Interview: Wrongsemble’s Elvi Piper

Wrongsemble Theatre Company has been going from strength to strength over the past five years and as far as family theatre goes, the work this company creates is pretty special. Offering the best of both worlds, they embrace classic tales and revamp them for modern audiences of all ages, transforming stories we know and love by approaching them from creative new angles. Artistic Director Elvi Piper was good enough to hop on a Zoom call last week and we had a good old chat about both her own freelance work and the company. Twenty Questions with Elvi Piper – grab a brew, settle in, and enjoy one of the most lovely and insightful interviews to date…

So let’s start with questions about you. How did it all begin for you in terms of developing a love of theatre and diving into it as a career?

Well youth theatre was the big thing for me, I think I was incredibly lucky. I grew up in Cardiff and there was a really brilliant theatre there called The Sherman which is a producing house in the middle of the city centre which had this vibrant youth theatre that they would basically let take over the building. And we had these incredible directors – Steve Marmion, who runs Soho Theatre, was my youth theatre director and [he was] a complete visionary early in his career. Working with people like that, we were just completely oblivious to how much we were learning and the things we were getting from it; we were part of these incredible productions and it was so nurturing.

My school wasn’t very artsy and drama and music and things just weren’t part of what they were interested in, so for me it was a total escape in those teenage years when you need something to disappear into a little bit. So I was really lucky and youth theatre really shaped me and that was why I have always worked with and for young people because I just remember how formative and important it was that I was involved and got to see so much great theatre when I was young.

I’m also really lucky in that my mum loves theatre so she’s always taken me to see brilliant things. She’s a drama teacher in secondary school so I went to see things like Kneehigh and Forkbeard Fantasy when I was really young which was just like nothing else I’d ever experienced. I feel like I’m very privileged in how much I was exposed to at a really early age which is exactly why I still do it now and why I still love making work for young audiences particularly.

On your website, you list three major roles: Director, Dramaturg and Facilitator, adding a bracketed ‘sometime writer’ as a subsidiary. So I’m interested to know what drives you to pick up a pen as a ‘sometime writer’?

I’ve really struggled to call myself a writer just because I think it’s such an incredible craft and I have so much love and respect and admiration for people who I consider to be writers and playwrights. I think I’m getting there – I write a lot more now than I used to and as we’ve developed our style as a company I’ve written more and more. But that said, it always gets ripped up in the rehearsal room and completely transformed by the company of creatives involved, from the designer to the musical directors to all the actors; everyone is a huge part of what makes it what it is so I always feel like I’m under-serving all the other creative input by saying it’s just me that writes it. But I do write, I’m writing at the moment and I’m getting better at calling myself a writer.

So tell me a little bit about the role of Dramaturg and the perks of Dramaturg work.

For me, it tends to be that I’m often Dramaturg and Director or Dramaturg and Producer or something like that and I feel like it tends to be a middle ground between being just one of those roles. It’s someone who can provide a sense of shaping and balance. Basically you become like a wall to bounce ideas off from members of the creative team so that they can start to ask questions of the work that they’re making. So you’re a bit of a provocateur; you’re there to shape things with a slightly outside eye but you’re also there to help the creatives dig deeper into their process by reflecting things back at them, helping them make choices and essentially just helping to provoke thoughts and questions as you go along.

Having those additional ears and eyes and presences is really useful. When I’ve had the pleasure of observing and working with incredibly experienced dramaturgs it is just amazing to watch them operate. The way they have an understanding of the text and how to ask the questions and how to encourage the creative teams in the space to find things they didn’t even know they were looking for. For me, that [dramaturgy] is a big part of what I do in general. It’s lovely when you get a chance to think ‘that’s my role in this’.

And you were Dramaturg on Unsung which I caught last year – can you tell me a little about working on Unsung in that specific capacity?

Well Unsung was slightly different because I’d been so involved in the process even before Lisa [Holdsworth] wrote it; we were part of the commissioning team. I think it’s so different show to show, project to project, what a dramaturgical eye does. What one show needs is wildly different to what the next one does and even on the same show when you’re coming in with new eyes.

