Monkey Motivation: Mary & Mietek, From Experimental Fringe to Camden Fringe
We are always keen to learn more about what our alumni go on to create after graduating from the Monkey House, especially when this sees them working and collaborating with their fellow Monkey graduates!
Initially created for Fourth Monkey’s 2019 Experimental Fringe by Class of 2020 graduates Charles Sloboda-Bolton & Maria Laumark, ‘Mary & Mietek’ is a piece exploring love between two people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds, set against a backdrop of the Second World War.
A collaborative project between several Fourth Monkey graduates, Mary & Mietek will be performed as part of the 2021 Camden Fringe from 25th to 27th August at 7.30pm at the Hen & Chickens Theatre. We spoke to Charles Sloboda-Bolton and his creative collaborators and fellow Fourth Monkey alumni, writer and actor Maria Laumark and director Amy Rushent, about the inspiration behind the piece and what appealed to them about working together, the process involved with submitting a piece to be featured in the Camden Fringe and how they have been preparing to get back in the room, and what advice they might give anyone thinking about doing the same thing…
Introduce yourselves – tell us about your backgrounds, training and how your paths crossed!
A: I’m Amy! I’m a Fourth Monkey Grad from 2019, where I spent three years as a YOM and 2 Year Rep student. I probably came out of the womb performing, and spent my youth at theatre groups, in school productions, training in musical theatre before finally landing in my creative home of Fourth Monkey. I love to perform, but whilst training I discovered by love of writing and devising, and now my focus is on my own company, Burning Pages, to uplift queer communities. I met Charlie and Maria at Fourth Monkey – they were the year below me and I had the pleasure of working with them on Richard II in 2020 as assistant director to Simone Coxall. I was absolutely over the moon when they asked me to direct the latest genesis of Mary & Mietek – I can’t wait to see what we can create!
M: I’m Maria! I graduated from Fourth Monkey in 2020 from the 2 Year Rep. I have a passion for devising, international collaborations and working cross-disciplinary. I’m originally from Denmark and used to tour internationally with my all-female theatre company CHACMA Performance. I have a background in writing and facilitating, and I work as a Creative Associate for Cut the Cord Theatre. I’m now the co-founder and Artistic Director of Katla Theatre Company, which are producing Mary & Mietek in collaboration with Amy and Burning Pages. As Amy said, it all started when we met at Fourth Monkey. I absolutely loved the way Amy worked when we did Richard II and I remember us having a chat back then about wanting to work together in the future. So, when Charlie and I had to find a director and collaborator for the show, we were in no doubt Amy was the perfect match.
C: And I’m Charlie! I graduated with Maria last year in 2020. I’m co-founder of Katla Theatre Company, I live in Ealing, and I play my Grandad, Mietek, in the show. Before I was at Fourth Monkey, I trained at Questors, Guildhall and LIPA, as well as spending some time training in France – which was where I met Steve and Charleen, learned about the fantastic programme at Fourth Monkey, and decided to join the school! That’s where I met Maria and Amy – and that’s how this wonderful journey to bring my grandparent’s letters to life began.
(Image – Experimental Fringe performance, 2019)
Can you give us a brief overview of Mary & Mietek, the inspiration behind the piece and its central themes? How has it evolved and developed over time?
C: I grew up hearing stories about what my grandfather had gone through during World War 2 – the invasion of his home country Poland, the five years he spent in a Siberian gulag, his journey to the UK and his enrolment in the RAF – all the time as a child, from my mother and my grandmother. As he died when my mum was young, I never got to meet him and he became sort of like a folk hero for me.
When my grandma died in 2017, it was a massive loss to our family. But while clearing out the house she’d lived in with my grandfather for the whole of her adult life, my mum and my aunt found a box of letters. These letters were sent by my grandparents during the first six months of their relationship in 1945. I found in them a way to remember my grandma, and to reimagine my grandfather.
