Dolls in Amber are bringing a lively new show to the Camden Fringe with Villain, Interrupted which plays the Etcetera Theatre from 7th – 11th August 2019 (tickets here). Fascinated by the idea of villains being therapised (yes, I am inventing a word there) into heroes, I caught up with writer KT Roberts and Director Micha Mirto to talk all things Villain, Interrupted…
Where, when and how did Dolls in Amber come to be?
KT: In Micha’s sitting room after a few wines, earlier this year. We (Micha, the director of Villain Interrupted, and KT, the writer) made a show together a couple of years ago. Being young, inexperienced and wildly over-ambitious we decided to produce a play set in space (realistic set, no less) with a cast of 10…
It actually went rather well, but looking back we were mad even to attempt it. When we decided to make our second show together the plan was to keep it simple (the plan went out of the window spectacularly fast), and we wanted to do it under the name of a company (neither of us really know what we’re doing but a competent producer is yet to offer to take it off our hands so we muddle through that front.)
Deciding on a name took forever. We wanted it be something feminist with a fantasy or sci-fi bent – as a company founded by two queer women, diversity and inclusion are extremely important to us, as well as producing entertainment that offers up something a little bit different. ‘Two Harpies’ was almost chosen, before a sensible friend who works in marketing pointed out that it might come across a bit angry-lady and therefore difficult to sell. Back to the drawing board.
I can’t remember who came up with Dolls in Amber, but we both got excited about the idea of a barbie punching her way out of an amber prison – I used tracing paper and a gender-bent Vitruvian man to mock up the logo and Dolls in Amber was born – a company aimed at breaking the mould.
Villain, Interrupted is Dolls in Amber’s debut production. What exactly drew the company to this piece and how does it reflect the company’s identity?
KT: The show actually started out as a web series – I wanted to make something on a shoe string budget and hit on the idea of super-villains in prison unable to use their powers (handily avoiding any costly CGI). Micha and I had used improv sessions to workshop our last play to great success, so we invited a group of actors to the disused mental asylum Micha was currently calling home (live-in-guardian, not sectioned, promise) to spend a day pretending to be supervillains. They included a woman we’d never met before and a chap I went to school with and hadn’t seen for ten years – we obviously made an impression because both have ended up in this production!
That day went really well but I struggled to take the material and turn it into a satisfying series of vignettes – the story wanted to be bigger than that. Then Micha and I went to Edinburgh Fringe 2018 (and incidentally were introduced to another performer who’s ended up in the play). We drove up and back again – spending most of the overnight car journey talking about the shows we’d seen – some terrible and some terrific – and about how it’d been two years since we’d last worked together.
I off-handedly suggested doing Villain Interrupted as a one hour stage show, but once pitched neither of us could think why we hadn’t done that in the first place. I’m interested in genre (I’m also a writer for TV) and have always been drawn to theatre that doesn’t just consist of two people sitting in a room chatting – the format lends itself to truly magical experiences in a completely different way to film/TV: it’s not about being realistic, it’s about giving audiences permission to let their imaginations run wild.
Villain Interrupted is a perfect meeting place of our two approaches. Micha is interested in ensemble work and pushing the boundaries of what theatre is capable of. I’m interested in using genre to explore deeper concepts without losing the sense of fun and fantasy inherent in lots of today’s best film and TV. I’ve rarely seen something like that done onstage – especially not low budget. The company was formed as a vehicle for this show, which in turn has informed what we want the company to be – inclusive, innovative and daring.
Villain, Interrupted has a fascinating premise. A therapist trying to transform villains into heroes? Where does the idea stem from?
KT: The cynical answer is that I wanted to tell a story about superheroes and supervillains without getting sued by Marvel or DC and without needing millions for a CGI budget. Villains in prison can’t use their powers. Genius! Only thing is, the story now involves flashbacks so we do see their powers… Oh well: we’re very bad at keeping things simple and we love a challenge. Like many people, I have such a fascination with the Villains and anti-heroes in mainstream media – some of the characters in this play are loosely inspired by my favourites, most notably Ink Lord – the villain with the largest arc, was inspired by Loki from the Marvel universe.
