Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview Theatre Interview

Rhiannon Faith: Smack That (A Conversation)

By | Published on Friday 22 February 2019

The very excellent Rhiannon Faith brings her latest work to Ovalhouse this week, and we’re very excited about it. ‘Smack That’ sounds brilliant, and tackles a really important issue, while offering genuine support to those affected by said issue.

To find out more about the show, and about the creative force behind it, I spoke to Rhiannon, ahead of the upcoming run.

CM: Can you start by explaining the nature of the show? How would you describe it in terms of its genre and themes?
RF: ‘Smack That (a conversation)’ is a dance theatre piece about human resilience, survival and change. The all-female cast of 3 professional and 4 non-professional performers come together to tell their real stories of domestic abuse in a unique and empowering way.

The show is set a party where there is good music, cider, party games, a mix of spoken personal accounts of domestic violence, and dance. We celebrate the seven women who are survivors and through their character ‘Beverly’ they invite you to be guests at their party, to share their experiences and to raise awareness of the devastating reality of domestic abuse.

You get a party bag and play games and listen to stories from women who have survived emotional, sexual, psychological and financial abuse. It’s at a party because it’s a celebration of their strength and resilience.

CM: Does the performance have a narrative arc?
RF: The Beverlys take us through their journey of meeting the perpetrator, trying to get out of the relationship, failing to get out, being at rock bottom, and finally getting out. Domestic abuse is experienced in a cycle of behaviour designed by the perpetrator, making it impossible for the victim to leave. The cast has survived abuse, and fragments of their stories meld into one arc.

CM: What made you want to create a show exploring this subject? What was the inspiration for it?
RF: Inspired by directing Eve Ensler’s ‘The Vagina Monologues’ at university and raising money for a local women’s refuge, I have wanted to make awareness-raising work ever since. I have watched people I love experience abuse. Nearly 15 years on and I still want to contribute to stopping violence against women and girls the best way I know how, so I decided to make this show.

CM: Have you found it emotionally taxing to work with these themes?
RF: Of course, it is hard to hear stories that are brutal and detail such profound suffering but the spirit of the women involved and the care we have for one another has made it a transformative experience.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about how the all-playing-the-same-person thing works/came about?
RF: All six performers are called Beverly, a nod to the hostess in Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’. Each wears a silver wig and a grey party dress. The audience are all Bevs too, we give them a nickname, to make them feel welcome and we pass them some popcorn and a cup of cider. We created the uber character Beverly who tell their stories collectively, sometimes they are speaking their autobiographical experience and sometimes they are speaking each other’s. This creates unity between them, they are all mates and they all have each other’s back.

CM: Can a show like this effect change? What hopes do you have for it in this regard?
RF: One in four women experiences domestic violence, so there’s going to be people in the audience who might be triggered by the material. We describe ways of exiting an unhealthy relationship and audiences also take away party boxes with information about local services. Which could be a lifeline.

Most importantly, every venue ‘Smack That’ tours to, will become a J9 centre. An initiative set up by Essex charity Safer Places, training staff to offer help and information to domestic abuse victims by signposting to local service providers.

For many victims, under the close watch of a perpetrator, it can be almost impossible to take this first step. Being able to pop into an arts centre is less likely to arouse suspicion and could, therefore, form invaluable support. Hopefully, that will make a difference.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you, now? What led you to where you are in your career? Was this the path you always wanted to pursue?
RF: I set up my company and have worked as a choreographer for the past 10 years and always wanted to create work that I felt could contribute to raising awareness about issues in our world. I am passionate about fighting social injustice and am lucky enough to have a platform to create work that tackles taboos, and serves our communities.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
RF: I really just want to keep making shows, get better, be an activist and an artist. I loved making ‘Smack That’ into a published play with Oberon books, that was a first for me and I was really proud that I managed to achieve that. I have developed so much in the past five years and having a show at the Barbican Centre was such a wonderful experience and opportunity. I would love to have a large budget to make a main scale show, or work on an opera. I adore the company Peeping Tom and would love to have my work on the main stage in front of a large audience, making a difference in some way.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
RF: ‘Smack That’ is touring the UK, and I have some exciting commissions coming up.

I have also recently lost some very special people in my life and so my next work is for them, and for anyone in a similar position. It’s called ‘Drowntown’, a dance theatre show about loneliness, forgiveness and change. I think it’s going to be a hard process, but I have a wonderful cast and team around me and it’s already feeling pretty special. It will premier in Autumn 2019.

‘Smack That’ is on at Ovalhouse from 27 Feb-16 Mar, see the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou