Interview: Lemon House Theatre’s Jennifer Cerys & Samia Djilli on Launching the Lemon Lounge Series

There’s a new series of talks with theatre creatives in town thanks to Co-Artistic Directors of Lemon House Theatre, Jennifer Cerys and Samia Djilli. Over lockdown, they’ve launched Lemon Lounge, a series of talks focusing specifically on Queer artists and artists from the Middle Eastern and North African diaspora, looking at the individual experiences of creatives and the inner-workings of the theatre industry. I caught up with the very busy pair recently to talk all things Lemon Lounge and plans for the future…

So you’ve launched Lemon Lounge during lockdown, which sounds thoroughly fantastic. Tell me a little about the project and what led you to create it.

Thank you! Lemon Lounge is a six-part series of talks, in which the first 3 episodes, we’ll be chatting to Queer artists, and in the last 3 episodes, MENA artists about their experiences in theatre. We cover topics such as queer trauma in plays to the visibility of MENA stories. Each episode also includes extracts from one of the plays we’re developing at the moment.

The project is part of St. Margaret’s House’s REACH Online programme, and we’re one of their Associate Artists, so it’s been great getting to still work with them while spaces aren’t open at the moment. They commissioned us after receiving some emergency funding from the Arts Council, and we feel lucky that we’ve still been able to create and work with artists during this strange time.

You’re very passionate about making space for marginalised voices while performance spaces are closed. Can you tell me about how you arrived at the idea of audio talks with creatives about their experiences rather than taking the option of creating online new work to tell those stories?

Our aim as a company is to create conversations between artists and audiences, and so much of that involves them being in the same room. Though we’ve been enjoying the online theatre that other venues and companies have produced, it would’ve felt disingenuous to what we’re trying to do as a company to just move our shows online.

So, instead, we looked at how we can have those conversations that are most relevant to what both artists and audiences are going through now, and finding ways to connect them that only the digital/online space would allow, rather than changing our theatre shows to fit a form they’re not really made for.

Now, each episode does include extracts from upcoming works-in-progress from Lemon House Theatre which means your listeners get the best of both worlds in a way. What can we expect from those extracts?

In the Queer-focused part of the series, the extracts are from our show “Willow”, which premiered at The Bunker last year. It’s a queer, female break-up play about telling your own story and if you can tell it honestly. It was great getting to develop this show again and adapt it for audio, which enabled us to play around with the form a little more.

Then, in the MENA-focused part of the series, the extracts are from our show “Different Sand”, which was also on at The Bunker, and was about two British-Algerian sisters and what it means to question your cultural identity. We also end the series talking about an upcoming project we’re working on…

With this series focusing specifically on Queer artists and artists from the MENA diaspora, can I ask if you’re feeling encouraged by the discussions currently taking place around the need for greater commitment to representation when theatres reopen?

A conversation that’s come up a lot with the artists we’ve been talking to is that the theatre industry wasn’t working for them before lockdown. It wasn’t a space that welcomed them or celebrate their stories, and both of us have definitely felt like that too. So though this has been a challenging time for theatre, it also feels like a really exciting time to re-build theatres in a much more inclusive way, where artists from marginalised backgrounds aren’t just there to check a box, but to really be valued and listened to.

And the talks are split into two parts with the first part focusing on the experience of Queer artists and the second part reflecting on the visibility of MENA artists on UK stages. How has that structure enabled you to explore the ground you set out to cover?

With the company being led by a Queer woman (Jennifer) and a British-Algerian woman (Samia), Queer and MENA experience naturally feature a lot in the work we make. So we wanted to split this series into two and focus in on those experiences so we could explore what we’ve personally found it to be like in theatre, but also to find out what the experience has been like for other artists. We’ve connected with our guests on a lot, and also learnt a lot from them.

The episodes also look specifically at the future of Queer theatre. What are your hopes for the Queer theatre landscape when the arts emerge from pandemic closures?

In the episode about the future of Queer theatre, guest Daisy Hale speaks about wanting more shows about queer joy, as there seems to be a real heteronormative fascination with queer trauma and seeing queer people in pain (which we actually discussed in the second episode of the series). And we agree with Daisy – we want to see happy, queer stories, rather than the singular narrative that often exists around shows about queer people, which is about them struggling with their sexuality, addiction, and often dying. There definitely still needs to be stories about the difficulties of being queer, but we want more stories, so that the range of queer experience can be explored. Having one queer show in a season is never going to cover all the different lives and intersections of queer people, and puts a huge burden of representation on just one show.

The series currently runs at six parts – is there scope for more material to follow and do you envision the project continuing after lockdown lifts?

We hope so! This particular commission from St. Margaret’s House was for these six episodes, but we’re definitely looking to continue this project and to include even more voices in the series.

Just to step away from Lemon Lounge for a moment, I was impressed to learn that you produced a fab new writing night which provides a platform for mixed race artists at St. Margaret’s House. What can you tell me about setting that up and how people can get involved when lockdown lifts?

“Mixed Tape” was actually the very first project we did, and set out the kind of work we wanted to make and support as a company. We put a call out for short scripts, and staged the work of four amazing writers: Marcus Bernard, Susan Momoko Hingley, Cheryl May Ndione and Shaadi Rad.

When we set up Lemon House, we wanted it to act as a community hub where artists could come and experiment with their work. New writing nights really allow for this, which is why we enjoy doing them. We have a different focus for each new writing night, and we did have one planned for June that had to be postponed. The night was called “Behind Closed Doors” and would’ve been for writers of marginalised genders and included short plays or extracts from plays about sex, bodies, and relationships. We’re hoping to still stage this night when theatres to re-open, and will be posting the call out for scripts on our website and social media, so definitely check us out there. Our website is lemonhousetheatre.com and we’re @lemonhousetc on Twitter and @lemonhousetheatre on Instagram.

So quickly pivoting back to Lemon Lounge then, why would you say audiences should listen to the series and how can they access it?

By audiences listening to the series, they’re supporting a space for artists that aren’t always given one, and we really appreciate everyone who’s been listening and leaving reviews of the series. We hope they connect to the conversations we’re having to these artists, or maybe learn something new. They can listen to the series by searching “Lemon Lounge” on Spotify or Apple Music.

And finally, what’s next for Lemon House Theatre as you look ahead to life post-lockdown?

We’ve got the second half of the series coming out in the next couple weeks, and after that, we’ll be looking at staging our new writing night, as well as continuing to develop the plays that audiences have heard extracts of on “Lemon Lounge”.

We’re looking forward to doors being back open!

So there you have it! You can listen to all of the Lemon Lounge talks via Spotify or Apple Music and you can keep up with Lemon House Theatre via their Website and Twitter and Instagram pages.

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