I’m endlessly intrigued by the idea of someone who has done terrible things, but has also had terrible things done to them – often by people claiming to love them. So what makes a villain? Is there a way for someone ‘villainous’ to redeem themselves? And on the other side of the coin, are there some powers that can’t help but turn people into villains? Even if the person had no say in the power they received?
The parallels between that scenario and people born into privilege are striking. So it’s a premise that keeps on giving – it’s been fantastic to delve into all the themes it throws up and I hope, somewhere down the line, we might get to return to a web-series or even TV style format and take these concepts further over a larger narrative arc.
The show is ‘a fusion of comic-books and theatre’ – how does that take shape in performance? Is the direction stylised or is the production simply channeling SMASH! POW! classic comic book energy?
KT: It’s a little of both. It’s an ensemble piece so actors are constantly jumping between different characters, plus we’re using a combination of physical theatre, sound design and shadow puppetry inspired by comic book panels to realise their powers. This is more Micha’s field so I’m going to punt the question over to her.
Micha: this is indeed a very stylised production; as a director I’m fascinated by the effects that can be created live on stage by an ensemble. So as KT said we use puppetry, live singing and stylised movement within the show. Having said that there are moments of emotional realism, otherwise why do we (the audience) care? We want the audience to really care about these larger than life (in my opinion hugely lovable) powered people. Luckily our cast are super talented (pun intended) which made a difficult job much much easier.
Despite promising to be funny, Villain, Interrupted touches on very topical and important issues from toxic masculinity to common therapy concerns. How does the production balance the two to remain sensitive and funny all at once?
KT: It’s amazing what you can do with genre. Everything is thinly veiled, so in one moment you’re talking about a character’s problematic relationship with his father, or another’s toxic need to control women, and the next you’re talking about someone whose ‘superpower’ is turning into a pigeon. It’s an amazing middle ground: you’re rarely, if ever, tapping in to real people’s lived experience but at the same time you can make audiences feel represented – like this story’s about them underneath all the fantastical window dressing.
I think laughter is also really important if you want to go to harder places with a character – and there’s nowhere this is more apparent than in comic-book movies. Look at DC, which went *dark* – yet it never got us to the emotional heights of the Marvel universe who have a much more light hearted approach and yet really pack an emotional punch when they want to. That’s at least partly because it’s easy to love characters who make you laugh.
The character of Gina sounds like the kind of optimistic soul we either envy or avoid…is she supposed to be likeable in her high hopes for these villains or is her do-gooder nature purely ripe for punchlines?
KT: That’s a really interesting question as it encapsulates Gina’s growth into being the centre-stone of this story – the whole thing is told from her perspective. When I first had the idea, Gina was the least interesting character to me, and therefore the least developed. Then in stepped Emma (the woman we’d never met before who came to do the improv session – we thank our lucky stars she took a punt on us).
She totally made Gina her own, to such an extent that I wrote the character in her voice. It’s amazing how she manages to take this ridiculously optimistic, bubbly person who should become annoying very fast, and make us love her. I think the key is that Gina really cares and that can be disarming. That being said her do-gooder nature is mined relentlessly for punchlines – Emma is hilarious.
Do you consider Villain, Interrupted to carry a message of some sort or is this pure entertainment?
KT: I don’t think that anything that really connects with audiences is just pure entertainment – there’s got to be something there that speaks to us, just look at the success of films like Black Panther or Captain Marvel. However I’m more interested in audiences having a fantastic night than them coming away thinking ‘the message of this play was X’.
I read somewhere about a study on kids who read Harry Potter growing up – they were statistically more accepting of those different to them than kids who hadn’t read it. Now you wouldn’t immediately go ‘oh this book is pushing that message’ but at the same time that’s what it’s about when you strip out the magic. Am I comparing Villain to Harry Potter? Sod it, in this context I am. Think big.
If you could have audiences take just one thing away from seeing the show, what would you want that to be?
KT: I hope we surprise them with what can be achieved. We’re telling a story in which a man can bring art to life with his hands with 4 actors and an overhead projector…
To close, in one sentence, why should audiences come to see Villain, Interrupted?