So with Unsung, obviously because of the current situation, we were supposed to be touring again at the moment and actually what we’ve done is adapt it into a radio play which has just been recorded and that will be released in June. And that takes a whole different sense of dramaturgical questioning because suddenly I’m having to take away one of the senses which was so key in the storytelling and think about how the script now serves a totally different medium and try and unlearn all of the things I know about the play. So it’s really exciting and I think a great dramaturg is someone who knows how to ask really good questions.

Do you find that your work as Dramaturg significantly shapes and influences your work as Director then – do you find it much easier to question directorial choices or does it ever get a bit muddy?

I think the thing is that my general style is that I’m very open. The more people I’ve got in a room, as far as I’m concerned, the more incredible ideas and experts I’ve got to hand to shape something wonderful. So for me, everyone’s a part of that process- questioning and changing things is something I like to do all the time; if you spot something new, it’s never too late to find it and rectify it if it needs doing. I think that’s why I really love making my own work as opposed to work I’m contracted out to do – as a freelancer, I get to stay connected to a show through its whole life as opposed to waving goodbye to it on press night.

It probably means that I’m far too involved sometimes…they’re probably like ‘can you just leave us alone to do the show now?’ (laughs). I mean with Hansel and Gretel which we did at Christmas, we were changing things for the first two weeks every day and I’m sure at times the cast were like ‘can you just make a decision please?’ (laughs) but ultimately, what we were doing was responding not just to what we were seeing and what they were experiencing on stage but also how the audiences were reacting.

I think giving your company ownership to make choices and have fun and play is a really big part of what I love to do and I think being dramaturgical in my working, I’m always questioning and my decision is certainly not by any means always final or necessarily the right one, so I’m always happy for everyone to question it as well.

So when did you find yourself leaning towards family theatre in particular? I’m guessing it relates back to that early love of youth theatre?

Everyone’s family is a different make-up. A family doesn’t necessarily constitute small children and two parents. A family is a group of people from different parts of their lives coming together to enjoy something with no requirement on age and experience and everyone gets something.

For me I think it was always about shared experience, I’m really passionate about that. But with work for families and young people, I think it’s about that first experience, and not necessarily just for the youngest members of the audience. Theatre is not something that everyone has been privileged to have experience of their whole lives. I have been spoilt rotten by the amount of theatre I’ve been taken to and exposed to in my life and that isn’t the case for everyone and I love that idea of first experience and first stepping stones and being part of that process for anyone.

I think family theatre is a great, accessible route in for hopefully a love of theatre and different cultural experiences. And I love making other work that does respond to other audiences as well but I just am addicted to that opportunity of creating something where everyone gets an experience that they can enjoy together, I just think it’s magic.

You have a string of connections with the National Theatre as well which makes me beg the questions a) how you juggle being AD of a company while taking on external work and b) is it particularly important to you to keep taking on work outside of the company?

I feel incredibly fortunate to have all the amazing freelance opportunities I have. I mean the joy of running your own company is that you can create a landscape and a timetable where you’re able to balance different opportunities. Sometimes I wish I was in the very lucky situation to just be AD of Wrongsemble. I’d love to just think about the company and strategise and give it all my time and to be paid for that time, but I am definitely better at my job because I do things outside of it.

You’re always learning, aren’t you? And if I shut myself off from those experiences, I would be financially less solvent (laughs) and also I would stop learning and growing. The work I get to do as Connections Director and the directors and young people I get to meet – you get so much from those experiences – I mean, it’s all about people isn’t it? So I can’t imagine just doing one thing now.

If you could nutshell for me what you think makes really great theatre for families – say the top three things – what would you say?

Something that appeals to the broadest range of people in terms of age and accessibility in all forms in terms of needs and access but also price point and themes and humour. That would be number 1: appeal to as many people as possible.

2 is real heart. I really think that great stories, regardless of whether they’re for family theatre – like a Pixar film, it really gets at your heart strings. If you can watch the first ten minutes of Up and you are not broken, you’ve got a steely core that I’m slightly suspicious and envious of…but I think real heart is important and a belief in the messages you put out without it ever being preachy; it’s just about being good people in the world in the stories that we like to tell.

