“The sea is a paradox, it reflects the extremes of the human condition”: An interview with Rhiannon Faith, director and choreographer of Drowntown
Rhiannon Faith is a choreographer and filmmaker who uses her work to raise awareness and lobby for change. Performed by a cast of six, Drowntown is an autobiographical exploration of loneliness, isolation and broken community set beside the vast, bleak ocean in a seaside town. Although originally set to perform in spring/summer 2020, the coronavirus has forced the show to be postponed until 2021. In the meantime, Faith has created a 15-minute film, Drowntown Lockdown, which visits the cast in their homes.
We spoke to Faith about the inspiration behind Drowntown, how Covid-19 has made its themes even more relevant to society at large, and what we can do to combat loneliness in our own communities.
What was the inspiration for Drowntown and Drowntown Lockdown?
Drowntown is about brokenness. On a beach, six strangers explore a societal sickness where some of the symptoms are loneliness, isolation and shame. The show unravels the lives of people who are broken, searching for something or someone one to save them. Drowntown Lockdown is a digital prologue of the stage show. We see the six strangers in their own homes, we visit their private spaces and see each of them making the decision to leave and go to the beach, where Drowntown the stage show takes place.
What is it in particular that grabbed your attention in the contrast between a happy seaside holiday and an abandoned ghost town?
Many seaside towns, where the population go to visit for family holidays, are busy and bright during the summer seasons, but when winter comes they have high economic and social deprivation. A closed pier, everything locked up, but the arcades and betting shops remain open. I interviewed lots of members of coastal communities who would go to bet in the arcades each day because they were so lonely and it was the only way of having human connection. After a happy holiday it’s easy to go home and crack on with our lives, but there are communities that are getting forgotten and left behind.
Many of your performances explore themes of mental health in brave and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Do you think theatre should have a message beyond simply entertaining?
Drowntown is pretty dark, it reflects the world we live in and it’s a hard show to watch. But what it aims to do is position the experiences and feelings of those with mental health issues or those that have been let down by society in clear view. It challenges us to look at them and see what impact our behaviour is having on members of our communities that need our attention and support. It makes them visible. That is the type of work I’m making now.
I love watching all different types of work, especially entertaining shows. They are essential for the human spirit. I think it’s important that theatre and dance help you access all the emotions. I love a good romance and to have a good cry, and I’d love to write a musical, but I guess this is just where I’m at creatively. I have a platform to challenge social injustice so that’s what I’m trying to do.
Were any of the themes explored in Drowntown informed by your own experiences?
I have lost important people in my life over the past few years that I sometimes feel I could have done a lot more for. Some of the characters hold similar difficulties in their lives. Their inner shadows are reflected on stage. All the performers’ stories are autobiographical and come from their lived experiences. We all experience loneliness and it’s essential that we do, so we can learn more about ourselves, but when it’s not by choice it can be very painful, more profoundly now than ever before with the lockdown.
Do you hope Drowntown will resonate with viewers, help them feel they are not alone in their feelings of isolation, or prompt others to make a change in their own community with active projects towards loneliness?
I really hope so! I keep thinking the more I bang on about it, eventually someone will notice. I really hope it either resonates with someone feeling similar difficulties and makes them realise they are not alone, or it will make people reach out and offer care. There are marginalised vulnerable groups in our towns that are treated like they have no value, and we need to change that.
Do you think more people are experiencing the themes explored in Drowntown during the Covid-19 pandemic?
There are people that have been in some kind of lockdown their whole life, who do not have support systems or anyone to show them love and care. That’s why our world is broken. I think we have all had a taste of what it means to really feel alone.
It has been a time of intense difficulty for so many people, losing those they love. Grief, lack of connection, mental health, are all explored in the show. We see the characters battle with their “shadows”, their internal suffering, and try to overcome their difficulties. We also see the performers demonstrating compassion; this is something I think the lockdown has encouraged. I’ve personally experienced kindness and care from my neighbours during this period.
What do you hope Drowntown Lockdown will achieve?
I hope it will contribute to the work that is already being done to recognise and respond to vulnerable members of the community with care and to encourage us to encounter one another with openness and love.
The sea is often seen as calming, tranquil and meditative. How do you play with this vision so starkly contrasting with what is shown in Drowntown?
People go to the sea as a place of beauty, for the calm meditative rhythm of the waves. People also go to the sea to die. The sea is a paradox, it reflects the extremes of the human condition. In Drowntown we explore the latter.
Are you planning to change anything about Drowntown when it premiers in 2021 in light of what we have learned from the pandemic?
We will be going back in the studio when the show is ready to be premiered, but it is spookily pertinent. May be a few tweaks here and there, but Drowntown really reflects our current global crisis. “There’s a sickness aboard the land”.
Featured image: Christa Holka