KT: It’s different, it’s ambitious and there’s a rhino(uni)corn involved, why wouldn’t you want to see it?
Now for the quick fire round of general theatre related questions!
Who or what has inspired you most in theatre?
KT: That’s a tough one – as a writer my background is in film/TV so most of my role models come from that world. Saying that, I was incredibly lucky growing up in that theatre was always a major part of my life, I saw tonnes of shows and got involved a lot at Uni. I always love that moment, whether I’m in the audience or backstage, just before a show starts. Chasing that feeling has pushed me back towards theatre time and again.
Micha: I’m inspired by the artists who surround me – it’s not easy this theatre lark but we’re still here and we’re making bad ass material. I am in awe of so much of what is being created around me and the relentless way those closest to me build each other up in an industry that can be brutal. That is truly inspiring.
Favourite theatre genre and why?
KT: Anything fantasy or sci-fi – I so love watching theatre come up with ways to realise genre onstage. I remember seeing His Dark Materials at the National when I was a kid – Daemons realised by golden puppets and the revolving stage used to show parallel worlds. But equally I saw a comedy called Tales from the Elsewhere at last year’s Ed Fringe – just two guys playing 60 odd characters with a plot modelled on Stranger Things. No budget at all and freaking amazing.
Micha: I won’t choose, you can’t make me!
Etiquette debates – worthwhile or futile? Where do you draw the line? It’s a hot topic.
KT: Baring a few topics (like whether a person should be allowed to exist or not) I always think debates are worthwhile because communication is likely to be the way forward – especially as there have been multiple times when talking to someone with a different take has changed my whole perspective on an issue. That being said, turn your phone on silent in theatres!
Micha: Ah. I think we need to be careful with this. If a person has created a piece of art I believe that the audience should, of course, be respectful of that. However the phrase ‘theatre etiquette’ is unhelpful and a little elitist. We need to ensure, now more than ever, that all are welcome at the theatre. In my opinion the term ‘theatre ettiquette’ is used to separate people into those in the know (usually with privilege) and those who don’t (those without). Rudeness should never be acceptable, but neither should judging someone because they are in a Mac and walking shoes, because they laugh and clap too loudly or because they like to eat bon bons during the show. So what? Who cares? They have paid, they are present and let’s be honest theatre needs all of the patrons it can get.
Do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ tale?
KT: I worked as a stage manager while at University so I have a tonne of them – from accidentally setting a bin on fire during RENT (I’d forgotten to apply flame retardent to the contents, a fire extinguisher got involved) to having the fire alarm go off during a performance of Jerry Springer the Opera because my ASM hadn’t isolated the fire alarm in the pit (which was doubling up as hell so was pumped full of smoke). And one that doesn’t involve fire – we were doing a performance of The Deep Blue Sea and the apartment door broke and wouldn’t stay shut (if you know the play this becomes a bit disastrous) so we sent a stage hand on as the landlady’s usually unseen husband to fix it.
Micha: I fell off a stage once. I was being an etherial angel and I etherialed myself too close to the edge of the stage (I’d decided angels don’t look down – character choice). I walked off the edge. It took the audience about 10 seconds to erupt in hysterics – to be fair it must have looked hilarious.
If you could bring change in terms of opportunities in theatre right now, what would it be?
KT: The thing I’m most aware of, because I’m a direct beneficiary of it, is how class still confers a massive leg up to people – sometimes actively, but more often (and in my case) passively, through the ability to take risks because you know you have a safety net. Micha is from a working class background while I’m from a middle class one – it’s been eye opening to understand the challenges faced by people who’ve chosen this tough industry with nothing to fall back on. If I could I’d level out that playing field somehow.
Micha: I’d have to agree with KT – I’d like more support for people with working class backgrounds. Safe ways to learn your craft without risking debt are essential.
So there you have it! Remember, Villain, Interrupted plays the Etcetera Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe from 7th – 11th August 2019 and you can find tickets here.
Artwork: Francesca Forristal (@chescarar)
Photography: Rachel Espeute (@rachelbasse)