Interview: Vamos Theatre’s Rachael Savage

Vamos Theatre is the UK’s leading full mask company. Founded in 2006 by Artistic Director Rachael Savage, the company create work which goes straight to the hearts of audiences, beautifully balancing the light with the dark to tackle complex subject matter in accessible ways – and all while showcasing the fantastic craft of mask theatre. Such virtues place the company firmly in my Top Five Theatre Companies line-up, so it was a real pleasure to sit down for a chat with Rachael to talk shows past and present, fantastic outreach work and the exciting news that Vamos Theatre is taking part in the BBC Culture in Quarantine series…

When and how did your affinity with the arts begin?

My stepdad, Alun Bond, was an actor, so I was always at the theatre. He was the Artistic Director of and an actor with Pentabus, so as an eight year old child, I was always dragged out to pretty whacky indoor and  outdoor community theatre. So at quite an early age I decided I wanted to go into theatre.

But I always wanted to direct; at drama school, direction is what I specialised in but when I left, I realised that actually, I needed to learn to act first. My method to become a director was to – as a jobbing actor (for ten years) – to work with lots of directors who were inspirational, from Barry Goldman to Jonathan Holloway, and then I felt ready to move into direction.

And what moved you towards mask performance in particular then?

I discovered Trestle Theatre Company when I was 13, so back in the early 80s. I saw Top Story and Hanging Around and I wrote my essays on those shows in my AO Theatre Studies – and I did very well in my essays only because I was so interested! Decades later, I auditioned for Trestle, and I got the job. I then toured the UK and the Ukraine with a show called Beggar’s Belief.

I was with Trestle for eight years – as an actor, as a workshop leader, assisting Toby, and then I set up Trestle Young People’s Theatre.

When I set up Vamos Theatre, initially we used both mask and unmasked theatre. Then because Toby left Trestle and they weren’t doing full mask theatre at all anymore, there was just a massive gap in the market which I missed desperately and so Vamos Theatre filled that gap. I remember having a company meeting with me going ‘oh God, am I only allowed to do mask? I just want to do everything. I love total theatre, I love physical theatre – ’ and the rest of the team going ‘no no, this is the uniqueness of what we could become.’

I thought ‘okay, I will do only full mask, so long as I can tell stories that need to be told’. A lot of full mask shows are farcical or comical and for me, I can leave the theatre feeling empty. I want a roller coaster and I want to think and I want my opinions to change or be challenged. So that’s when I went ‘okay, I’ll do full mask, but only if I can tell stories that I’m passionate about’.

So you would never dive totally and completely into something very dark or farcical? I mean Vamos shows have that lovely ratio of light and dark, but nothing could tempt you totally towards one or the other?

Never say never. A Brave Face was proper dark. That was so dark and actually a really difficult show to research and to make because it was so bloody desperate; the lack of hope and the lack of support for military back home I think is so bleak. I like finding hope.

And I think when the idea for a show about end of life came, I was like ‘Oh bloody hell, no way – no way!’ But I was convinced.

The phrase “Nothing about us without us” has become part of our core beliefs. I could not have written Finding Joy, A Brave Face or Dead Good without the input of so many generous and wise people who have become close friends. For Dead Good I had the support of three brilliant men, Dave and Nick and Pete – all three terminally ill – who have shared their most intimate and precious feelings and experiences. I’m stunned every time I talk, text or email them about their zest for life and love, their appreciation for the minutiae and their shocking sense of humour. Writing Dead Good has deepened my value of life, made me think about planning for a good death and I’ve laughed ten times more than cried.

And you found the light in there, again. It seems no matter how devastating the source material is to begin with, you manage to find the light in there somewhere and somehow.

Yeah – and that for me is the perfect balance. I wanted it to be a celebration of life – like Finding Joy, I wanted it to celebrate life and shout ‘COME ON! 1 SHOT, JUST 1 SHOT, MAKE THE MOST OF IT!’ This is also because my best mate died (out of the blue) when we were both 27, so I have a promise to myself not to take life for granted.

But I hadn’t realised the emotional impact Dead Good would have on the audiences. I’d be sat in an auditorium with 300 people and it would literally be the sound of people from all around me, desperately trying not to let their nose’s dribble, trying to sniff quietly, holding back uncontrollable sobs. It was extraordinary. And there was part of me thinking ‘oh no, don’t cry, this is supposed to be a really good death, surrounded by love and laughter, this is a celebration, this is joyful, this is what I want!’