I think the third thing for me is learning. So every time we make a piece (and I think it’s the same with me as a person), we’re always learning and trying to be better and learn more than we did before. So we never relax into there being one way of doing things; [we say] let’s keep challenging ourselves to find new ways of storytelling and let’s take the things that worked and scrap the things that didn’t – and actually bring them back again if actually they do work. I think it’s that sense of always trying to do more, regardless of scale or budget or anything like that.

And when you go to the theatre, what kind of shows really grab you?

The thing is, I like to see as much as I can, and I’m very lucky in that I think where we are in Yorkshire, the incredible work not just being produced in the region, but touring into the region prior to our current situation, was just exceptional. But for me, it’s stuff that has the golden triangle of ingredients: looks and sounds amazing, something that is a feast for the eyes; something that I can close my eyes and the audio world of it transports me as well; and something that I go home thinking and talking about for a really long time afterwards – something that stays with you for that little extra something.

And I can’t always say what it is, but I saw some great stuff just before we went into Lockdown – I saw Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of). Amazing. What an incredible show. And I’m such an Austenphile anyway, I’m obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, so for me it was just everything I wanted and everything that I wasn’t expecting. I saw the show that also had Keren Seabrook, who was interpreting the show [BSL] and that added a whole other layer as well – she’s excellent and they responded to her. I’m still thinking about it now three months later. It was just everything; the women, the messaging, the writing, the creative team, the performances. So totally incredible.

And this is another big show – The Barber Shop Chronicles. I’ve seen that about four times and even though I’ve seen that with totally different casts in totally different venues, the bones of that show are so meaty and rich and amazing that every time I see it, I get something else from it. Every time, I love it as much as I did before and I think that’s magic.

And equally, those little moments when you’re going to the fringe or something and you just happen to walk into a free fringe show that someone said might be alright, and then it totally changes your life because you had no expectations whatsoever. It doesn’t need to be big and expensive for me to love it, I just need something that sparks something in you. I’d always rather leave feeling something, even if the thing I leave with is ‘I hated that’. I’d rather leave feeling passionately about it than feeling nothing or having forgotten it on the way home – that’s such a shame.

Let’s talk inspirations then – anything or anyone who particularly inspires you in theatre?

I think I was really lucky, I had incredible theatre training at drama school. I went to Rose Bruford and studied European Theatre Arts and there the big focus was different styles and practitioners. It felt like a selection box of training ideologies and then years later I’m now pick-and-mixing bits from those to this day. We did Commedia Del Arte which I still use a lot of because it’s all about play and character, and then we did things like Meyerhold, which is all about physicality and sharp movements and core control – stuff that I personally can’t do but putting it into my work is really exciting.

The first theatre company I love is Kneehigh and Emma Rice’s work is obviously still a huge influence. She’s the queen of spectacle and big stories and the idea of storytelling that everyone can enjoy. Then I’m also incredibly lucky to have worked with some amazing practitioners and directors that I’ve assisted and I’ve learned exceptional amounts from, like my second youth theatre director was Phil Mackenzie. He taught me all about devising theatre and not being afraid to do something that not everyone might enjoy and taking a risk. And I will be for ever grateful to him for that.

One of my first assistant director jobs was with Amy Leach, who’s now Associate Director at Leeds Playhouse and Amy is just a master of beautiful storytelling and gorgeous visuals. Her and Haley Grindle taught me all about treats; a show that’s peppered with treats, especially for a family or Christmas audience where you do need to find these little bits of magic, whatever they are. Amy was actually a really big inspiration in me making the leap from full time Education Manager into creating my own work. I was so inspired by the way she did things when she was working at the Playhouse that then I took the leap and I was her assistant and she gave me that opportunity – and she’s still giving me opportunities as well so I feel very grateful.

Moving on to Wrongsemble, how did the company come to be?

