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Beasty Baby: Interview with Sue Buckmaster of Theatre Rites

6 October 2015 Ryan Ormonde

Sue Buckmaster is a pioneer of innovative family theatre with her company Theatre Rites. She has worked tirelessly to elevate the perception of performance work for children. Beasty Baby, the new show from Theatre Rites, opens at the Polka Theatre on October 14th. London Calling met up with Sue to talk about the show and her work in theatre.

London Calling: Why did you choose to depict three people bringing up a baby?

Sue Buckmaster: One, it challenges the idea of family and what constitutes a family. Two, for quality it’s really nice if you can have three people because you get an expert musician, an expert puppeteer an expert performer. You get a nice range of skills as opposed to trying to find someone who’s a jack-of-all-trades. Three, for a cross-cultural approach: by choosing three you’re more likely to represent the mixture of cultures that are represented in the audience.

LC: How did the Nordic Noir reference come about?

SB: The original exploration for the piece came from looking into the idea of a troll child myth that comes from the Nordic area. Trolls steal newborn babies and they swap them for troll-children but the more I explored that the more I realised that actually it’s quite interesting for it not to be a troll baby. What’s really interesting is what people like Marina Warner the academic writes about: sometimes you have little monsters in your real babies – that’s really what the troll-child story is about. Sometimes our babies are a bit monstrous, a bit beastly. And sometimes as parents we are also a bit beastly when we’ve had a sleepless night, so we’re all beasts at one point or another in the raising of children. That’s where the Nordic thing came from originally, and then I quite like also a lot of the detective stuff on TV.

LC: The Killing and all that?

SB: Yeah, there’s a real influence. And the rise of Ikea. If you were building a nest for your family you’d probably visit Ikea. The Nordic feel was really in the air so I kept it in the aesthetic.

LC: How did your collaboration with Akram Khan come about? Is he coming to see Beasty Baby?

SB: I went to join Akram to work on his adult show Desh just for a little while in Grenoble. It was a solo show and I was talking to him about how to use the objects on stage almost like fellow performers, like the chairs and the silks. I just said, would the Akram Khan Company ever consider creating a family show? He said “well I haven’t got the expertise for that and it’s not what I do...” but I’d made the show Mischief, his mum had really liked that and he has now got two kids so he was thinking about it a lot. In the end he said “Sue, Desh has been so successful; could you consider making the hour and a half version of Desh for adults into a 50 minute version for children?” I spent about six months studying it, looking at it and talking to him and in the end we worked out a way we could do it - and that’s what we’re doing. So it’s Akram Khan’s first venture into family work, which is brilliant. He does live in Wimbledon and he said he will try and bring the eldest of his two little’uns to come and see Beasty Baby.

LC: How has being a ‘fourth generation theatre practitioner’ influenced your ideas about parenting and being an artist?

SB: My family motto is ‘Family comes first but the show must always go on’, so we always find a way. Family always comes first, there’s no question about that, so I already knew I could have a family and have that extended family support but at the same time, the family of the audience you create in that moment in time also needs to be looked after, so the show always goes on. For me as an artist, because I’ve worked in puppetry I thought it was important to work in the adult area of theatre to get myself some status because children’s work and puppetry are both seen as a Cinderella form really. But then when I met Penny Bernand and we set up Theatre Rites I was just starting to have a family and it all sort of came together. One, it was more family friendly for me to make children’s work; two, it allowed me to explore what I was physically going through myself, in my work. I actually particularly found unscripted work incredibly liberating and it allowed me to explore these forms of music, puppetry and performance that are in my family for years; they’re all clowns and musicians and circus performers.

LC: Theatre-Rites started nearly 20 years ago – has much changed in how you make work as a company?

SB: I think as artists we are constantly reinventing ourselves and as an artist you serve your community so it’s politics that’s changed and the emphasis - and the economics actually. So the environment has changed and I just change with that, I keep adapting. Sometimes we’ll do very, very tiny shows and try and take them into schools because the schools are no longer coming. Other times, [for example] there’s a huge festival in Germany, there’s 250,000 [festival-goers] and we’re making a huge site-specific for people to wander through; so it just depends what the world needs of Theatre Rites at that point in time. We keep adapting, we keep changing: which I think is why we’ve been going so long. It depends on the artists in the room, cross-art-form and cross-culture, so it becomes what it needs to become. What saddens me is that in some ways children’s theatre at the moment is very similar to when Theatre Rites began. I think venues and audiences would quite like it if the tickets were really cheap, if we were able to perform on somebody else’s set, didn’t need a get-in time, could perform with just one person.

When I started that’s what children’s work often was like. I used to be offered somebody else’s set to perform on and I would go, well I’ve got a set design – in fact I’ve got a whole installation and I want a day and a half get-in, and they’d go “you must be joking, this is for children”. But we then got that and people went “Wow! Okay, we’ll give you big budgets to make huge installations for children to enjoy”. But just in the last three years all that now has gone straight back to “actually can you do it cheaper” and you go, well we can but we’re back to those sort of compromises, [the idea] that work for children is somehow less important and you can get away with stuff because they’ll laugh at a fart joke. You do a two-week rehearsal; you just get stuff that comes off the shelf really easily but they don’t get anything more from you as an artist. They don’t get the really the interesting stuff, which is worth having and worth offering to our kids and all the adults that come with them.

LC: So if it’s an economic thing, do you think it’s about producing less shows of a higher quality?

SB: Possibly... Possibly... I don’t think we’ve got a solution, I think we’re making solutions. We keep reinventing ourselves and we will keep doing that. Our art does that brilliantly.

Beasty Baby opens at Polka Theatre, Wimbledon on October 14th and runs until January. For more information and to book tickets, see website.

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