The lonely deaths during Covid-19 haunt me.

So as the UK’s leading full mask theatre company, if I asked you for the bare bones recipe of really great mask performance, what would you say?

In terms of production, it’s about getting the story and the reason for telling that story right. So what Vamos do is we tell stories which give a voice to people who often don’t have one, whether that’s people living with dementia or people living with post-traumatic stress. And it’s finding the relationships and that story arc within that which makes a good story.

Is there a specific show of yours that you hold particularly dear? Are you allowed to say that?

Finding Joy is so dear to me. I also know the family it’s based on really well – it’s based on a true story of Rowan and his grandmother Audrey and it’s a family who I’m so constantly inspired and excited by. Having written the show, researched the show and directed the show and then having performed as Joy, I feel like I’m personally close to it on many levels.

I’ve since written, directed and toured into care homes with our show Sharing Joy, which I also really love. It’s for audiences and people living with late stage dementia and I call it ‘Vamos on acid’… There are several mask scenes (so there is a story which is kind of the story of Nursing Lives) but it’s snippets of story interspersed with and interactive games, dance, music, song, singing pigs, a singing dog, an Elvis Presley dance-off – which is why I call it ‘Vamos on acid’! And that’s a show we’ve been doing and taking out for the last 7 years. I love it- it’s full of love and unpredictable, outrageous FUN. I miss it, especially right now. We should have been touring it this month.

There’s a care home just around the corner from me and I’ve been walking the dog each day during lockdown and seeing the same lady sat alone in her bedroom. I’ve been stopping and waving (and sometimes hollering to her to get her attention) and I’ve realising she likes my dog best – so I pick up the dog and the dog waves to her and the lady waves back. Carers have started putting their noses to the window saying ‘do you know Hazel?’ And I’ve had to admit (feeling like a mad woman) ‘no, I don’t know Hazel…but I do now, we’ve become friends.’

I wonder how that change shifts the experience as a theatre maker, to change not just the audience but also the environment in that way – what’s it like to witness the way the show is received differently in that setting?

I think rather than witnessing it, it’s feeling it – it’s an emotional ride. So I know that the shows I make are emotional roller coasters but I think that’s also because the journeys that I go on are emotional roller coasters. For the work in care homes, I have to train my actors up to go in, do the get in, do the show, do the get out – all in view and always connected with people (living with dementia) with the absolute objective of showering people with love. And that (if done right) is exhausting, and an incredible thing to be part of.

That’s why we’ve worked with two Cirque du Soleil clowns who, when they’d done our show Sharing Joy, said it far exceeds those relationships and experiences because they’re so close and so tactile and spontaneous and – rude! ‘Shove it up your arse!’ – rude! And brilliantly exciting and unpredictable too; there’s something more honest and genuine and joyful about it rather than trying to communicate with five thousand people that you don’t really have any relationship with.

Speaking of different ways of interacting, talk to me about Walkabout Theatre – when did you decide to go out into the world and do street theatre?

It was something that Trestle sort of played around with. Actually, when I director of Trestle’s Young People’s Theatre I did outdoor stuff with them. If you’re a purist, you’d say ‘walkabout doesn’t work’, but if you want to get tickets to Glastonbury every year… walkabout does work! It’s bloody good fun, it’s wild in fact and it’s so liberating to be anonymous!

-And you go back behind the mask for that do you?

Yeah. We’re making some new trailers and I was reading through some of the quotes and it’s things like ‘they do the unthinkable’ and you think, ‘yeah, that’s because you can!’ So I train up the actors because we have vignettes that we carry out as the different scenarios, and I direct those and make sure we’re taking in our audience on every side. But at the end of the day, I say to the performers ‘if you’re being so naughty that you’re making yourself laugh behind the mask, that’s when you’re doing the right job with walkabout’.

And there’s one actor, Sean Kempton, who’s done a lot of Cirque du Soleil clown stuff – you give him all the vignettes and he doesn’t take any notice of them whatsoever because he’s doing things like -as an old lady – pushing to the front of an ice cream van…and he’s climbing inside it through the window –

And they’re letting him of course…

They can’t not –

Because what can you do?

What can you do?  It’s doing the unthinkable.

I think I’m going to need to see that at some point!

So the tour of Dead Good was cut short for obvious reasons. Is there a plan there in terms of picking things up again post-Covid19?

