Caged Bird Theatre’s new show NEON looks at the value of faith in trying times. It plays at the Lion and Unicorn from 6th – 8th of August as part of the Camden Fringe. I caught up with Director Jasper Frost to talk all thinks Caged Bird Theatre, NEON and theatre…
Tell us a little about Caged Bird Theatre as a company – what is the story behind the name?
The idea of Caged Bird feels like it’s existed for a very short time, but in fact it’s been in the works for years. I started directing and writing while I was still at university, and pretty much all of these pieces had premises that many might call quite dark or abrasive (a Sarah Kane-inspired play and a rather close-to-the-edge sketch comedy show to name the most extreme examples). I’ve always loved darker or edgier themes in theatre; weirdly, it feels refreshing compared to the mundane segments of life. But now, given we’re in a time of uncertainty and division, it felt right to create a theatre company that finds the hopefulness in the darkness. That’s where the idea of a Caged Bird came from; to me, it means taking dark or oppressive circumstances (a cage) and still moving forwards with hope as our motivator. I want this company to be one that best represents what humanity is right now. The name just came to us, and we agreed that it suited that ethos.You have a few shows under your belt now as an emerging theatre company, so what would you say the overall vision or goal is for Caged Bird Theatre?
The vision for Caged Bird Theatre is for it to be a platform where we, actors and audience, push the limits of our imaginations while also grounding these stories with an immediacy and importance. We aren’t as concerned with conventional naturalism as we are with staging unusual narratives in new, unique ways. However, the company is absolutely performer-centric; at any one point, the most engaging aspect is the fierce displays of talent from the actors. If NEON is a play about gods, we don’t rely on spectacle to convey this fantastical element; we use people to present it as something the audience can identify with. In short, I suppose our mission is to think beyond conventions and make the strange feel familiar and relevant.
Your new show NEON promises to be a ‘grand and absurd story’ which sees a therapist meeting a man claiming to be God and a woman’s life disrupted by religion. What can you tell us about how the show and how it features the ‘absurd’ mentioned?
Her life isn’t disrupted by religion itself per se; of course I shan’t give anything away, but if someone important in your life revealed they had an immensely passionate group of disciples that would certainly affect things! The absurdity, however, largely comes from what the show is at face value. At its core, this play is about the value of faith and how easy it is to restore that in those that need it most. But of course, this is a play by Patrick Swain, and so there are some more self-aware moments and sci-fi tropes that are the vehicle for what we’re saying to you. The storytelling is unusual to say the least; but what lies beneath the time-stopping and the pop culture references is something genuine that we think you’ll really connect with.Neon delves into religion and ‘the subject of death and what lies beyond’ – this is potentially a very dark subject. Would you say there is some lightness to the piece as well as more sobering aspects?
Absolutely. I’ve already spoken about how the play is based on the concepts of faith and hope, but for every consideration of mortality in the play, there is a petty argument over orange juice or someone falling over. It’s usually intentional.
Any play exploring religion walks a tightrope to some extent. Is this piece consciously controversial in its choice of subject matter or does the play handle religion gently?
It’s difficult to say. Religion is a very personal subject to many, whether they identify themselves as religious or not, so in many ways it’s up to the individual to decide if we’re gentle enough about it or not. But then, it’s this tightrope that inspired the play in the first place. Above all else, it’s a play about people, as any play should be. These people are imperfect regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). In the end, what the play invites you to agree on is that religion is full of unknowns, but that it’s these unknowns that encourage you to trust and look to the future through a positive lens.
An aspect of the show which interests me is that one of the characters finds herself ‘caught up in the birth of a new religion’. Is there an intention to question the validity of faith through the reference of a ‘new religion’?
Not at all; if anything, this play makes a strong case for the validity of faith. NEON is about the importance of faith in life regardless of whether one is religious or not. The tricky thing with discussing religion is that so many of them are based on tradition and feel as old as time. By introducing the concept of a ‘new’ religion, it allows us as storytellers to examine faith from the bottom up, as it eliminates any audience preconceptions about the themes. What we’re most interested in is: if you were an atheist terrified of mortality, what would a new, unfamiliar religion need to tell you to bring you a feeling of comfort, trust and a willpower to keep on keeping on? Because in the end, I think that’s what we’re all chasing.Does NEON explore a specific religion or is it more of an exploration of the value of faith itself, regardless of specific religions?
How much do I reveal here? All I’ll say is that we refer to a specific religion at one point. But again, we try not to be too on the nose about it, because we’re not here to discuss people’s specific beliefs. It’s absolutely an exploration of faith above all, and this allusion to a certain religion is to help you get on board with a character’s motivation.
