Cabaret Interview Caro Meets Theatre Interview

The Ruby Dolls: The Brides Of Bluebeard

By | Published on Thursday 22 September 2016


If the names Jessica Sedler, Susanna Fiore, Rebecca Shanks and Tara Siddall don’t ring a bell, then perhaps you will recognise the name of their critically acclaimed ensemble The Ruby Dolls, whose genre-bending and progressive shows have been impressing audiences since 2009.
They’re well known for tackling feminist themes, so it was no surprise to hear they’d be bringing their latest piece, ‘The Brides Of Bluebeard’ to CPT’s Calm Down Dear festival this autumn. I put some questions to the troupe, to find out more about this show, and their work in general.

CM: Genre wise, your work seems generally to be regarded as cabaret, but you do seem to employ strong themes, which makes it seem rather theatrical. How would you describe what you do?
The Ruby Dolls: Our work is very much theatre as well as cabaret. Theatre is in our roots, we all trained as actors originally, and in this piece, we have a strong narrative, with characters the audience can emotionally invest in.

Cabaret is, of course, a form of theatre. But it interests us because it is a form that refuses to conform. It can be anything it wants to be, and we take huge inspiration from that! We enjoy the fact that we as a group straddle more than one genre, even when it proves tricky to market, because this lack of ‘genrefication’ allows us to keep moving and experimenting. We are interested in where storytelling and song meet, in a non-musical theatre context. The music we choose or write, isn’t there to further a plot or to reflect a character’s inner life, it is there as an integral part of the fabric of the piece. And through our eclectic choices, we reveal something of ourselves within our story. The cabaret aesthetic allows for more intimacy with our audience, and gives us the courage to be vulnerable on stage.

CM: Tell us about this particular show – what can we expect from it in terms of subject matter and theme?
The Ruby Dolls: It is our adaptation of ‘Bluebeard’. In the original folktale, his previous wives are mentioned only as dead bodies in a locked chamber. We give each wife a character. We allow these usually faceless women to tell their stories. Our Bluebeard is known only as ‘The Bear’, a powerful, yet invisible arch capitalist with a finger in every conceivable pie. He always gets what he wants…

We have set the piece across several timelines, to represent the fact that corrupt and violent figures such as The Bear have always been and will always be around. This also allows us to explore the four women within different historical contexts. There is a wife from the 1600s, a wife from the late 19th century, a wife from the 1960s and the final wife exists in 2016. Through each of them we catch a glimpse of the controlling structures of their time, alongside that of their marriage.

CM: What made you decide to focus on this particular story?
The Ruby Dolls: In the original folk tale of Bluebeard, the heroine is about to be killed for opening the door her husband has forbidden her from, when she is saved by her brothers. In Angela Carter’s 1975 adaptation of Bluebeard ‘The Bloody Chamber’ the imperilled heroine is saved by her mother.

We began to investigate what would happen if we gave the heroine agency, allowing her to save herself. We wanted to tell a story about how a woman might step out of controlling structures, such as the coercive central relationship in Bluebeard, through her own action and in collaboration with other women. As a group of collaborators ourselves, this chimed with us. We were drawn to the idea of telling a well-known folk tale and re-imagining it for our current reality in 2016. So that through the lens of the familiar, an audience can see what change might be possible.

CM: How do you go about putting your shows together? What is your creative process?
The Ruby Dolls: This is our fifth full-length production to date, and our process has been totally different for each production. Other shows have begun with the story, or had a strong puppetry or clown element. With ‘Bluebeard’ we began with the music. We took a theme that excited us: forms of control, and began to find pieces of music we loved that sat with the theme. We gave ourselves time. We organized a series of R&D weekends over a period of six months to generate and really interrogate our material. We took time to develop ourselves as writers and then performed some material as a scratch night to see if it had legs. We realised it did, and then applied for Arts Council funding to further develop it, which we were very grateful to receive. It has been 18 months in the planning, which is why we’re so excited it’s finally here!