Although I knew I wanted to make theatre with the letters as soon as I read them, I started working on the concept for the show while during our Commedia dell’arte residency in Reggio Emilia, Italy. There, I happened to be flatmates with the one and only Maria Laumark! I remember lots of walks to and from the theatre, picking up an ice cream and discussing our ideas about life, theatre, and the kind of shows we wanted to make.
It was a no-brainer to put Maria into my creative team when it came to pitching the show for the Experimental Fringe – and she helped shape my jumbled concept for a show into something that would actually work on stage. Naturally I was very excited when she called me and asked if I wanted to get the band back together, and when she asked to do a rewrite I said yes immediately. I think it was after one of Amy’s amazing Burning Pages workshops where we decided that we needed to get Amy in as our director – and the rest, as they say, is history!
M: The version we did at Experimental Fringe took inspiration from the letters, but actually barely had them in the piece itself. We felt that the few letter scenes were actually some of the strongest scenes because of how amazing the content is. So, when Charlie and I decided to make a new version of the piece, we both agreed that the letters should be the centre of the piece. Therefore, I tried to make all dialogue between Mary & Mietek purely with sentences from the letters, so that everything they say to each other throughout the piece is solidly from there. So far it seems to be working – and particularly with then having the present-day couple as a frame. The first draft of the new version ended up being 120 pages long, so one of the biggest challenges has been “cutting” and editing the letters. Now, the second draft is about 45 pages but we’re still hoping to cut a bit more for the next draft. In terms of themes, the presence of Brexit and the parallels between the past and the present with the challenges of love across borders is definitely stronger now. That’s something that’s very close to my heart to explore, and one of the things that really moved me when reading the letters.
A: I think Charlie and Maria will know more about this than me! But from seeing the piece at the Experimental Fringe to working with the material now, there is a deeper connection and exploration to how identity and nationality in Mary and Mietek’s love story relate to today, with the addition of a contemporary couple. We found so much truth in the original letters that link to attitudes today, and this has become a much clearer focus for the piece going forward, and how we want audiences to experience the story.
(Image credit – Behind the scenes, Mary & Mietek)
Mary & Mietek started life as an Experimental Fringe piece during your training at Fourth Monkey – can you tell us about how you went about pitching the piece and what you learned from the experience?
C: At the heart of my pitch was a very simple and strong idea – the historical parallel between the way immigrants have been treated in Britain in the past and how we are treating them now. In the wake of Brexit, xenophobia is rife in this country. We seem to have forgotten that our freedoms were built and defended for us by Immigrants and refugees. I wanted to use the letters to talk about integration, prejudice, and cultural exchange.
M: As mentioned in the previous question, the biggest thing I learned was that the letters should be the main material and focus. It’s been quite a beautiful journey working with a real-life story and almost an antique treasure to adapt, and I learned a lot from working with Charlie on it at Experimental Fringe. It’s a fine balance being sensitive to the fact that it’s someone’s life story and sticking to the “truth” while yet having creative freedom to play with the material. But Charlie and his family have been so open and generous throughout the whole process, that it’s just been a true joy to discover the wonder of Mary & Mietek. I was so nervous the day Charlie’s family came to see the piece for the first time, as it suddenly means so much what they think of it. But his mum gave the whole cast a ‘thank you’ card which was a picture of Mary and Mietek from their wedding and it made me cry so much.
(Image – Experimental Fringe, 2019)
What advice would you give to current Fourth Monkey students preparing or submitting an Experimental Fringe piece?
A: I pitched a piece during my year at Monkey and I wasn’t successful. That was a hard knock at the time, because I was so passionate about creating the story I had in my mind – but I was so focused on that story, that there were a lot of other elements I missed out. My advice would be to think beyond your own visions; how is this story going to affect an audience? What tangible change can you create with this show? What can your piece do for others, and not just for your own creative journey? And finally, just do it. If you have doubts, fears, you think you might mess everything up, do it anyway. Pitch it. All that can happen is they say no – that happened to me, and look what I’m doing now! Just go for it!