Weirdly, I set the company up when I left drama school and wanted to make theatre and then I got a ‘real’ job and it kind of went on the back burner. It didn’t manifest into anything until years later when I was seeing a lot of family theatre and I’d been up to Imaginate Festival in Edinburgh to see some family theatre and I saw some amazing stuff that really excited me and some stuff that really didn’t excite me and on the train home I said to my now-husband on the phone ‘I just feel like I could make something like that’ and he was like ‘well why don’t you do it then? You’ve got a four hour train journey, write something!’ And so I did! (laughs)

I started writing these poems and the poem that I wrote on that train journey ended up being the beginning of the first show that we made, called Three, and Leeds Playhouse gave me five days in a rehearsal room (which I took as holiday from my actual job) and three of my friends who also worked in the building took that time too and we just played in a room for a week and we were so excited by what we’d managed to achieve in such a short space of time that it just sort of went from there. We’re so well supported by the landscape of all the cultural organisations in our region that we’ve been able to continue to grow over the last four-five years.

I love finding out about company names, so where did Wrongsemble come from?

So ensemble was the big focus at drama school, it was all about ‘how can you be a good ensemble and all get together and work as team? It’s not about the you, it’s about the us’. Actually as a concept that was something that I’d always enjoyed, this idea of it is a team effort and not one person doing it, and sometimes I struggle with it when I’m sort of out on my own as a freelancer. I’m so used to having the support of a team around me that it’s much harder when you have to do it on your own and forge ahead on something!

And I like the idea of a company of misfits that would come together to tell stories – a little bit ‘wrong’, a little bit on the ‘left’ and on the ’outside’. And there was always this feeling of a kind of travelling band of storyteller-misfits and outskirters that would roll up somewhere, bring joy and then roll off into the distance again. That was always the hope. And I love a pun as well!

Now what I love most about Wrongsemble is that the work never patronises or infantilises but always entertains the full age range. Where did that style come from?

It comes from a desire to allow everyone to enjoy a piece of work from the same experience point regardless of age, access, lifestyle – anything like that. Like a great panto; everyone goes to the panto and has a good time. They leave loving probably different things  but they’re all talking about it in the car on the way home and for me, that sense of shared experience is the thing that I loved.

I went to see Kneehigh’s Ravenheart when I was about five or six years old and it was in the Menack in Cornwall, on the clifftops and lit with fire torches and honestly it’s now become legend in my brain because I was quite young. It was amazing because it was not a ‘children’s show’, it was a very adult show, but I can remember how I felt. Me and my mum went, and we had very different experiences but we both loved it and we still talk about it to this day, but we remember it differently.

I think there is so much incredible work happening for young audiences, even just in Leeds and in Yorkshire, I was like ‘there are people who’ve got this covered. I do not need to be trying to creep into their territory at all and actually, let’s do something a little bit different which feels completely us because there’s already people doing things that are very much them’.

Music is pretty central to your shows and I’m interested to know when during the process those choices are made – are they generally in place from the start or are they inspired along the way?

It does change show to show, it’s been really different depending on the process and actually we’ve tried loads of different ways of working and I would say that there are so many ways that it can work that I’m not dead-set that one works more than others. More and more now, we’ll think about what the type of music is before we get anywhere near the rehearsal process and we’ve been very fortunate to be able to expand the group of artists we work with.

The first show we did, I wrote poems which became lyrics, and whatever instruments people could play were used in the show. It was much more cobbled together and responsive and actually I loved that show because it was sort of beautifully raw and very real. And then as we’ve gone on, I think we’ve worked with different people with different skills.

Music is so key because for me, I can just about hold a tune but I am not a musician, so I find music to be absolutely magical. I’m just so fascinated; every time someone picks up an instrument and makes sound come out of it I think it’s magic so it’s a treat for me and I think for young people as well, it’s so exciting when in a Christmas show we can have like 25 different instruments used on stage – some of which you might not have seen. I think if you go home humming a tune, we’ve done a really good job.

The last Wrongsemble show I went along to was your version of Hansel and Gretel. I loved the twist in that show, where you flipped the perspective and showed the skeletal narrative from various viewpoints. How did you arrive at that approach to the story?

