Forget About The Dog topped my round-up list for Best Regional Fringe Production back in 2018 with their thoroughly fantastic production of 100 Ways to Tie a Shoelace so I was very chuffed to finally have a chance to chat about the show and the company last week. A collective of five, Forget About The Dog collaborate at every level to devise new work filled to the gunnels with energy, pathos and quirky cinematic cutaways. I caught up with Artistic Director Natalie Rawel and Jordan Larkin (courtesy of good old Zoom) to dive a little deeper into the workings of this company and their hugely entertaining style…
First up, Forget About the Dog – what’s in the name? Where does it come from?
Jordan: The first project we all did together as a group was an adaptation of a film and a piece of theatre at university. It was a couple of weeks before the opening night and we realised that quite a significant character had been left out of the adaptation, and the character was a dog. I think when we set up the company, we were trying to think of names and we came up with a lot of terrible terrible names… Then we were joking about this story in the pub and someone said ‘Forget About the Dog’? And we all kind of went AH! And from there on out it kind of stuck.
Well it must get people talking which is a good thing for a company name. So this is a company formed at uni then?
Jordan: Yeah, it came together in the last year of uni and then it was I guess officially started when we graduated.
Natalie: We took a show up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and that was kind of where we started. It just got really well reviewed and people liked our work and we thought oh actually there’s something in this so let’s continue with this, and it’s just grown from then.
I’m glad – so when was that, how far back are we talking?
Jordan: So in 2015 we started extending a play that we’d written at uni and then took it to the Fringe in 2016 as a bit of a tester. It was called The Life and Times of Lionel and it went really well.
So let’s talk about Lionel for a second then – does it have any common threads with the show I saw – 100 Ways to Tie a Shoelace?
Jordan: Yeah – that was the show really where we found our style. It was kind of a stock story in the sense that it was about a man who was living a mundane life; he went to his job every day in the same routine; he wasn’t particularly happy and he loved this girl at work. But the whole piece was actually in his mind – in his imagination. So all the characters were crazy-bombastic like in Shoelace and we have lots of cutaway scenes. The whole thing sort of sat in this style and then at the end it came out of his mind and he saw reality as it really was.
It was a very short A to B plot and in that plot we went all over the place – we were in a submarine and there were pigeons and sandwiches involved (laughs) – so yeah, it’s kind of where we found this collection of genres we put together for our style.
Natalie: And also wanting to focus on people’s actual thoughts and their imagination. I think that was actually the start of [us] playing things from people’s minds and actually putting the focus on that itself. And that’s when we also realised that we liked to put emphasis on an actual person and a character as opposed to a condition they have. A lot of people came out of our show and kind of said ‘Oh, Lionel was autistic, it was very interesting to see that’ or Lionel had this or that happening and actually, we’d never implicitly said that. It was for people to take away what they want, similar to Shoelace; we never actually said she’s go this particular form of amnesia or this has happened – people take from it what they will.
Well if you have people coming out with their varied interpretations like that, it’s a testament to the work.
So let’s talk a little more about style. Where do the influences lie for you as a company?
Jordan: So the company formed as part of a module at uni. We wanted to create a piece of theatre together but we had to make sure it fit the criteria of the uni module. The way we did that was we said okay, we’ve got five individuals with different interests, how can they come together and form a cohesive, interesting ensemble performance? And then through that I guess we found these different styles because there’s a little bit of physical theatre in it, there’s a little bit of puppetry and there’s comedy. A lot of guys in the group are massive film buffs so there’s a lot of film genre pastiches, there’s film noir stuff – especially in Lionel.
I guess part of the cutaway stuff was to make the most of that enjoyment in terms of different stylistic choices of film as a way of exploring cutaway scenes and imagination. And then there’s a kind of physical theatre influence with a couple of us. Like I myself, I really enjoy Frantic Assembly and Kneehigh and companies like that. But I don’t know whether they necessarily have a direct influence into our work apart from the fact that we enjoy exploring how to pull a moment out and present it in a light that is maybe more interesting than using words. There are lots of different stylistic choices in the theatre we make.
Natalie: How many different genres can you fit into a piece of work? was one of the thoughts I think back then. I think with that comes a natural style because there’s a lot of mismatch and potentially sometimes clashing of styles, which gives it this kind of bombastic, crazy-at-times feel to the show.
So moving on to 100 Ways to Tie a Shoelace then. What drew you to that story and made you decide it needed a stage?
Natalie: It was on the way back from the Edinburgh Fringe when we’d just done Lionel actually. In the group, Leanne came up with the idea of memory loss and we all took real interest because obviously we’re so fascinated with how we can portray the human mind and imagination on stage.
From that we started off going into scientific research, using the people we know in the medical industry; we had a really long interview with a doctor who we knew to kind of talk us through the scientific nature of what happens to someone’s mind. We had to do a lot of editing with the viewpoint of it and how we were going to portray it, and actually we realised later on that in keeping with our style we didn’t want this to be a scientific analysis of memory loss via theatre.