M: I completely agree with Amy! Find the idea that sets your tummy on fire (I know this is a Danish expression, but I think it fits). Even if the idea is not fully formed, even if you are not sure what the finished version should look like – doesn’t matter! If you have an idea that you are passionate about, my biggest advice is to use your ensemble. That’s the beautiful thing with Fourth Monkey, you have a whole ensemble full of amazing collaborators who can help you. Whenever I get an idea for something, the first thing I do is to start talking to people about it. Talk, talk, talk – and brilliant inspiration comes right back. So as Amy says, just do it! And remember you have a whole ensemble to help you make it happen then – whether it’s at Experimental Fringe or after.
C: I’m now going to look like a party pooper after such positive answers…! I think the thing to be most conscious of is time – five minutes can feel a lot longer than it actually is when you’re bursting with ideas and passion for your show. We heard so many great ideas on Pitch Day – but never got to see any of them turn into shows, because time ran out before the presentation was finished. Hone your pitch until it’s perfect – be concise as possible, and stick to what really matters about your story. Don’t be the person with a bunch of bullet points on a sheet of paper improvising their pitch until they run out of time…
I think it’s great to have a strong idea of what you want your show to look like at the outset – but keep in mind that this will change during the process, and you will have to kill a whole flock of your darlings. Ideas rarely come into contact with reality unscathed. An idea for staging might seem amazing on paper, but actually cause a lot of difficulties when put into practice. That’s not a reflection on you as a creative, however much it might feel like one. Be adaptive, take what works, throw away what doesn’t, and move on.
(Image credit – Mary & Mietek promotional image)
You all trained at Fourth Monkey but were in different year groups. Can you tell us what inspired the three of you to collaborate and work together?
A: I was so impressed with all the students I worked with in Richard II. I thought everyone was so playful, willing to get stuck in, and were constantly absorbing; it was wonderful. While working with them on Richard II, I got to experiment with and expose them to my style of working, how I like to use movement to tell stories, and my holistic approach to theatre making. I feel this resonated and inspired them to ask me to direct the piece, and that I could be a good fit for it! It was perfect, and I jumped at the opportunity.
M: That is exactly what happened! The piece can be a bit wordy, so it was important to us that movement is also a big part of the story telling. I also saw an online reading of Amy’s piece Lucilla (which Charlie was in), that also is rooted in historic material, so knowing that Amy also had an interest for that made me think they’d enjoy working with the letters and a specific time period. And on a personal level, we just all three get along really well and I think we all have a very positive approach to the work. It’s a very uplifting and inspiring room to be in, which we all experienced when working on Richard, so I’m really thrilled that we are working together now on “the other side” of Monkey.
C: The fact we get on is so, so important – with the amount of work and effort it takes to put a piece of theatre together off your own back, it would be an impossible task if we all weren’t on the same page. I remember back at school when me and Amy would chat Shakespeare in the hallway and show each other monologues we were working on! We clicked as soon as we met, and working on Richard II she was always at hand with a useful anecdote or new approach – exactly what you want from a director!
Tell us a little about the process behind submitting and preparing a piece for Camden Fringe? For example, what have you learned about yourselves as theatre makers and what have you found particularly enjoyable or challenging?
A: Camden uses an online submission platform called Eventron, and everything is in one place. You can save it and come back to it later – which is soooo useful! There’s quite a lot to fill out, so it took us a couple of Zoom sessions to get it all together and submitted.
It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of grunt work that isn’t what we trained to do! I know I want to be swinging my limbs around in a black box studio to some music! But the admin is important – and I think I’m starting to get into the swing of things. Setting deadlines for ourselves, sending out emails, understanding marketing and how to use social media are all challenging for me, but every time I do a little bit I get better. Before you know it, I’ll be a producer extraordinaire! The part I’ve enjoyed the most is how all the “grunt work” and admin has led to some incredible connections and relationships to venues that I didn’t have before – I’ve met some really wonderful people through this process!