It’ll revive – it will tour again. But the research I’ve done into Dead Good is all about how can we have the most beautiful, honest, intimate death? And the book that inspired me most was called Intimate Death and it’s written by a French psychologist Marie de Hennezel, who set up hospices in Paris during the Aids epidemic in the 1980s.

The book is called Intimate Death and you look at it and go ‘what on earth is an intimate death?!’ And actually, it’s being held and having laughter right up until the end and I’ve realised that it can be so beautiful. And yet, what the Coronavirus has done is destroy all of that and that seems to me to be what is so horrific, is that people are dying on their own. And that for me is everything that contradicts all of the research that I’ve done and I’m trying to say to people ‘have a beautiful death, plan a beautiful death; plan to be with people, to hold, to laugh, to cherish’ and I don’t know what it [the virus aftermath] will do to us.

So, what’s next for you?

We’ve got a BBC commission for the Culture in Quarantine.

That’s amazing – congrats!

Thank you. It’s utterly amazing – there were 1600 applications and only 25 companies were successful. I feel like I’ve gone from trying to get a company to survive to now having something come out of it where we have to get a piece of work done.

So is this going to be something brand new?

Yeah, so I don’t know if you’ve seen any of our online social media day by day, there’s been Ryan’s Isolation Days?

Yeah, I’ve seen those.

So it’s an extension of that. So Finding Joy is the show about the grandmother and the grandson living with dementia and the new premise will be that Ryan will be the grandson of Joy, who’s also living in isolation during Covid19. So it’ll all be now and present and current, and she’ll be living in isolation on her own. It’ll be about the new way people, families and relationships try to connect in during lockdown.

And the final question: Do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ story?

Yeah. It’s not a Vamos one though – and I have a couple actually. I was in a show with Northern Stage in 1996 and it was in a disused power station in Wallsend. It was about a man who’d died and so therefore was a ghost and his son comes back to Newcastle and it’s all about their memories, their feelings and their relationship.

It was all done in huge disused power station rooms so in the first scene, we all did this dance routine (it was choreographed by Kathy Crick I think from Motion House). And we were all these different characters travelling across the coal and the ghost, the father, walked towards the light – the sunshine that always used to shine in, as we did early morning shows.

Anyway, within this scene one morning, the main character of the ghost, Joe Ging, dropped. And he wasn’t supposed to drop. And we all went round him and he was having a heart attack, so they had to stop the show. I was so close to him – he was 69 at the time and I remember in rehearsals, we’d be rehearsing dance routines and we’d be rolling across the floor doing this contact dance improvisation where essentially me, as a young 24 year old lass, was rolling around on the floor with Joe Ging (who was so funny) and he used to say to me ‘I’m getting paid for this! Isn’t this brilliant?’

Anyway, the next day, following Joe’s heart attack, we went across the coal and the director read his part…and at the point at which we walked across the coal, this blinding sunshine came up and all of thought ‘God, I can’t see’. And when we all went upstairs after the performance, the production manager told us Joe had died at 9.05 that morning; we all looked at each other and knew Joe had died at that moment of the sunshine. I’m not at all religious. But Joe was sunshine, through and through.

And then after that (I had one day off in-between) the next job I had was A Christmas Carol in Hong Kong. There was an older man, Gerry, playing the demanding role of Scrooge, who became really poorly suddenly just before a show. He was obviously too poorly to go on yet he was saying ‘I’ve got to go on, I’ve never cancelled a show in my life’ and I sat there and said ‘OK then I’m cancelling. I refuse to go on, get an ambulance, because this bloke needs to get to hospital’. It was the experience of actually “the show doesn’t need to go on, the show can stop.” Gerry got better. The cast stayed up all night rehearsing a new Scrooge into the part- that’s another story!!!

Well the second of those stories feels like something of an antidote to the first very sad one.

Joe was an amazing, amazing bloke and went out doing what he loved doing most, performing. My son’s called Joe. It’s a good solid name.

And he left you with that lovely line about acting and the joy of getting paid to play.

Yeah. ‘Isn’t this brilliant? I’m getting paid for this!

So there you have it! Make sure you head over to Vamos’ website for all kinds of great content, from a generous array of educational resources to training opportunities to a fantastic archive of mask technique films. You can also keep tabs on the company across Twitter, Instagram (the best platform for watching the Isolation Diaries) and Facebook. Please also consider donating to support Vamos if you are able to – the theatre industry is facing incredibly difficult times and companies like Vamos are grateful for any support in these uncertain times.

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