#OnceAMonkey - Themis Theatre

An all-female collective comprising three members of Fourth Monkey’s Two Year Rep – Class of 2021 (now the BA Acting accelerated degree), Themis Theatre was founded on a commitment to centring women’s narratives. Their work takes on traditional Greek myths, retelling them with a playfully feminist twist as a tool to examine ongoing issues faced by women and, ultimately, using theatre as
an act of protest.

As they prepare to present their first ever “Theme-is” scratch night at The Pen Theatre in South East London, Themis Theatre’s Ruby, Libby and Charlotte share an insight into what inspired them to collaborate and form their own theatre company, as well as what inspired their upcoming debut play, The Dissent (11-13 August), and what anyone joining “Theme-is: Firsts” at The Pen Theatre can expect…

 

 

Firstly, introduce yourselves! Tell us about your backgrounds, training and how the three of you met!

Ruby: I began my training at Exeter University on the Drama BA. After being heavily involved in youth theatre from an early age, I’ve always had an interest in story telling and how a narrative translates on stage. After graduating, I came to Fourth Monkey after being inspired by their physical response to acting. I actually met Charlotte on our audition day and Libby on our first day and we’ve been inseparable ever since!

Charlotte: My background is in dance, clown and theatre making. I trained on the foundation course at RADA, followed by a year with the LAB company at Theatre Royal Plymouth. This introduced me to creating my own work, and I knew this was important for me moving forward. I was attracted to Fourth Monkey as the course catered to acting and theatre making, with a heavy focus on physical theatre and movement, which are also important to me.

Libby: Before training I worked in a range of theatre roles, from ASMing to dressing, theatre managing and performing, which gave me a pretty comprehensive overview of theatre making. I then spent six months as part of the Riotous Youth at Bard on the Beach, Vancouver, which nudged me towards wanting to make my own work. From there, Fourth Monkey’s Two Year Rep (now BA Acting) seemed like a great choice for my actor training.

 

(All image credits: Naomi Ellison, @ellisonfilms)

Can you tell us about the initial inspiration behind Themis Theatre, as well as what attracted you to collaborating with each other after graduating from Fourth Monkey?

 

We all worked together quite intensively during the last few months of our training, as we were in the same bubble for our last projects. We were devising together, acting together, and having a lot of fun together, so it happened quite naturally that we wanted to continue making work together.

We all had similar expectations of the work we wanted to create: as women, we wanted to uplift female voices and put women at the forefront of our stories. Since our first play – The Dissent – was going to be a retelling of Greek mythology dealing with women and the law, it seemed right to name ourselves Themis after the Ancient Greek goddess of justice.

Themis Theatre was founded on a commitment for creating space for women’s narratives and telling classic tales through an alternative lens. Beyond the obvious, why do you feel this is important in contemporary theatre?

 

Last year The Women in Theatre Forum Report found that, despite a lot of lip-service about the importance of equality across the industry, gender inequality is actually on the rise in the arts. And we’ve seen this extend beyond theatre, from the rise in male violence against women to control over reproductive rights. We all feel that contemporary theatre has a responsibility to reflect the world we live in and to say something about it. The difficulty comes when we try to say something without just adding to our collective trauma. Realistically, as an all-female company with a largely feminist agenda, a lot of our audiences are going to identify as female, and there’s no point preaching to the
choir or making them sit through an hour of watching their own experiences play out onstage without doing something to challenge that.

And that’s where the Greek Myths come in. The stories are fantastical and ancient, but their traditional narratives are unfailingly problematic and misogynistic. What we’re doing is subverting those narratives to parallel modern equivalents, highlighting the absurdity of the world we live in and giving them a playfully feminist twist.

Can you tell us about anything you have found particularly surprising, interesting, or indeed challenging about creating your own theatre company and working collaboratively together?

The challenge was, and still is: we are working it out as we go. There’s been a lot of trial and error as we find our natural roles within the company, but It seems to be getting easier as we move forward – probably because we’ve gained confidence in ourselves. The amount of admin that’s needed was a bit of a surprise – ideally we’d spend all our time in the rehearsal room, but we quickly realised it was a lot harder to run a successful company than it looks.

