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Interview with playwright and performer Caroline Horton

16 May 2015 Natasha Sutton-Williams

Olivier-Award nominated Caroline Horton is a playwright and performer. Her controversial show Islands at the Bush Theatre caused a backlash of opinion. Her current show Mess is about anorexia. London Calling found out just what is going on inside the mind of this provocative theatre-maker.

 

London Calling: Do you see yourself first and foremost as a performer or writer?

Caroline Horton: I’m a writer then performer. I’m happiest and most challenged when I’m doing the two together. I love the combination of writing up on my feet through improvisations then taking that material and sculpting it at my desk.


LC: Your show Islands is an ink black comedy about tax havens, greed, and the few who have it all. What made you want to create this piece?

CH: The idea of using buffoonery and investigating tax justice came into my head simultaneously. After the 2008 financial crisis, I wanted to acknowledge that this is inhumane; it’s seriously unjust and disgusting. I wanted to take the financial crisis away from polite debate and show it as a form of violence.


LC: You write using improvisation as a starting point. How did this process work for Islands?

CH: I went back to Philippe Gaulier’s drama school in Paris where I trained and sat in on buffoon classes. It was brilliant in reminding me that buffoonery operates on epic metaphors: there are gods and devils, it has a mythic feel to it. Buffoons are like a disgusting Greek Chorus. I got really excited and my initial idea for Islands started growing. We could throw in tax but we weren’t going to explain it as an economic system. We were going to make it metaphorical and epic. However, it was much trickier to get the improvisations going in rehearsals. They’d often end up being about how complicated the financial system was, which is not something you want to watch for two hours. I went away and wrote a draft much sooner than I had with my other devised plays. I created the gods and goddesses, heaven and ‘shit world’ at my desk. We took those elements and started playing with them back in the room.


LC: You had a huge backlash of critical reviews for Islands. How has that affected your opinion of the piece?

CH: Nothing I’ve made or ever will make is perfect but I really love Islands. In those few days after press night we were in a shit-storm of critique declaring, ‘Islands is absolutely terrible. It’s crude. It’s rubbish’. I’m not sure we would have been doing what I’d set out to do if it had been an easy piece to watch. We had people leaving in droves, but then people started going with it. By the end of the run the show had become more riotous and naughtier. It found its groove and there was a proper debate about it. In the end it did what we wanted it to do, it caused a big ruckus and asked questions like, ‘What is political theatre? What should theatre be like?’ It was a bumpy, stormy, exhausting, painful but fucking exciting ride.


LC: You were nominated for an Olivier Award with your solo show You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy. What was the inspiration for that show?

CH: Basically I was in love with my grandmother. She was the most incredible storyteller, and naughty as hell. She was so different from the rest of my family. They would roll their eyes when she’d start telling a story while we would be sat in the corner, her making me roar with laughter. I felt she was just too good to keep to myself so I made a show about her.


LC: In Mess you bare your personal life experiences on stage. What draws you to making that type of work?

CH: That doesn’t really come into my head. It’s what I get obsessed by that focusses my work. With Mess it wasn’t just because I’d suffered from eating disorders that I wanted to do it, it was because of a speech I gave to my old sixth form. The school had asked previous graduates to come talk about their chosen career path. I talked a little bit about eating disorders because it had been such a massive part of my life and I didn’t want to miss it out. I was stood in front of a room of eighteen year old girls so I needed to say, ‘Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass but I regularly kick its butt.’  Mess was born from doing that speech and having so many girls, parents and staff wanting to chat afterwards, because it’s confusing and illogical, it’s not a rational thing. It made me think, ‘This might be a disaster, but fuck it, I want to try and make a piece about anorexia.’ I wanted to create an open conversation and talk about it in a way that’s not triggering. People asked me if it was going to be a solo show. I said no because I wanted to reflect the experiences of people around it, because it’s a bloody nightmare for them as well.

Mess is on tour at the Albany, London from 19th – 20th May. For tickets click here.

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