Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Justin Audibert: Anansi The Spider Re-Spun

By | Published on Friday 22 May 2020

Those of you with children might, not that long ago, back in the pre-lockdown world, have been fortunate enough to take them to see Unicorn Theatre’s ‘Anansi The Spider’, created and directed by the venue’s Artistic Director Justin Audibert.

The good news – whether you managed to catch the show or not – is that the creative team behind it have been busy creating an online version in three instalments, featuring the original cast members Afia Abusham, Sapphire Joy and Juliet Okotie.

The streaming of those three instalments mark the beginning of the Unicorn’s response to lockdown. I spoke to Justin, to find out more about the shows and what to expect in the future.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the practicalities of your upcoming online shows: how can audiences access them?
JA: Audiences can access the shows either by subscribing to the Unicorn’s YouTube Channel – – or through The Guardian’s website.

The first episode will be broadcast at 11am on Saturday 30 May, and then the subsequent ones will be on Saturday 6 Jun and Saturday 13 Jun at the same time. They will then all be available online until Sat 4 Jul – so make sure you subscribe now or join the Unicorn mailing list to get updates!

CM: Some of our readers may have seen ‘Anansi The Spider’ when it was on at the venue in September last year: can they expect the content of the shows to be entirely similar – within the constraints of the format! – or are there differences? 
JA: We hope that we have captured all the fun, mischief, music and dance of the theatrical production, but because we are making it for the digital format we have had the luxury of adding in a few treats that you can only do on film.

Todd who works for Illuminations – our digital collaborators on this project – can manipulate and multiply the images that we shoot and this is proving to be really fun as we work through the editing process.

CM: What sort of stories does Ansansi tell? Are they traditional ones? 
JA: The Anansi stories are part of an oral storytelling tradition that originated hundreds of years ago in West Africa. The Akan people told all sorts of tales about a mischievous trickster spider called Anansi who played naughty pranks on animals and people alike – and also gave humans the gift of weaving, which is where Kente clothe comes from.

The stories then travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean because of the of the horror of the Transatlantic slave trade, and the stories then got adapted and changed in the retelling to respond to a new environment. Anansi became a symbol of resistance and lost heritage.

Then the stories travelled back across the Atlantic to Europe with the waves of postcolonial migration from the Windrush Generation onwards. I love how the character and the tales told about him have changed through these re-tellings, and so creating a digital version of Anansi feels like a new and exciting extension of this incredibly rich storytelling heritage. Anansi is a character for all ages for all the ages.

CM: What challenges have you met with in adapting the stories to be told via the online medium? 
JA: We have made it whilst the nation is in lockdown, using the actors’ homes as the filming locations and on smartphones. We have had to get them costumes and musical instruments and microphones in a socially distanced and responsible manner, and I and the creative team have been directing them over Zoom.

Whereas normally we have a whole team of caring, organised stage management to help support us, on this shoot we have had to do everything from a distance with the cast really taking responsibility for all the technical aspects of the filming, such as setting up their tripods and thinking about the lighting in their homes.

To help us with all the technical aspects of digital capture we have partnered with Illuminations – as I mentioned – who specialise in representing theatrical work on screen, and they are editing the films we shoot.

It has been a fantastic and challenging learning experience for myself and all the creative team. We are used to working in three dimensions and suddenly we have to think about everything being on a screen. We are also used to being right there in the room with the actors and feeling what the audience feel and now suddenly everything is mediated through a screen.

But all that said, it has been so life affirming to be making something and being creative again. We have all relished it and it has certainly whetted our collective appetites to make more work in this manner.

CM: What inspired you to create online material from this particular show? How did the subject matter lend itself to the format?   
JA: We wanted to create a digital response to the moment that families could enjoy together as an event or a treat. It felt vital that we would appeal to an audience that really embodied multicultural London and it also felt key that the show captured the sense of theatricality that we embrace at the Unicorn. In addition to that we were really keen that we do something that has the excitement of going to the theatre.

We realised that if we made episodes and released them on consecutive weekends it would, in some way, have that sense of special occasion for children that is so sorely lacking whilst in lockdown. Once we had these conditions we realised that ‘Anansi The Spider’ would really lend itself to being filmed in lockdown, because the show drew on a storytelling tradition and that the three performers were so compelling as an ensemble that they would really lend themselves to being captured digitally.

We were also responding to popular demand. The show had sold out at the Unicorn and we have had all sorts of people asking for us to bring it back. It felt as though this was the perfect moment to inject a little of Anansi’s sprit into people’s lives.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
JA: Juliet, Afia and Sapphire are a triplet of triple threats! They can all act brilliantly, sing like angels and move with passion.

I knew all this from our collaboration at the Unicorn. What I didn’t know, however, was that they could be their own directors of photography, sound operators and make up artists, but that is what we have learnt whilst I have been directing them via Zoom and they have been using their own homes as the locations for the shoot.

