters on stage.

‘Read The Room’ is unique in its ability to allow any person to step into the shoes of the character. The dialogue and characters always remain gender neutral and anonymous, until an audience member’s name is used to represent each new person.

It is through this unique structure and language that ‘Read The Room’ is able to relate to anyone and everyone, offering enjoyment alongside an important message – uniting those with neurodivergent/queer experiences and those without.

In a few sentences: “Daring and experimental, this fast-paced comedy mask show explores our common humanity through a neurodivergent and queer perspective. ‘Read The Room’ is a testimony to anyone who feels alone in their experiences and serves as a comforting reminder that we are all more similar than we might like to think”.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourselves now? How did your group come together?
KS: Having trained together at East 15 Acting School in their foundation year, Clara and I went to study at different drama schools for our degrees.

We reunited after graduating, joined together by a passion for the visual arts and experimental theatre, and a long-lasting friendship that encouraged us to build One.Five Collective.

Assembling creatives from both Rose Bruford and East 15, One.Five Collective has since grown to include many new actor/musicians and international artists, forming a fantastic team of creatives from all walks of life.

Our niche is quickly evolving to include the weird and the wonderful, the fun and the daring. 

CM: How has your work – and your working relationship – evolved over the years?
KS: When we first met in 2018 – a long time ago now – we were experimenting with a live talking Siri puppet to explore cultural appropriation and stereotypes – so I would say that we have always had a passion for experimental comedy theatre with a deeper message.

After years of honing our craft in theatre making/writing/acting, we are finally in a position to put on more refined work – whilst keeping the playful aspect intact – and develop this piece from a third year show, to a Pleasance Theatre scratch night, to the week run at the Golden Goose Theatre. 

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
KS: With Clara’s roots in Singapore, it would be a dream to take this show internationally and tour the show for people from different cultures and backgrounds to watch.

Being such an accessible show with a clear visual language, I think there is so much scope for where this show can head in the future. It could be adapted for bigger productions, touring, schools or visual art exhibitions.

After our run with the Golden Goose Theatre, we plan to collaborate with Rooms101 Productions to consider the next steps for ‘Read The Room’.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
KS: Applications to anywhere and everywhere for touring internationally and developing the piece for adaptations in schools and theatres.

We have a scratch night coming up with Rooms101 Productions where we plan to pitch the show to other creatives with similar ambitions to hopefully propel ‘Read The Room’ and One.Five Collective to the next level.

We hope to see you there! 

‘Read The Room’ is on at the Golden Goose Theatre from 4-8 Jun. For all the details and to book, head to the venue website here.