Damsel Productions' latest work, Grotty, examines a lesbian sub culture with searing honesty. Daniel Perks talks to director and co-founder Hannah Hauer-King:

Hannah Hauer-King is an unassuming individual, genuinely excited about the next chapter for Damsel Productions. She sits opposite me and exudes that magical combination of passion and humility, a magnetic personality that you can’t help but take notice of. Grotty is the company’s first full-length production in almost two years, since Fury stormed the stage at Soho Theatre and demanded everyone sit up and pay attention:

Grotty Bunker Theatre

Hannah Hauer-King

“We’ve been incredibly lucky when I see how we’ve progressed.” comments Hannah, instantly attributing the success of Damsel Productions to a combination of hard work and circumstance. “There has been quite a pause between Grotty and Fury because there wasn’t a play that for me addressed,

‘Why this play? Why now?’

“So, while we were taking time to decide what that play was, we tried to expand our network of female artists and I think that’s been part of our success over the last year. We did Pint-Sized Goes Damsel, we did Damsel Develops – women engaging in our company and feeling like a collective, which has been really enriching. I hope we will continue as a company that isn’t just about us – it’s not really enough to be doing well as a woman, it goes beyond that. What are we doing for women who aren’t getting these opportunities?”

Both Damsel Develops and Pint-Sized Goes Damsel were opportunities for female creatives to bring new writing and new direction to the forefront of their practice. The likes of Sara Joyce, Rafaella Marcus, Abi Zakarian and Camilla Whitehill presented work and received expert mentorship from such inspirational industry figures such as Maria Aberg and Polly Stenham. These kinds of festivals present a message that speaks to the heart of the Damsel Productions ethos – championing the true power of the female voice in an earnest, selfless and impactful manner.

But now Hannah and co-founder Kitty Wordsworth have turned their attention back to Grotty, so the apt question seems to be why this play, why now?

“It’s gone on for too long, this systemic imbalance for queer women in theatre. After #MeToo and the limelight that has been given to women in the arena, it’s time to bring in something that will make people sit up, but that isn’t recycling the same story and isn’t waxing poetic into a liberal, middle class echo chamber.

“What’s so intense about Grotty is there isn’t anything vanilla or easy about the women that you see. It shows an ugly side to the lesbian world, a side that is quite sinister. We see women behaving really badly and talking about each other in really malicious ways. We’re quite used to seeing men do that, but not women who are into BDSM, who are violent or sexually aggressive. That’s not to say all gay women are like that, but it shows a side that a lot of people aren’t exposed to.”

Grotty Bunker Theatre

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson & Anita-Joy Uwajeh

Grotty certainly feels as though it occupies a unique space in the current theatrical scene. Back in January 2018, I interviewed The Bunker’s Artistic Director, Josh McTaggart, to speak about their upcoming season, for which Grotty is the concluding production. I noted in that article that female-led queer theatre can easily be found on the fringe – Turkey and Lobster are two such pieces that deal with lesbian relationships; Juniper & Jules, currently a work in progress, looks at bisexuality, and if that weren’t enough, the Olivier-award winning Rotterdam presented a lesbian relationship through the lens of a woman who transitions into a man.

But on reflection, I realise that my comparison was lazy. It presented the concept that these shows are invalidated by each other because of the other productions tackling relatable topics out there. But my mistake was to overlook how these works should be championed in conjunction, as opposed to being pitted against each other in competition. We should be praising the foresight of such writers as Izzy Tennyson and such directors as Hannah, who are bringing non-cis-male, queer stories to the theatrical table. The imbalance in LGBTQ+ productions is plain to see – just like the rest of the industry, it’s biased towards men:

“The material is somewhat autobiographic, converted into a theatrical form and story, so we’re coming from a place of truth. This isn’t something me and a male writer have made up in our minds to sexualise or exaggerate a community, or to portray them in the wrong way. If the audience leave feeling pushed away and confused, I’ll be really sad. They might leave feeling a little shocked, but hopefully still engaged. Now that there’s more visibility for females on stage, I think audiences will be challenged but a little more ready for this, after the success of shows such as Rotterdam.”

Grotty Bunker Theatre

Alice McCarthy & Anna Martine Freeman in Rotterdam (image courtesy of Hunter Canning)

If anyone can simultaneously engage and challenge an audience as a director, it’s Hannah. She is the first to admit that she asks a lot from her actors, but the work that she can bring forth, the results that she can tease out of such talented performers, is powerful and purposeful. Hannah sets up a safe space so quickly in the room, bringing a narrative to life with efficiency and poise:

“I’m quite an intense director – I ask the actors to be off book for the first day, which is not always very popular. My process is staging the play as quickly as possible, not doing loads of in-depth table work. I feel so much understanding around text comes from attaching movement to emotion. We stage the play relatively quickly; we then take a big breath and then talk about it. Do it again and again and again until we really believe in the truth of it. Performing in your own play, especially when it’s semi-autobiographical, is difficult, but Izzy is doing a wonderful job.”

Grotty Bunker Theatre

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson, Anita-Joy Uwajeh, Grace Chilton & Hannah Hauer-King

It’s a very niche play to end The Bunker Spring 2018 season. But it’s one that is well placed to be staged in such a subterranean venue. Grotty examines a sub-culture that has been confined to the basements of gay clubs, or to run-down bars that over the years have sequentially closed down. There is a marriage between narrative and location here, just as there is a marriage between The Bunker and Damsel Productions, one of its resident companies:

“The first time I walked into The Bunker, I felt a real excitement about the space – it reminded me of New York, of off-Broadway underground venues. I love site-specific work, I love using the architecture of a space and The Bunker is begging for that. It’s an incredible theatre jungle gym. A lot of the action for Grotty takes place in an underground sweaty night club, so why do it in a glorious proscenium – this is just the kind of venue for it.”

 

 

Grotty plays at the Bunker Theatre from 1 – 26 May 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.