It’s really tricky to have something as sensitive as memory loss and put this on stage and keep in with our style which is a bit bombastic and crazy and really explorational. So we had to really think carefully about how we were going to do this and we got to the conclusion that actually we wanted this piece to focus on somebody and [their] relationships with those around them as opposed to the actual illness of it. And we’ve all had experience of seeing someone we love suffer, and some people in the group have experience with people that have suffered from memory loss.
Jordan: As it developed it kind of became more of a story about character rather than situation; allowing the science to compliment the work rather than driving it.
And you also like the challenge of taking something serious and injecting it with humour and whimsy? Was there an element of wanting to challenge yourself to be able to pull off a brave combination like that do you think?
Natalie: Yeah, I mean there’s so much work out there (which is brilliant) surrounding mental health and medical issues to raise awareness but it didn’t sit right with us [in terms of] how we wanted to portray our work.
And actually, kind of testament to it, we’ve had quite a few people come up to us after Shoelace and say ‘I’ve had experiences with this, thank you so much for taking the doom and gloom out of this subject.’ Because mental health problems don’t always have to be portrayed in such sad, traumatic, tragic ways; people that live with these conditions, most of the time, you find people don’t want sympathy all the time if they’ve got a problem. They want to be able to laugh at the situation and take humour from it and that’s what struck true to us. And it was challenging – we did many an edit, and it was about making sure the humour was at the right time and the humour was for a purpose. It had to specifically compliment that situation –
Jordan: Yeah, it probably goes back to what you said about challenge – taking it from Lionel, which was very much a comedy and there was lots of silliness for the sake of silliness to some degree – we just really enjoyed putting our humour on the stage. I guess that was why the decision was made with Shoelace: okay can we still have this style but can it be about something important and still kind of hold it all together? So it was quite a leap from our first show, for sure.
And it’s a total collaboration as a devised piece isn’t it? Looking back over it, my review doesn’t mention a director so either I’m just a terrible reviewer or direction was also a collaborative feature?
Jordan: Yeah, that’s right –
I mean, how does that work, with five of you?
Jordan: (Laughs) I think when we started working we didn’t realise it was quite unusual and then over time we’ve realised that it’s quite rare that companies do this. But I don’t know, for us it just works really well. We all have a similar way of thinking and we just kind of compliment each other and can edit each other’s work without you know, getting precious. We hold onto things tightly but we let go of them if it’s necessary. But we all, at all times, are kind of having a performer perspective with our mind also on the audience perspective –
-Talk about challenging yourself!
Jordan: We make it hard for ourselves, but I think there’s something quite fun and liberating about it. And also, to be fair, with Natalie as producer, (to Natalie) you sometimes take on the director role. If we’re all in a scene together we’ll be like Nat, does that look right? And sometimes she’ll be like NO (laughs) –
Natalie: It just kind of works. Someone will be like – to take Shoelace for an example – ‘I’d really like to put a war thing in that’ – I think it was actually Robin with that who was like ‘Do you mind if I go home and write it?’ We’re like, yeah, sure!
Jordan: I think once we know what’s going on in the piece, especially with Shoelace, once we knew what it was about and what we wanted to show and how we wanted it to feel, we sort of set the parameters and the context of the story so the ideas just popped up.
Natalie: But we have so much fun as well.
I’m guessing rehearsals were a good time for all!
Jordan: We do create work through play, it’s a big part of our process really, to be free to play, and then to think about it later.
Natalie: We did a scratch night about a year ago and we’ve had such a good time writing these scenes for our new show but we need[ed] to check that other people also find them funny; just because we all find it funny, it doesn’t mean the wider public [do]. So actually, that was quite a nerve-racking experience doing that scratch night and when people laughed at the beginning it was like thank God!
So talk to me about what’s in the pipeline at the moment then.
Natalie: So about a year ago, as we started on our Shoelace tour, we were also writing our third show (name of show: Good or Bad, Hard to Say) at the same time. So the scratch night last April was the first kind of public sharing of some of this new show’s work and since then we’ve been back writing and polishing. It’s around the topic of happiness this new show.
The plan was to take it on tour Spring 2021, kicking off at Harrogate Theatre. We’re very lucky now to be supported by Harrogate Theatre for this piece of work which is really exciting for us. So if things go to plan, then [we’ll] potentially move our tour to Autumn 2021 or Spring 2022 – but we can’t pin anything down at the moment…
No, but we can cross fingers and toes…
Jordan: There’s a show coming, it just might be pushed back a bit.
So I take it show 3 follows similar threads and style?
Jordan: Yeah, so rather than taking a story, this one started up as a theme or a concept and so we thought about happiness and the exploration of that kind of moved into happiness within the modern world and modern life. The next show, Good or Bad, Hard to Say is going to really look at the modern world, how we live in it and it sort of reflects society, creates questions and looks at how we deal with life and the thing [called] happiness that we’re all supposed to feel all the time.
