Interview: Lemon House Theatre Talk Double Bill of New Shows

Lemon House Theatre are heading to The Bunker Theatre with a double bill of thought-provoking shows boasting pretty impressive creative teams. Different Sand and Willow will play from 8th to 16th September 2019 (tickets here) so I caught up with Co-Artistic Directors Samia Djilli & Jennifer Cerys to talk all things Lemon House Theatre and their upcoming shows…

Lemon House Theatre has much to boast about from the get-go it seems. What does it mean to you to be bringing work to the stage which has an all-female, all-Algerian creative team for Different Sand and an all-queer creative teams for Willow?

Both: Part of the reason we started Lemon House Theatre is because we felt like our stories weren’t being show on stage (Samia is a mixed race, working class woman and Jennifer a queer, disabled women), so we’re excited to be telling these stories we felt were missing. And getting to do them with an all-female, Algerian team for Different Sand, and all-female, queer team for Willow has been incredibly rewarding. Getting to rehearse in a space where people understand your experience and you don’t have to justify it feels amazing, and creatively, really helps!

How, when and why did Lemon House Theatre come to be?

Both: We met just over two years ago when working for London Playwrights’ Blog. We have a very similar taste in theatre, liking shows that play with the things that make theatre unique: the live nature of it, and the audience-performer relationship. So creating a company happened pretty organically at the end of last year.

As we said, we wanted to tell stories and support artists that we felt weren’t currently being represented, but we also wanted to create a home for artists to feel like they can take risks with work and play with the boundaries of theatre (we went for ‘house’ in the name as want it to feel like a community hub for artists).

You have two shows coming up at the Bunker Theatre soon. Different Sand looks at the ways in which those who are bi-racial must navigate two cultures. What draws you to such work?

Samia: Being of mixed race English-Algerian heritage myself, I always wanted to explore this in my work. Being mixed race is complex in so many ways, and at times can leave you with a lot of cultural loneliness. People will ask you to pick a side, or will base what you look like, down to what you are wearing, on which side you have apparently chosen, but that’s just now how being mixed race works.

When you throw in expectations of your family/society, it can start to feel overwhelming, and that’s what part of Different Sand is focused on. It also brings the sister dynamic into the mix, Amira (the eldest sibling in the play) feels much more attached to being Algerian and wants to marry a nice Algerian man, and have the Muslim wedding of her dreams, whilst Linda (the younger sibling of the play) is in cultural limbo, feeling more of a Londoner than anything else, but also craving acceptance from her Algerian side, even though she hates the idea of her sister getting married. 

I wanted these two women who are hilarious, heart-breaking, and thoughtful, to have their say! I guess in summary you could say I’m drawn to it because being bi-racial is all I’ve ever know, and I truly believe the stories of bi-racial people are still so quiet in the arts. 

Different Sand follows two British-Algerian sisters and looks at their attitudes to marriage. It’s described as a ‘modern family drama’ – is this drama gritty and gripping or is there a classic combination of drama and comic relief here?

Samia: I guess you could say it’s the more classic combination of drama and comic relief. I love writing funny women because the most hilarious people in my life are women. (Also Algerians have a wicked sense of humour!) So it made sense to make it a comedy with the drama infused. My hope would be that an audience member who may not know much about Algerian women, comes having learned a lot about that dynamic, but also having laughed A LOT, but also having felt something from the story. This play doesn’t try to conform to the classic, rather is uses classic tropes to convey a very modern story: that of the second gen mixed race Algerian-British woman. 

And considering the subject matter, does Different Sand also carry feminist content within the selected focus of marriage?

Samia: I’m an extremely proud feminist, so most of what I write has at least underlying feminist qualities, but I think in this case it’s a feminist play by default of it just being about women. The women in the play are sisters and express themselves freely. They both have very different outlooks on life and marriage, and what’s right and wrong. 

They both go for what they want even if they struggle to get it, and are politically and socially aware, all the while being able to deliver hella good punch lines, and that’s the main thing I focused on with this. There is no forced marriage, because I have never known that, marriage is something one of the characters wants, and one doesn’t. It’s all about the women in the play and their stories, rather than what a man is doing to them. So, it’s unintentionally (but proudly) feminist. 

Your second show, Willow, centres on the ‘dualism within ourselves’. This certainly sounds like a timely play considering the intensified attention on mental health. Why do you think it’s important to explore the inner dualism of the individual where others may look at the individual through the prism of their influencing environments?

Jennifer: I wanted to explore how we’re not just one thing, and often how we view ourselves and how others view us can actually conflict quite a lot. Sometimes I find myself chatting to someone and start wondering what they’re reallythinking, and what they’re not saying. So Willow invites you into Gabi’s mind as she tries to tell her break-up story with ex-girlfriend Lottie. It looks at how we over think and overanalyze, but that’s ultimately what makes us human, which is why it’s important to explore that dualism that happens within ourselves and our own minds.

In Willow, a character talks to the audience about her break-up, exploring ideas about truth and perception. The work seems very relatable and universal in many ways – is that the intention?

Jennifer: Yes, I definitely wanted it to be a play that people can relate to. When friends chat to me about their breakups, I immediately hate their ex and vilify them for everything they’ve done to my friend, and it’s only recently I realised that the ex’s friends will be doing the exact same thing and badmouthing my friend! There’s the saying that there’s three sides to everything: your side, my side and the truth – but I think it’s a lot blurrier than that. What the truth is changes with who’s telling the story, which is also why it’s so important to look at who we’re having on our stages and in our books.

What would you say draws you to the dynamic of solo performance for Willow?

Jennifer: Willow is a two-hander between actors Jennifer (another Jennifer!) and Sophia, who are playing ex-girlfriends Gabi and Lottie, but solo performance also features heavily in it as Gabi and Lottie explore their sides to the story individually. I like the intimacy of doing it this way. I wanted the audience to feel like they’re sitting round the coffee table chatting with the characters, and both solo and duo performances really help create that atmosphere.

How would you describe the work you are producing in terms of style?

Both: Both plays are really stylistically similar, which is part of the reason we staged them as a double bill. They draw on ideas of traditional folk storytelling through the direct address to the audience. Both shows are also fairly experimental in their form – Willow has a game show happening in the middle of it!

The shows play as a double bill – is there a shared cast across the productions?

Both: There’s not a shared cast, but Lemon House Theatre have produced both shows. These shows have very different plots, but are very similar in how they both look at our most important relationships, and ideas of domesticity. You’ll feel like you’re still in one world even from watching both plays.

If you could have audiences take away just one thing from each play, what would you like that to be?

Jennifer: From Willow, I’d want audiences to look back at their own breakups – or any relationship that ended – and wonder whether that story could be told any differently.

Samia: To understand a little bit more about Algerian culture, and what it’s really like to be so confused about your own heritage, and how you deal with that. 

And finally, in one sentence each, why should audiences come to see Different Sand and Willow?

Jennifer: Break ups can be melodramatic and over-the-top and Willow leans into that, with a game show & TED talk mixed into the play – so come and spend your evening with us laughing!

Samia: Because they are hilarious and explore themes that often seen on a London stage! 

So there you have it! Remember, Different Sand and Willow will play from 8th to 16th September 2019 and you can find tickets here. Prices are £10 for each show or £15 for both – bargain!

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