Well it’s a few things actually – titles that people can access and feel familiar with are really important. A title that you are familiar with strips away some of the fear of coming to that show because you kind of have a sense of what to expect. I think anyone who’s seen one of our shows before knows that it isn’t going to be what you fully imagine, hopefully it’ll be something a little bit left of centre. But then I love subverting an idea as well and so many of those traditional tales are horribly outdated when you strip them back. The ideology and the thinking is really gender-negative and moralistically questionable and there’s lots of things where you go ‘well we can’t use that anyway because it’s not a good message to be giving to people’.

We tend to do shows that have a sense of episodic nature, often in threes because for younger audience members or those families with young people who might not want to sit still for a full hour or might need to leave the space, you don’t leave for ten minutes and the come back in and feel like you’ve missed the important part of the story. If you have missed a bit, you can dip back in and a new story is gonna start at another point and they’ll all be connected but you won’t ever feel like you’ve missed out. I think that episodic nature has become something we think works incredibly well for the diverse audiences that we want to reach and it’s great for attention spans.

And it’s so much fun to take a story that you think you know and find a million ways to tell it and actually the bare bones of those stories are really strong; they’re classic tales but the fun is finding something new that hopefully not many other people have found before.

But you did stray briefly from classic tales with Billy Shakes: Wonder Boy which you played at the Shakespeare’s Rose pop up theatre in York. So was that a commission, and how did you find playing that particular unique space?

One of our Associate Artists, Edith Kirkwood, had been in the ensemble in the previous year so we’d seen her being incredible and then we met the creative team and they were quite interested in putting a family show on that stage. The show itself had already existed in another guise, it had been a schools tour that we did a few years before which was all about the love of reading and exciting children about a subject matter that might feel a little bit elitist or boring.

So it was a really playful reimagining of Shakespeare’s childhood with lots of his work and ideas in there to kind of get your mind fizzing and bubbling with ideas, with the message that everyone is a great storyteller; look around you, there’s different things to be inspired by. And then we adapted that quite heavily for the Rose because we were obviously outdoors.

It was a really exciting space to play, I mean it was just the perfect setting for that story and a really nice introduction for young people to enjoy not only that work but also that space. It was really fun and we love doing outdoor theatre as well. [It’s] a whole other set of challenges but very exciting and probably something we need to think about doing a bit more of in our current situation!

The first show of yours I saw was The Princess and the Sprout and I absolutely loved that puppetry. Are you a puppetry fan particularly and is that something you tend to try to shuffle in?

I love puppets, I’m obsessed with them, I think they’re absolutely magic. It’s that sense of storytelling that you do as a child, you know, you pick up your toys and you make them speak and there’s something playful in it that for me is really magic. And that is the way we puppeteer – all of the company members have puppetry experience but none of them would say that they are puppeteers of classical training and extensive experience. It is about play and inspiring the audience to feel like they can play too, and use whatever they can find.

And I’m obsessed with found objects as puppets – I love the idea that something you can just pick up becomes something that lives, that really excites me because I love the thought of a book becoming a bird and then someone going home and doing that. Equally, I love the slightly more dazzling puppets that are very exciting to work with and play with and I would love to work with more of them in the work that we do. I would love to work with more puppets.

You regularly play Leeds Central Library – is it important to you to take theatre out into non-traditional spaces?

Yeah, massively and I guess I think it comes back to that idea of accessibility. There are people that engage with the library that might never have been into a theatre. It’s a totally different space, it’s a very open space. When people walk through those doors, they know there’s no expectation of a price point on you – you’re not expected to buy anything in that space necessarily, you can just go and be there all day and families that use it for so many different reasons. And also there’s just an incredible network of people, families and schools that the library works with which is such a brilliant resource for us and we can offer something that they can’t and they can offer us a space and audiences we might not otherwise be able to reach.

And I love libraries as well. The thought that they might not exist in certain communities in the future makes me really sad and I really hope that they can become more than useful; I hope that they are vital in every community and hopefully that will be because they are home to not just the services they already have but loads of other things like shows, performances, clubs, classes and everything in between because I just think they’re an important resource that we need to hold on to.

