Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Suzy Willson: Clod Ensemble and the Red Ladies

By | Published on Monday 14 July 2014


Clod Ensemble are renowned for their brilliant and inventive shows, which transcend and disregard the boundary lines of traditional performance genres. One of their latest pieces, ‘Red Ladies’, visits London’s Southbank Centre this week, for just two nights.

The company was formed nearly twenty years ago by long term collaborators Suzy Willson and Paul Clark, and they’ve staged myriad critically acclaimed pieces since then. I put some questions to Suzy ahead of the company’s upcoming London performances.

CM: Can you tell us what kind of a performance ‘Red Ladies’ is – and what audiences can expect from it. How is it structured? Is there a central narrative?
SW: Audiences can expect eighteen women on stage. All of them are very compelling to watch in different ways – different performance backgrounds (dancers, musicians, actors, independent artists) different ages, sizes, heights, ethnicities. Yet they are also a chorus and function as more than the sum of their parts.

There is no central narrative. It is divided into five movements – like a piece of music. I see it as a kind of visual poem or a moving painting. It keeps changing throughout the piece – there are many different shades or moods in it.

At the beginning of the piece we ask the audience to look at it as if they would watch a storm gather, or watch a flock of starlings. We describe the piece as a ‘theatrical demonstration’. The Red Ladies demonstrate unity, discord, lamentation and action – we expect that different audience members will find very different interpretations of it. When I watch it, I find it funny in places and very moving in others – there are many fragments of meaning visually and in the sound world – all held together by the Red Ladies.

CM: What themes does it explore?
SW: There are lots of themes in it – Red Ladies explores how the world changes, evolves and unfolds, how groups of things move; how human beings live together, and collective decisions get made; how people resemble animals or other natural phenomena; how we cope together with huge political and natural events; how to be different and simultaneously be part of a group.

CM: What inspired you to create ‘Red Ladies’? How did you come up with this idea?
SW: Who knows why we are compelled to do things?

I have always been interested in the role of the chorus in Greek Tragedy. The piece gradually emerged over a number of years as we worked with the idea of the chorus in different ways. In Red Ladies there are no protagonists so we focus on the group, the chorus, the people.

CM: What is the aim of a show like this? Does it have a political agenda?
SW: We don’t really think in terms of aims. To provoke? To draw attention to things? To entertain? To provide a space of contemplation or a call to action?

In terms of political agenda, Red Ladies are not teachers or politicians but, as far as I can gather, they do believe in freedom of expression and in the need to be visible and to pay attention to things that are easily forgotten or passed by unnoticed.

CM: Clod Ensemble is renowned for its genre-busting performances. How do you generally go about generating the ideas that lead to produced pieces? Is it a collaborative process?
SW: We are really inspired and stimulated by the different ways that music and movement work together. We develop work over a long time – often in short bursts over, perhaps, two years; and the form and content of the piece starts to become indistinguishable. So it’s difficult to recall, sometimes, how the final form of a piece actually emerged.

An idea of genre can be quite reductive – we are interested in opening possibilities rather than boxing them in to definitions. We make work with people who are have studied very different crafts – dance, music, theatre, sculpture.

The process is collaborative. Paul Clark (musician) and I work very closely with all the performers, designers, producers. Like most work in the live arts, ours relies on the work of a lot of people.

CM: How did Clod Ensemble come together?
SW: Paul Clark and I have known each other since we were 12 and we have met lots of brilliant people since then (1982!). In 1995 we decided we wanted to make a piece with some of the people I had met when studying with the late great Jacques Lecoq – and some brilliant musicians. We made a piece called ‘Feast During the Plague’. People seemed to enjoy it. That was nearly 20 years ago,
CM: Clod Ensemble has been producing for nearly twenty years – do you have any projects you look back on as favourites?
SW: I am fond of all of them. I think for many people working in this way, shows become markers of your life. We sometimes work on pieces several times over many years and the pieces evolve as we bring in new performers, or produce them in diffierent spaces.

‘Red Ladies’ is definitely a favourite.

‘Silver Swan’ – I love the music and the simplicity of it being about falling over and having to get up again

‘Small House’ – a piece made with performance legends Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver

‘Must’ I love because of the honesty and unique stage presence of of Peggy Shaw.

‘An Anatomie’ was another favourite; it was a privilege to have been able to take an audience of just 200 through the enormous spaces of Sadler’s Wells and Wales Millenium Centre. It’s another piece we hope to keep in repertoire.

CM: What’s next for the company?
SW: Another red show called ‘Red Chair’, a 2 hour story by the brilliant multi talented writer/sculptor/performer Sarah Cameron.

We are also developing three new pieces – very different from each other – beginning in August.

Plus, we continue to do our work with doctors, medical students healthcare professionals for our Performing Medicine project, as well as putting on concerts in daycare centres for the elderly.

‘Red Ladies’ is on at South Bank Centre on Tuesday 15 Jul and Wednesday 16 Jul, see this page here for more info and tickets.

LINKS: | |