M: And adding to that, having to describe the piece before you’re even done writing it and thinking about your target audience is all a really good challenge to have while writing it, because you are forced to be precise and even though it’s frustrating while doing it, it’s actually really useful. For me, it was a bit of a surprise that things opened up this summer and that it was actually possible to perform LIVE again!! So, we have had to work quickly to get everything sorted within deadlines, but it’s also a really nice rush to be working under and feeling that things are actually happening. It’s scary to suddenly have to deal with a budget, and the challenges of getting funding in the arts is very real – which I happily forgot about while training. But it feels really empowering to be making our own show and see it come to life “out in the real world”.
C: Empowering is exactly right! I don’t think there’s a better feeling than knowing your story is coming to life under your own steam. I can be an organisational mess even at the best of times, so it’s been a steep learning curve keeping track of deadlines, but the pure joy of being creative and collaborative again – nothing beats it.
(Image credit – Mary & Mietek, Camden Fringe promotional poster)
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about doing the same thing and submitting a piece for Camden Fringe or similar theatre festival?
A: The hardest part was starting, but once we started, once we pressed that submit button, it all started to fall into place. I’ve learned that allowing yourself to begin can be the hardest part, you have all these doubts and fears and worries about the future, so you stop yourself from progressing forward. Just start. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You don’t have to have a perfectly formed idea. You just need trust in yourself and in your creative visions – you already have all you need. Specific advice for the Camden Fringe Application, look at every venue and really assess which one would serve your piece best and be interested in your show. There’s no point applying for a mainly comedy venue with a Checkov adaptation for example! Be specific with the venues you choose and tell them why you chose to apply to them. We only applied to four venues, but we got offers from all four because we knew why our show was the right fit for them, and we were clear about that. Finally, don’t do it alone, have a solid team around you, even if that is just one other person. I feel so lucky having Maria and Charlie alongside me, it makes the world of difference.
M: Yes, yes, yes – completely agree with all the above! And be as efficient and time/deadline-sensitive as possible – but even if you do it last minute, don’t worry, you can still make it happen. I think the importance of the team as Amy mentions is key. And not just the team, but also supporting partners like other venues, companies, organisations, charities, professionals etc. who can support you in one way or another.
C: Be prepared to do a lot of stuff on a budget!
(Image – Experimental Fringe 2019)
Finally, how has your Fourth Monkey training influenced and inspired your work as creatives and theatre makers?
A: I didn’t know I enjoyed theatre-making until Fourth Monkey exposed me to it, taught me how to do it, inspired me to do it! That’s what makes the training so special, is that it is about more than just acting, it’s about becoming an artist. I use so much of what I learned through the practitioners there; how they constructed scenes, facilitated exploration for the performers, the creation of movement, relationship to audience (this specifically comes from our wicked Clown classes), and so much more. Even though I was performing at the time, I was learning so much about directing, designing, and devising without noticing. It just goes to show how well rounded and rich the training is, that even though I trained as a performer, I feel confident and excited to jump into directing!
M: I have been acting since I was a child, but when I graduated from youth theatre and everyone around me started applying for the Danish Acting School, I stopped acting and started writing and directing. My heart was in the making of a show, and it wasn’t until I started my own company and toured to the UK, that I realised that to be a theatre-maker, both writing and performing was just as valid. I moved to the UK in search of a school focusing on devising, and I was over the moon when I found Fourth Monkey. It has been the perfect training for me, combining all the things I wanted to do, and it feels really exciting to be making my own work again but using all the things I have learned for the last couple of years. I’m really excited to show it to the world!
C: Like Maria, I’ve been acting since I was a kid – it was Monkey that gave me the persistence to put myself and my work out there, it gave me the confidence in my own vision, and the craft to know how to execute that vision. Just like Amy, I wouldn’t know I was a theatre maker if I hadn’t learned this at Monkey!
(Image – behind the scenes, creatives at work)
Mary & Mietek will be performed at Camden Fringe, from 25th to 27th August at the Hen & Chickens – you can learn more and book tickets here.
Learn more and donate to Katla Theatre Company and Burning Pages’ fundraiser in aid of their Camden Fringe show here.