“We hope that theatre won’t move backwards”: An interview with Damsel Productions founders Hannah Hauer-King and Kitty Wordsworth
Hannah Hauer-King and Kitty Wordsworth are the co-founders of Damsel Productions, a London-based theatre company that focuses on bringing together womxn artists, directors, designers and producers. Their innovative and exciting work aims to breathe life into scripts written by womxn.
We got in touch to talk to them about their latest project, Damsel Outdoors. Borne out of the coronavirus pandemic, Damsel Outdoors hopes to help theatre stay alive in this difficult time by connecting theatre-makers and audiences through a series of outdoor performances in August 2020.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. What inspired you to found Damsel Productions? What kind of work do you create?
Hello! Damsel is a theatre company we set up in 2015 to produce our inaugural production of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land at Jermyn Street Theatre. We founded Damsel to develop scripts written by womxn and produce them with all-womxn creative and production teams. In our own small way, we wanted to address the lack of representation of womxn in theatre, both on and offstage.
Our work is intersectional and politically charged. We endeavour to work with diverse teams to put as many lesser-told aspects of womxn’s experiences on stage as we can. We have produced six full-scale productions, including Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s Fury at Soho Theatre and Abi Zakarian’s Fabric at Soho Theatre and on a community centre tour in association with Solace Women’s Aid; we have produced sketch comedy, a new writing night and London’s first all-womxn directing festival, Damsel Develops.
Damsel Outdoors was created in response to COVID-19 closing theatres across the country. How has the process of creating theatre changed?
There is not a lot of budget, and no venues with basic infrastructure, but still we want our artists to take risks – for many, this is the first time they have worked outdoors. We have encouraged them to see Damsel Outdoors not as a project in which they make the most polished piece of work, but as an exciting opportunity to explore new ideas. This is a chance for the artists to explore the creative potential of the outside, with no limitations on the subject matter. The only requirement is the piece should be served best by being outdoors.
This is an incredibly collaborative process. We have asked the groups to meet digitally a couple of times before deciding on an idea. We’ll then scout locations based on these. Rehearsals will be conducted on Zoom, and then once on the day of performance.
What advice would you give to others trying to make art during this difficult time? What challenges have you faced when trying to stay creative?
First and foremost, don’t put pressure on yourself to be creative in your artistic field. Expand what being creative and making art looks like to you – it could be drawing, taking photos, pulling out an instrument you haven’t touched for a while. We’ve been very careful to discuss projects for Damsel and be imaginative only when we’re feeling inspired, and not exert pressure on ourselves. It’s an incredibly scary time, and though making art is definitely part of the needed response, reflection and quiet time is also very valid.
Damsel Outdoors is a series of outdoor performances. How is watching theatre outdoors a different experience to indoor theatres?
The pieces will be no longer than 25 minutes, and each will take place multiple times throughout the day in different outdoor spaces across London, on four separate days in August. The viewing experience will be relaxed, as there is no pressure to stay for the whole performance, and there will be room to be distracted by the open public spaces! The pieces will be reactive to their constant and changing surroundings, so there will no doubt be an element of improvisation and even perhaps audience participation. As it’s free to watch (with a “donate if you can” option), we hope audiences will be theatregoers, people from the local communities, and even passers-by who bump into us!
Once you had decided to host Damsel Outdoors, how did you get other creatives involved?
We spoke about the womxn and non-binary writers, directors and designers who inspired and excited us – some we had already worked with, and most we hadn’t – and we sent them all emails with our initial ideas. Luckily, the response was overwhelmingly positive! Since we announced, it has been great having our peers get in touch and offer help where they can – hopefully it’s an intriguing bit of uncharted territory for lots of our fellow theatre-makers.
What are you most looking forward to about Damsel Outdoors?
It’s hard to pick one thing! We’re looking forward to getting to know the communities in which we’re performing, to meeting audience members who may not have come to Damsel shows before. We’re also particularly excited for the experience of being among other people watching a show: sharing an emotion, engaging with a performer in a live way.
What kind of work should we expect to see at Damsel Outdoors? Why are each of the pieces named after a colour?
We think you should expect a celebratory variety and diversity in the type of work made: we have given our artists as much free rein as possible. We are already really excited by the different styles and themes they are looking to explore. Some will feel more like spoken word or poetry, others are looking like they’ll be highly physical. It seems that the current pandemic is not going to feature explicitly, but that activism and politics will be at the heart of the pieces.
The colours were chosen partly because we felt they reflected the colours we might experience outdoors, particularly in summer when the festival takes place. They are also a nod to our previous all-womxn directing festival, Damsel Develops, which also used colours to demarcate different groups of creatives.
On your website, you mention the importance of cultivating a relationship between artists and audiences. How do you think this affects a performance? What can be done to strengthen this relationship moving forward?
Audiences are such a fundamental part of theatre, and we strive to make work where audiences can see their perhaps less-told experiences reflected. This is why we love working with local communities and interest groups when looking at outreach for each show. We often ask our artists and ourselves: Why this play, why now? The cultivation of the relationship with our audiences, and our society, is at the heart of that question. We hope the outside element of Damsel Outdoors, and that it’s free, means the shows are accessible to everyone.
What is the next step for Damsel Productions?
With the uncertainty we’re living in, we are trying to keep open, flexible and realistic. Our hope is that we will still be moving towards a main stage show at Soho Theatre next year focused around themes including community and queer womxn, but of course there are lots of elements to consider. We also hope to continue in our efforts to create opportunities for womxn and non-binary artists impacted by the pandemic.
How do you see the industry moving forward after Covid-19?
It’s incredibly hard to know. Firstly, we hope desperately that there is a substantial bail-out fund for theatres and theatre artists across the country as soon as possible. It is a tragedy and travesty to see some of this country’s best theatres going into administration or redundancy consultations. While social distancing rules deter audiences from gathering inside, what we imagine is that there will be more initiatives like Damsel Outdoors, outdoor festivals and promenade/gig theatre. Perhaps, there will be more of a move towards “back to basics” theatre and thinking of new and imaginative ways to bring live performance to audiences. We hope that theatre won’t move backwards in creating space for unheard and underrepresented voices, and that it won’t retreat into, for example, “commercially viable” resurrections of the classics with star-studded casts. We hope that the efforts so many have made to take crucial steps towards better representation in the arts won’t be stifled.
Thank you for your time, and best of luck!
Image: Wordsworth (L) and Hauer-King
For further information about Damsel Outdoors visit Damsel Productions’ website here.