And then on top of this they have had to upload the film clips that we have shot every night. They truly have had the patience of saints on this project, and have done it all with nothing but smiles and laughter.

CM: Can you tell us about the workshop and activities that accompany the shows? 
JA: We thought it was really important in this moment to offer young people a creative outlet alongside the treat of watching the show, which is why we are also creating a singing workshop which we will be broadcasting alongside the show itself.

It teaches the audience one of the songs from the show and invites them to record it with their parents or guardians, and send us a video of them doing it so that we can share as a joyful moment of celebration.

We have also created a really brilliant and free set of resources with fun creative tasks that parents, carers and teachers can also do that further explore the themes and imaginative world of the show. These are on our website.

CM: Do you have plans for further online content? 
JA: This is just the start of a whole range of online work that we will be undertaking in the coming months.

We know how vital it is to continue to serve our audience in this challenging environment and provide a creative outlet for young people. We all really miss the sense of shared experience that you get from being in a theatre with an audience and all the work we do will aim to capture that in some way. We want to make work that provides a treat during this moment.

We don’t have any rules about form, and as we explore what these other digital projects will be I think some will also be on film but others may be podcasts, audiobooks or apps. We will try and find the right medium for the project.

We are very lucky because early on in lockdown we managed to secure philanthropic support for Unicorn Online from The Backstage Trust and Bloomberg Philanthropies. They recognised that in this moment the opportunities for young people to access culture would diminish and yet that opportunity is more vital than ever.

CM: Do you think the lockdown-inspired trend for online-accessible culture will outlive the pandemic itself? Can you see a future where the creative industries continue to offer online content alongside live content?
JA: I think that this moment will lead to theatres thinking in a much more digitally aware way and I think there will be a plethora of interesting digital work even when theatres reopen.

All the theatres that I am talking to are using this moment to explore how the digital medium can really support the work that they do on their stages. There is some brilliant experimentation with digital theatre as a form going on across the UK. It is really exciting.

That said, nothing can replicate that moment of being in the same space at the same time as other people experiencing the same thing together as a communal experience.

CM: As AD of Unicorn Theatre, what hopes do you have for the future? 
JA: At this very moment the survival of the art form itself seems in question which makes hope all the more important.

What has been amazing to see, and has also filled me with hope, is the solidarity across the entire sector and the nation. We really are all in this together and our audiences have been so wonderfully supportive. When we re-open I really hope that we all continue this spirit of collaboration. We are certainly all stronger as an industry and as a society when we work together for the common good of all.

With regard to the Unicorn, I am very hopeful about growing my working partnership with Bailey Lock, who is our new Executive Director, and who had to close the theatre on her first day in the job. She has been magnificent throughout this crisis, and I can’t wait to see what we can achieve with the wind at our backs instead of in our faces.

I cannot but be filled with hope when I think of the resilience in the face of being closed, and the determination to get back to making work, shown by the entire team at the Unicorn. All the amazing freelance artists who will make work that reflects this moment back to us and help begin the process of healing us as a society give me hope in buckets.

Above all else though: imagining the faces of that first Unicorn audience, all waiting with giggles and excitement for the first show back in the building when we reopen, gives me hope and a sense of purpose in this moment.

CM: What would you have been doing now if COVID hadn’t hit?
JA: I would have just opened a devised show called ‘Robotology’ with a very talented team of collaborators at the Unicorn and would currently be en route to South Korea with the tour of my RSC production of ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’ with another fantastically talented company of actors who I miss every day.

CM: How have you been keeping sane in the lockdown period?
JA: I have been doing lots of exercise – running and Hiit workouts daily – and also have been having pilates lessons via Zoom from a very dear friend of mine who is a pilates teacher. It has been a revelation. I have horrible posture – like most theatre directors – and this is really sorting it out after years of neglect.

I am also doing a weekly online quiz with friends, reading books and my special pleasure is a recent subscription to the London Review Of Books. Next Sunday I plan on listening to the rerun of the Cricket World Cup Final -which I watched in Trafalgar Square – on ‘Test Match Special’. I am a cricket tragic and have really been missing the pure joy and relaxation that going to the cricket gives me. ‘Test Match Special’ is the closest thing to it. As you can see I am a total nerd at heart.

Above all else though, in lockdown I have been lucky enough to have additional time with my daughter Maya, who turned two last week and who makes me laugh every day. In spite of all the trauma of COVID-19 and lockdown I do feel truly blessed to have had more time to watch her learn and grow on a daily basis.

Anansi The Spider Re-Spun will stream on 30 May, 6 Jun and 13 Jun, and each instalment will be available for three weeks after the initial broadcast. See the venue website here for info and links.