Remaining patient and optimistic has also been a lesson – we’ve been working so hard all year after the cancellation of the VAULT Festival without much to show for it, and then suddenly had a lot of pay-off come at once: our scratch night came together, and we confirmed our venues for a mini-tour of The Dissent (at the Golden Goose in London, Upstairs at the Western in Leicester, and the Theatre Royal Plymouth).

Then there’s the art of letting go: not everything will happen straight away and there’s a number of setbacks as you push forward. But doing the work, enjoying it and keeping a positive attitude helps.

Tell us a little about The Dissent, Themis Theatre’s first project – where did the idea for come from and what are its central themes, and how has it evolved and developed over time?

Libby: The Dissent was originally a way to articulate the rage and exhaustion I felt with each new report of violence against women which dominated the media. Since then it’s become a cross between our collective experience as women, my love for the Greek myths, and our need to laugh.

Not only has it grown from twenty minutes to an hour, but evolved from the retelling of a myth to become a protest. It’s messier, less apologetic and – most importantly – braver. I don’t know if a play can change the world – I wish they could – but I think they can make people feel seen, and I hope that’s what we’ve done.

The Dissent follows Icarus (now a woman), Phaedra, and Ariadne as they unite to smash the patriarchy for a second shot at life. It uses prose and physicality, contrasted with clown and parody to explore injustice, the language of the patriarchy, and the role it plays in oppressing women’s agency over their own bodies.

 

The Dissent started life as an Experimental Fringe Project during your training with Fourth Monkey – how did you go about pitching the piece? What did you learn from the experience?

 

We actually knew we wanted to work together before we knew what we wanted to pitch, however since what we each like and expect from our theatre is very similar that wasn’t an issue. Once we’d worked out that we wanted to create a piece that dealt with mythology and its underlying misogyny, the pitch itself was pretty straightforward. The process of Experimental Fringe gave us hands-on experience in how to run a rehearsal room, plan a production schedule, and – in Libby’s case as the play’s writer – how to work with a constantly changing script throughout rehearsals.

You are preparing to present “Theme-is: Firsts”, a scratch night celebrating “firsts” and aimed at female-identifying creatives only. What can people expect from this and what do you hope anyone taking part will gain from the experience?

The initial idea came following a conversation with fellow female-identifying actors. We were discussing how post lock-down many of us felt disconnected from the industry. Theme-Is was born out of wanting to create a safe space for those creatives to re-connect, share their work, while raising money for charity (something else we are passionate about).

Finally, is creating your own collaborative theatre company a career path you imagined taking and what advice would you share with anyone thinking about doing the same thing?

 
We all wanted to create our own work, because it means we can tell the stories we want to hear and play the parts we’d never get to otherwise. We’re just grateful that we found the right people to make that happen. Our advice to anyone who wants to set up a company is that it’s ok if you don’t know what you’re doing – most people don’t, but support each other, reach out to people you trust in the industry for advice, take a risk, and if you’re all trying: that’s enough.
 
 
Additionally, a motivation for us is that we knew why we were doing it. We wanted creative control of our careers, and we wanted to perform together. If you can get through the business side – which is hard but possible – then you get to have those very important things.
 

Join Themis Theatre for an exploration of new theatre and works-in-progress from female and female-identifying artists at their first-ever scratch night, Theme-is Firsts, at The Pen Theatre in Peckham, South-East London on Friday 22 and Saturday 23 July – book here.

See The Dissent, Themis Theatre’s first production and a bold retelling of classic Greek myths from a female perspective, live at Golden Goose Theatre in South-East London, 11 to 13 August – learn more and book here.

Want to learn more about Themis Theatre and their work? Follow them on Twitter and Instagram or head to their website!
Twitter – @ThemisTheatre
Instagram – @themistheatre
Website – Home | Themis Theatre

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