Am I allowed to ask if there’s a particular production that you hold dear?

You know, every time I think about them or I dig through our prop store underneath The Holbeck, I get so gooey-eyed about different shows and really nice memories of things. I’m a terrible one for being super nostalgic. I am so proud and with each show we do I feel like we achieve more and more so I’m always really proud of the show we’ve just created but…

We did Peter Pan in the Park which I think was our third full scale show and it was a promenade piece where the audience wore headphones and we took them on an adventure round this park in a sort of modern re-telling of Peter Pan and it was incredibly fun. It was a huge risk and a huge learning curve but everything slotted into place and it was exactly what I’d hoped it would be and more; the complete and utter joy of the audience that got to enjoy that show and the total and utter joy of the team working on it was just boundless – we just all had so much fun. I think for me that one will always be really special because it showed us how much we can achieve and then it felt like the limits were a little bit more endless after that and we could keep being braver.

So what’s next?

Actually during Lockdown we’ve been continuing to rehearse The Not So Ugly Sisters which is a Wrongsemble show (remotely of course) and there’ll still need to be work done to get that ready for a stage, but it’s in an amazing place considering we’ve not been able to tour it at this time. And then I’ve just finished working on Unsung the radio play. And at the moment I’m working on a project called #Reimagine-2020 which was originally gonna be a parks tour in the midlands and is now an online project. Young people work with a host of artists via Derby Theatre and a partnership of other brilliant arts organisations like Deda Dance, BabyPeopleUK and Artcore to deliver a six week online programme of work for all ages. So that’s really exciting and a different avenue for us.

And we’re also the resident company at Slung Low out at The Holbeck and we’re there once a week in the foodbank supporting our brilliant hosts in their incredible new endeavours as they respond to the current situation. But we’re also starting to talk to them about how we can start to think about presenting work for families with the changing landscape of audience engagement, so I’m really excited about the conversations we’re having with them and I think that we’ll be able to hopefully pilot and pioneer some quite exciting things here in our region.

We’re just incredibly lucky that so many of the projects have been supported by partners like the Arts Council, Leeds Playhouse and Red Ladder have helped us continue to be creative regardless of whether we were going to be able to have a physical outcome at this time. We’re supported so much by Slung Low in general and all of our other partners.

And to end, do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ story?

So our first show, Three, we always call that ‘the show that won’t go away’ because we loved it but also people love that show and they always want us to bring it back. So it’s been out on tour about six times and the second to last time it went out it was on a libraries tour in Leicester and one of the company members, a week beforehand, couldn’t get the time off her full time job to do it. There really wasn’t time to rehearse someone new in so I broke my twelve year non-performing stint and jumped in and did the part, which I was absolutely terrified at, probably terrible at but also found really joyful because you forget how hard it is to be on that side of things! It’s so much easier being a director I think (laughs).

But that week, I was the only van driver, it snowed and we couldn’t get anywhere – there was one performance where the snow was so thick that we were like ‘we don’t know if we can drive out of the little car park we were in to get to the library’. But we managed it and all the families that turned up had turned up on sledges and little ski boots and people had trudged miles to come and see the show because it was so special. It was just one of those moments where you were like ‘this is gonna be something that everyone remembers because it’s incredibly exciting’ and we thought that was the last time we were doing the show, as well. We were having so much fun because it felt a little bit like the end of the world (laughs).

And also with The Not So Ugly Sisters, when we started rehearsing on the 16th of March, no one knew what was gonna happen in that week and as it went on, it became progressively obvious that things were not going to be able to proceed. The uncertainty was incredibly scary but the thing that was most important to us was that the team and the artists that we work with are protected and supported so we’re so proud of the fact that all the partners agreed to pay the actors and the creative teams their full contract and to try and be creative for as long as possible. So I feel like the ultimate ‘the show must go on’ is that one really because we’ve managed to keep doing it.

So there you have it! You can keep up with Elvi’s fantastic work via her Twitter page and website and you can stay in the loop with Wrongsemble’s latest adventures via their website, Twitter and Instagram pages.

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