CM: What makes you want to focus on feminist issues in your work? Do you think your shows have the power to change the way people think about them?
The Ruby Dolls: We realised very quickly at the beginning of our journey that simply being four women making theatre and standing on stage next to each other could be, and has been, seen as political. We have sometimes been judged in a way we don’t feel our male peers have been judged.

Allowing our voices to ring out in what can be a tough environment, infuses our work. We’re passionate about making work together, about the subject matter we choose and about leading by example as a group of independent female artists. Whether it’s to stage a more politically pertinent show like ‘Bluebeard’, or simply put on stage the stories of unknown women, as we did in ‘Rubies In the Attic’, our feminism is presented through the personal.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’ has recently received a lot of media coverage for its domestic abuse storyline, and with ‘Bluebeard’ we are a part of that very important conversation about coercive control. Though we present an extreme and fairytale-like version of a violent and controlling relationship, it is proving sadly relatable. We have already had some people respond to the production by thinking about relationships in which they feel bound in some way.

CM: Why are you called ‘The Ruby Dolls’ – What significance does the name have?
The Ruby Dolls: When we started our group we took inspiration from the all-female close harmony groups of the 30s and 40s. We wanted a name that recalled that style, but also satirised it, hence describing ourselves as ‘Dolls’. We chose Ruby partly as we love the colour ruby red but also in tribute to Ruby, Susie’s Grandmother, a feisty lady of that era. Over the years since, we have evolved into passionate storytellers with close harmony singing at the heart of our work. We grew gradually and organically into a fully-fledged cabaret ensemble made up of actors, writers and composers. We’ve been on BBC Radio, on TV, sold out at the Edinburgh festival and have done it all as Ruby Dolls. The name remains enigmatic and playfully subversive. Just like us!

CM: How did you all meet, and what made you want to create your own ensemble?
The Ruby Dolls: Susie and Jess trained at LAMDA together. Tara, who also trained at LAMDA, met Susie and Jess when they were all cast in a play together as The Mitford Sisters! At one point in the play, we had to sing in harmony, which is where the idea was born. Rebecca, who trained at The Oxford School Of Speech & Drama, came on board a few years later. We were all fed up of being jobbing actors, auditioning for parts in things we didn’t even like, and not being a part of something bigger… We felt a lack of creative control, and the time simply felt right for us to get out there and embrace our own creative drives and make work together. And it’s so satisfying to do so!

CM: What’s been the highlight of your time together, thus far?
The Ruby Dolls: There have been so many! A particular highlight was being interviewed and performing in the Woman’s Hour Studio on their Christmas Day special. It’s also the quieter moments, such as a lady coming up to us on the street in Edinburgh and dissolving into tears as she told us that our show ‘Fabulous Creatures’ had made her want to re-build her relationship with her teenage daughter. It’s in those moments we know we just have to keep doing this.

CM: What do you all do when you are not being Ruby Dolls?
The Ruby Dolls: Jess works as a communications trainer and facilitator. Susie is currently writing a new play and also teaches Pilates. Tara is a workshop leader working with young people and a poet. Rebecca works as a classical singer and teaches singing to children. We’re all self employed, so that we can be flexible when it comes to the day-to-day running of The Ruby Dolls Ltd. and roll with all that comes our way!

CM: What do you have in mind for the long term – do you have any particular ambitions for the future?
The Ruby Dolls: We feel so happy and grateful to be doing what we’re doing. We have an amazing team around us, including our long standing Musical Director Ben Cox and our producer Suzie Kirk Dumitru, we are constantly building fantastic relationships within the industry hope to continue to do so. Our ambition is to be able to keep growing, experimenting, and producing exciting new work.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
The Ruby Dolls: We are performing ‘The Brides Of Bluebeard’ at selected venues and dates until October 22nd. We also have a Christmas show on at St. James theatre on December 1st. We hope to take Bluebeard further afield next year on a national tour, so watch this space!

‘The Brides Of Bluebeard’ is on as part of the Calm Down Dear festival at Camden People’s Theatre from 24-25 Sep, see the venue website here for info. The Ruby Dolls play further London dates at Shoreditch Town Hall from 29-30 Sep, and at the St James Theatre on 22 Oct.

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