The show’s blurb refers to ‘a world of unsettling headlines’ as a backdrop to this story exploring the value of faith in dark times. Do you consider the play to be a political statement in any way?
We’ve gone against being openly political in NEON. If we care about the audience at all (which we do), we feel we have to acknowledge the current political climate, because that’s the world that both they and this play exist within. The key issue at the start of the play is that right now, there are more atheists in the world than there have ever been before. Are we (as a people) just waving goodbye to tradition, or are more and more people so disillusioned that they have abandoned faith altogether? It’s safe to say that the past couple of years have been rather divisive, and of course not just in the UK. This isn’t a political play; it’s a play for today.NEON has an interesting backstory as a piece of new writing. How complex or challenging has it been to develop a whole narrative inspired by a single lyric in Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence?
“And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made”. That’s the lyric that got Patrick Swain writing this story. I can’t speak for his process, but the development of this story has felt like an utterly natural process to be a part of. A Neon God sounds like a deity for these modern times. And when things feel their most desperate, we may benefit from ‘making’ our gods, finding our faith in whatever way we need to. That’s the essence of NEON – it has been a challenge to realise the narrative for sure, but it’s unbelievable what one spark like that can do.
What would you say are your core intentions as producers of a play like NEON?
We intend for you to come and be entertained, but then leave the theatre still considering where you stand in relation to what we tackle. As we’ve toured the show over the past few months, we’ve always wanted for audiences to enjoy the absurd premise of the play and chuckle through the first half particularly, but many have told us how invested they become over time in the character losing his faith and the story that follows. Off the back of that investment, it’s not been unusual for some audience members after the show to mention their own experiences (both positive and negative) of growing up religious. NEON starts off as lighter entertainment and carries you along as it becomes something of greater importance. We intend to turn something you’re entertained by into something you really care about.
If an audience takes just one thing away from seeing Neon, what would you like that to be?
That there is always a way out of darkness, and that trust is a way out of loneliness.Now for the Quick Fire Round on all things theatre…
Who or what has inspired you most in theatre?
As a storyteller, Simon Stephens. I did a workshop with him a while back and he changed my view on theatre as I know it. But as a director specifically, Marianne Elliott. Her fascination with actors is contagious to me. Oh, and Adam Cross, my high school drama teacher.
Favourite theatre genre and why?
Dark comedies and ‘in-yer-face’ theatre. Strangely, it often manages to be the most genuine form when dealing with what it means to be human.
Do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ tale?
I co-directed a production of An Inspector Calls at school. On opening night it became clear that nerves were running high, and sure enough, there was a small muddle in lines onstage. However, due to the play being set in one room with lots of recurring quips, what was initially a minor mistake meant we had suddenly leapt forward about twenty pages. The attempts to recover the omitted scenes resulted in a lot of improvisation. The show indeed went on, though it finished at half its anticipated running time.
Etiquette debates – worthwhile or futile? Where do you draw the line?
Worthwhile, but crucial to keep perspective during these debates. Theatre is for all, so I’m not suggesting everyone show up in their Sunday best. But once the house lights go down, respect everyone else around you, including the performers. A theatre ticket isn’t a right to behave badly, it’s a guest pass to see something bigger than yourself. Respect that privilege.
If you could bring change in terms of opportunities in Theatre to London right now, what would it be? What does London need?
Things are getting better for emerging theatre makers for sure, but there is still a way to go. One issue that many early stage directors are up against is the difficulty getting work as Assistant Directors. It is without doubt that getting to assist an established professional is a vital learning curve when coming into the industry, but currently I find there is too much focus on what is listed on a CV rather than what emerging directors can offer to professionals. How does one get professional work when you need professional work under your belt to begin with? It’s easy to get written off before you even have the chance to talk about who you are and why you care about working with that company.
Lots of theatres, big and small, are now offering writing and directing schemes, which is certainly a step in the right direction to encourage young people to pursue careers in the arts, but in my opinion the problem is still lying in schools. The greatest influence on me gaining confidence in both theatre and in myself was my drama teacher in secondary school. I was immensely lucky to attend a school where drama was something to be proud of, but that is certainly not the case in other schools where academic drama and other artistic subjects take a backseat or don’t exist at all. They are immensely formative not only for those wanting to become actors, but also for those lacking in confidence and looking for a part of their education to take pride in. When it makes an impact, it makes a hugely positive one. There is zero sense in eliminating that opportunity for young people.
Finally, to close, sell your show to readers in just one sentence.
NEON is a show for you, the individual; strangely hilarious, meaningful without being about Brexit, and life-affirming in a surprisingly cinematic way.
So there you have it! Remember: NEON plays at the Lion and Unicorn from 6th – 8th of August as part of the Camden Fringe and you can find tickets here.