Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Lisa Cagnacci: Animals

By | Published on Tuesday 31 March 2015


Coming up at Theatre503 is associate director Lisa Cagnacci’s first in-house production, and she has chosen to direct a new work from Yorkshire based playwright Emma Adams, a satire focusing on a group of older women who are struggling to survive in a dystopian future.

Intrigued by the show’s themes and subject matter, I sent some questions over to Lisa Cagnacci, to find out more about the play, the playwright, and Lisa herself.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the play? Is it new? What’s it about? What themes does it address?
LC: ‘Animals’ is a brand new play by Emma Adams, which imagines a future super-capitalist society. There’s no welfare state or safety net, everyone is valued purely according to their economic productivity, and so the group of older women at the centre of the play have to duck and dodge in order to survive. It’s a dark vision of the nightmare that could ensue if we had another 30 years of this government. Oh, and it’s really funny.

CM: How much of a reflection do you think the play is of our current society?
LC: Emma, the playwright, is definitely very concerned about many of the trends in our current society, and essentially the play is a very dark, satirical vision of what could happen if those things are allowed to keep growing unchecked. Things like: valuing “the market” and the needs of business over the needs of actual human beings; allowing health and social services to be run with the aim of making a profit; looking at children and young people as an investment and expecting them to pay dividends in future on the investment put into them now. The play reflects a lot of concern about the way that our society can be ‘dehumanising’ and can be have a very narrow, reductive view of how the world should work, not leaving room for anything human and complex.

CM: Does the play have a political agenda?
LC: Absolutely – Emma is critiquing capitalism. And critiquing society’s view of older people while she’s at it.

CM: Do you think it’s possible to effect political change through performance?
LC: Goodness, that’s a tricky question! Of course only a limited number of people will see a performance and they’re likely to be people who broadly tend to agree with the politics of that particular performance or they probably wouldn’t have been attracted to it. But I think that by making a piece of art, one is absolutely starting a political conversation with the people who come to see that piece – you may be asking them to question something they believe, or you may be reminding them of the importance of something, or you may be underlining a problem that they maybe hadn’t seen in quite that way until you laid it out. But definitely you’re encouraging people to think and feel about certain issues for a couple of hours and then sending them back out into the world and in some tiny way that will affect them and even the people they go on to interact with. It’s a very tiny change. But I do believe that when you feel strongly about things, it’s worth putting them out there and there is some kind of impact somewhere. It’s like that thing about the butterfly flapping its wings and the weather.

But I think you make a performance, ultimately, because you’re interested not just in the politics of something, but in the humanity of it – in examining how people cope with something or why they believe certain things, you want to dig down and examine the psychology behind the politics. If your main aim is to effect political change, I think you should get out there campaigning – I don’t think theatre is a substitute for activism. Although theatre absolutely should be politically engaged. Sorry, that was a very long answer to your tricky question.

CM: As associate director of Theatre503, this is your first in-house production. What made you choose this particular play for this occasion?
LC: ‘Animals’ is a play that we at Theatre503 have been aware of for about two years now and have been looking for an opportunity to stage for some time. I love that it’s absolutely unlike anything else I’ve ever read – it’s so fresh and so sharp and so subversive. Emma’s writing is fantastic, I think her message is extremely important and the play has a great sense of humour. Also I love that there are such great lead roles for women in their 60s and 70s.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright? Have you been in contact with her during the rehearsal process?
LC: Emma is a “new writer” in the sense that she hasn’t yet had a massive amount of work on, but she’s not in her 20s – she took a bit longer to come to writing, I think partly because she’s dyslexic and school didn’t help her fall in love with writing, it was something she found a love for as an adult. I think there’s a great combination of maturity and life experience combined with freshness and irreverence in her writing, which makes it particularly special. Emma lives (and teaches) in Yorkshire so I haven’t been able to have her in the rehearsal room full-time during this process, but she’s spent a few days with us which have been immensely helpful. Also, she and I have been having meetings and phone calls and discussions about this play for about a year now during the script development process, so I think we’ve had a chance to talk through most issues! That doesn’t stop me continually emailing her and ringing her after rehearsals though. Um, she would probably say I’ve been in contact with her too much during the rehearsal process!

CM: Can you fill us in on the community project running alongside this, which is aimed at the over-sixties?
LC: At Theatre503 we always run a community playwriting project alongside our in-house productions, but so far these have been for local young people. Since this play is all about older women, I thought it really made sense to run a project for local over-60s instead for a change!

The participants take part in a series of free playwriting workshops. They come and see ‘Animals’ both in the rehearsal room and in the theatre, they riff on the themes and situations to write their own short 5 to 10 minute plays, and then at the end of the course we get professional actors to read their short plays for an invited audience of family and friends.

I was a bit nervous about trying something totally new, but we’ve had great support from lots of people – our local community centres, Caius House and the Katherine Low Settlement, have really got behind the project, and I got some great advice from Spare Tyre, who do lots of work with older people, about recruiting and working with the participants. After the planning stage, I then disappeared into rehearsal and the very brilliant Tom Latter, who’s one of our literary co-ordinators, and Brian Mullin, who’s one of our playwrights on attachment, took over and have been delivering the sessions to great acclaim!

I can’t wait to meet the participants, who are coming to watch a rehearsal run tomorrow, and I particularly can’t wait to see their plays – I’ll get to join in the sessions after the ‘Animals’ press night, which will be when we arrange having the plays read aloud.

CM: What’s next for you, and Theatre503?
LC: Theatre503 has a massively exciting autumn season coming up – I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to tell you because we haven’t announced anything yet! However, new writing fans will probably know that we recently ran a very big play-writing award competition, and that the star judging panel made a dramatic surprise decision and chose two winning plays… so perhaps you should be looking for those two winning plays on our stage pretty soon. Along with some other very exciting work. And maybe there’s a chance something might be going on a little tour although you didn’t hear that from me [cough]. Stay tuned and see!

For me personally, after ‘Animals’ closes I’m about to direct my first play in ten years for the Edinburgh Fringe – ten years being just about enough time to have recovered from taking a show up every year through my early and mid twenties! A very lovely South African actor, Saria Steyl, and an equally brilliant South African playwright, Amy Jephta, have been collaborating on a one-woman play called ‘Flight Lessons’ about an ex-pat in London far from home. They’re both so good that, despite having thought my Edinburgh days were behind me, I couldn’t really resist when they asked me to direct. So that’s where you’ll find me over the summer. I just have this very massive complicated show to open first…

Animals is on at Theatre503 from 8 Apr to 2 May. Find more info and book tickets on this page here.

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