In anticipation of Upside Down, a new play premiering as part of the Edinburgh Alternative Theatre Festival, I sat down with write Sekai Waterman and producer Emma Schoenmakers to discuss much-needed diversity on the stage and how to squeeze the most out of a tight rehearsal schedule.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your show?
SW: Upside Down is a play that follows the lives of two characters, Jordan and Amina, one of which is non-binary and the other having a mental illness. It explores their relationship and how it’s perceived by other characters. We also want to see what the audience thinks of their relationship.
Q: Your show uses a lot of physical theatre. What inspired you to express the show’s theme through movement and dance?
ES: Physical theatre isn’t something I’ve been used to, but I feel like it’s a good way to express thoughts because it’s really hard to express how you feel just using words. Physical theatre also allows the audience to create the meanings for the things they’re seeing as well.
SW: The audience can pick up what they want from it. If you have words specifically, you’re putting in a concrete idea, so here they have to come to their own conclusion. If it’s an image they can take from it what they want.
Q: You have only had a short rehearsal schedule for this show, how have you managed that process?
ES: We divided it quite effectively between the actors as well, and the cast are overall are really able and fast at learning lines. It’s made it easier. It’s been intensely rewarding.
SW: There’s a scene where the non-binary character is trying to buy clothes and I was putting that sequence off for ages. But we ended up revisiting moments, all of the things we had done beforehand that were in the backs of people’s minds, and pieced things together from what we had already created. It seemed to work quite nicely and set the foundations for what we have now.
Q: Despite increasing awareness regarding the need for diversity on the contemporary stage, it often feels like some voices are still sidelined – what do you think a spotlight on marginalised voices can do for audiences and how important are they?
SW: As a queer person of colour, I wanted the play to have people like me – although I think it’s because everyone wants to do that [laughs]. But growing up, I wasn’t exposed to those kinds of things, and there was a period in my life where I was like, “people of colour can’t be gay” because it’s not something that I saw. I think there is more that can be done of course, but hopefully those marginalised voices have come through in this piece. I’m hoping people who come and see the show are interested because of the types of people who will be on stage. And there are people in the cast who haven’t got any theatrical background – when casting, I was told that I might not get people with one, as if that was supposed to put me off! It means the people here are using their experiences, which I think shines through better than someone pretending to be someone they’re not.
ES: Yeah, the show is about people’s experiences and moulding it around them, so it comes across as more authentic.
Q: What is your approach to representing diversity on stage?
SW: The play is a set story between Jordan and Amina, and their situation is very specific to them. We wanted the actors to put in their own views, so we looked at the script and asked if they wanted to change things, so we’re now at that point where we’re telling that authentic, specific story. We want people to relate to the themes in the show but we don’t want it to be generalised, because that’s something I’m strongly against. I think it can be an issue when people go, “oh yeah that’s what non-binary means”, when that’s not the case.
ES: It’s not enough to have one show that’s like “this is a person of colour” and then you’re done. And I feel like it’s important to remind yourself that the play is art and not pure activism. It’s really important to remember that it’s a piece of theatre that must be taken on its own.
SW: We want the audience to try and focus on the story: that’s my main goal. Too often people jump to their own conclusions but I’d prefer it if the audience took the characters as a blank canvas, then let them paint you the picture, and let you see that picture rather than you painting your own picture for them.
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