It’ll be timely – we’ll all come out of this going ‘what’s happiness again? Let’s go and see a show about it…’
So are there performances/companies/ creatives who have had a significant influence on you?
Natalie: I think what’s nice is we all have very similar interests but also different interests in theatre companies. You can always bring something kind of different to the group. For instance, some people are really into film, which is always really interesting. I like Les Enfants Terrible, they’re one of my faves. And we loved Police Cops, and Kill the Beast as well.
Jordan: We got some of the guys to tell us what they thought because sometimes I guess we never really talk about this until we have an interview, because it’s just kind of stylistic subconscious choices that we bring into the room. But we all loved Police Cops – in terms of comedy and the way they deliver that is just great and we take a lot of inspiration from that.
Jordan: I love Blind Summit, who are a puppetry company – I haven’t seen a lot of their work live, but I’ve done a workshop with them and there’s a video online where they did a show about Moses on YouTube and watching their puppetry skills is just amazing. And Josh has put Harold Pinter – of course – we did some Pinter work together at uni and he’s the writer we all really enjoy. And Monty Python, The Young Ones, Studio Ghibli and then Frantic Assembly and Kneehigh.
Natalie: Anything that says in the title: uses puppetry, music, physical theatre; that’s kind of what we say in ours. That’s just something that fascinates us – (with sudden realisation) and 1927 at Harrogate Theatre oh my God! Oh my gosh – love that company.
1927 are amazing – so that was Golem you saw at Harrogate Theatre then?
Jordan: Yeah. We really considered looking into projection I think as something that we wanted to expand on and I think that was a little bit inspired by that show.
Natalie: I heard about them first with their Magic Flute adaptation because I used to do opera stuff here and there and the clips that I saw of that – they are just so clever, it’s so precise. And I think that’s why we like them as well, because we’re quite precise in a lot of our work with timing and movement.
All of these influences make so much sense when I think about what I loved in your work.
So the final question then – do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ story?
Natalie: So we were at a venue –
A ‘nameless’ venue?
Natalie: We’ll call it ‘a venue’. So we have a lighting designer who’s brilliant, Will, but I actually do the lights on the night – just the pressing ‘go’ and all that kind of thing. Obviously with Shoelace, there’s a lot of lighting cues which do a lot of the storytelling kind of in and out of the realities and fantasy and vice versa. And the second cue happened really nicely and then for some reason it just stopped. I kept pressing ‘go’ and trying to sort out the cues – I mean it’s not complicated, once you sort out your lighting in a venue, all you need to do is press ‘go’ through the cues and – it just stopped. It stopped!
The sound was fine – so I was just going through the sound cues and Googling how on earth to make a lighting box work when it worked all the way through our dress and tech rehearsal. So that was terrifying for me. I think I hid when everyone bowed – you know when everyone motions to the lighting designer? I hid.
Jordan: And it was quite a dark lighting state that it got stuck on and I think within the company, we were performing and we all slowly figured it out one by one. I’m stood stage right staring straight ahead and I can see Natalie in the tech box and all she’s doing is flailing around and around and I’m like ‘what is she doing?’ (laughs) And there’s a really obvious lighting change – I think it was the Oscars speech – and nothing happened and I started to realise…this is it…we’ve got fifty minutes left and we’re in a kind of dark white eerie lighting state.
But we got through it and it was fine – I mean, people who hadn’t seen the show might not have realised. What’s funny is that we finished our bow, we gestured to Nat and she hid so no one would see her –
Natalie: (laughing) Very unprofessional!
Jordan: And then as we walked out and into backstage, Leanne had taken it a bit hard and I think India had family there so obviously she was disappointed and then we turned to Robin and he’s just like ‘Guys! Great show, really great show, really well done, good show’ and we were like ‘Dude… did you, did you not see the lighting?’ ‘what? What about it? It was a great show, well done everyone!’ Like ‘MATE, THE LIGHTS WEREN’T WORKING’ and he was like ‘oh, I didn’t realise…’ (laughs)
And you survived it. I’m assuming you haven’t had another nightmare like that? Though you’ve probably lost some sleep over it!
Natalie: The following show, the next show that we did, the staff there were all really brilliant and the guy helping us with our get in – I was like ‘look, we had a BAD SITCH. Can you just stay here for like the first fifteen minutes with me? I just need to get past cue 2 and I’ll be fine! (laughs) It was a really busy show and I was like it just can’t happen again!
Jordan: I don’t think anything else like that has happened, apart from a show we did in London and there was a problem with the lights beforehand but there wasn’t a technician so we changed the bulbs ourselves, which was a new thing (laughs)!
I mean, the theatre world is just improv of one kind or another the whole time eh?
Natalie: Oh yeah all making it up as we go along really aren’t we? (laughs)
Jordan: So that was a very quick warm-up because I had to get myself ready once the lights were up, but apart from that –
Natalie: Smooth sailing!